Let’s say you’re kicking back in the Great Room of the Marriott Port-au-Prince admiring the striking collection of Vodou Flags that scale the wall above one of the prime seating areas. The bright colors and intricate symbols for the individual Loa, or spirits, mesmerize. You want to learn more about Vodou; to attend a Vodou ceremony in Haiti, but how…?
I had similar thoughts some four years ago on a Saturday night near Cap-Haitien in northern Haiti. I had just wrapped up dinner at the Comier Beach Resort following a long day of exploring the one-of-a-kind historic sites in and around the ancient town of Milot. Poking around Sans-Souci Palace, scaling Bonnet a L’Eveque mountain (elevation: 3,000 feet) to experience the legendary Citadelle, and enjoying my first taste of Clairin bush rum had me more than a little worn out. My only thoughts at the time were of my bed and the gently lapping shores of Comier Beach soothing me off to dreamland.
I know where there’s a Vodou ceremony tonight.
The declaration made by one of the guides in our group immediately changed my thoughts, of course. Seeing and experiencing a Vodou ceremony first-hand had been on my wish list for about as long as I could remember, the seeds for such adventure likely sown around the time my parents took in a “Made for Tourists” Voodoo show during my first trip to Haiti in the mid-70’s.
Within minutes we were back in the van heading out to the hills. It was as dark as it gets on our drive; no moon and just the faintest stars twinkling high above. It wasn’t long before we reached our destination: a large dimly-lit building in the middle of what appeared to be nowhere.
Inside, in one corner of a large, open room, an altar bore Vodou and Christian symbols. On another wall, a myriad collection of stick figure paintings of varying sizes and colors danced about. In the center of the room a stone pillar stood draped in colorful cloths. The floor, dirt. Encircling it all was a ring of chairs pressed to the outer edges of the room.
The Vodouists dressed in white with scarlet red head scarves and belts were well into their chants as we sat down. Three drummers within arm’s reach just to my left were beating out hard-driving, powerful rhythms as a woman I assumed to be the Vodou Priestess led call and response chants summoning select Loa from the spirit world to join the ceremony.
Men sat or stood along the walls with us as the women did all of the chanting, dancing as they sang together as one around the pillar in the center of the room. With each new chant their direction would change – clockwise or counter-clockwise, but always around the pillar.
At the center of the room, near the pillar, an imposing male figure oversaw the proceedings. The Vodou Priest said very little and moved even less, though it was clear he was in charge.
A bottle of Clairin was passed among the women. One stumbled, began muttering something not in line with the chant, and had to be helped to one of the chairs. A Loa was present.
Was it real, or a show put on just for us? I didn’t have long to ponder the question. Before I knew it, one of the ladies had taken my hand, inviting me to join the circle.
I was nervous, not knowing what to expect, or do. The ladies, though, welcomed me warmly, sharing the Clairin and taking me along their paces around the pillar. They barely skipped a beat with their chants and dances, but somehow melded me seamlessly into their celebration.
All around were smiles and unbridled joy; a celebration of love and inclusion far beyond the dark and menacing characterization of Vodou in popular culture.
All too soon, though, it was over.
Was it real? Considering our unannounced 11th hour appearance, I imagine it was, but who can say?
The feeling of communal joy I left with that night, though, was certainly real. I guess in many ways, that’s all that really matters.
If you want to experience a Vodou ceremony next time you’re in Haiti, check in with my friend Cyril Pressoir at Tour Haiti. Cyril and his crew specialize in a wide range of uncommon travel pursuits in Haiti. From touring museums and art galleries in Port-au-Prince, to hiking and camping in centuries-old coffee plantations high in Haiti’s legendary hills, Tour Haiti opens the door to this special country’s charms like few others can.