Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Saut d'Eau: Behind the Scenes

We go early, at 6 AM, to avoid the crowds, ra ra bands, and drunken afternoon revelry. While Ben takes pictures, I am perched on a rock overlooking the waterfall.

I revel in watching people take part in the festival. It's like watching a diorama, made up of a dozen flowing, shifting scenes, each separate but somehow all interconnected. There is something breathtaking about watching hundreds of strangers bathe together, communally worshiping by means of [what is to me] an extremely intimate act. And with such inhibition, too, because by bathe, I mean: sudsing up with soap and shampoo, scrubbing the callouses off of your feet, shaving your legs, brushing your teeth.

A Haitian friend likes to talk about the power of the Haitian collective. I've never seen that demonstrated so vividly. A woman at the top of the waterfall begins to sing and, collectively, instantly, the energy intensifies, rippling across the crowd and people are frantically praying, waving their arms, dancing... and then just as suddenly, they all stop. And a father picks up a bar of soap and resumes washing his baby, while the group of women next to him are gossiping and laughing, brushing their teeth, and occasionally breaking into song. Just past them, a young man is taking big swigs of rum as water from a cascade pounds his back.

Discarded clothes litter the waterfall. Empty bottles, candle stubs, broken kwi (the half-gourd bowls used in ceremony), and soap suds swirl together.
My pictures of Ben taking pictures:

Randomly, I am interviewed for television. My interview (in Creole) goes something like this:

Q: What is your name?
A [inciting confusion, always, since Alexis is a man's name]: Alexis
Q: When did you arrive in Haiti?
A: In July 2008.
Q: Do you live in Haiti?
A: Yes, I do, in Port-au-Prince.
Q: How long have you lived in Haiti?
A: For 3 years, since 2008.
Q: Are you here with your family?
A: Yes, I live here with my husband.
Q: And your children?
A: No, we don't have any children 
Q [incredulous]:You don't have children?
A: No, no children, [adding for approval]... not yet.
Q: Are you a doctor?
A: No, I'm not a doctor.
Q: What is your profession?  
A [stumbling]: Um, ah, I, um, work with an organization that, um, supports Haitian civil society and the Haitian social movement, advocating for human rights and...
Q [cutting me off]: What do you like about Haiti?
A [attempting to redeem myself]: There are so many things to like about Haiti! I like the people, I like the culture, I like the food, I like the art and the music, I like the language, I like the beautiful countryside - like where we are now, I like...
Q: Okay, thank you.

No kids, not a doctor. Why did I do feel like I am a disappointing interviewee? I have got to figure out to explain what it is that I do.
After last year's Saut d'Eau festival, Ben wrote this in an extended caption to accompany his photographs:

"Haitian pilgrims gather at the waterfall at Saut d'Eau on July 16th, the anniversary of the 1983 sighting of the Virgin Mary, alternately identified as the Vodou loa, or spirit, of Erzulie Freda, the Goddess of Love. The waterfall at Saut d'Eau is the site of the largest Vodou and Catholic pilgrimage in Haiti. A second sighting of the Virgin was reported during the American occupation. Each year, thousands of Haitian pilgrims make their way to Saut d'Eau to bathe in the sacred water and revel in the presence of the loa, particularly Erzulie and Damballah the Serpent, father of all life and keeper of spiritual wisdom, who is said to live in the falls. The water is believed to be curative and many women come to Saut d'Eau seeking fertility."
There is so much happening that I want to try to understand, but when I ask the people around me, they howl with laughter. What are the leaves that people are bathing with? - They're leaves. (Someone tells me that there are 7 different kinds. Basil is all that I recognize). What do they do? - They cleanse. Cleanse from what? (More laughter).


nerkert said...

Your pictures of Ben taking pictures gave me an idea for a kids' picture book: "Où est le photographe?"

Prince Emmanuel said...

Will publish some of your pics if you do not mind.

Alexis said...

Hi Prince Emmanuel, Thank you for your interest. Since my husband takes and sells photographs for a living, we would actually rather that you not repost or publish any of the pictures on this blog. If there is a specific image that you have an interest in and can let us know exactly what you'd be using it for, feel free to contact us for permission at alexis[dot]erkert[at]



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