Since none of us are travelling anywhere anytime soon, I've decided to take a leaf out of my friend's book and revisit some of the more interesting destinations I've been to in recent years - a bit of armchair travel for you and a good exercise for me, so that my writing skills don't get totally rusty.
In February 2017, I attended an authentic Vodou ritual in Jacmel, Haiti. It went something like this.
Darkness falls over Jacmel. It falls quite completely on the one- and two-storey houses of this tight little grid of cobbled streets by the Caribbean, the lit windows of our guesthouse (we have our own generator) the only points of light around. Must be another power cut. Anneline and I are sitting in the garden, discussing where we could possibly acquire white rum and candles for the evening’s Vodou ceremony.
Earlier today, when Anneline was hand-painting a Kanaval mask in the little shop around the corner, shop owner Kiki sidled up to me.
- “There’s a Vodou ceremony on tonight. Do you want to come?”
My answer is a foregone conclusion.
- “Will they mind outsiders attending?”
- “No, you just have to bring gifts for the loa.”
Kiki leads us two blocks from the guesthouse to someone’s back yard. A humanoid figure made of earth, around my height, stands to one side. It’s decapitated. It reminds me of that creature from the “Arcadia” episode of the X-Files, summoned from the earth by the will of its master and unleashed against enemies. I wonder what role this creature plays in Vodou rituals.
In the back there’s the space for ceremonies - a packed earthen floor, a semi-circle of chairs, a plasticky-looking tree encircled by Damballah the serpent and topped with cattle skulls. It’s propping up the roof, festooned with colourful plastic strips. The tree is symbolic: the loa – the Vodou pantheon – live in the upper branches of the tree.
The symbolic effect is somewhat lessened by the fact that wires and power sockets dangle from the tree. It’s a mobile phone charger as well as the bridge between the human and the divine realms. Behind the row of chairs stand the papier-mache effigies of some of the Vodou pantheon, awaiting the Kanaval: Papa Legba, the guardian of the crossroads; Erzulie, the goddess of love; La Sirene, goddess of the sea, Baron Samedi, the loa of the dead. With their gaping mouths and incredulous expressions, they remind me of blow-up sex dolls. I quickly quell that thought now that I’m on their territory, just in case they can hear me.
Kiki introduces us to the ougan (Vodou priest), a compact, stocky man with a thin moustache. He shakes our hands, cracks a joke in creole to Anneline (she’s from St Lucia and can understand Haitian kweyol). The ougan is on Facebook, according to his business card. Of course he is. Sign of the times.
Brief introductions over, we leave. Kiki is to bring us back in the evening.
By nightfall, we still have no rum or candles. Peggy, the owner of our guesthouse, beckons a neighbour woman from across the street. There’s an exchange in rapid-fire creole. The woman disappears into the darkness, only to come back with two candles and a bottle sloshing with dark liquid. Peggy admonishes her, pointing at the liquid. The woman disappears. Reappears with a bottle full of clear cane spirit. Kiki arrives, gets into a spirited argument with Peggy about the alcohol. Apparently, the loa are very particular about their tipple, and prefer white rum to cheap cane spirit. “Don’t worry,” he tells us. “There’ll be rum and candles there.” We retrace our steps to the ougan’s house, in almost complete darkness. Kiki may be used to navigating by starlight, but I will not be separated from my head torch, ever since I almost came to grief in an open manhole in Port-au-Prince one evening.
Lit by a dim lightbulb, the packed earth floor is crammed with about a dozen dancers, the women’s heads clad in bright kerchiefs, colourful skirts swishing with the swaying of the hips. Their bare feet stamp in unison, their voices raised in a chant.
Several drummers sit to one side, their hands a blur as they pound out a complex rhythm.
Two doorways lead into the ougan’s inner sanctum. The symbols of Baron Samedi are painted between the two – an eye, candles, a cross, a skull. Baron Samedi is my favourite of the loa pantheon – his realms are sex, resurrection and death - womb and tomb. He's the leader of the spirits of the dead, the dapper gentleman with a cane who likes strong rum and a good joke.
The dancing continues for a while before the ougan emerges from the left doorway, dressed wholly in white, with a scarf around his neck. Pairing up with one of the women, he walks slowly to the base of the tree. They’re like a couple about to get married, both of them carrying white candles that they place at its base, the ougan’s lips moving in what I imagine to be an incantation of some kind.
The dancers swirl and ebb around them.
The ougan disappears through the same doorway from which he’d entered. The drumming reaches a crescendo, the dancers in a frenzy. One of the men staggers across earthen floor as if drunk. Combined with the chanting, the whirl of limbs is hypnotic; I lose track of how long the dancing continues for, until the drumming ends abruptly and there’s a lull in the proceedings.
One woman breastfeeds, another smokes a cheroot. The young man who was staggering across the dance floor minutes ago comes up to one of the younger women, puts both hands on her breasts. Squeezes, hard, possessively. She winces, shoves him away, stony-faced.
Kiki beckons me. I’m let in through the left doorway into the ougan’s inner sanctum – a tiny, whitewashed room dominated by an altar stacked with candles and sequinned bottles. Another door leads opens into the room next to it. Permeating the stuffy air, a musky scent meets my nostrils. If the first room looks like it might be used by someone in the service of the Light, there’s no doubting the purpose of this dark, sepulchral space. Dark magic, I think to myself. Fitting, given that Baron Samedi, in his various incarnations, leads the ghede, the spirits of the dead. There’s a coffin upon the earthen floor, cobwebbed Vodou effigies made of wood, some other paraphernalia incorporating what looks like human femurs. In the fire pit lies an authentic human skull. It brings home to me yet again that Haiti is darker and more macabre than I’ll ever be.
When I first felt the pull of Haiti, in my late teens, its reputation was an irresistible lure. A country shaped by the most successful slave rebellion in history and its aftermath, a place where black magic permeates the daily life of all strata of society, where it’s still a crime to turn people into zombies in the official statutes, where animal sacrifices are common, where people are brought back from the dead by the ougan, where the lines between the human and the divine, the land of the living and the shadow world of the dead are blurred. Coming here would be like setting foot in a magical realism novel. Coming here would allow me to indulge my lifelong fascination with death, with mortality. But I realise now that I’m out of my depth.
I contemplate death a lot. As a young child, I read the unabridged folk tales of different countries, my imagination permeated with Japanese yurei (unquiet spirits of the dead), Angolan cannibals who consume dead bodies, corpses coming back to life in Russian fairy tales. I went through a stage of obsessively asking my mother every night whether she was going to die, wanting reassurance that she would not. There have been several tragic early deaths in our family. My maternal grandfather, dead on the operating table at the age of 42 during a routine operation after being given the wrong dose of anaesthetic. My other grandfather, drowned in two feet of water at the beach in Parnu, Estonia, after having a heart attack. My uncle, crushed by a fallen tree while camping on a windy day.
I saw my first dead body when I was five years old. Growing up semi-wild in a little town on the outskirts of Moscow, we found what entertainment we could in the streets. Cut spruce branches trailing from the entrance of an apartment building meant that someone died there. When the open coffin was carried through the streets, we followed. That dead man looked peaceful, but waxy and yellow, as if all colour had been leached from him. Years later, training as a nursing assistant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, I learned that the discolouration is a result of the blood flowing downwards and pooling around the back in purplish-blue splodges. In time, I helped to lay out the dead and found that I wasn’t squeamish or put off. One of the nurses I worked with taught me to open the window when someone passed away, “to let the soul out.” For much of my time as a care worker, I found myself moving through the twilight world of the terminally ill quite a bit, and found that it wasn't frightening or repellent. I felt privileged to be able to provide some comfort to those imminently bound for the other side, and discovered that most people want some tenderness and reassurance, even if it’s from a complete stranger, and often a hand to hold, even if they hadn’t been the hand-holding type for most of their life. While most of my patients were elderly, with their mental faculties severely degraded, occasionally I met interesting people who left an indelible imprint on my life. One was the former master of Clare College - a former economic advisor to Margaret Thatcher who'd taught himself Russian for fun. Some nights, when he was compos mentis, he'd ask me to read him Russian poetry. Other nights, he'd be muddled and would mistake me for his daughter, and want me to sit with him and hold his hand until he fell asleep. Then there was a terminally ill man, who tragically died young, and who became a genuine friend, and though he passed away many years ago, I still think of him often.
Back at the ougan’s fire pit in Jacmel, I’m tempted to raise the question: does Baron Samedi know all of the dead, or just the Haitian dead? "Have you seen him?" I want to ask. "Have you seen my friend?" A part of me wonders if he's still out there, somewhere, in some kind of tangible form, recognisable as himself. But that is not what I truly believe.
I’m ushered out of the inner sanctum back into the tiny room with the altar, the dribbling occult candles, the sequined bottles. Kiki produces a round plate made of tightly woven straw - akin to the utensil used in rural southeast Asia for sieving rice. There’s a dark stain on it. I stare at it in confusion. Is it for the sacrifice? Yes, of sorts. I’m expected to make a financial contribution towards the proceedings, towards the rum and the candles. Quite a hefty one, too – 3000 gourdes (the equivalent of around £30). “This is a shakedown,” I think. How well they planned it! When you’re put on the spot like that, it’s difficult to bargain or argue. I pay up, somewhat grudgingly, and am released back to the drumming and the dancing.
A new drummer joins the musicians, pounding out a complex rhythm. The drumming reaches fever pitch. The women continue chanting over the drumming, their dresses swishing rhythmically as they whirl around the packed dirt floor.
One of the men steps forward towards the Tree, bends from the waist, and proceeds to draw a complex symbol of Erzulie on the floor with a yellow powder (cornflour?). A heart appears, then surrounding whorls, then a grid across the heart.
Blue candles are lit and passed around to each of us. One by one, we make our way to the base of the Tree, melting the bottom of our candles on the flames of the preceding ones, to help them stick down. I cup the flickering flame with my hand, stick it down, then stare into the flame and repeat my wish, over and over, until a gust of wind blows it out.
After a lengthy absence from the proceedings, the ougan re-enters the fray, dressed entirely in crimson. He issues instructions in a deep, rasping voice, each sentence preceded by three sharp, throaty inhalations. He appears to have been possessed by Baron Kriminèl, one of the incarnations of Baron Samedi. It’s a surprisingly thoughtful manifestation: he motions towards the Tree, and a couple of the dancers move their charging mobile phones higher, out of reach. A bottle of rum makes the rounds. All the dancers take a sip and then it’s our turn. I put my lips to the bottle after Anneline; the sip burns my throat. It’s strong, overproof stuff, about as pleasant as drinking paint stripper. Baron Kriminèl then takes the mostly full bottle, tilts his head to one side and appears to pour the rum in his ear.
He then repeats with his other ear. Staring all the while at the Tree, he strikes a match and breathes out. A cloud of flame bursts forth towards the Tree. He walks around to the other side of the tree, strikes a match, breathes fire.
The bottle is empty. The ougan looks displeased. In a swift movement, he brings the bottle down on his own head. The bottle shatters, shards of glass flying everywhere. The ougan doesn’t seem to be any worse for wear. He staggers past me, the jagged bottle in his hand missing my face narrowly; looks at it thoughtfully, takes a bite out of the glass and begins to chew. There’s no blood. What is dead can never bleed. If this is some kind of trick, it’s a helluva good one. I’ve heard that if Baron Kriminèl doesn’t like the food or drink that he’s given, he sometimes begins to take savage bites out of the very body he’s possessing, tearing chunks out of the flesh, so maybe the ougan got off lightly.
The ougan staggers through the red door marked “Kriminèl”. The drummers launch into a new, frenzied routine. The women keep swaying; one older woman in particular is dancing with complete abandon, her head swinging from side to side.
Kiki beckons me. I’m ushered back through the right-hand doorway (“Kriminèl”). Fire burns in the fire pit. I think of Dante and the gates of hell. The skull is gone. I stand cautiously on the edge of the fire pit, wary of being in such a confined space with the ougan, a man almost certainly drunk, and apparently possessed by a loa. The air seems to crackle with expectation. Baron Kriminèl clasps my hand, then hooks his elbow around mine. Unhooking it, he firmly takes my face in his hands, slowly inclines his head towards me. His face is inches from mine; I can see a tiny muscle twitching madly beneath his left eye as two black, bloodshot orbs peer into my eyes. A momentary flutter of panic. What is he…? Will he bite a chunk out of my face? Will he kiss me? Will he pull me into the fire between us? But no. He rubs his forehead against mine, anointing me with his sweat. He gives three sharp gasps, then proceeds to say something in his deep rasping voice. Kiki translates that Baron Kriminèl offers me his blessing and his protection. I bow my head to the loa in acknowledgement of his gift and am dismissed from his presence.
“What about the animal sacrifice?” I ask Kiki. Earlier he was saying that the ritual was due to culminate with a shedding of blood, typical of Vodou rituals. I know from attending a bullfight that I don’t enjoy witnessing pain and death inflicted on animals, but feel that I should stick around for the whole proceedings. That unless I’m prepared to test my mettle in this manner, it’s as if I’ve failed to pass some sort of fundamental test.
“That will be tomorrow. No knives, just teeth.” I get an unpleasant mental image of the glazed-eyed dancers, sinking their teeth into the throat of a squealing pig or goat. My friend Paul, author of the Bradt Guide to Haiti, witnessed an animal sacrifice at a Vodou ritual during his year on the island.
“I wish they’d sharpened the machete first. There was an unnecessary amount of sawing.”
What if they ask me to participate? What if I have to drink blood? I picture myself holding a warm, twitching, feathery body of a chicken in my hands, bright arterial dribbles on my lips and neck, a sour coppery tang in my mouth.
“Why would you even think that?” asks Paul, when I tell him about the Vodou ritual, weeks later. “When you visit a Catholic church, do you normally take a swig of the communion wine? Why would you take part in a ritual that means nothing to you?” Touché, I think. Though I did drink the rum.
The dancing looks set to continue late into the night. Anneline and I feel that we have witnessed as much as we wanted to, so we take our leave. Kiki walks us back the roundabout way, via the waterfront promenade.
Power is still out. Gentle murmurings drift from the groups of people huddled on the benches and the promenade wall. Lit candles, the only source of light, lend the scene a somewhat surreal, intimate air. Monstrous shadows dance on the walls of the dark houses from the guttering candles within. Somewhere out in the darkness, waves lap against the beach. The air smells of sea salt and rotting garbage. We walk along the silent street, passing a doorway lit with neon that leads into a darkened bar. Inside, dancers gyrate to the pulsing beat. Kiki wants us to go in; he’s drunk and buzzing, and wants to party, most likely with Anneline and me funding the drinks. We refuse, and Kiki is silent all the way back to the guesthouse.
Anneline, jetlagged and catatonic with exhaustion, bids me good night. As for me, I sit in the dark garden, breathing in the silence, waiting for all signs of life to subside in the dark streets around us. I want to probe, pick part, and digest the night’s experiences before they fade from memory.