Friday, March 9, 2007

Zombie Nation

The drums echoed, deafeningly with a strange chant for background noise. I had woken up soaked in sweat. My body sought for oxygen - the air in the room was so stale it felt sticky. The overhead fan helped the mosquitoes suck my blood. I jumped out of bed. Induced by a dry, strong drum-beat, I had been called.
All of the Cap-Haitien streets were still dark. I slid down alleys and gutters. The old Spanish and French houses put me in the midst of an old Corto Maltese comic book. After walking for minutes that felt like hours, I got to the door of a hounfour (a voodoo temple). The place was a shack divided into many rooms, known as peristiles. From the main one (poteau-mitam), where entities - that is, loas, or orishas, spirits that are the manifold manifestations of God - would appear, a thick smoke wafted out. People clad in red and black sang a song that gave me the creeps. It had the same melody as an old lullaby my mother would sing to me a s a child.
When I came to my senses, all attendants looked towards the entrance. Guess what. They were looking at me, the only white man in the ceremony. On the walls hung images of saints, side by side with cabalistic symbols known as "vévé". The strong smell of rum prevailed over the session. All of a sudden, I realize the Houngan (priest) was about to commence a sacrifice. Two terrified goats shivered in their place. I heard a dry thump: a machete had severed the poor animals' heads. The following day, I woke up in fright. What happened to me?
Perky as can be, Christian asked me where I had been. He said that in the dark of the morning he had gone to the bathroom and realized my bed was empty. As I washed my face, another surprise. Two black and red ribbons circled my neck. Had I gone partying with Romário? What a night. What a nightmare. What really terrified me was my late-afternoon encounter with a bokor (witch). The freakish figure asked, with a devilish look, what I'd really learned from the previous night's ceremony. I shook to the core: what could that man with a chicken in his hands know about me?

At the Miami airport lounge, I gladly meet Christian Cravo, my partner in other adventures, already with a stein of beer in his hand. It was just the beginning of an extraordinary journey. In all my roamings across the planet, never had I felt my spirit rise in such a manner. My pseudo-knowledge, courtesy of the movie industry, added to a few institutional texts of voodoo, made me increasingly confused. The whole thing seemed like a massive con. Voodoo was always more than zombies and impaled wax figurines. So I went into a restless research of Haitian history, trying to decipher this enigmatic country.
Heat and filth welcomed us to Port au Prince, Haiti's capital city. Our goal was to two of this people's religious parties and pilgrimages. Haiti, the West's first independent black republic, is a synthesis of Africa. During the unfortunate times of the slave trade (mid-18th century) over 600 thousand people from several tribes were brought to this island. It was, then, the most prosperous nation in the Americas. Now, the UNO rates Haiti as the world's 7th or 8th worst economy. Upon leaving the beaten-up taxi, we caught a glimpse of the daily theft we would be subjected to. The smelly driver wanted 30 U.S. dollars for the trip to the hotel. At the reception desk, they didn't even glance at our passports: they wanted us to pay in advance for our stay. The room was tragic: the fan seemed bent on flying away from its spot on the ceiling and the towels sported a cesspool-brown color.
We were in a fucked up little nation - and, worse, with prices worthy of any rich country on Earth. A small-sized beer cost from 2 to 3 dollars: daily fare at the hotel with grimy towels went for 120. Christian had gotten into touch with the president of the Magnum photography agency, who had attended the religious festivals we were about to cover in the previous year and he named a guide for out first goal, the Saut D'Eau falls, hidden in the country's central mountains.
The road was nonexistent: it was more like traversing a lunar landscape and ending up in the pits of hell. At the village, we rented a house for a week. We slept on the beaten dirt floor, in a lean-to filled with bloodsucking bugs. There was no bottled water - we quenched out thirst with coconuts. Every morning we'd climb the four miles of the pilgrimage route. Thousands of Haitians daily put the pressure on the poor Brazilians: "blanc, d'argent"[the money, whitey!]. I tried to ignore the local racism, under which we were reduced to walking dollar signs.
On the way to the falls, the crowd drank rum and clairin, the evil local firewater that the more insane natives spike with gasoline and, in special cases of unadulterated dementia, with herbs and dead batteries. At the waterfall, thousands of thirsty voodoo brethren purified themselves in mad, frantic celebration. People left their underwear at the banks and entered the waterfall to dedicate their offerings of flowers, corn, candles and roots. A massive carnival. In Haiti, the devout are attracted to mountains, beaches and natural locations, for there do spirits dwell. Much like Catholics go to churches and Buddhists go to their temples, the faithful of voodoo believe that certain sites are bridges for the loas. The pantheon of voodoo is a mix of ancestral African religions and deities with Catholic saints.
At the third and most important day of the festival, scores of groups playing archaic musical instruments led the people going up and down the track to a state of grace. Every single individual was drunk. At the waters, every one of them wanted to drink the divine power contained in the liquid, to heal themselves with it, to keep some of it in bottles. Many pilgrims were characterizes as their protector saints with clothes and ancestral movements and gestures. People in blue clothes and colored bags were humbly representing the spirit of agriculture, Papa Zaka; others limped, incorporating Papa Legba, one of the most important loas, responsible for the link between the worlds of spirit and matter - and none other than the Eshu of Brazilian Candomble. Elegant, willing women impersonated the divine Erzulie Freda (Oshun). I tried to understand the collective trance. To no effect: there was no rational explanation, every single attendant was living for the moment.
At night, the reveling increased. The center of the village felt like the Serra Pelada holocaust: Haitians celebrated, fought, drank and fucked in sheer joy amidst the filth. I had lost over ten pounds. Christian looked like a turkey on terminal stages of TB. The shadows under our eyes could be seen miles off. We were on a diet of coconut, rice, beans and manioc. In the absence of everything else, what Haitian like the most is pork. They eat swine at lunch, dinner and breakfast. Arghhhhh.
Driven to the limit of our strength, we returned to Port au Prince and decided to head North for the second festival at Plain du Nord - the mudfest. In an airplane made in Serbia, we ran into Fernando, a Brazilian who works for the UNO's Worldwide Food Program and who told us the harsh reality of Haiti - the terrible lack of food, sanitation, hygiene and the
rampant dissemination of Aids (according to governmental data, around 300 thousand Haitians died of Aids in 1998 - between 100 and 150 people per day, in a population of 7 million souls). As we arrived at Cap-Haitien, Fernando suggested we go to the Cumier beach to relax. He'd finally have clean beds and decent meals to recover our health and self-esteem. After two days basking in the Caribbean sun, refreshed by Barceló rum and Prestige beer, we returned to the Haitian urban hell.
For several days we were out of touch with the rest of the world. The only calls we could get through were Morse code and heavily laced with noise. Blancs and people moved by curiosity started arriving for the Plain du Nord festival - people like fantastic Spanish photographer Cristina Rodero, who has been working on the theme of Haitian rituals for several years, and the maddened photographers Sato, from Japan, and Luís Alcalá del Olmo, from Puerto Rico, who told us that the Plain du Nord festival, sacred to the loas Ogum Ferré and Saint Jacques, took place in a square of mud.
One of the managers at the hotel described to me in details the amazing phenomenon of zombification. Its foundation lies in poisons and magic potions that gradually lead subjects to simultaneous fits of hypothermia, lung edema, nausea, low blood pressure and vomiting. When someone is turned into a zombie, they become mute and turn into a being with no personal will. Most of the time, their fate is slavery. Thus, they live in the fine line between malediction and death. The bokor's work and conjuring to turn a person into a zombie is decided in a court held in secret societies known generally as bizango.
In Haiti there is a power that operates beside the government. Secret societies are the political branch of the voodoo community and are responsible for protecting the people. Voodoo was used for political ends during the terror empire of François Duvalier, more commonly known as Pap Doc, who, during his 14 year rule (1957-71) over the country ordered the assassination, mutilation and zombification of thousands - using the black magic of these secret societies, many which he employed as personal guards (the fearsome Tonton Macoute). There are several groups across the country (many of which have been infiltrated by the Macoutes) whose names change from region to region (Couchon Gris - "Gray Pigs" - Primosa Canibais, Vinbrindigue, Sect Rouge, Zobop, Mandigue, etc.). To become a member of one such society, one must be invited and undergo initiation. Zombie dust is the societies' prerogative - those who violate their codes are punished with a spell and turned into an undead.
Most of the time, the condemned are removed from their tombs and their bodies are manipulated for the remainder of the quasi-lives. The poison includes dried and fresh leaves of six plants: aloe, guaiaco, pink cedar, bois ca-ca, amyris maritima and cadavre gaté. The vegetable solution is blended with clairin, human bones, ass shins and dog skulls. Additives are the bufo marinus frog and the fou fou fish (diodon hystrix), not to mention the pestilent sea frog - more commonly known as blowfish. These fish carry in their skin and liver a neurotoxin 500 times more potent than cyanide. Voodoo dust is popularly known as coup poudre. Other poisons include datura as an ingredient. Only after an intense learning session with the hotel manager did I learn, from other sources, that he was a member of a secret society in Cap-Haitien.
We went to see the festival. Upon arrival, we continued to the sacred site, pushed by the mob maddened by moonshine and rum. The so-called mud was an open cesspool. A group of young devils, led by someone called Bolo, is in charge of letting people in and out of the goo. The savagery is a slap in the face of human decency. Animals were meanly clubbed to death. The ebb and flow of pilgrims and the insanity of the musical groups sent many headfirst into the pit. Animal heads, blood, rum bottles, shit, food and guts of pigs and bulls were thrown as offerings into the filthy sanctuary. India felt like Vancouver next to that. I saw impressive scenes of people drinking the water and mindlessly eating the raw livers and remains of dead animals. A priest explained to me that in this square of mud lies the root of the Haitian people.
From atop a tree, I watched insanity and religion at their utmost. In their
colorful clothes and white dresses, people made sexual movements inside the pit. I was almost lynched when I caught on video a woman who had bitten off a chicken's head. The damned drunks yelled at me and seemed to want to get my gear. I was at the limit of survival - and sick and tired of watching such cruelty. At the behest of Luís Alcalá, who realized what things were headed, we left the pits of hell.
At Port au Prince, we went to visit Haiti's top three hounfours. Houngan Tété showed us all of the temple's rooms, with brilliant explanation of the loas' functions and their relationship with Catholic saints. The images in the temple were true works of art. With my friend Luís Alcalá, I was invited to a Petros ritual session -hardcore black magic. I was to witness voodoo in its purest form. At the end, Tété said that he knew many Brazilian women - most of them socialite and high-end call-girls - who went to Haiti to be initiated with the pomba-gira, that is, to be capable of subjugating any man. But twenty days' immersion into the gory Afro-Caribbean religion had been too much. Christian and I had nothing left to give. After this trip, all I hope is that my spirit remains in this body. Voodoo is not for sissies, fellas.
AGWÉ - voodoo loa; the spirit of the sea
BAGI - temple sanctuary, a secret room that houses the spirits' altar
BARON SAMEDI - voodoo loa; the lord and guardian of graveyards, represented by a large cross planted on the tomb of the first man buried there; an important bizango spirit.
BIZANGO - how secret societies are called; also implies the rite carried by the shampwel; its name derives from a Guinea Bissau tribe
CARREFOUR - crossroads; also a voodoo loa associated with both the bizango and the petro rites.
CHEVAL - horse; in voodoo jargon, the person who receives a spirit
CIANOSE - blue skin tone caused by oxygen deprivation
DJAB - Devil, evil force, baka
GRANS BWA - voodoo loa; the spirit of the forest
GUEDE - voodoo loa; the spirit of the dead
LEGBA - voodoo loa; the spirit of communication and of crossroads
LOUP GAROU - werewolf; the bizango roaming queen is supposed to be a loup garou.
MACOUTE - Haitian peasants' wicker backpack
MAMBO - voodoo priestess
MANGÉ MOUN - "to eat people", and euphemism for killing someone
OGUM - voodoo loa; the spirit of fire, war and iron
PAQUETS CONGO - a small sacred package that holds magic ingredients that protect against disease and evil; the closest thing there is to the notorious - and often misconstrued - voodoo doll
PETRO - a group of voodoo loas that derives from Congolese rites
PWIN - the magic force invoked to carry out the wishes of a witch or of the bizango society
REINE VOLTIGE - the roaming queen, known to be a werewolf; the four reines voltiges carry the sacred coffin during bizango processions.
SHANPWEL - a term used in reference to secret societies; misused as a synonym for bizango, but more properly applied to the bizango's members.
SOBO - voodoo loa; the spirit of thunder
TETRADOXIN - a neurotoxin found in blowfish and other animals, whose effect is to block nerve signals by stopping the transportation of sodium ions at cells
TONTON MACOUTE - literally, "uncle backpack"; the name given to the members of Papa Doc's personal guard
VÉVÉ - symbols drawn in flour or cinders, whose purpose is to invoke the loas; each spirit has its own vévé
VOODOO - theological principles and practices of traditional Haitian society
WANGA - an amulet used against selfish or evil purposes
ZOMBI ASTRAL - an aspect of the soul that can be transmogrified at the discretion of its possessor
ZOMBI CADAVRE - a flesh zombie, which can be made to work
ZOMBI SAVANE - a former zombie, someone who has gone to ground, became a zombie and later returned to life.
Source: A Serpente e o Arco-Íris, by Wade Davis (editora Jorge Zahar, 1980)

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