Everyone told me not to go to Haiti. By which I mean, well, pretty much everyone. The Foreign Office’s official guidelines warned against travelling alone and flagged the risk of kidnapping. The GP said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of this.” The doctor at the travel clinic told me, “I can’t decide if you’re very brave or very stupid.”
Then there was the woman in the Post Office who asked me: “Why are you going? Isn’t that where they do black magic?” It didn’t stop once I arrived, either. “Why are you here?” asked a man at my hotel on my first morning. “What are you running away from?”
Why was I there? To get to know the side of Haiti that makes everybody shiver: Vodou. The religion that’s seen an entire country ostracised by the rest of the world since 1804, when the enslaved Africans ousted their French rulers and created the world’s first black republic. The colonial powers were terrified and promptly set about demonising a nation with labels: devil worship, black magic.
Having suffered chronic pain all my life — and spent three years crippled by it — I was seeing what different cultures could offer me and was willing to sell my soul for a cure. Not that I believed that’s what I was going to do; I didn’t buy the devil worship stories. But I’d studied the placebo effect and its reverse — the nocebo effect, which makes you ‘feel’ drug side effects even if you’re not experiencing them, convincing you that you’ve been hexed even if you haven’t — and thought that since my doctors hadn’t been able to reset my misfiring brain, if anyone could help, it’d be a houngan: a Vodou priest.
I was expecting the worst: skulls, animal sacrifice, zombies. And then I got there.
Have you ever been somewhere that doesn’t just belie your expectations, but upends them, confronts you with them and rubs your scarlet-with-shame face in them? That was Haiti for me. “Welcome to my country,” said the guy at immigration as he stamped my passport. I walked out of the airport and found myself in a place unlike anything I’d read about: buses (‘tap-taps’) painted all the colours of the rainbow, every shop and vehicle given some kind of Christian name, from a bus called ‘Merci Jesus’ to a water lorry called ‘Eau de Vie’.
We drove along the coastal road to my hotel, Kaliko Beach Club, a collection of octagonal bungalows, right on the beach. Instead of sand, there were rounded pebbles (‘free foot massage’, as a sign read), but otherwise it was textbook Caribbean: a hammock slung between palm trees, a perfect crescent beach, an island in the distance.
Over the next five days I’d see the beauty of Haiti: the lush waterfall at Saut-d’Eau, which is sacred to the Vodou faith; the brightly coloured houses of Port-au-Prince; the sense of community at a Vodou ceremony I attended, which bore more resemblance to a church service than a black mass; and the artists selling their wares on the street which, anywhere else, would be in a gallery but here were painted on the backs of curtains, and sold for $10 (£7.50) on the roadside.
But there was horrendous poverty too, of course, not least thanks to the hangover from the 2010 earthquake. Buildings in central Port-au-Prince were still devastated, five years on; a homeless mother politely asked me for any change as I wandered round the rubble of the collapsed cathedral. Going back now, I’d find more damage from the 2016 hurricane.
But Haiti captivated me. Two years since I got back and I still think about it most days, planning my next visit. Next time, I want to see the touristy stuff: the Sans-Souci Palace, once the ‘Versailles of the Caribbean’, now gently mouldering away on a mountainside; Cap-Haïtien; the boho town of Jacmel. All I did this time was search for a Vodou priest willing to treat me, to exorcise me.
Haiti didn’t cure me — that would come later — but it changed my life. My experience of Vodou shook my world order. Its proud history taught me about perseverance. Most of all, going there showed me that all too often, reputations are wrong. We fear to travel when we’ve heard the worst but sometimes that ‘worst’ is just 200 years of noise. Haiti taught me to break away from the herd mentality and strike out on my own. And that, for me, is what travel is all about.
Heal Me: In Search of a Cure by Julia Buckley is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. RRP: £16.99
Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)