Haitians flock to Saut-d’Eau for annual pilgrimage to Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Jacqueline Charles reports on this year’s pilgrimage to Saut-d’Eau in Haiti.

The water falls off the tree-lined mountain, crashing into the rock basin below as the pious spread their arms in prayer.

In search of saint and spirit, they bear their burdens, asking for answers, seeking elusive miracles.

“Problems, problems, problems,” a young woman chants as she collapses onto the rocks, the weight too much to bear as her tongue clicks on the roof of her mouth. “Ke-ke-ke-ke-ke.”

For three days, thousands have flocked — traveling by motorcycle, tap-tap, even donkey, along a newly carved stretch of gravel road — to Saut-d’Eau (Sodo in Creole), whose name in French means waterfall.

Here, in the central Haitian town of Ville-Bonheur, or happy village, live two of Haiti’s most mystic and venerated beauties: the spectacular waterfall and miracle of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, its patron saint.

For more than a century now, Haitians have trekked to the picturesque grove where, legend has it, the Virgin Mary appeared in the middle of the 19th century on a palm tree near the 100-foot waterfall and began healing the sick.

So each July, two days before the annual July 16 feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the sick and the needy, journey in a pilgrimage that’s both Catholic and Vodou to revere the Virgin in the form of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Erzulie, the Vodou spirit often portrayed as the Virgin Mary.

It’s a sojourn that has taken on even more significance six months after the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake that claimed an estimated 300,000 lives and displaced 1.5 million.

“Aw, I’m charged with problems,” Perol Jean-Baptiste, 57, said standing next to a tree bark in polka dot briefs, staring into the vast green valley below. Moments earlier, Jean-Baptiste, a tiny man, stood tall in the frigid bath, lathering himself, scrubbing furiously in a symbolic cleansing ritual to prepare the soul for new blessings. Next to him, a woman washed herself with basil leaves, dipping her hand inside a calabash bowl and rubbing the medicinal herb over her naked body.

“You bathe for luck,” Jean-Baptiste said, discarding the clothes he arrived in into the flowing water afterward to complete the ritual.

A Roman Catholic, like the majority of Haitians, Jean-Baptiste said he travels to Saut-d’Eau each year to bathe in the waterfall, and another swimming hole behind the village’s historic church, where the faithful seek spiritual guidance in the sanctuary.

But this year, the farmer from Jacmel wasn’t so sure about his lucky baths. His belief began waning as he contemplated his life six months after the quake: While fortunate enough not to have lost any of his 10 children, one did lose a leg; five of his cousins died; and the family’s home collapsed. Adding to his hard luck: The lack of rainfall so far means little, if any income, from this year’s harvest of corn and sorghum.

“I don’t think I am coming back,” he said. “My wishes can’t seem to get answered.”

Paul-Vickson Agustave, a local villager and regular at the falls, said there are plenty who do indeed get their wishes granted by the Virgin.

“You’ll hear people say, `I would like to come next year in my own car.’ The next year, they arrive driving their own car,” he said. “A lot of wishes are made, and a lot are granted.”

Agustave said there are clearly more people visiting Saut-d’Eau this year, and he knows why:

“With the earthquake, people have a lot of problems,” he said. “Every day, there is a different group of people who come.”

But the Virgin’s miracles are not for Ville-Bonheur, he said. The town, which is serene and has water flowing throughout, is protected by her presence but offered no special privileges. As a result, the town barely benefits from the annual three-day festival — it ended Friday — that helps kick off Haiti’s summer religious festival circuit, and transforms Ville-Bonheur’s cobblestone streets and dirt pathways into a street fair-like atmosphere.

While some worship in the sanctuary of the church, others converge on the streets wearing colorful scarves and traditional clothing, symbolizing the colors of their Vodou spirits or lwa, singing and dancing before entering the gates of the national park and journeying 168 steps to the foot of the towering waterfall.

“It’s a tourist attraction, but this is all voluntary; the people give what they can,” Agustave said. “Just look around, you see that this is a poor, rural community. We don’t have any electricity or paved roads.”

A year ago, the Haitian government did bring some change to Ville-Bonheur, when it sent its national road-building outfit, CNE, in to carve a 15-mile gravel road through the mountains.

The new Saut-d’Eau road has cut the trip from the two-lane Route National 1 highway connecting Port-au-Prince in the south and Cap-Haitien in the north, from three hours to 45 minutes. Now, instead of traveling solely by donkeys — government officials once counted almost 3,000 in one day — people also came by cars and buses.

“Everyone is happy with the road,” said Agustave. “The peasants now have a road to go to Port-au-Prince and sell their harvest. Before the crops would rot, or the peasants would eat them.”

Meanwhile, back at Saut-d’Eau, the faithful and the desperate, pray and plead for salvation, seeking their big break. Some come bearing rosary beads around their naked bodies, lighting candles in prayers, while others tie color-coded chords at the root of the trees for the spirits.

Standing on the edge of the flowing rock basin, Roselore Guerrier, 48, said she came in search of help — from the goddess Erzulie, the fierce protector of children and battered women. Her common-law husband of 28 years and the father of her six children is a “mystic” who doesn’t value her, she said, almost on the verge of tears. “He’s blocking me, I can’t do anything,” she said. “He mistreats me. Things are not easy for me.”

She needs Erzulie Dantor’s help, she said. As she spoke of her wish, a crowd began to gather a few feet away. A female worshiper was calling Erzulie, hoping to invoke her presence.

“The spirit that is here in the yard, come and grant me my chance,” the woman sang. “Erzulie Freda bring me luck. If there is a spirit in the yard, I will name its name and adore it.”

As she sang, the pitch of her voice began to crack. She seemed to be in a trance, her lithe body falling onto the rocks. As others watched — now believing that Erzulie had possessed her — revelers rushed to her side, whispering their demands in her ears, sure they were speaking to the goddess

For the original article go to: http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/07/16/v-fullstory/1734541/haitians-find-hope-healing-at.html#ixzz0tyEuS300

Photos by Ramon Espinosa for the Associated Press.

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