Why is it the dead return anyways? I ask but feeling as though I know the answer. Liz and I had just met a few days earlier and had only just met Kat and Joseph the night before. It was All Saints Eve in Haiti and there we were in a van, traveling up and down streets torn up by the earthquake three years previously, not just laughing but having a true gut laugh that reaches right down to your bones and gives you cramps and makes your eyes water. This is why the dead wake up. They are hungry for life, and ready to feed. We were rocking the place with our laughter and if there was a soul out there anywhere it would surely have felt the pulse of life we generated and been attracted to us, just to feed on that feeling.
Joseph is originally from Argentina and had heard about people celebrating All Saints Eve by going to the cemetery to honour the dead, and I had heard about people taking picnics to the cemetery while living in Guatemala. Both of us wanted to witness the celebrations. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it as a voodoo festival, but as a celebration of all saints day that is found in many parts of Latin America. Traditionally it is told that they leave food for the dead so that they will not bother them for another year. People have to feed the hungry spirits to keep themselves safe from sickness and death. We begin to make our plans.
In Haiti there are armed escorts and drivers to transport the volunteer workers. Joseph asks a driver to come by at midnight to pick up Kat, Liz and I and himself. On the drive to the cemetery we are struck by the absurdity of what we are doing. This is Haiti, the land of magic and voodoo. It is three years after the earthquake and the country hasn’t recovered from the serious damage. There are makeshift shanty towns and the government is politically unstable with efforts to undermine some of the international aid that is occurring. Conversation slides from the sublime to the ridiculous as we communicate with not just our hands and facial expressions but use our feet and legs too. We talk about serious issues such as the international aid projects and the strange donations that turn up, and the challenges facing millions of people suffering from a shortage of life saving medication and qualified medical personnel. We laugh at Liz and June our physiotherapists bringing 2 white right feet to a black culture and no matter what, it will always be right for them. Then we laughed about how we had dressed up for an evening of exploring Voodoo culture in Haiti. We were instructed to all dress in white with a bit of red on us to protect us against evil spirits. As we talk about what red coloured items we are wearing we worry in general about not having enough red with us.
We arrived at the first cemetary and the gates were open, but there were no lights on anywhere, or any sign of life. Not surprising we laugh. I said to Joseph that since we were there, that we should at least get out of the van and step into the cemetery at which point one of us put their arms around Kat, and she screamed frightening us all. After that there was no way any of us were getting out of the van. I thought that if we wanted to see a family taking food to their ancestors it might take a little leg work. It wasn’t as if there were going to be large neon signs with arrows pointing down saying “this way for some cemetery voodoo.” Without a family of our own to visit at the cemetery, it would be just plain creepy to walk around in a cemetery at midnight on halloween night, in the dark, but Joseph was determined to see a real Haitian ceremony, so he asked the driver to take us to another cemetery. We laughed and laughed as we drove around for another hour or two sweeping the streets of Haiti. There wasn’t a person on the streets, nobody sleeping in doorways, no midnight revelers. We were lucky to have seen a few stray dogs and some goats.
Our driver is extremely patient with us as we roared through the streets, and when we see that the gates of the second cemetary are closed we make him promise to take us out the next night. We have confirmed what we had refused to listen to earlier. The celebrations really start on the 1st. That would be when we would expect to see parades of people dressed in purple with their faces painted white on the street and maybe see something ceremony at the cemetery. We resolve to try again the next night.
With a new chemistry in the mix, a bigger group, we start our drive and arrive quickly at the first cemetary. Once again we are all dressed in white and scrambling to find something red to protect us. The doors to the cemetary are open and this time there are about 20 or 30 men congregated around the entrance. It looks as though there is a stage set up to play some music. Lucus slides past the door keepers getting a look around while the rest of the “whities” and Kat our one black friend, step out of the van. We look like ghosts come to haunt them. One of the men at the gate starts to gesture in an expressive “going down” manner but not the “going down” in a good way. We rather hurriedly hop back into the van, quickly forgetting on the climb back in about any new hips, or sore knees, feeling relieved to be back in the van, but not discouraged because Joseph has heard about another band playing downtown. Tonight there are more people on the streets, and it is earlier in the evening. Joseph stops at the bank machine while Liz and June tick off yet another unsafe activity to do while in Haiti. But there are 2 policemen standing next to our van and quite a few people on the street, so they settle down. We start to tell stories about our trip out to the cemetary the night before soon everyone is smiling and laughing.
We bumped around the torn up streets ofHaiti for another hour, going to see the band. We cruise past the crumbling palace, and speculate on whether it would be left as is, repaired or torn down. During the day we have noticed roman pillars being sold on the street. History often has a way of asserting itself, even the history we try to forget or erase. Next we attempt to go to a party at one of the fancy hotels. Surprisingly there are still fancy hotels in a city that has suffered the most extensive earthquake damage of nearly anywhere else in the world. We never even got so far as the outer gate. The street was packed, rocking with music, and honking horns. Expats were clustered in by an array of randomly parked vehicles and we were trapped for a while squeezed into a tight fist of vehicles with armed guards circulating about the hotel entrance. Again, it might have felt more comfortable to be behind bullet proof glass as we remind ourselves that during the day, we work to heal gun shot and machete wounds. Soberly we wind our way home over rough boulder and rubble roads.
Late that night, Lucus and Joseph decide to go out searching for one last place that Lucus has heard about through Baby Girl, a good friend he has been two timing with, that he also made me pinky swear not to talk about.
The next day Lucus shows us a picture of his face splattered with some blood, and Joseph shows us a rather smoky picture of the one of the voodoo dancers with a goat draped around her neck. They sacrificed 26 goats to represent 26 spirits. Joseph had had his palm read by the priestess, I told him that I had wanted to go with them, but had thought it was a guy thing. I was upset that I hadn’t been there. He said we would try to go back there tonight.
After supper we split up into groups. We drove as far as we could down a very narrow alleyway. The road looked as if it were shoring up the walls of the buildings on either side with small boulders and crushed rubble attempting to fill the gaps. We drove into a parking lot and pulled together our group which had come in 2 vehicles. There was Jen, Kim and Scott, Kat, June and Liz, Dr. Bones, Joseph and myself. Baby Girl met us there. Negotiating our way out of the parking lot to get to the voodoo dancing required slipping past street vendors and pick pockets. When ever I have gone to a night club, there have always been people hanging around on the street. So this didn’t frighten me, What did frighten me is history. History comes alive when you carry your stories into the present. As a group of white people including Kat, who is technically black but is considered white when with us, all of us dressed in white, being chaperoned by a black female 5′ 2 body guard dressed in a brilliant red dress hemmed at the panty line accentuating a perfect cupped bottom, wearing 4 inch stiletto heels walking into a very very black party we had to ask ourselves as we walked up that alley what kind of history we wanted people to remember. We chose one of smiles and humble nods, but we formed a chain like kindergarten children holding onto each others hands as we kept together as a group attempting to not be separated. We wound our way through the dancers and masses of people who had come to see their queen, or high priestess of voodoo.
As we crossed the room a funny looking man made a kissing noise at me, so I kissed back and smiled. Another women further up the line laughed at me so we smiled together and as I passed I slowed to dance with her. She was dressed in the ceremonial purple dress with a purple scarf. As we danced we contacted through music, rhythm uniting us, our hands touching in the air. She grabbed me and the rest of our train that was stalled behind me as I danced, and led us up onto the stage where Joseph and Baby Girl had led the others. We climbed a makeshift ladder and stood on a platform that was easily beyond maximum safe capacity. Liz ticked off another unsafe activity to do while in Haiti off her list. Some people were seated on chairs, others lining the back wall, and some were overhead sitting in the tree. There was a view out the back over thousands of lights of the tightly packed houses in the valley that glittered stronger now that we were closer.
We watched for a long time dancing and weaving on the spot, winning smiles and encouragement when we moved and danced. The dancers would spontaneously sing as they danced creating harmonies to the constant rhythmic drumming. The main dancers were taking turns and were distinguished by the colour of their dress. There were some women dressed entirely in white who had been priestesses in training for the dance for the year, and other women dressed in purple, many of them sporting bright red scarves. The atmosphere in the room packed with hundreds of people is electric as everybody waits for the queen to appear out of the sanctuary at the back. Eventually the small orchestra began to take the places of the people seated on the upper stage where we were standing. A man with a 6 foot curling bronze trombone and some men with smaller trumpets came and took their seats. They would join the pulsing rhythm of the drummers when the queen enters the room. Dr Bones went into the sanctuary and is gone for quite a while. We thought that he had met a friend but it turns out he had been picked and led to the priestess. Inside the room was a mystery to us, but for him he felt blessed to have been allowed in. He felt it helped him to understand them better. The women had prepared a meal using some of the 26 goats that they had slaughtered from the night before. The food was spread out in dishes and was left to ferment for 7 days after which they take it to the cemetery and bury it to feed the dead. Doc Bones was splashed with lavender oil and blessed. His face was glowing when he came back to tell us. Meanwhile, Joseph’s young street orphan was running back and forth to the street vendors at the entrance to the hall buying us beer and waters. We were dripping with perspiration from head to toe just standing in one spot watching the dancers, and thankful for his help. Then Joseph grabbed our hands and indicated that for any of our group that wanted to go down into the party we were to follow him. He said they were getting ready for the high priestess or queen to come out. So we formed our single file, hands holding hands led by baby girl dressed in her tight red dress onto the dance floor, congregating around the center pole and in the eye of the storm.
The queen had come out. She was dressed in a multicolour skirt but our eyes were immediately drawn to the intensity of the look on her face. It was as if she were looking right at you but not seeing you, seeing what is on the other side in the realm of the spirit. Her milky white eyes were opened wide and staring beyond. We were so focused on her stare that we didn’t immediately notice the large machete that was swinging freely in her hand and the hand of her dance partner. They were performing a ceremony where they would come up to a person at the edge of the circle and flash the knife around them cutting at unseen spirits, sometimes the knife was making contact with the skin of the face, or on the shoulders but not cutting the skin. She would draw the chosen person into the circle and play with the folds of her dress as if cradling the spirit being sometimes fierce and sometimes tender. There were ceremonial dancers of all ages. At one point a young girl dressed in purple arrived and shook our hand. At times we were being pulled into the circle and at other times carefully herded back to make sure we weren’t caught by the tip of one of the waving knives of the dancers.
We were now at the very edge of the inner circle and the high priestess came up to Beth scaring her as she scooped up some of her own sweat and blessed her by wiping it starting at her forehead and down onto her cheeks. And then she spritzed us all with a lavender lotion. Our bodies are caught in waves of sound and spontaneously move. The pulsing rhythm of the drumming was constant and there were moments where our hips and shoulders began to move and for just a moment, we felt the space in between the stars. We were lost in time, hands raised and singing in unison with hundreds of voices, drummers, trumpets and the trombone, forgetful of the knives and pickpockets of history and culture.
In the morning on our way to work, our last day in Haiti, we noticed an alarming number of police on the streets. There were UN police, there were special agents with their masked faces, there were army men dressed in army fatigues, we saw some armoured tanks roll by, special units and sirens. When we got to the hospital people asked us if we had heard the news. Twenty six people had been shot dead and more were wounded. The staff at the hospital heard the gunshots just outside the gates of the hospital. The hungry ghost of history had had its feast, and Liz ticks off another unsafe activity while volunteering in Haiti.