Exotic Cities, Part Eleven: Pignon, Haiti
August 3, 2009
Your voodoo vacation awaits! You’re going to the most terrifying tourist destination in the Caribbean — Pignon, Haiti! You’ll see things you never thought could exist — like zombies, for instance! They’re up there in the mountains. And when the sun goes down, the zombies come down to hunt for victims. Oh, so you don’t believe in such things, do you? Neither did Father Antoine Laperriere, who was sent to Pignon by the government of Haiti in 1945 to establish a mission and suppress the practice of voodoo. He lasted only two days there and literally crawled out of town on his hands and knees. He claimed that invisible hands were constantly choking him. He lost his mind and eventually died in a lunatic asylum. But you’re not afraid, are you? No, you’ll go anyway. Just make sure you write your will first.
Pignon is a speck on the map, nestled in the interior mountainous region of Haiti. It’s on the road between Hinche and Cap Haitien. There’s one bus a day between those two towns. You have to ask the driver to stop at Pignon, otherwise he won’t. He’ll give you a shocked look. It’s like asking to be dropped off in Newt, Texas, or at Castle Dracula. Be a sport. Slip him some money.
Now, I don’t mean to exaggerate. Most tourists who go to Pignon return safely. Those who don’t have probably been turned into zombies. But zombies don’t mind being zombies. They’re not aware that they’re zombies. They’re just like people in Toronto.
Pignon has one hotel — the Kawada. Manager John Marko has some advice for his guests: “Never go out by yourself. Never be out later than midnight. Don’t look for hookers. Don’t drink the local bitter tea. Take all your meals at the hotel.”
Marko does believe in voodoo. “You don’t have to be afraid of it. Just understand it. Voodoo can be black magic or white magic. Voodoo dolls and zombies are part of black magic. The zombie is in a kind of sleepwalking state. The bokor, who is a mercenary priest hired to do black magic, uses the toxin from the puffer fish sphoeroides testudineus in carefully measured doses to turn a person into a zombie and keep him like that. The toxin causes a near shut-down of the body and the loss of will. So the zombie can be ordered like a slave. Some zombies are just used for labor. Others are used to kill. You sometimes see them in broad daylight. The local people can pick them out instantly, but a tourist may not.”
The voodoo ritual is the only thing worth seeing in Pignon. Tourists can observe it, but you have to give some money to the houngan, the voodoo priest (not quite the same as a bokor). The ritual is held in his house. A priestess, or mambo, is also likely to be present, along with one or more assistants, or hounsis.
The houngan begins by throwing some incense into a pot of red-hot coals on the floor. He may invoke good spirits or evil spirits, but not both at once. Good spirits are summoned if someone needs help; evil spirits are summoned if revenge or punishment is desired. In the latter case (which is far more interesting to watch), a large snake is brought in, and its head is cut off. The blood is collected in a bowl. A young girl, perhaps 16-18 years-old, is then made to undress and lie on a table. The snake blood is poured over her naked body. The houngan now takes a smoking pipe with tobacco in it, draws a mouthful of smoke, and blows it into the girl’s vagina through a bamboo tube. Then a zombie is brought in. He is controlled by the houngan. The zombie sucks the nipples and vulva of the naked girl on the table, who must remain as still as possible. The zombie then lies on top of her for several minutes and rubs against her as if having intercourse with her (although he cannot). The houngan may now have intercourse with the mambo (either real or simulated). Afterwards, the zombie is returned to his place (usually a sort of closet). Now the houngan takes a doll or effigy representing the hated one and sticks it with pins and utters magic words. This guarantees that evil spirits will find the intended victim and (presumably) kill him. The houngan then leads the congregation in singing, dancing, and shrieking, and everyone goes quite crazy, jumping and gyrating wildly. The women can strip completely and dance naked. Jugs of rum or strong wine are passed around until everyone is quite drunk. The hounsis set off firecrackers and pound drums, and the mambo can touch any man she favors in a sexual manner. It’s quite a show!
Pignon supplies over 90% of the authentic voodoo dolls used around the world. They are made by the Pignon Dollworks, whose workers are skilled craftsmen. They also make a small percentage of Mattel’s Barbie dolls. In fact, Mattel will soon be bringing out a limited edition Voodoo Barbie, which will be manufactured exclusively in Pignon for distribution in the Caribbean market only.
Yes, you can buy a voodoo doll from the Dollworks — for about $20. However, hotel manager John Marko assured me that it doesn’t work for just anyone; you have to be a properly trained voodoo practitioner.
The Kawada is a nice enough hotel — not luxurious, just basic. Rooms average about $30 per day, but meals are extra. Most credit cards are accepted. A big, ugly doorman keeps out zombies, beggars, and other undesirables. The housekeeping staff will sell you a charm of some sort to protect you. Of course, it’s fake, but you’d better buy it to be nice, otherwise you may find something crawly in your bed. The chef is insane and may disregard your order and decide what you should eat. His food is actually pretty good. His specialty, however, is snake.
Most of the people in Pignon don’t speak English, but you can probably get by with your high school French. Haitian French is pretty awful — just as bad as Quebec French.
Some celebrities have visited Pignon, including Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Marie Osmond, Gen. Colin Powell, Kobe Bryant, Jose Canseco, Don King, Tyra Banks, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Prof. Henry Louis Gates (Ph.D., Harvard; N.W.A., Congo), and Sacha Baron Cohen. (Cohen started acting like Ali G. at the voodoo ritual and very nearly got himself beaten up.)
A group of students from Muhlenberg College (Allentown, PA) visited Pignon recently to dig for fossils. Some of the local people tricked them with a dog’s skull, telling them it came from an unknown species. The students took it home with them and probably still haven’t figured out what it is.
Pignon has a sister city in the U.S. — Poughkeepsie, New York (pronounced Puh-KIP-see). Mayor John C. Tkazyik, who loves all minorities, wants “those poor Haitians” to know they have a friend in Poughkeepsie. He personally sent them a large “CARE package” containing several bottles of his favorite barbecue sauce, some shirts from Goodwill, a Jane Fonda workout video, some cheap toys made in China, a picture book about Dutchess County, New York, and a framed picture of himself. He is now referred to in Pignon as the “fils de pute” (some sort of title of respect, I imagine), and his picture is now in the hands of a houngan.
Recommended vaccinations: tropical sprue, Ollier Disease, leprosy.
Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org