Maracas Mayhem In Port-au-Prince

American Airlines was flying to Haiti after last year's embargo, so we did, too. The first newspaper I picked up in the capital, Port-au-Prince, advertised jobs for people qualified in WordPerfect 5.1, just like our software at home. If only my drums qualified for what happened that Sunday afternoon.

New local friends plopped us on their balcony to witness the phenomenon of RaRa, which I never quite learned to use in a sentence. It refers to the carnival-like celebrations that seem to grow spontaneously -- and often through competition between neighborhood groups -- on Haiti's streets and country roads.

This was a few weeks before Mardi Gras, and we were told parading bands would be practicing for the main event.

Soon we looked down on two drab United States military vehicles benignly immobilized by a curb-to-curb mob wielding -- maracas? And we saw how Haitian tradition was surviving the computer age, even as Haitian joy was breaking through the grim poverty that remained when oppressors left.

First a lone banner-waver had swung around the corner. Then came the sound of music, the throb and rattle of percussion. Then the gathering human tide. Two hundred in half a block? Three hundred? What were those vivid gleams of orange in the fading daylight? They were the maracas, scores of them, shaking to the beat or answering it with their own.

The US soldiers looked philosophical. They weren't there for crowd control, just on their way somewhere. Romping children reached into the cars and shook hands. A man leaned over like a self-appointed liaison. He kept gesturing toward the marchers, strollers, and dancers still to come.

How did so many happen to have maracas? I was told they probably bought them to join in the fun. The next day I noticed the same kind of maracas for sale on the street.

As the RaRa bulge passed in one direction, the military vehicles sprang loose in the other. Then young men and women, alone or in twos and threes, ran pell-mell past us to catch up with the throng. Others must have poured in from the narrow walled streets beyond our view.

When our car hurtled through these now-dark streets to another part of town -- Port-au-Prince calls for driving of exquisite tact and aggression -- we were suddenly turned back.

Someone gestured down the street and spoke in Creole through our window -- possibly the same self-appointed liaison we had seen at the start.

''What did he say?'' I asked.

''He said the crowd was now 5,000.''

Wish I'd had my maracas.

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