The drums were getting louder, a low, pounding rhythm that even seemed to be vibrating the trees. Candles placed in the hollows of the branches flickered, lighting the way in a sepia glow. I followed the shadow of my guide Emmanuel Brignol as we headed deeper into the forest on the trail of a vodou ceremony. Suddenly there was an explosion of sounds. In front of me a priestess – her body wrapped in a red and yellow dress, her hair cloaked in a Vermillion cloth, her arms clasped by bangles – yelled and chanted, her feet kicking up dust as she beat them down on the ground. The drummers banged the skins ferociously. Then one of the dancers took out a can of air freshener.
“What’s that for?” I asked Emmanuel as the priestess raised it and sprayed it skyward, emptying its contents, singing and pulsating violently as she did so. “It’s to call the spirits,” he explained as I fought to hold back a cough caused by the floral-scented cloud. “In the past they might have used potions, blended for a particular purpose, but now it’s easier to use that.” A modern convenience employed to serve a different purpose: it’s a concept that defines vodou (not the Hollywood-ised voodoo) here in Haiti. The religion was brought over to the Caribbean by slaves from Africa in the late 17th century. They were immediately forbidden from practising it and forced to convert to Catholicism.
But the slaves didn’t give up; instead they hid their spirits in Catholic deities. When their masters saw them praying to the Virgin Mary they were actually praying to Ezili Freda, a vodou Iwa (spirit) of love and luxury; making an offering to St Patrick, they were really honouring Damballah, the bringer of health and happiness. And now here, in the town of Trou-du-Nord on Haiti’s north coast, I had joined thousands of worshippers who had turned out to celebrate St John the Baptist, aka the powerful Ti Jean Dantor – a lwa who, according to Emmanuel, looks after the dead and likes a good drink. I stood riveted, grasping a half-fallen wooden fence. It would be all too easy to get lost in the moment, to forget myself completely; it was all I could do to stop my feet from pounding the floor in unison with the crowd.
Odd one out – It was a scene few envisage when picturing the Caribbean – a far cry from the white-sand beaches and cocktails of the brochures. But then Haiti is not really like the rest of the Caribbean. Situated on the west of Hispaniola, the island it shares with the Dominican Republic, Haiti has long been considered by most as the less desirable side of the divide. Plagued by political demonstrations, military coups and a series of kidnappings, and then shaken by a powerful earthquake in 2010 – which killed over 250,000 people – it became something of a no-go save for NGO workers and their security staff.
Five years on from the quake, however, and things are changing. Though my flight over from Miami was full of US missionaries and Haitians returning home rather than tourists, and though the airport security guard asked me why on earth I would come here for a holiday, both the government and the locals are preparing themselves for tourism. Chain hotels are springing up; flights from Latin America are launching, making Haiti a viable add-on to a South or Central American adventure; the diaspora in the USA are beginning to take vacations in the coastal resorts of Cote des Arcadins; and whispers abound of more cruise-ship visits – currently only one boat docks here, and that’s on a local-free private beach. It seems that, from the (now mostly cleared) rubble, a new Haiti is emerging.
Revolutionary road – This isn’t the first time that a period of tumult has preceded something astounding in Haiti, as I found out in the northern city of Cap-Haitien. It was here in 1791 that a vodou ceremony – much like the one 1 experienced in Trou-du-Nord – kick-started the only successful slave revolt in history. “Vodou gave them a cause,” explained former minister of tourism and Cap-Haitien local Eddy Lubin. “A slave is a biological machine, but vodou gave them something to hold onto – an emotional attachment.” Fuelled by passion, and helped by their spiritual beliefs, the slaves were successful. By 1804 the colonial French had been wiped out and Haiti became a black-led republic: the first in the world. “Fearful of revenge, the Haitian leader of the north, Henri Christophe, ordered the building of the imposing Citadelle La Ferriere, a fort to protect them from invasion,” explained Eddy.
Arriving at Choiseul, from where a walk or mule ride leads up to the citadelle, I was overrun almost immediately by street vendors offering me everything from hand-carved flutes to strings of brightly coloured beads. Resisting a sale, I was assigned a mule and handler and began ascending the winding slope, the clip-clop of my transport’s hooves reassuring on the cobbled path. At first vegetation lined the way, rising high on both sides like green turrets, but soon I spotted the towering walls on top of the mountain, mirage-like against the hazy sky. Cloud broke to reveal ramparts and cannons, intimidating weaponry peeking from every opening. With the fortress standing at over 900m above sea level, you have to wonder how willingly the newly freed slaves carried the huge stones and other building materials up here.
The feared French retaliation never came, and Christophe settled in Sans Souci palace, which he had built beneath the Citadelle’s walls. His reign ended in 1820 (he committed suicide after a coup); in 1842 an earthquake destroyed most of Sans Souci. Drums beat in the distance as I climbed its imposing staircase and viewed its statues and stone regalia. Today it sits, like the Citadelle, as a haunting relic of a powerful moment in the past.
Something in the water – From stone forts to sandcastles: next I headed to the far south of Haiti to a small town called Jacmel. When the north of Haiti was ruled by Christophe, the south was the domain of less-tyrannical Alexandre Petion, and a more laid-back vibe still lingers here. Packed full of artists, musicians and beachside properties, Jacmel is less built up and distinctly more Caribbean in feel. Before exploring the town proper I stopped at the small village of Grand Fond, from where my guides led me to a natural feature called Bassin Bleu. Sweat dripped off my forehead as I made my way through the canopy, the humidity rising with the thickness of the greenery.