The Haiti stories - Home: returning to Haiti after 30 years

The Haiti stories - Home: returning to Haiti after 30 years

We were a little over an hour into our trip from Les Plaines to Jacmel when our driver suddenly shifted gears reducing our frantic speed to a lawful limit. As the youngest member of our traveling group “shotgun” was called for me. Consequently, the majority of my Easter Sunday was spent pinned to the passenger seat of a truck, my right hand gripping the edge of the window for balance. I thanked God for whatever obstruction He positioned ahead that cause our NASCAR inspired driver to slow down.  I released my grasp on the window, leaned back and inhaled the scent of burning rubber. “There’s no place like home,” I smiled.

There are traffic signs in Haiti, but the only rule of the road that matters is “move or get hit.”   The traffic jams I encounter in Chicago are usually caused by rush hour or an accident. In Haiti, traffic jams are the result of some defiant act by an individual or a group; such as a cluster of mango merchants swarming the car of native tourists in hopes of making a sale. Or on Good Friday, the jam was caused by an old man standing in the middle of an intersection with a stick for a cane charging at the unsympathetic vehicles screaming by. I didn't know if I should laugh at him or show pity. I looked back at Mummy and Tante Denise for direction. My aunt chose laughter, while my mother showed her irritation by kissing her teeth.

A Haitian woman never needs words to voice her disapproval. She need only press her tongue to the back of her teeth, perched her lips into a seductive kiss and release a wet s towards her subject. The longer she holds the s, the deeper her displeasure. If she happens to have a gap between her front teeth, watch out, her disdain can pierce the ear of an unsuspecting dog. There’s a name for this act in Kreyol, tuype /tuu-pay/. Children are prohibited from tuyping, especially if directed towards an adult. Men don’t tuype, it’s considered feminine; a privilege reserved for women. My mom’s tuype was short, ending with a playful pinch to my aunt’s right thigh. It was funny to watch them in their sixties. You would think that Mummy was the eldest.

I looked ahead and saw a dozen cars on each side of the road standing idle. This obstruction might be video worthy, I thought, as I reached down for my camera, I heard a loud chanting oncoming. I edged out of the car window to get a better view. My camera fell to the floor. Gade, rantre lan machin nan!" Mummy yelled for me to get back in the car. I heard her but could not obey. A snake formed from a hundred bare chested men slithered towards us. The head of the snake, a lean dark man in his sixties stared me down; his eyes alert and watery. I met his stare, not out of defiance but I was frozen with fear.

My Mummy and aunt’s conversation was quickly replaced with a night-time silence. Outside, the clanking of metal pipes, bare feet stomping against the road and chatting created rara music that sounds like a blend of meringue and a lullaby. The men wore bright blue and red pants with crowns of tree branches sprouting from their heads. Had this been a Hollywood movie Lisa Bonnet would have jumped on the hood of our car chanting spell. The sun would have suddenly disappeared and pot of boiling animal parts would be seen on the side of the road. But this wasn't Hollywood, this was reality and this is Haiti on Easter week, where the streets explode with charismatic parades; part political protest and part vodou ceremony.

The men outnumbered the cars two to one, it was clear that the road belonged to them. War was declared, our driver tried to drown out the vodou singing by thrusting right jabs onto to the car’s horn. The other cars joined him, but the buzz of our horns yielded to the melody of their organized praises. There were no signs of danger, no reason for me to believe that this procession was anything more than another delay like the old man a few days earlier. But I felt fearful; we were obviously in the middle of a battle. This was not simply a refusal to share the road, but rather a refusal to share Easter.

Our driver pulled me back into the car by the hem of my skirt. It was too late; the snake eyes put me in a trance. The touch of their rara music was swift, I forgot my religion and I danced on command. I could hear my mother shifting in the back seat. Mummy would not abandon God so easily. She steadied in her seat, a rosary appeared in her hand and war was declared. The drivers had failed, now it was my mother versus the vodou worshipers. This was a holy war!

What is voodoo? I remembered this was a Jeopardy question in the late nineties. The answer: “Now coexisting with the Roman Catholic Church there, it’s the chief religion of many of the people in Haiti.”  I remember another Jeopardy answer that claimed that about eighty percent of Haitians practiced Catholicism while one hundred percent practiced voodoo.  I don’t know which Haitian sociologists they polled for that study, but my mom never got the memo.  For her, when it comes to religion there is no walking the middle path; it’s black or white. It’s God not god. And here in the back seat of a truck in her native home, God was testing her faith, and she would not let him down.

The voodoo worshipers sang to their god; Mummy hummed to her’s. They beat their pipes; she twirled beads. Her one voice met their hundred and the head of the snake released me from his gaze. He tipped his crown of leaves and mouthed bien venue (welcome home) and they moved forward. A few minutes later the chanting was behind us and Easter was ours again. I wondered if Mummy’s God or their god cleared the road. I looked back at Mummy and was greeted by a victorious smile, I guess her God did.
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