In any other part of the world this structure would be amazing, because of its location and what it represented. However, in Coteaux, Haiti, the locals called it one of the wonders of the world. Even though most of them did not know what the other wonders were.
All I wanted to do was go to the beach, eat tropical fruit and relax. I did not set out to do a pilgrimage, but that was exactly what I did. I ended up climbing five hundred steps built in this remote village. The steps led to a shrine that housed a statue of the Virgin Mary on top of a steep mountain.
I was in Haiti as a part of a medical mission group to the island of La Gonave, another remote village in Haiti. I decided to take a couple of days to visit my native land that I had left forty years before.
My girlfriends and I had finished a wonderful typical Haitian breakfast of boiled plantains, sweet potato, and breadfruit served with salted fish cooked in a savory oily sauce topped with lots of onions and hot pepper.
We had no specific plan, besides swimming in the turquoise blue ocean that ran along miles of coastline. We stayed at a small inn in Port-Salut, a coastal town in the southern part of Haiti. I approached the front desk, where Marie Lourdes was working, and complimented her on breakfast.
"Did you have a good night's sleep?" she inquired.
"Oh, I slept like a baby," I replied. "The sounds of the waves lulled me to sleep before my head hit the pillow."
"Where are you heading today?"
"We wanted to go to the beach, but first we'll drive around a bit."
"Well, then you should go to 'Les cinq cents marches.'"
"The five hundred steps," I translated. "What is that?"
"Oh! It's where you go to find answers to whatever problems you might have in life. If you can make it all the way to the top, you will be rewarded with the statue of the Virgin Mary. Are you Catholic?"
"Yes, but I haven't been to church in years. So, do you only get results if you're Catholic?" I asked.
"No, but it helps," she replied.
A true Catholic, I could tell. If I had any doubt, the rosary she wore around her neck as her only piece of jewelry confirmed that.
I asked for direction and we took off in search of this monument. We drove thirty-five miles along the coast to get to the city of Coteaux. We stopped at the local police station to use the facilities, a one-room hut where the whole force of three young men were playing dominoes to pass the time. Nothing happened in Coteaux that required police intervention. There was a certain degree of reverence that all locals observed. It was as if any unlawful activities by the residents would displease the Virgin, and cast a pall over their sacred city.
We finally made it to the foot of the stairs, and I was speechless. My first thought was, "How did they get the materials to the top of the mountains, to build this monument?" My second thought was, "How would I get up there?" I had had knee surgery two years ago, and I had been suffering with constant pain in both knees for years. Going up and down stairs was actually worse on my knees than any other physical activity. However, I felt an overwhelming desire to make it to the top to see the Virgin Mary.
I was very confused. I grew up in a Catholic household, but after I left home I drifted away from the practice of going to church. I became aware that my Catholic upbringing was still with me. I unconsciously started to mentally recite Hail Mary.
I stepped on the first step and looked up. All I could see were more steps. I noticed a swath of blue paint on some of the steps as far as the eyes could see. After careful observation, I realized that every tenth step was painted blue. I decided then that I would go ten steps at a time until I either made it to the top to see the statue or my knees gave out.
I had my bathing suit on, and felt it would be inappropriate to go in front of the Virgin in such an outfit. Besides, people on their way up were staring at me with open disapproval. I went back to the car and put a dress over my swimwear. Instinctively, I made the sign of the cross, stepped back on the first step and proceeded upward.
It was hot. The sun was high in the sky and there was no shade. I surprised myself by walking up thirty steps, before I took my first of many breaks to the top. The higher I climbed the more spectacular the water view was.
Finally, I made it to the top. However, I was disappointed to see that the statue was encased in a small room with a decorative iron door. There were about a dozen people up there already. There were cement benches in front of the shrine. Some people were lying down, crying silently, some were praying with fervor. Everyone had a beatific look on their faces and the unmistakable sign of hope. I felt like an impostor.
I stood there staring at the statue. With a closer look, I saw there were a lot of artificial flowers that people had thrown through gaps in the door, as tokens of gratitude, when a prayer was answered or as an offering to expedite one. The wall behind the statue was plastered with fake white and blue flowers. White and blue were the colors associated with the Virgin Mary in Haiti.
As I looked around, I noticed that everyone was dressed in white and blue. My bright floral see-through dress, with the hot pink bathing suit underneath stood out like a sore thumb. No wonder no one moved to offer me a seat.
I stood there looking at each person with their head bowed, and trying to figure out what their problems might be that would make them climb these steps in search of a solution. When my eyes stopped on this beautiful young woman, she automatically looked up, as if she could feel my stare boring into her. She smiled and her face radiated such a look of peace.
She gestured toward the bench and moved to let me sit next to her. I started to say thank you, but she put her fingers on her lips, signaling that she was not ready to talk. I bowed my head and was lost in my thoughts. It occurred to me how quiet it was, except for an occasional sniffle.
I had no sense of time. I just sat there and experienced a feeling of calmness, until I felt a light tap on my shoulder. I looked up into her big brown eyes and was struck by her natural beauty. She wore no makeup, no jewelry. Her dark brown skin was flawless and had that youthful glow. Her head was tied in a white scarf that framed a round face that sat on her long graceful neck.
I stood up and proceeded to walk down with her. Her name was Monique and she climbed these steps twice a week, to pray for a miracle. She had been married for five years and could not conceive. I inquired naively if she and her husband had seen a fertility doctor in the big city. She said that was not necessary, because she believed that the Virgin Mary would grant her wish. When I looked in her eyes, I saw unwavering faith and trust.
As we continued to go down, we passed people going up in different positions. An older lady was going up on her knees with arms wide open, while she asked for a cure for her daughter. A man was walking up backward, beating himself on the chest with a bible, while asking for justice.
Monique saw my puzzled look and explained that the more often or the harder you make the ascent, the faster you get results. I was overwhelmed with awe, sadness and respect. This monument to me was just an architectural marvel, but to the people who sought her divine help, the Virgin Mary was their doctor, judge, confidante, financial advisor and the best friend who will never reveal their secrets.
I saw unconditional faith that day that had since launched me on the quest for mine.
A short video in Creole about the Five Hundred Steps: