I could hear the cock fight before I could see it and as I was ushered up a small dirt path the sounds of roosters crowing and men shouting got louder. Having passed the guards and the women waiting patiently outside we entered the arena and found ourselves among a frenzied crowd of people filled with blood lust.
Seated around the central ring, 5 meters in diameter were about 50 men in tiered seating, they were engrossed in the ensuing action; waving money, drinking rum and making strange clucking sounds. Their focus was on two badly mangled roosters circling each other in the ring, whose heads and necks were raw, and who were bleeding badly. The birds flung themselves at each other and took turns pecking at the other's eyes and tearing at their crowns. When occasionally they swiped with their razor sharp crampons a loud 'whoosh' came out from the crowd. This move in particular brought special pleasure, and did special damage.
The fight went on like this for about 15 minutes, and became rather boring. It was slow work and I couldn't see much difference in the blows. The crowd however remained engrossed and I can only assume that the finer and more technical points of cock fighting passed me by.
Finally the skinnier of the two wobbled on his feet and collapsed into the dust, at which point the other one jumped on him and began pecking indiscriminately. Soon one of his eyes was gone and I couldn't understand why nobody stopped the fight, but people seemed to be waiting for something and continued to coo with glee. All of a sudden the fallen rooster sprung up from a pool of blood and attacked. The crowd went wild and it was like Ali coming off the ropes against frasier. I have to say it was contagious.
Would this be the greatest come back of cock fighting history? Would Red, as he was known come back from the brink of death to triumph.
The answer is no, for soon afterwards he was down again, and in worse shape. The initial excitement of his comeback was soon muted, as for the next 10 minutes the poor bird went up and down, unable to see. He fought on valiantly though and when the bell finally went (each fight lasts 30 minutes) Red was on his feet and the fight was amazingly called a draw.
Red's fat owner barely looked at him, and there not a hint of emotion in his eye. He picked him up, tied his legs and thrust him into the arms of a small boy waiting by his side, who ran off with him. This was clearly the local cock fighting tycoon and he sat back, licked his fat fingers then took another swig of rum while waiting for the next fight. I did the same, my own bird was next.
We had invested in a rooster of our own. I hadn't seen him but had been told he was well fed, regularly massaged and exercised. Perhaps If I'd known quite how cruel these fights were I would have abstained but I was here now and going to watch him win. I had named him Spartacus, (not a name that the Haitians adopted) and he was fighting a similar sized bird. I laid down 500 gourdes.
I wish I could say that this fight was as exciting as the last but it was not. For the first 15 minutes they exchanged blows, getting ever more battered and then much to my joy, the other bird just started running away. It was rather amusing to watch 2 chickens running round the ring, but it lasted only a few seconds at which point Spartacus was declared the winner. Cowards are the worst kind of losers.
I think I was duped into investing in him as he was whisked away before I was able to congratulate him and I never got my moment in the winners enclosure. "My bird" I said with pride to the man next to me, who looked back baffled then moved away.
On my way out I passed Red. He was tied to a post and lay crumpled in the dirt. I don't think he had much chance of surviving, and he would certainly never fight again. The english in me came out and like an idiot I tried to comfort him. First with some bad clucking and then with a stroke, and then he pecked me. I'm sure he was dinner that night.
The next day I returned to Port au Prince. I shared the bus with a few fighting cocks who must have been winners. Their owners sat at the back of the bus with a bird under each arm and drank all the way home. Their roosters crowed loudly and stuck their heads out proudly. Women recoiled from their bare necks.
I spent the night at the Oloffson and entertained myself with some people-watching. There is a polish filmmaker here trying to make a documentary about haiti and she has decided to follow a man who claimed to know the country well. He was to form the basis of her film and lead her around the country to amazing places while talking intelligently. He had claimed to have written a couple of books / articles on Haiti and when I last met them she had just started filming and was full of excitement.
It is now 2 weeks later and she is at her wits end. Apparently he is camera shy, drinks all day, and doesn't speak creole. He makes crude jokes to the camera and is trying to sleep with her. So far they have barely left port au prince and she's got no footage. I watched as she tried yet another interview on the verranda and almost burst into laughter when he had to ask her what to say. "Say what you think, say what you think!" She cried at him. He looked on in panic.
The next day, I took a bus to Gonaive. This is a hotbed of voodoo activity and I have decided to spend my last few days in the country immersed in the culture. I had found someone who could introduce me to some Houngans (voodoo priests) and take me to some ceremonies.
As I made my way to the station my taxi driver told me to hide all my belongings as the bus left from Cite Soleil. I had hoped never to return there, and wondering around the mass of busses with my bags, desperately trying to find the right one was awful. It smelt of death, disease and drugs and I had to climb through mountains of rubbish to find the right one. I have become strangely immune to all the rubbish and poverty - other than the the thugs who line the streets and taunt you, it's all seems rather normal. When I finally got on board I was hugely relieved despite the fact there were no seats left. I crouched one the floor feet and had a large pot put on top of me.
This bus ride went quickly, I've had many worse. We were not crossing many mountains this time and instead drove across the central plateau which almost resembles the african Savannah. We also had entertainment - a live infomercial. A man stood at the front and pulled a dazzling array of items out of his bag. Ginseng, Tiger balm, soap, toothpaste, hats, belts, sunglasses, and flavoured condoms. The crowd heckled him about every item and bartered and shouted and waved money, it was quite a scene, and I observed it all from beneath my pot.
The flavoured condoms sold particularly well and were greeted with whoops of laughter. His sales pitch involved much smacking and licking of the lips, and he mentioned AIDs every second word. I almost bought some myself. When at one point he suggested they were could be for "him for him, or him for her" the bus went quiet. That is not a topic of conversation here, and he quickly moved on. Wanting to participate myself I did by 2 little bottles of roll-on aftershave called "Yes Boss". They're wonderfully anglicized Haitian bottles, and while I will never let the contents burn my skin again, I will treasure them.
Gonaive has been called 'the ugliest place in the Antilles" and is famous for 4 things; Mosquitos, matches, hurricanes and dust (although the match company has long since moved to the dominican republic). It is one of the most awful and dirty places I have been. Thousands of mopeds battle each other through the haze for poll position and it is hard to see more than 20 metres ahead of you. It was hit by a huge storm 2 year ago and the town was devastated. Hundreds died, roads were wiped away and buildings collapsed. You can see the roofs of cars peeking out from the ground, buried under the silt that was carried from the mountains. 2 story houses are now bungalows, and no repairs have been carried out. It is a sad place, it is horrible it is mean, it is filthy and like the rest of this country it is hopeless.
It is here that all the revolutions start and it is also called La Cite de L'Independence. There are 2 main squares, both containing bizarre modernist memorials. One of them is called Place Bouteille and in the middle a large statue of a bottle towers over everything. The story goes that Dessalines wanted Haitian independence to begin on 1st January 1804, however this gave his secretary Boisrond Tonnerre only 1 night to write the constitution. He worked throughout the night but when everyone gathered to hear it read out the next day he did not arrive. People rushed to his house and there they found him passed out on top of the constitution, an empty bottle of rum beside him. The statue sits on the sight of his house and commemorates the drunken creation of their nation.
That night I attended my first voodoo ceremony. It was a celebration of St Pierre, and the Houngan would be summoning his spirit into somebody. As we drove to the outskirts of town I began to get worried. I did not believe in the power of Voodoo, but intended to respect it and be wary of it. I had read that I should bring a gift for the Mambo (the queen) and had brought the finest bottle of rum I could find.
As we approached the compound the drums could be heard beating and when we entered the courtyard I saw an area that had been draped and covered in the red and green of St.Pierre. About 30 women and a few men, dressed in silk costumes of the same colours were sashaying round and round an altar. At the altar stood the Houngan, raising bottles and cups of rum to the sky then throwing and spitting it on the ground and waving candles in a circular motion. There were machetes buried in the earth up to their hilts and large cakes sat between the bottles and the incense. Every now and then the machetes were torn from the ground and brandished at the dancers. The look of fury and anger was such that I expected them to be used. I was praying there would be no sacrifices though had seen some goats bound outside.
The Queen was singing loudly in what sounded like an african language and this was then echoed by the rest. Round and round the altar they danced, moving perfectly in sync and shuffling their feet in perfect tempo. They waved their hands slowly, their eyes closed and they looked to the sky. A man played a conch and the sound echoed out like a clarinet. It was an eery sound but beautiful and amazingly played. It was mesmeric and lulled me into a strange trance.
The entrance had been blessed by Mambo, and a line of candles prevented bad spirits from entering. I had been allowed to take photos, but most people were unhappy about my presence, many spat in my direction and pushed me away. I sat quietly for a long time and waited for them to get used to me but was never really welcome. Luckily a generous gift to the mambo had secured me entry and I had also paid my respects at the altar. I was told that I could not use a flash until after the possession, though when 'accidently' went off i was set upon. There is a very dark side to this country and in particular the rural areas and I believe firmly that you are always a moment away from being in danger.
The ritual went on for a few hours. Whenever someone got tired and sat down the mambo would scream at them to continue and force them to their feet. It seemed to me that anybody might start to convulse under such pressure and sure enough someone finally collapsed to the ground and started writhing. She dragged herself through the dirt clutching a burning handful of twigs. She looked exhausted and out of it, her eyes were glazed, she vomited a white foam and she grasped at the people around her. She held her stomach and rolled over and over, her eyes were tightly closed one moment and wide open the next and finally after about 5 minutes she slowly sat up.
The spirit was now inside her and she was carried to a chair in the centre of the group. Acting on behalf of St. Pierre she was given a bottle of dark green liquid (some kind of rum) with which to feed people. One by one she lifted the bottle to their lips as they approached her, and every time they drank they embraced her and thanked the spirit inside. She continued to gargle and drool and contort her mouth. On one occasion she refused a man the drink, she held the bottle close to her bosom and spat at him. She shouted something at him and he was pulled away. He begged St.Pierre at the altar and then tried again but she would not give. The man looked devastated and sat quietly in the corner for the rest of the night, his head in his hands. He had been cursed.
When everyone had had their fill, the mambo and the houngan gathered round her and placed a silk scarf over her face and head. They intoned some more chants and when the scarf was removed the lady sat there looking bemused. I genuinely believe she was unaware of what had happened, and was confused. She looked searchingly into people's eyes then began slowly to cry and then wail. Everyone gathered round and held her.
I believe that the power of the mind can make people believe almost anything, and if you believe firmly enough in the power of voodoo then it does hold power. However i believe that it is the person that gives it its power and I am unconvinced it comes from elsewhere. I could not help but think that this may be true of all religions.
It had been an amazing experience and I am reluctant to say much more. We ate food from a large communal pot that had been an offering to St.Pierre. That it didn't give me the runs was magic indeed.
My opinions about voodoo would be reinforced the next day. I had arranged an appointment with a houngan, and for a price he would read my spirits and offer me protection.
I arrived early in the morning and walked down a little alley to his chapel. My head was hurting from the night before and I was feeling ill. It was filthy and covered in little trinkets that were left over from spells he had cast. There were countless voodoo dolls, some tightly bound in string, others squashed under a large rock. There were paintings on the wall of different spirits, most taken directly from the bible. There were many knives, candles, small coffins and empty bottles of rum. There was a world cup fixture list on the wall.
Women's knickers were tied up in a big ball of string with twigs and wax and suspended from the cieling. When I asked what for I was told that he specialized in helping men win the women they wanted, and then tying them down. How romantic I thought.
The houngan asked me what I wanted. I told him that I was just curious about voodoo and had heard he could tell me what spirit I was aligned with. I didn't know what to expect, but knew that I was in deed. He is well known and casts many spells for the town. He sacrifices a many animals and outside there was a table covered in blood. He put on his red robe and hat, lit some candles and closed the door. He draped a red silk scarf round my neck and sat directly opposite me before taking a long pull from the bottle. He then made me do the same, and after spilling some on the ground as an offering to St. Michael I almost wretched. This was 90% alcohol and a traditional offering.
He placed a candle and a cup of something in my hands. He began to chant and shake a maracas, as he did so cockroaches began to climb the walls. It was eery and I was not comfortable. About 20 of them rose to the ceiling and covered the murals on the walls. He waved the candle around me and then drank some more. All of a sudden his head dropped forward and he started to choke and dribble from his toothless mouth. His helper mopped his lips from behind though he continued to spew a white mucus for a good minute. When he finished I was told that he was now possessed and would 'heal' me. I muttered something about not needing to be healed but the houngan leant forward and screamed. It was in a strange language that I couldn't understand, and the end of each sentence got louder and high pitched as he spat more mucus in my face.
He told me that the spirit of Apostol Santiago was inside me and was now inside him as well. He showed me a picture of a white man riding into battle on a white horse. He is the splitting image of St. George, and I felt rather pleased.
Then he began to 'heal' me. There was a lot more screaming and a lot more flying spittle. He began by telling me what was wrong in my life.
"You have recently lost a close family member" he screamed. Sheepishly I said no
"Then you have bad health" he cried. "Not really" I had to admit
"You have no money and need to live" he continued - "Well I could do with some more" I uttered hoping to appease him
"You are having nightmares" - "I'm afraid I'm not"
"You have recently had a big fight with a best friend". "Not that I can remember"
"Well did you once have a fight with someone you knew?" . "YES", I cried at last. "YES YES". He was delighted.
"I told you, I told you", he said with joy.
"That's exactly what he told you!! He knows you, he knows you!!" His helper cried out
"Incredible" I screamed with mock credulity "how did he know!?"
"Because he is inside you and knows everything" was the sincere answer
He spent the next 20 minutes telling me more. Apparently I have 3 sisters and 2 brothers. I am the oldest. I'm going to be famous, and happy, and live happily ever after. I thanked him and got out quickly. What a fraud!
There was more the next day, but now I must run. I will say that what follows made me ever more concerned that I am dabbling with something serious.