A bottle of rum and a whale

19 October 2009 - by Carole Devillers

The first cave we explore is near Saut d’Eau (Centre Department), an area which has been dear to me since the mid 80’s and where I feel at home with the local people (the community and I built a primary school for the children of Haut Saut d’Eau twenty years ago - see PATCH Center of Hope school). Saut d’Eau is also the site of an annual vodou purification pilgrimage I covered for National Geographic (see NGS Mar 85).
However well I know Saut d’Eau, I had never visited the cave of Doco and so we start our expedition with this first cave. We get our guides (two brothers who happen to have been among the first students in our school in 1989), and the local houngan (vodou priest) joins us - the Doco cave being a “mystic cave”, it is used for vodou ceremonies and therefore we need the houngan’s introduction. “A bottle of rum and a whale” : this is what we are asked to bring to be in favor with Mèt Doko, the spirit residing in the cave.

Our guides taking us to the cave of Doco

By 7:00 am we’re on our way, but the sun is already very hot as we climb the hilly path, followed by a couple of curious young people with a blaring radio. Funny enough, the station is playing old French love songs of the 70’s. I find it quite amusing and it’s with the tune of the famous “La maladie d’amour” by Michel Sardou that we arrive at our destination, an hour and a half later.

The houngan introduces us to the cave residing spirit

Right away, the houngan, holding rum and candle in hands, starts what he calls his “adoration” to Mèt Doko: “Master Doco, I present to you blanc [1] Carole and ask you for health for her so that she can continue with the school and with helping the children. Please give her grace and courage in everything she does. Master, I present to you blanc Olivier and ask for your grace in all he wants to do for Saut d’Eau. Thank you.”. We are then at ease to explore, measure and photograph the cave.

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Now, let me explain what a “whale” is. It is the translation of the French word “baleine”. But in Haitian creole, a “baleine”, or “balèn”, is nothing more than a candle (in olden days, candles were made of whale fat and the word baleine has stuck). But for Olivier who doesn’t speak creole and is new to Haitian ways, it was quite puzzling at first when we were asked for a “baleine”, and that became the object of many laughs between us.

In the Doco cave we find “vévés” on the floor. These are vodou symbols drawn with corn meal during a vodou ceremony in order to attract the loas (spirits) being worshiped. Each loa has his own symbolic representation. The vévés at Doco look withered, an indication they were made some days ago during a ceremony in the cave. We are told by our houngan that ceremonies taking place in a cave are more powerful (more expensive too for the person requesting it).

Walking to the caves

When we explore another cave the next day, that cave had to be “disinfected” by the houngan in charge, with special perfume pleasing to the spirit and talcum powder thrown up in the air at the cavity entrance - and a whale!

[1Blanc is the accepted term in Haiti to design a foreigner, of any race