Although it’s been long associated with the dark and dreadful, voodoo is very much a celebration of life and nature. And just like there’s another side to the age-old religion, there’s a vibrancy to life in Haiti that’s been overshadowed by its troubles.
Haiti is in the midst of redoubling its welcome to tourists, and is doing so by capitalizing on its unique culture.
The only country in the world to have executed a successful slave revolt, Haiti held fast to its traditions in a way its neighbors weren’t able to do under the influence of colonizers according to Jean Lionel Presser, who operates the company, Tour Haiti.
“Haiti is so well placed, because of its culture and because of its history, which is unbelievably rich,” he said. “We have something special in the Caribbean.”
Something that — like the good side of voodoo — has to be seen to be believed.
Richard Morse wasn’t the first to call the hotel he manages “the voodoo hotel” but he embraces the title. That’s because the religion has offered the sacred rhythms and song lyrics that Morse and his band RAM can be seen playing at the Hotel Oloffson most Thursday nights.
Although the music is set the ethos he imbibed in his days as a New York City punk rocker, RAM is indebted to voodoo’s spirited musical traditions — and invokes some of its rituals. Before each show, a voodoo priest or houngan named Anise creates a coat of arms for a particular voodoo spirit in front of the stage to bless the event.
“If the restaurant is full and [patrons] hear him with his bell and his [maraca] . . . everyone gets up and comes in and watches what he’s doing,” Morse said over coffee on the hotel’s expansive porch. “It’s special for him, too, because when he’s done doing it at a ceremony, nothing, but when he’s done doing it here, they applaud.”
The Haitian-American frontman said he likes mixing his love for music with his love for voodoo into his festive approach to hospitality.
“There’s entertainment in the ritual and there’s ritual in the entertainment,” Morse said.
There’s also history. The hotel was built by a former president’s son and served as a hospital before it was turned into a hotel that’s welcomed everyone from Martha Graham to Graham Greene. With ornate white trim reminiscent of the Christmas treat, the Hotel Oloffson is one of the best examples of Haiti’s trademark gingerbread style.
It’s believed that the Virgin Mary of Mount Caramel — who is represented by the voodoo spirit Erzulie Dantor — appeared on a palm tree near Saut d’Eau sometime in the 19th century and began to heal sick visitors. The site is revered by both Catholics and voodoo followers who believe that voodoo spirits were represented on earth as the Vatican-sanctified figures. Pilgrims from both religions flock to the falls 60 miles outside of Port-au-Prince for an annual celebration in July, but Saut d’Eau is one to behold at any time of the year.
The 100-foot double waterfall amid a lush green forest casts such a striking image that one could be forgiven for considering it divine without believing in saints or spirits.
Le Grand Cimetière
Sky blues and sea greens adorn rows and rows of mausoleums and tombs belonging to some of Haiti’s most prominent families. The palette — which seems more fitting for a child’s nursery than an old cemetery — helps take the edge off of the spooky upon entering Le Grand Cimetière.
Don’t let your guard down too much though. The cemetery is home to the spirits that have given voodoo its grim reputation. Venture into the far corner and you’ll find the black crosses that mark the the honorific graves of the spirit Baron Samedi and his wife, Grande Bridgette. It’s here that voodoo followers come to ask the lords of the underworld for the power to change the circumstances of their lives.
A tree not far from their graves is marked with such requests in the form of pin-cushion dolls. Although horror movies have capitalized on them as invocations to injure enemies, dolls aren’t usually used to bring about pain or death. Instead, most of them are meant to augur love.
The two teenage girls in tank tops and flip flops who tied two pairs of dolls to the branches of a tree crowded with them did so to get their boyfriends back — not to hurt them. A few prayers and sips of rum later, they left the gated cemetery before sundown. That’s when things get a bit grittier — and when guards have to be bribed to let in visitors — so if you do go to this Port-au-Prince cemetery, go when the sun is still bright.
Marché en Fer and Atis Rezistans
Voodoo venerates art. Beyond its spirited devotional music and reverential dance traditions, the religion is known for its colorful iconography.
For many visitors to Haiti, voodoo is something many hear about but rarely see around them. Once you learn to identify key symbols, however, you’ll see the homage to the religion on everything from headlights to T-shirts.
For a quick guide on what to look for, head to the Marché en Fer, an open-air market teeming with voodoo art.
Eddy Edmond is a 27-year-old artist who designs ornate tapestries and helps the uninitiated understand the pieces that catch their eye in a corner of the market. He points to a fully sequined image of the Virgin Mary, or, as voodoo followers believe, the spirit Erzulie Dantor.
“She’s a spirit of protection,” he says. “So she protects everyone no matter who they are.”
Andre Eugene, who founded an artists’ collective known as the Atis Rezistans, takes a similar approach to religious symbols.
The collective uses recycled materials to create striking works of art that evoke images from voodoo — which he says is at the roots of Haitian culture — even though his work also speaks to social and political issues.
Having grown up in a rough neighborhood surrounded by carpenters and mechanics, he started transforming wood and car parts into the sculptures that now dominate the space.
“Through my project, I would like to change the area in which I live,” said Edmond, and so he started teaching young people his craft. Now when he’s showing work in Copenhagen or Milan, it’s his proteges who keep the collective going.
This piece was produced with support from the International Reporting Project. Beenish Ahmed can be reached at email@example.com.