Jesus is dragging his feet. It’s not his fault; his legs are long and the beast he rides is squat. It’s scorched-earth hot, and hard walking for a mule in wet sand, weight of Christ on his back. They say mules are stubborn, but maybe they’re just resigned. Draped in a white sheet, slumped bareback on the burro, Jesus sweats.
“Who’s that on the donkey?” Caco asks.
“It’s Jesus,” I answer, but my thought is: Black Jesus. Down here in Haiti, kids see a white Christ in their Christian missionary picture books, but a black one in Haitian paintings and processions like the one that drifts by us now. I want to ask Caco what he thinks of this black/white Jesus thing, but it might be rude. We’re on a beach south of Jacmel, watching the lazy parade stumble by: a flock of girls in pink dresses, a litter of boys in blue uniforms.
“Who’s Jesus?” demands Caco.
“You know Jesus,” I insist. Then I wonder. “Don’t you know who Jesus is?” Caco looks glum. He’s only eleven years old. I love how he can fold his limbs up and collapse his body like a folding chair. “The son of God,” I explain.
“God has a kid?” Caco’s amazed.
“He had one,” I say, “but his kid is dead now.” My Kreyol is pathetic, Caco’s English not much better, so even passing my Kreyol/English dictionary back and forth, we end each sentence with a headache. There’s a guy next to us pattering away on a small drum, sliding his thumb hard on the drumskin, bending notes. His English is decent, and he tries to help us communicate, but mostly I think he gets his kicks laughing at our gibberish.
A woman on high, fat green heels, in a green dress, probably a teacher, walks at the end of the crucifixion procession. We watch her and she watches us. A few of the girls from the flock of pink dresses pause before us, whispering. One breaks away, runs at us, hesitates, reaches down, touches my toe, dashes back to her girlfriends. They squeal at her bravery. A soccer game is in the direct path of the procession, and the parade cuts right through the middle, but no one seems to notices. The boys adapt their kicks and passes, the two groups mix together then pull apart and move on. The kids dragging the cross stumble and drop it, splashing Jesus but he barely looks up. The burro steps over the cross and keeps going.
“Yeah, that’s the story, God had a son,” I say, piecing together a halting sentence that’s half pantomime. “He died for the sins of man, whatever that means. They nailed him to a cross till he was dead, buried him, but he rose out of his tomb on Easter. That’s what this parade is about. It’s Palm Sunday, or something like that.”
“Jesus was a zombie?”
A zombie is no B-movie undead joke sticking pins in dolls; a zombie is a real deal in Haiti. Apparently people do get cursed and die and rise undead from the dead, but a zombie can be kept at bay with rhymes and incantations. Religion in Haiti is deceptive. Vodou worshippers were persecuted, and so they cloaked their worship in a veil of Christianity to hide their real beliefs. Now it’s hard to tell who believes what. But zombies attained a terrifying status when the tyrannical duet of Papa and then Baby Doc Duvalier had their personal militia, their death squad ghouls, the Tonton Macouté, wear dark clothes, dark sunglasses to hide their eyes, and speak few words- a kind of zombie mystique, a murderous dictatorial fashion statement.
“Yeah,” I tell Caco, “Jesus is a zombie. They put his body in a cave with a rock as big as a house blocking the entrance, and he rose from the dead and rolled that rock away like it was nothing.”
“Zombie!” Caco is up and kicking aside imaginary boulders. I’ve been teaching Caco and his friends karate on the beach, and they’ve been teaching me such Haitian essentials as proper machete hacking technique when splitting a coconut. Caco’s buddy Jean Bernard joins us. Jean Bernard is pissed at me. I’ve been painting their watercolor portraits, and Jean Bernard says I got his nose wrong. He took a pen and drew himself a bigger nose, but he’s still insulted. I think my mistake was painting him as a boy when he wants to see himself as a man.
The boys leap into a karate zombie game- their spinning kicks are right out of chopchop movies, but they kick with such gusto they topple with each kick. I’m trying to teach them balance, but they think falling is a small price for high drama. I lurch toward them, ghoulish and undead; my zombie based on American ’40s horror films like “I Walked with a Zombie,” but the boys scream and run anyway.
I like hanging with the Haitian kids because they haven’t quite figured out yet that us pale-skins that jet in from imperialist countries are somehow the source of all their problems, which are overwhelming. Haiti was country founded on the only successful slave rebellion in history, and yet, or maybe because of that, small acts of opposition are squashed and bravery is considered suicidal. Caco doesn’t connect all this with US sanctions and coups and hundreds of years of European colonialism but the older Haitians, sometimes they stare at us “blancs” with open hatred. Or perhaps I’m just paranoid. It’s hard telling not knowing.
Now Caco and Jean Bernard are holding hands and laughing, and the beach drummer explains “They’re making fun of your date.”
“I don’t have a date,” I protest.
The drummer and Caco talk in fast Kreyol, which makes them impossible to understand since they’re also laughing so hard. Finally the drummer translates: “You made a date with the old man that’s fixing the roof.”
I remember the roofer, a sturdy Haitian, somewhere in his sixties or seventies; so weatherworn it’s hard to tell. He was on the roof all day, laying palm or banana or coconut fronds, I don’t know which, in beautiful, fanning rows. I watched him casually use his machete to scratch his back. Once, he used it to swat a fly on his cheek. I told him how much I admired his skill. I do remember saying “oui” a lot, but “yes” is the new linguistic tick that peppers my speech whenever someone rattles Kreyol at me so fast it whizzes by in an unintelligible stream. Apparently, with one of those polite “yeses” I agreed to a date.
“When did I say I’d do this?” I ask the drummer. “You’ll know it when it happens,” he shrugs, as if to say, whenever. This is Haitian time, it’s not that different from slacker or surfer boy time. Whenever.
* * *
Jessica struts out to the beach in camo capri pants, blond hair tucked into a red kerchief. The boys stare at her bandana. It’s only later that I read in a book that a red kerchief signifies a vodou worshiper.
Jessica is perfect. Cultured, funny, beautiful. Everywhere we go Haitians gaze at her. With what emotions, I don’t know. Lust and disgust? Awe or intimidation? Curiosity? Jessica’s a fashion photographer, just in from a Miami shoot, on a detour jaunt to Haiti for “artistic inspiration,” on her way to New York. I met her poolside at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince.
Port-au-Prince is a city built for 200 thousand that holds millions. The rich Haitians speak Parisian French and live in gated mansions with sniper security guards on their roofs and attack dogs on their grounds. There seems to be a small middle-class, but the majority live in slums; crowded acres of cinderblock, tarpaper, and corrugated tin shacks with no electric, water or sewers. Even where there is electricity, it’s only for a few hours a night, so people buy food frozen. That’s their refrigeration.
Flying into the Port-au-Prince airport is nightmarish, a gauntlet. First, you have to navigate through a swarm of men with “official” badges that want to carry your bags and get you a taxi. Then there is an exit-area, a green-metal rod pen, a kind of holding tank, with a mass of men pressing against the fence bidding for you to choose their taxi. Like a goat in a livestock pen, up for sale. Luckily, I see the friend I came to visit waving from his jeep. The drive into town is over so much rubble, with so many men at work piling rocks, pounding rocks, dragging wood, it’s hard to tell if the city is being built or destroyed. There is garbage burning everywhere, and kids squat roadside selling gasoline by the gallon out of plastic jugs. A tap tap, one of the beautifully colorful buses of Haiti, almost plows us off the road, and as it drives off I see the smile of Tupac Shakur, painted on its backend.
The Oloffson is a great hotel to stop at just long enough to get confused. The Rhum Barbancourt flows, the country’s insanely hopeless political situation is discussed and plans are made to go into town and mix with “the people” or go to the disco, but in the heat of the day no one wants to leave the oasis of the hotel. There are few tourists. Mostly the bar crowd is journalists, health workers, embassy officials, missionaries, art dealers, drug dealers, white hippie women pretending to be vodou priestesses, and men who are hiding from something. There are displaced, angry foreigners who lurk in the hotel for months at a time, ostensibly to do “good things” for Haiti, like bring in shipments of condoms. Everyone sits out on the veranda, where the walls surrounding the hotel are just high enough that all that can be seen of the city’s chaos is the occasional bundle that floats by, balanced on the head of an unseen woman, or the tip on an uzi from passing military.
The waiters at the Oloffson are wise sadists. They make you wait too long, then bring you the wrong drink, to see if you will get rude. They test you. If you are fine with whatever they bring you, whenever they bring it, they become excellent waiters . One American has become so bitter and entrenched at the hotel, and is so rude to the waiters, that everyone’s convinced they piss in his drinks. Even he knows this, but he doesn’t care. “I’ve drunk worse,” he claims.
Strangers meet at the bar and talk easily. Conversation swings from hope to hopelessness and back again, over and over. The malaise and intense heat breeds rumor and distortion and fear. Any news is nurtured until it’s “true” and then later dismissed as a “lie.” News ripples through the hotel: a woman was killed, a riot started. Paranoia rises. There’s a rumor that the airport is closed, no one can leave town. They’re burning tires in the street, making blockades. When will it be safe? The embassy is closed, Thursday will be bad. Oh, fuck it, have another drink. Sunday will be a good day to fly the hell out of Haiti.
Aristede, now exiled but then still president of Haiti, is discussed endlessly. He’s beloved, he’s inept. He’s a poet, he’s corrupt. He speaks in wise but futile parables. He sold out. He’s built a swimming pool and taken a light-skinned mulatto wife. It’s all lies, he doesn’t have a swimming pool, he’s a savior. He’s taken money from the wrong people, he poses for pictures with Duvalierists, he’s the best the people can hope for. Whatever is true, at least Aristede believed people should have a say in their own affairs, something no other leader allowed.
In a few crazy days, one can learn just enough about Haiti to know you’ll never understand anything. I get drunk with a so-called missionary until he pulls out his standard repertoire of “missionary position” jokes. I meet a handsome man who casually “spills” the contents of his wallet, taking his time before picking up his many I.D.s, each showing a different identity, just so I’ll know “he isn’t who he seems to be.” This must be something that gets him laid a lot or he wouldn’t be doing it every time a pretty girl joins the table. I meet a beautiful young botanist who tells everyone how some sharks have two penises and two uteruses and the babies eat each other in the womb until there is only one left. She holds the attention of all the men at the table with that story, the journalists musing at the metaphoric possibilities of incorporating self-devouring shark babies into the stories they were supposed to file about Haiti months ago. As the night gets later and drunker, the guys start talking about going to town; there’s a new military-themed brothel, where one can do it airborne, ground combat style, or choose naval-op sex. Everyone speculates on what kind of props and rigs the brothel could have to accomplish all this.
The terrific vodou/rock house band RAM plays, led by the hotel owner and his wife, which someone brings us to a hungover dawn. I travel south with my friend, a filmmaker, and the fashionable Jessica, bouncing with the bad roads, in the loud jeep. We pass stores with names like “There for the Grace of God Haircuts” and “Wait for the Lord Cleaners Expedient Laundry.” Last night, sweat slick from dancing, I remember taking air on the veranda and meeting a little girl who introduced herself as “God Willing.”
* * *
We spend a few days in huts on the beach, getting to know Caco and all the other boys. I want to meet some of the girls, but while the boys seem to have time to hang out, the girls have chores and are shy. Jessica, gazing out at the ocean, decides her upcoming New York shoot will have a sexy revolutionary theme: tattered Che Guevera T-shirts with red brassieres showing underneath, red kerchiefs and low-slung hip-hugging camo pants. She demonstrates all this by pulling and tugging at her clothes and vamping with her body until Caco’s jaw drop like a cartoon. I turn away to watch a woman drag a brown pig into the ocean and wash it. I don’t want to go anywhere in the heat, but Jessica keeps chirping: “Come on, let’s go to market and shop for lingerie! I want red, pink, crimson, I want magenta! It’ll be fun!”
The outdoor marketplace is wonderful and disgusting and seems to sprawl for miles. A bustle and stench of life, a mass of swarming, haggling. Everything for sale, from gasoline to pineapples, garlic to shoes. Hunks of uncooked meat lie in the scorching heat; red slabs covered in flies. At the edges of the market, men stand in the shade with wheelbarrows, offering to cart anything anywhere. I see a little boy in a dress, a girl wearing a sandal on one foot, a sneaker on the other. Jessica takes it all in, and I imagine these fashion accidents transformed into fashion statements in the pages of Vogue next month.
We buy some fruit. The paper money has been in circulation so long it feels made of dirt. Bargaining is expected, it’s a sport, and a way to get to know people. Jessica, of course, speaks French, so she can understand a bit of Kreyol. A woman with enormous breasts sells root lumps; she squats on the ground in a “Hooters” T-shirt, her twisty roots neatly wrapped in newspapers and spread around her like rubble. I’m on a mission to find the right herbs for a neighbor’s bad blood pressure, but I’ve forgotten to ask if it’s too high or too low blood, and the herbalist woman laughs at me and tells me to come back tomorrow. A girl who looks to be no saint wears a New Orleans’ Saints shirt. A skinny schoolboy slouches against a pole in an FBI T-shirt. Sparse electricity, few roads, no clean water, but plenty of American T-shirts, the flotsam of some defunct relief program.
Jessica and I are the only whites as far as the eye can see and we’re shopping for leopard underwear. Jessica is so self-possessed she seems oblivious to the irony. I’m in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere shopping for candy-red push-up bras.
* * *
Dinner is always an event, and Jessica sure can throw a dinner party. That night she whips up mango margaritas, makes a yellow pepper and melted anchovy sauce for pasta, then adds beets and the whole dish turns a brilliant orange. She has the boys drag the long dinner table right into the ocean, where we eat with the waves lapping at our feet, red lanterns in glittering competition with the stars above. She tells a fabulous rags-to-riches story about a Vietnamese busboy who rose to the top of the trendy NYC restaurant scene by swallowing gold and bringing it into the US. When Jessica breaks into song, belting out titillating lyrics from Eartha Kitt’s “It’s Fun to be Evil”, out come the drums.
The boys pour rum onto their hands, rub it on the drums and strike a match; the blue flame dances in their palms and as the liquor burns off it somehow tightens and tunes the leather skin of the drum. Little Man, nicknamed for his small stature and mature face, writhes in what seems to be possession by a good spirit, while the rest of the boys play bandito, taking turns trying on Jessica’s red kerchief. Little Man has loose limbs, and they dangle and jitter as he shuffles, swing as if broken or boneless. He wears a huge white shirt and nothing else, and when he moves it billows like a sail against the dark ocean. He puts one hand on his belly, the other outstretched wide, begins to lurch and careen as if tugged by invisible strings, flinging himself to the sky, to the earth, into the water, crawling in the sand, then springing up to spin some more. All the while his eyes are closed, but somehow, with the aspect of being open wide. The thin-boned blond dogs writhe in the sand, the ecstasy of possession contagious. The boys use sticks on wine glasses for added percussion. They play so hard the glasses shatter.
That night, the little boys crawl onto my mattress with me, and soon their limbs jerk and kick from chase dreams that in turn cause the stray dogs that prowl outside to howl. The moon is high when I see a Haitian cowboy standing silhouetted in the doorway of the thatched, open-air hut, beckoning.
It’s the old roofer. My “date” is wearing a cowboy hat and boots, machete holstered to hip. He nods and turns his back to allow me to pull on more clothes.
We walk east along the coast for a long time, then head into the hills. I wonder where he’s taking me, but conversation is impossible without my Kreyol phrase book. We climb until we top a mountain, as I try to remember the course home in reverse: down mountain, find the ocean, turn right.
I hear drumming, and eventually we step into a clearing ringed with chairs. There’s a makeshift structure like half a gazebo, an altar wrapped in white cloth, with a center pole. Trees bloom with colorful red papers and hanging lanterns. Women in red kerchiefs holding red flags and wearing red and blue dresses squat on the ground with bags of cornstarch, drawing delicate, lacey white curlicue patterns on dark ground-vévé, they call it. I try to make myself as invisible as possible, and watch the quiet, industrious preparations for what I assume will be a ritual or party. Everyone is busy decorating the clearing, but stop when they see me, I hear the familiar whisper: “blanc, blanc,” and know something isn’t right.
The Cowboy Roofer gets into a fight with a few elders; it is clear that he should not have brought me. I make an apologizing gesture, and turn to leave. Two men block my way. Finally, a man who knows a bit of English explains to me what I suspected; whites are not really permitted at vodou ceremonies; I have to leave. I tell him I’m sorry, I’m happy to go. He tells me it’s not safe for me to go back alone. He glances at some mountain homeboys-on-the-plateau slouched in the corner. I take this to mean he doesn’t want to point fingers, but alone in the woods I might become prey.
The drumming starts, hypnotic. Abruptly, violently, the Cowboy Roofer is spinning and flailing with what seems to be premature possession. Unlike Little Man’s visiting spirit, this one doesn’t appear benevolent. At first the others just keep an eye on him, but when he angrily un-holsters his machete and begins slicing the air around him, the men jump on him, restrain him, and take him away. It’s not his fault; I learn later that when a spirit inhabits a prepared vessel, the actions of the possessed are not theirs, but the spirit’s. I assume it was a violent spirit that entered my date, perhaps Baron Samudi, who I later read is one of the first to show up at a vodou ritual, and tends toward violence. A long conversation follows, with much pointing at me. They tell me that the roofer has been “thrown off the mountain,” and I hope that’s just a figure of speech. I try to make it clear that I can find my way home and will take my chances with banditos, but again I’m blocked from leaving. They tell me I’m to stay for two hours, then I must go. It’s clear that once I stepped into their domain, I handed over my free will.
I’m not afraid. There are women and children here. The ritual builds slowly, but build it does, the drumming, the swaying, the electricity in the air. Women saunter around carrying sex in their eyes. Everyone writhes and sweats. I see a woman dance low until she is rubbing her face in the sweat of a man’s chest. They slap each other, spin, dance again. When someone falls out of possession, they are hugged and cradled as the spirit leaves. An ancient woman who looks like a collapsed bundle of sticks, so brittle if she were to move she’d break, does move. But then, she surprises me by rising, not like an old woman but graceful as Martha Graham, with a youth and power that is startling. She is given great berth and respect, and as she swirls into possession, she sees me.
Our eyes lock. I panic. Of course she can see deep into my soul, I think, and she’ll see whatever rot is there. I’ve been unsettled this week by how the children won’t believe I don’t have my own kids, and how sad they get about it. They tell me the only women they know with no babies are witches. I imagine the grand mambo sees all this, my missing babies, what a fuck-up I am for forgetting to have kids. She dances over to me, clutching a bottle of yellowish water. None too gently, she yanks my head back and pours. I gulp down the sweet honeyed liquor, which must be clarin, the sugarcane moonshine everyone drinks. I think of dysentery and dengue and dyspepsia and dystopia or whatever microbes lurk in the water. I drink obediently, knowing it’s an insult not to. To my total shock, she kisses me full and hard on the mouth. Then she smiles.
Suddenly the mood shifts, as if I’ve gotten the kiss of acceptance by the mother of all mambos, which I hope is what just happened. A chair is brought for me. Someone offers me some seeds cupped in their palm. People are shoved out of my line of vision, so I can see the dancing. Every once in a while someone approaches with a bottle. They jerk their chins up, over and over, till I tilt my head back and accept a drink. There is an intoxicating fear and ecstasy one can experience in this country, often in the same moment. I decide I’d better resist nothing, not even abuse. Children come up to me and pinch my arms till I give them a few gourdes. Men begin to collect, one puts his arm around me and I see some women snicker. I’m getting drunk. I want the man to take his arm off me, but I’m scared to ask. He keeps saying “fouk” or “defouk” and I think he means fuck, but later someone tells me he was probably saying something like “crotch, open-crotch.” Which I guess is the same thing. One of the women comes over and tells me that when a man touches me, just hit him. She demonstrates by hitting whatever men happen to be standing around her. It works, they back off quickly. In the distance I can see new Haitians arrive, protest my presence, then relax when they are whispered something. I never find out what. All through the night various kind Haitians come up to me with offers of food or drink, or to ask if I am okay. “Mwem kontan, mwem kontan,” I say, over and over. I’m content, I’m happy. Bel, bel, everything is beautiful.
A great sound comes up the mountain. A ra ra approaching, a music parade that travels the countryside in the spring, blessing the land. The band and all its followers move like a sinuous centipede. If you encounter a ra ra on the road, they swarm your car and won’t let you pass without giving some money. Now they seem to be swarming over the whole mountain. The cowbells, drums, scrapers, long bamboo horns like digeridoos, and whistles all combine to make a crazy sound as the procession slithers up the mountainside. They undulate. Every body movement seems to echo and ripple and repeat in all who follow. The bells and whistles give the music the aspect of a disco. The two ritual dances, ra ra and vodou, intersect in libidinous waves, mix, take hours to finally part and move on. By now I’ve been forgotten. Something larger sweeps over the night, and I can move about as I please. The devil arrives in a red sequined jacket, all hip swagger and cocky eyed, possessed by the sexiest of spirits, and the dancing gets downright dirty. There is a fight, the devil is subdued. I’m lifted into a dance, and the rest of the night is a blur that seems to go on for five years or a minute. I wake up very late, in my bed. Someone made sure I got home safely.
The next day a big wind rises. The smell of charcoal cooling and the dark clouds that cover the sky create a foreboding uncertainty in the air. During the night, a dog got accidentally closed in a room, and he has eaten his way out, leaving a hole in the hut. The rum hangover, a rumor of civil war, blockades made from piles of burning tires, it all descends like a shroud. I know I’ve fallen in love with Haiti, a country of terror and ecstasy, mystery misery and joy, even though it is a country that I could never hope to understand.
I go to the beach and see a little boy dragging a tiny puppy by a palm leaf leash. The puppy is shivering. The boy digs a hole and buries the puppy in the sand. I squat next to them and try to tell the boy the puppy is sad, tris, sad. The boy smiles, unburies the dog, only to drag it down the beach and bury it, again, far away from me.
When I leave Haiti I will leave my hat on the bed. It’s bad luck everywhere else, but in Haiti, it means you’ll be back some day.
ANNIE NOCENTI is a writer and editor living in New York.