Where reality looses its grip: This island is full of mystery. It's what makes everything work.

By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; 3:20 PM

This article was originally published in The Post on Oct. 25, 1994.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- The best thing about Haiti is sitting on the verandah ... drinking rum and making lists of all the people to whom you could never possibly recommend Haiti because they wouldn't appreciate it.

-- Journalist Shelly Rolfe, 1974

Just when you think you have the surrealism of Haiti in some sort of perspective, Dr. Maryse Narcisse tells you that one suspected source of AIDS transmission in Haiti is ritual healing ceremonies that involve the sharing of leeches.

The leech factor becomes another one of those disquieting Haitian images gnawing at your mind on dark nights. Like the strange pile of little bones beside the voodoo-favored waterfall at Saut d'Eau, not far from where the Virgin Mary (or something) once appeared in the top of a palm tree. Or the chickens wandering in and out the sagging, ornate doorways in Jacmel, a town whose haunting, decaying grandeur might have been lifted, fragrances and all, from the pages of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.

After a while this sort of thing begins working on you. The other day up in Cap Haitien, a town with a disturbing number of one-legged beggars (and what happened to them?), a young man named Vincent looked over the looted ruins of the once-dreaded police station and explained that the only thing wrong with the Americans shooting the malevolent officers there a few weeks ago was that now the wrong person might bring them back as zombies.

None of this is exactly menacing. Haitians are far too friendly and generous for that. What can you say about people like the villagers of Brash, a wide spot in the road southwest of here, who explain how they've been living on one tiny meal a day for three years and have no well for water, then offer you free some of their coconuts? Or the hunched, myopic little tailor in Cap Haitien with the ancient foot-powered sewing machine and the strange growths gnarling his fingernails, who repairs your camera case and shrugs off any charge, pronouncing his service "un generosite"?

But such gentleness, like the flamboyant beauty of so much of this country, just makes the strangeness that much more unnerving. Like the look in the eyes of the schoolteacher who still stops at former police roadblocks even though he knows they've been empty and unguarded for weeks. "You don't know what it was like before," he says softly. "You can't imagine."

Eeriness is inescapable in Haiti. It wafts through the land like humidity through the bougainvillea, much as it does in New Orleans or Brazil. It's part ignorance, part logic, part history, part romance, but ultimately, beyond any of that, a product of some primal sink of the imagination. Marlene Gay, who works to educate fishermen and their families about their environment, said it was big news in one village when she told them that conch reproduced sexually. Since the shellfish tends to be more plentiful in the rainy season, she says, "the fishermen believed they were produced by thunder."

Narcisse, the AIDS doctor, says AIDS education is often difficult because many Haitian peasants consider the symptoms of the disease due to supernatural causes. And who's to convince them? If it's not supernatural, why do some get sick when others don't, after doing the same things with the same person?

Not all the mysteries of Haiti have to do with fears. Some have to do with the rather astonishing physical and spiritual powers of the Haitian people. Like the woman in her forties or fifties you pass striding confidently up the aptly named Mountain of the Goat east of here balancing a full-size sack of construction cement on her head. Or the toothless woman at least 70 years old who passes you walking 10 miles down Kenscoff mountain with a head-balanced bundle of a dozen live chickens, and another half-dozen slung over each arm. Or the young man standing on the rear trailer hitch of the passenger-packed dump truck jolting its way over 30 miles of potholed dirt and pavement into Port-au-Prince. He doesn't appear concerned about danger or discomfort. He was merely the last one on.

"I honestly believe Haitians are the most graceful people in the world," says Gary Downey of Jeremie, who moved here nine years ago from San Francisco, married a Haitian woman and now runs the Haitian Health Foundation. "I don't mean just physically -- though their physical grace is extraordinary, probably because of the posture perfected by all that head-carrying. But because life here has always been so hard, they seem to have evolved some kind of spiritual armor as well. They do the impossible routinely every day. And they would think you very naive were you to comment on it."

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