AFP / by Amelie BARON | Haitian pilgrims bathe in the waterfall at Saut d'Eau to ward off evil
"In the magic waterfall, where the spirit of Erzulie abides, we will dance and sing to ward off evil," said Erol Josue, head of the national bureau of ethnology and himself a voodoo priest.
"People really speak with Erzulie, because for us, prayer is not just about kneeling down and closing your eyes," Josue said during the ceremony in the waterfall of Saut d'Eau, located north of the capital Port-au-Prince.
"It's about speaking with the spirit who has become a friend, a woman you can discuss things with, to whom you can really say, 'Look at what is happening in my life, I don't agree with this.'"
The town also provides a haven for the LGBT community in Haiti, where homosexuality is still taboo and where some lawmakers openly denounce it.
"Saut d'Eau is an example of respect for the right to be different," the priest said. "You see all types here."
- Warding off evil -
Haiti's syncretic voodoo faith melds the heritage of Catholic and African saints and spirits: Erzulie, or Ezili Danto, is also known as Our Lady of Mount Carmel, or the Virgin Mary.
Some pilgrims walked for up to three days to get to Saut d'Eau, where men, women and children strip down without any fear of being judged and rub themselves with leaves under the cascading jets of water, to purify themselves before the spirit.
Catholics also take part in the rituals, praying to the Virgin Mary in the town church.
"You take off your pilgrim clothing so that any bad feelings are taken off with them, to let you have a rebirth: that's what Saut d'Eau is, a rebirth," Josue said with a smile.
A few meters (yards) from the cool waters, Luckner Pierre-Juste is singing with three friends as he places his candle among the dozens already arranged around the foot of a tree.
"Our lives are very hard, so we come to worship the saints and see if they can help us," said the gaunt-faced pilgrim.
"We suffer a lot in our lives, and the path here is difficult but we came to the waters to refresh our bodies and, most of all, to refresh our spirits."
- Haven for LGBT community -
Saut d'Eau is one of the few places where Haiti's divided social classes fraternize: poor rural families rub shoulders with wealthy youths from Port-au-Prince, a two-hour drive away.
In the poorest country in the Americas, the ritual provides a sense of calm and belonging -- for all, regardless or class or sexuality.
"It's the only place where people can really be their true selves," Josue said.
"No one has the right to bother them, to tell them they don't belong here because we are all children of the Virgin, the children of Erzulie, the mother of independence who accepts everything in the world."