SAUT D’EAU, Haiti – Arriving on foot, by horse or on the roof of old trucks, sharing motorbikes, air-conditioned rental cars or the tightly packed and colorful Haitian tap-taps, thousands made the pilgrimage to Saut d’Eau, last week, to pray voodoo spirits and the Virgin Mary for money, a new home and a better life.
The trek to this small town in Haiti’s central plateau and the bath in the cold waters of a local fall have been a tradition since 1847, when Our Lady of Mount Carmel was believed to have appeared on a palm tree nearby. At the time a French Catholic priest cut down the tree hoping to prevent what he thought was blasphemy, but the ritual caught on. Every year, Haitians of all class and background come to Saut d’Eau from cities, remote villages and even abroad, to offer animal sacrifices and donations, dance, or just have a fun time during one of Haiti’s most celebrated religious festivals.
The first large gathering since the earthquake that last January killed over 230,000 and devastated much of Port-au-Prince, this year’s event brought less visitors than the usual – as the trip to Saut d’Eau is now beyond the means of many – but also brought some new devotees looking for hope and comfort.
First-timer Paul-Erick Mereilier, a 23 year-old from Tabarre, on the capital’s outskirts, rode for over three hours in a crowded truck and spent the night sleeping on its hardwood benches.
“Many people are coming for the first time because of the earthquake,” said Mereilier, who lost his home and a brother in the quake and has been unemployed since graduating high school.
Shaking in the cold water Mereilier said he always believed in voodoo but never thought about coming here before now.
“I came to look for possibilities, I would like to ask the spirits for a chance,” he said, then asked, “ Can you help me find a job?”
Near him, a young girl in a bright swimsuit convulsed in a trance, while relatives kept her from hitting the rocks with her head and other bathers came to touch her and whisper requests in her ears, believing her to be possessed by Erzulie, the voodoo spirit they came to worship.
All around, hundreds of men and women of all ages bathed with soap and mint leaves, some naked, others fully clothed. Some chanted verses from the Bible, while young men sipped rum and children played in the water.
Under a tree by the waterfall, Andre Chevry, a thin 50 year-old dressed in the red and blue colors of voodoo priests, welcomed worshippers to light candles and practiced mystical rituals for a fee.
“People come here to find satisfaction and solutions to their problems,” said Chevry, sipping clear liquor and warning listeners that God brought about the earthquake.
“Everyone finds what they are looking for,” he said, but when asked whether this would suffice to solve Haiti’s problems he answered, “I can’t guarantee anything.”
In addition to the typical requests for money, health and better relationships, this year many came praying for a new home.
Roland Wilfred lost his house and garage in the earthquake and sent his wife and three children to live with relatives in the south of the country, while he scrapes by in Port-au-Prince.
“I’m strong like a rock, I work hard, but since the earthquake everything has been bad, I don’t feel right anymore,” the 39 year-old mechanic said.
In Saut d’Eau, Wilfred spent the night in a tent, which he refuses to do in Port-au-Prince because he is scared for his safety, and while he says he believes Haiti needs more than just spirits, he has been coming on the pilgrimage since he was a child and says he will continue to do so.
“When I come here I feel like everything is going to be alright,” he said, before getting into the water. “But I really need a house.”
With some 2 million still living under tents and many more who lost their jobs and savings in the earthquake, with a government failing to meet basic necessities, increasing exasperation and rising poverty, the spirit of Erzulie will hardly solve the problems of the thousands that have come to honor her over the past week. But to many, the pilgrimage has a healing value.
“People feel happy here, after so much stress they finally have a place where to put their problems,” said Ruth Paul, a 40 year-old mother who stopped to cool down by a stream during the hike up to the waterfall. Paul said she didn’t lose her faith and came to ask that her two sons do well in school and that her destroyed business – a wedding gowns rental – pick up again.
“It’s like when you have a problem and you go to a friend. Even though your friend can’t help you 100 percent, you feel comfort anyway,” she said. “It’s better than keeping it all to yourself.”
Her friend Karl Lemar, 32, agreed, but had a more practical request.
“I pray that the government put a big parking lot in Saut d’Eau,” he said. “ We spent too much time in traffic last night.”