November 2008: I had been obsessed with visiting Haiti ever since watching the movie, The Serpent and the Rainbow, where the main character, Bill Pullman visits Haiti and has a voodoo spell cast on to him turning him into a zombie. The movie was my introduction to voodoo and a visit to New Orleans, with all of its voodoo influence years later, helped to furtherly build my intrigue for it.

Needless to say, I flew to Haiti for a solo 4-day weekend trip with one goal in mind, to attend a voodoo ceremony and to observe the voodoo way of life that Haiti is so synonymous with. At the time of my trip, Haiti had almost zero tourist infrastructure and the much of the country was lawless and run by gangs known to kidnap foreigners for ransom. Where the majority of the Caribbean is full of giant tourist resorts, Haiti is almost entirely devoid of them. Haiti feels more like traveling in Western Africa than in the Caribbean, especially with its voodoo culture.  I reached out to a few local tour operators and hotels to obtain information on voodoo festivals. I was told that most would be impromptu and that it was best to just show up and once in Haiti, I would likely be able to find one. Being that I couldn’t speak the language, creole, a mix of French and African dialects, I decided to hire a local fixer. Plus, a fixer would have more knowledge about any voodoo ceremonies going on in the area.

About Haiti

Haiti like all of the Caribbean was colonized by Europeans. Haiti was colonized by the French. Populations of Indigenous peoples were decimated by the arrival of Europeans and the French in order to work their plantations, imported thousands of West African slaves. The slaves brought with them animistic beliefs and over time these beliefs were incorporated into French Catholicism to become Haitian voodoo.

In the early 1800’s while France was distracted by the French revolution, Haitian slaves revolted and overthrew the French government to form the first black republic and the first independent country in the Caribbean. Unfortunately for Haiti it has been plagued by instability, American and French exploitation, dictatorships, political coups and natural disasters such as hurricanes, and earthquakes ever since. As a result, Haiti has earned the title of being the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Because of the poverty and political instability, Haiti can be considered dangerous, and this reputation has kept away the large mega-resorts and flocks of tourists common elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Jacmel, Haiti

Day 1: Instead of the capitol, Port Au Prince, (PAP), I chose to visit the smaller and more relaxed seaside town of Jacmel. Jacmel also still retained a lot of its French colonial architecture and was located near some nice beaches and mountains with waterfalls and some of the last remaining forests in Haiti.

I flew into PAP via a short flight from Miami. There were no tourists on my flight and the only non-Haitians were missionaries or working for non-government organizations doing humanitarian work mainly.

Upon arrival I took an airport taxi to a public bus station in PAP. The road from the airport into PAP was nicknamed kidnappers’ lane and was notorious for impromptu bandit checkpoints where the bandits would rob and kidnap travelers. I took the taxi to a bus station, where I transferred to a bus going directly to Jacmel 3-4 hours’ drive. Once I arrived in Jacmel, I met my local fixer, Michele who was waiting for at my hotel, the Florita, in the old French Quarter.

French Quarter of Jacmel where my hotel was located

View from the patio outside my room

My very basic room with Haitian voodoo art on the walls

I loved Jacmel! It had a raw and gritty feeling to it. There was nothing flashy about but it had some great local beach side eateries. Unlike PAP, it was safe enough to walk around by yourself. The old French buildings were not restored, and life was very basic. Electricity would commonly cut out in town leaving entire neighborhoods blacked out. The beach was covered in trash while pigs and feral dogs scavenged through the trash as Haitian women carrying huge loads of cargo balanced effortlessly on their heads passed by. There were few foreigners and the only white people I met were French people that were Haitian citizens descended from the colonial era. My hotel was also gritty. There was poor plumbing, no air-conditioning, just an un-reliable fan and mosquito net. It didn’t matter because I spent most of the time outside my room on my patio overlooking the Jacmel and the old French District.

Typical Scene in Haiti

Haitian Girl

Random wedding scene I came across one night when exploring Jacmel when a sudden blackout left the city in pitch blckness

Meeting a Voodoo Witchdoctor 

Day 2: My guide Michele was great. He seemed to know everyone in town, he was a lot of fun to be around, and his services were ridiculously cheap considering how useful he was to me. I made it very clear from the moment that I arrived that my main purpose in Haiti was voodoo. Michele claimed that he knew of a voodoo ceremony but that it had been cancelled because some attendees died enroute in a motorcycle accident. In the meantime, he wanted me to meet the witch doctor. The witch doctor he claimed is an elderly woman who deals in black magic and has the power to cast spells that can kill people. We walked across town and found the witch doctor’s home. Her door had a creepy voodoo symbol painted on it to identify that she lived there. At first, she wasn’t home, we came back a few hours later. This time she was home and Michele was very reluctant to go inside her home with me. He was a follower of voodoo like most Haitians, and he genuinely was afraid of this woman. In the end I convinced him to enter providing I tried really hard not to make her angry.

Door of Witchdoctor

Voodoo Witchdoctor

The witch doctor definitely had a dark vibe about her. Her house was full of dolls, murky concoctions inside glass jars, skulls and more creepy dolls. She explained to me what her role in voodoo is and that if I wanted her to cast any spells that she could help me do so for a price. She explained that she does not cast any evil spells and that what happens after she casts a spell is the will of the voodoo spirits. It is up to the spirits if someone deserves to die from the spells she casts. To cast a spell, in addition to paying a fee, a photo of the victim is needed and some hair or a personal belonging.  She claimed she can cure almost any disease, change someone’s luck or seek revenge for someone by having their enemy condemned to death. While she explained this to me, Michele translated and while doing so he appeared terrified. To show me that she wasn’t joking, the witchdoctor showed me a stack of photos of the people she had placed death curses on. Most of the photos were of adults, but shockingly some of them were of children, even babies.

But I also wanted to understand how a voodoo doll worked. The woman explained that a voodoo doll can be empowered to do harm on a person and that anyone can make one as long as you focus your hatred and dark thoughts towards an individual on to the voodoo doll. I didn’t want to leave without buying something from the woman, so I agreed to purchase a voodoo doll without the dark thoughts. The voodoo doll had some mysterious ring on its penis that I never did get an explanation for. 

Michele holding the voodoo doll I bought from the witch doctor

Bassin Bleu Waterfalls

After visiting the witch doctor and learning about the dark side of voodoo, it was time to lighten things up and head to a Bassin Bleu waterfall for a swim. Michele and I both traveled by motor taxi up a long rough dirt track into the mountains passed rural farms and random patches of rain forest. After a few hours, we arrived at the train head and found some locals to guide us to the waterfalls. it was a great hike through forest, scaling cliffs, some had to be climbed via an anchored in rope. We also came to a sacred tree believed to be a place of black magic and where people come to make animal sacrifices in order to gain favor with voodoo spirits. There was no escaping voodoo. The falls were incredible, water a beautiful turquoise color and to reach the main part of the falls, I had to swim through a part of the stream surrounded by canyon walls where Michele, the village guides and I played like school kids, climbing and jumping repeatedly into the water.

Hiring a motor taxi to get to the falls

View from the drive up to the falls overlooking Jacmel

Me climbing on of the ropes at the falls

The pool before the canyon you need to swim through to reach the falls

Swimming in the falls with Local Guys

Attending a Voodoo Ceremony

Day 3: I spent the day exploring Jacmel, making Haitian friends visiting some nearby beaches. Then Michele surprised me by telling me the one thing I wanted to hear the most. There was a voodoo ceremony outside of Jacmel and that I could attend it. he said that it is customary for me to bring a Barbancourt rhum to present to the Houngan priest along with a small monetary present of 10USD approximately.

The ceremony was planned around a full moon, and it wasn’t expected to start until around midnight. Since this was my last night and my flight left from PAP the next morning, I would have to bring my backpack and depart directly from the voodoo ceremony to the public bus departing to PAP at 4am. If all went as planned, I would be able to observe the voodoo ceremony, catch my bus and make it back to my flight on time.

I’ll never forget taking the motorbike into the forest in the darkness to get to the voodoo ceremony. We followed a dirt track going into the forest, passing farms, and traveling moonlight mostly well passed the city limits of Jacmel. It was a surreal experience and one that was definitely not being set up for tourists. The voodoo ceremony was expected to last for multiple days, and I had found out that it actually started a few days ago and we were arriving towards one of the last days. Most of the animal sacrifices I was told already occurred during the first few days. Animal sacrifices usually consist of a goat or chicken having its throat slit while its blood pours over some kind of voodoo fetish.

As we came closer to the ceremony, which looked like it was being help in an outdoor area of someone’s farm with a few ramshackle structures and canopies, I could hear the hypnotic rhythm of African drums and the chanting of women in the distance. To add to the mystique, most of the lighting was by candle and the moon only.

When I arrived, with the exception of a Haitian French man, who I later met and became friends with, I was the only foreigner. There were hundreds of people, all locals from Jacmel and surrounding areas in attendance, even the evil witch doctor woman I met the day before was in attendance, and many people were in a hypnotic trancelike state. Women were adorned in white robes and headscarves, dancing barefoot, and throwing their hands into the air. Men drummed and sat in the background sipping on locally made rum. I watched from the outside, and no one seemed to care about or notice my arrival.

Ceremony in full swing

Drumming

Voodoo Ceremonies-All ladies in White Robes 

I imagined each ritual was carefully planned and had its own rules, explanations and traditions. However, I on the most part, had no idea what was going on. I felt like an alien who didn’t belong. Michele was drinking rum, nowhere to be seen and I was left on the periphery watching as everyone participated. On one end of the ceremony stood a table with some offerings of food being provided to the voodoo saints, whose pictures were also located on the table.

Then a man approached me and offered a cup of a mysterious drink, most likely some kind of local rum. I didn’t want to refuse but I also had flashbacks to when Bill Pullman became a zombie in the movie Serpent and the Rainbow, and I was a little suspicious of the drink. I drank it and had a few more to follow. The ceremony seemed to be more of a party and the party started to get better after that.

Voodoo altar with Portraits of Voodoo Saints and Offerings of Food and Rum

Voodoo altar and evidently the voodoo Gods like Cheeto Puffs

As the night progressed and more rum was consumed, things started to get really weird. Inhibitions were shed, and I could feel the power of the drums reverberating through me.  Suddenly I noticed all of this strange chalk markings on the ground in the shape of some kind of voodoo skull and crossbones symbol. Then a man in a trance laid down in the center of the marking and a group of people placed a white sheet over him. They waved the sheet over him chanting some kind of spell and lifted it up revealing the man to now be dressed as a kind of mummy with shite wrappings around him and face paint. The man writhed on the ground and his eyes rolled into the back of his head. I watched in disbelief again not having any idea what was going on. 

Woman in a trance dancing

Chalk markings on ground of some kind of voodoo symbol 

Man wrapped like a mummy in a trance

When an Entranced Woman Tried to Stab Me with a Dagger

Probably the weirdness of the night peaked when people started passing a giant foot long dagger around. It seemed that whoever had the dagger would become possessed, screaming and shouting and lunging at others in a devil crazed fashion before collapsing or fainting. One woman with the dagger did this repeatedly. She would scream at someone, lunge at them with the knife, appear to miss them, and then hug and kiss them on the lips before finally collapsing to the ground. She did this with multiple people, and I up until this point always felt kind of left out and left alone like a ghost. Then the woman locked eyes with mine and she came lunging at me with her dagger pointed at me. At that moment, I heard a voice whisper into my ear, “drop to the ground.” It came from some man behind me, I’m not really sure. But I dropped to the ground before the lady, and she fell on to me swiping the dagger towards me but missing..only by inches. Her eyes were rolled backwards, and she grunted loudly while I tried to avoid being disemboweled. Although I don’t think she would have intentionally tried to stab me, it was clear she was not in a stable state of mind and accidents happen especially when swinging a dagger at someone while being severely intoxicated with rum mixed in with other hallucinogens. Soon others grabbed a hold of the woman and wrestled her away from me. At that point she almost broke out of her trance, stopped trying to stab me and hugged me before kissing me on the face like she did with others before. I wasn’t sure which part was scarier. Her trying to stab me or kiss me.

Woman fainting in voodoo trance

Woman who came at me with a knife and was pulled away by the other voodoo practioners 

Day 4: Late in the night at about 3am, Michele and I rode our motor taxis from the voodoo ceremony to the Jacmel bus station. I said my goodbyes and set off on a hot and uncomfortable 3-hour bus ride through the mountains to PAP, where I departed later in the morning from the airport back to San Diego.

Sad Reality of Haiti

I enjoyed my time in Haiti and I especially appreciated the hospitality that people showed me despite its very visible and stark poverty. But I was taken back by the desperation that only extreme poverty can induce. Michele introduced me to his friends in Jacmel and some of them were females and we even visited one girl’s family home. Almost every girl we met asked me if I could help them financially and even offered themselves sexually for my financial assistance. These were not prostitutes but university students, girls with seemingly good homes for Haitian standards. This didn’t stop when I left Haiti. I had exchanged emails and m phone number with some of the girls and other Haitians I met there and for months after my visit I would receive emails and phone calls pleading for money and again in exchange for sex. It was sad to witness such abject desperation. Sadly, the plight of the Haitian people didn’t improve when a little more than a year after my visit, a deadly earthquake occurred displacing a million people killing thousands more. 

Bucket List for a Return Trip to Haiti

There are two places that I would love to visit if I return to Haiti. I’m sure there are actually many more places if I research a little, but these are just two that quickly come to mind.

  • Citadelle Laferriere-1st slave constructed fortress built anywhere in the world. It is a large imposing mountain top fortress in Cap-Haitien built to defend against the French.

 

  • Saut d’Eau Waterfall- The waterfall is 100 feet tall created by an earthquake in the 1800s, but it isn’t the waterfall that is the attraction. It is the voodoo ceremony that occurs for a few weeks on an annual basis attracting thousands of pilgrims. Voodoo pilgrims bathe in the believed to be sacred waters in the nude and so many animals are sacrificed that at times the water is said to run blood red.  The waterfall is in a remote location and takes some time and effort to visit. I looked at going here during my visit, but the ceremony was not occurring during my visit. I was told that even when there isn’t a scheduled ceremony, the waterfall can still attract some pilgrims. To attend this event would be incredible.

10 + 1 =

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