We all have the occasional experience that seems charged with the fantastical yet strangely vivid atmosphere of a dream. As in dreams, we come away from such experiences with a wordless, awed certainty that we have been graced with some kind of transcendental message or lesson -- when the exterior world conveys a deep message about the interior world. The following is one such experience of mine.
Once, when in a traveling mood, I journeyed to the Caribbean island of Haiti to see what I could see (this was in the day of the malevolent reign of Haitian strongman "Baby Doc" Duvalier). Haiti, to state it mildly, is a strange place. To be honest, my whole Haitian trip was strange from the beginning. I had taken a night flight from Miami on an oily, rickety old 707, being only one of about ten passengers. Judging from their tropical-seedy appearances and their sullen individual silences, I was half-convinced that most of the passengers were either drug-runners, revolutionary provocateurs, or renegade ex-pat CIA agents. There wasn't a lot of onboard chatter.
We flew over a spectacular tropical storm that generated blazing threads of whitish-purple lightning beneath us. I remember having the disconcerting impression that the plane could actually have landed on a sea of lightning. Meanwhile, it wasn't escaping me that we were flying through the fabled Bermuda Triangle. The storm didn't touch Haiti, however, and our midnight descent and landing were uneventful.
Fumbling with my carry-ons as I usually do, I was the last one off the airplane. Here's where the dreamlike strangeness truly began. As I stepped down the metal stairway that had been rolled up to the plane, I saw that all the other passengers who had deplaned before me had seemingly vanished into the night. Well, I surmised, they all had mysterious business to attend to. I, on the other hand, was the naive tourist who really didn't know what he was doing. The plane, as if scared of catching some tropical disease, had parked a good distance from the airport's solitary and utterly silent terminal, so I walked across the concourse alone, clutching my bags and camera.
Up to this point in my life, I don't think I had ever seen an actual owl. I always thought that owls were pretty cool. I was envious of people who had actually seen owls. However, walking to the terminal through the oppressively hot Haitian night air, I saw, not one, not two, but what appeared to be hundreds of owls clustering in the unruly grass on the side of the runway, a veritable parliament of owls -- more owls than one person could ever hope to see in a lifetime. Absolutely silent owls, too, save for the restive flapping of wings here and there. My Haitian welcoming committee, the owls.
After passing through a customs process conducted by two men whose boredom somehow seemed menacing, I found one lone taxi in front of the airport. I expected the driver to be fast asleep, but no, he was wide-awake and smiling. Off we went rumbling to the capital city of Port au Prince and the Hotel Oloffson where I had reservations. I should note that the Hotel Oloffson is legendary in that part of the world. The Hilton, it's not. It's what tour guides like to describe as "highly atmospheric."
The Oloffson is in fact a crumbling old Gothic gingerbread mansion, redolent of the old French Colonial days. There's no air-conditioning in the Oloffson. The suites are open-air, so bats and lizards can enter freely if they are of a mind. Don't even think about drinking the washroom tap water, of course. The tropically exotic Oloffson was the setting for much of Graham Greene's novel, The Comedians, which was later made into a not-bad movie starring Liz and Dick and Alec Guinness. Anyway, after checking into the hotel, I was pleased to find a complementary fruit basket in my room, the centerpiece of which was a whole pineapple that had been split down the middle for my convenience. I cracked it open and a spider the size of my hand came loping out.
This was my first encounter with Haiti, and make no mistake, I was fairly spooked. Looking back on it, looking at all the unnerving things that happened, the things that I would see or hear or simply feel -- and I would have to include here the very fact of Haiti itself with its terrible poverty and ancient corruption -- I now understand these things to have been a necessary prelude to what eventually would happen, to the experience, it seems, that I was there to have.
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During the next couple of days I settled into my tourist role. I attached myself to a group of American and Canadian guests at the hotel and we were escorted around town daily by a Haitian guide who took us to the regular tourist haunts. It was fun, but after five days or so, I decided that I wanted to do a little exploring on my own. I then rented a car and prepared to drive out to the countryside for a glimpse or two at the “real” Haiti. I didn't plan on straying too far from Port au Prince, of course. I certainly planned on sticking to the roads on the maps.
Naturally I failed to take several things into account the afternoon I got into my rental car and headed out toward the dense, dark, greenery that covered most of the island. First, every late afternoon there was a twenty-to-thirty minute tropical downpour which drenched much of the island. Second, there were no paved streets outside of Port au Prince, only dirt roads that were little more than runnels. Third, in the rural areas outside of Port au Prince there was no electricity, no street lights, no gas stations.
Blissfully ignoring all of the above, I drove out of Port au Prince and onto the dirt roads that spiderlegged out of the city. I drove for several hours, stopping now and then when I spied a patch of beach or some particularly fetching vision of the vine-entangled hills. One memorable sight: Seeing Haitian children coming down a hillside after being let out of school. In their brightly colored shirts and blouses, they looked like a multicolored bead necklace slithering down the green hill.
As the sun began to sink low, I finally turned the car around and began to head back to Port au Prince. It was then the downpour came with its usual pounding force. Within a few minutes the road I was traveling turned into a mud pit. My car ground to a halt, wheels spinning uselessly. For a time I tried to inch the car forward by gunning the engine but the mud held fast. I wasn't going anywhere, I realized, until the mud dried. I turned off the engine and sat back, waiting.
The last of the sunlight was quickly draining away. Again and again, I tried to get the car rolling but to no avail. The mud seemed more viscous and clingy than ever. Well, I thought, if worst came to worst, I could sleep in the car and wait until the morning sun dried the mud. The problem was that I was not at all inclined to sleep. The night that was beginning to press in on me was like no night I had ever experienced. It was, in a word, relentless. This, I thought, was night as our ancient ancestors knew it. Night, I now understood, was considerably more than the mere absence of day.
As the minutes rolled by and the night deepened, I began to sense an utterly primitive, all-encompassing presence to the night. Within this presence was a swirling stew of dark potions that seemed to well up from the earth. I had experienced gray, dark nights before but never one that had such a menacingly primitive heart.There were things in this night, things material and immaterial. I felt like prey.
For a time I listened to the car radio, trying to remind myself that civilization was still out there. I feared draining the car battery, however, so I turned the radio off. I longed for light, any form of light, but the sky was overcast and there were sloping hills on either side of my car which seemed to imprison me in black shadow. Of course, there were no electrical lights anywhere to be seen.
Then something remarkable happened. As I sat hunched down in the car seat, I suddenly began to hear singing, not far away but all around me, sterophonically. Clear voices, a choir singing polyphonically, a melody that sounded yearningly gospel-like. I cautiously rolled down the car window and peered into the night. Faintly, I could now make out the singers, native Haitians sitting on the slopes to either side of me, lost in their spontaneous music. How long had they been there? Where did they come from? Did they do this every night? The music seemed to fill the night with a warm light. I felt myself relaxing, breathing more deeply. The night was still fearsome and raw, but I let the music be my witness, my witness in the night.
In time, a group of Haitians came down the slopes to graciously push my car out of the mud. Before the sun came up, I was back in my hotel in Port au Prince, tired but still tingling over my experience with the night music. I would have other experiences in Haiti, all of them memorable in their own way. After I had returned to Chicago and to the routine life of child of the technoligized Western World, it was only my night music experience that truly stayed with me, flickering away in my memory like a night beacon.
All memories that linger, that haunt, are there to teach us something. What does this memory teach me? I was certainly inspired by the marvelous resourcefulness of the Haitians. Having few of the technological entertainments to which we are accustomed, they formed singing communities to entertain themselves, which I have no doubt are a good deal more spiritually nourishing than are most of our entertainments. Music, too -- its transcendent power to shape the spirit, to literally quicken the air around us. And as I view such memorable experiences as being spiritual Initiations, I thrill at the symbolism: In the darkest of nights, when all seems hopeless, does the saving Light appear.
A year later, I wrote the following to honor my Haitian experience. It's simply entitled NIGHT PRAYER:
Witness, we ask You to keep us awake in the night when we need to be so.
Witness, we are unable to withstand the storms of the night by ourselves. May we have Your Light to guide us.
Witness, may we forget ourselves in You. May our restlessness be stilled, may our duty to You and all Your creatures become clear to us.
Witness, may our desire to know You not flag, may we be graced with the stamina and will power to accomplish that which You would have us accomplish.
Witness, may we joyfully accept all that You bring to us simply because it is what You will for us.
May we trust in the Unknowable Night.