Considered one of the poorest countries on Earth, Haiti gets bad press among travelers, and the misunderstandings surround vodou don’t help. Vodou isn’t all voodoo dolls and possession – Haitian Vodou is a belief system that evolved from West African Vodun when individuals taken to Haiti as slaves took their religious beliefs with them to the New World.
Vodou practitioners were forced to integrate Catholic and Vodun beliefs, giving rise to a new syncretic religion. Sorcerers and priests claim to be able to communicate with the spirit world through music, animal sacrifices, and offerings.
The easiest way to witness a ceremony would be to attend a pilgrimage like Saut d’Eau. If you make it, be sure to bring an offering with you, perhaps a bottle of perfume as Vodou gods have a soft spot for it.
With its French and African roots combined with southern US culture, this state is a hub for Creole culture. Louisiana’s Voodoo shares its origins with Haitian Vodou, and the hardships endured by slaves taken to Louisiana helped Voodoo beliefs spread quickly and strengthen the African-American community.
Priestess Marie Laveau is one of Voodoo’s most revered figures and her tomb receives more visitors than Elvis Presley’s grave. It is possible to attend Voodoo ceremonies in Louisiana, but beware of those that are publicly advertised, as they’re usually tourist traps.
For authentic open rituals, head to the Voodoo Spiritual Temple in New Orleans with an open mind.
Postcard-like beaches and Caribbean landscapes are the first things that come to mind when one thinks of Martinique – if you’ve heard of it at all – but the ‘dark forces’ have reached this French Caribbean island too.
Quimbois practices are used to heal physical and psychological ailments through the use of medicinal plants and rituals, which may include anything from burning candles to animal sacrifices. Interestingly, Quimboiseurs believe in vampires and other supernatural creatures, like the dorliss (a spirit that violates women at night), but have no qualms in identifying as Catholics, too.
Quimbois is not an organised religion with temples and the like, your best bet to learn more about it is to ask locals about their perceptions of Quimbois, but be aware that many will be unwilling to discuss it openly.
Rum, cigars, salsa…santería? This religion incorporates Christian and animist West African beliefs, as slaves taken to Cuba developed it as a way of remaining close to their homeland. Santeros are expert users of medicinal plants, so people view them as both doctors and intermediaries with the spiritual world.
When in Cuba, keep an eye out for ladies dressed in all-white garments, who can perform limpias, or cleansing rituals, for anyone who requests them.
There is something for everyone in Brazil: vibrant city nightlife to remote jungle villages or world-class beaches. Plus, all eyes will be on this up-and-coming nation as its hosting the World Cup and the Olympics in successive years.
Culturally, Brazil is one of the world’s most complex nations, and Candomblé is a reflection of this fact. For decades, Candomblé practitioners were persecuted, but today this African-inspired religion has nearly 2 million followers. They believe in a concept similar to karma and affirm that destiny and personality are determined by the person’s own orisha, or ancient spirits. The beliefs have made it into the mainstream as well, for example, on New Year’s Brazilians often run into the ocean and jump over 7 waves to start the year with luck.
You can attend ceremonies in cities like Salvador de Bahía, but check with the Bahian Federation of Afro-Brazilian Cults first – and if you’re female, you must wear a long skirt as a sign of respect.
Jamaica is often seen as the Caribbean paradise where a ‘don’t-worry-be-happy’ attitude prevails, but Jamaicans are deeply religious. Those that are religious are also deeply worried about Obeah and being ‘hexed’ by Obeah practitioners.
Obeah has often been associated with witchcraft and obscure practices involving zombies and evil spells. In fact, many slave revolts in Jamaica were believed to have been supported by Obeah, leading to a 1760 Act making Obeah illegal, which it continues to be today.
Jamaicans are quite reluctant to talk about, as they believe even that could bring bad omens, but it is still possible to Obeah priests in rural areas like the parish of St. Mary. Failing that, you can always take a look at a Jamaican $500 dollar note, which depicts Nanny of the Maroons, a national hero who is thought to have been an Obeah woman.
Hopefully you’ve been inspired to look deeper into the culture of the places you go! Personally, I love to check out momondo to read their awesome destination guides as they tend to provide local insight into major cities.
(Photo credits: Top to bottom – by rapidtravelchai + by oldandsolo + by clarissapacheco – via Flickr)