Patrick won’t remember this, but one of our very first trips together way back in the mid-70’s was to a destination that to this day remains one of the Caribbean’s most uncommon: Haiti. I was only about five years old and he was still in diapers, but it’s a trip I’ll never forget.
Coming from small and mostly rural St. Croix, the bustling streets of Port-au-Prince were a real eye-opener for me. I vividly recall certain things about our hotel (probably because it was the first I’d ever stayed in), the amazingly friendly staff and, most especially, the daily breakfast – it was the first time I ever saw or even heard of anyone putting fresh bananas on their corn flakes!
You wouldn’t think that such a small thing would seem so exotic to a kid who lived in a smaller and equally tropical island just 500 miles away, but at the time it was the coolest thing in the world to me.
It was while recalling this trip over the phone with my Dad the other day that I was also reminded of another memorable aspect of my earliest uncommon adventure: voodoo.
It’s pretty easy these days for anyone to learn about Haiti’s strong voodoo traditions via the Internet, but in the 70’s, nothing could approach actually being there and experiencing it first-hand. My parents certainly felt that way, which is why they left us kids behind at the hotel with a baby-sitter one night to attend a voodoo ceremony.
Our hotel was located in the town of Pétition-Ville, which sits in the hills above Port-au-Prince. My Dad remembers that we had hired a guide at $5 a day to ride with us in our rental car and show us around. One night, after wearing us kids out during a day of sightseeing and playing in the hotel pool, my parents struck out into the night with our guide to see what all this voodoo stuff was all about. What does my Dad remember about the adventure?
“They bit the heads off a few chickens and stuff like that. It wasn’t a real ceremony, though. Just something they put on for tourists. We had a good time, and that was it.”
Ummm… yeah. Good to know that back in the 70’s you could get your money’s worth for a phony voodoo ceremony by witnessing a few chickens losing their heads. Us kids didn’t see any of this, but we heard bits and pieces about it later. You don’t forget stuff like that.
Of course, voodoo is a lot more than shocking displays of blood and gore. It’s a real religion that dates back to the 16th century, with origins among African slaves brought to Haiti at the time. Voodoo combines the beliefs of several different West African peoples, with those of Arawak Indians and some bits of Roman Catholicism to create a remarkably rich Caribbean-born faith unique unto itself. It may be controversial, but no one can deny that voodoo is one of the world’s most fascinating belief systems.
Sadly, that first trip to Haiti remains, to this day, our last. If I ever get back, though, and assuming I’m feeling brave, I’ll be sure to skip the tourist trap voodoo show in favor of hanging out after dark in a cemetery like the one pictured above.
Cemeteries in Haiti have long carried a reputation as the hot spots for those wishing to witness paranormal activity in the Caribbean. Port-au-Prince’s City Cemetery, in particular, is apprently very popular with the undead as scores of visitors claim to have seen various incarnations of spirits wandering around the place over the years.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that now is the best time to head down to Haiti on some silly ghost hunt. There’s still too much help that’s needed to get the country back on its feet following the catastrophic earthquake earlier this year. If you go, volunteer and contribute any way you can by day… and save a little energy for the spirits (especially this one) at night.