Haiti's Voodoo pilgrims pray for future

Saut D'Eau, Haiti - Every year, Haitians crowd into the basin of a sacred waterfall to relax and pray for a better future. This time, they asked for relief from soaring food prices and rampant unemployment.

Thousands of pilgrims bathed and threw their clothes into the cascading veils of Saut D'Eau, where the faithful believe the Virgin Mary, known as Erzulie in Haitian Voodoo, appeared in the 1800s. The observant lit candles and sacrificed a cow nearby.

Many traveled for days on foot or horseback to reach the holy site, which lies 40 miles (65 kilometers) northeast of Port-au-Prince.

"Whatever the Saint gives me, I will take," said 38-year-old Fifi Jean, who spent US$5.30 of her last savings to make the trip.

The former food vendor lost her Port-au-Prince market stand when she got sick. Now, she said, she can't afford the US$17 monthly rent for her and her daughter.

Haitian Voodoo was created when African slaves fused their religious tradition with Roman Catholic saints and practices so they could continue observing their beliefs under the noses of their French masters. Today, many move freely between the two beliefs.

"I used to be a Christian, but then things went bad for us," said Marie Denise, 35, who wore a blue scarf and white frock marked with the numbers of her favorite Psalms. The single mother hopes Erzulie will provide money and help for her two daughters.

Even Haiti's most powerful showed up.

Chamber of Deputies President Eric Pierre Jean-Jacques descended concrete steps to the water's edge on the last day of the pilgrimage, flanked by guards carrying assault rifles.

Lawmakers are recovering from deadly food riots and face an impasse that has left Haiti without a prime minister for more than three months.

"I'm going to pray that the country changes," Jean-Jacques said, "that people get a better way of life."