La Casa de La Trova

Juan, at La Casa de la Trova
Every major city in Cuba has a Casa de La Trova…an old house or building dedicated to trovadores and their music (bolero, son). In Santiago de Cuba, on 208 Calle Heredia, the former home of the composer Salcedo was used, and it is called the Casa de La Trova “Pepe Sanchez”.

History

Its founder was Virgilio Palais. In the 1950s, hard times had hit Cuba as the Batista regime bathed the country in his own people’s blood…and it was much worse in Santiago de Cuba, which actively resisted Batista, than elsewhere. To augment his income, Palais set a table up in the small room at the front of his house, selling snuff, tobacco, biscuits, and whatever he could. He sat there all day, and was known to sing when he was bored, to pass the time (a terrible thing, it is said, he didn’t have much of a voice.) Friends of his, trovadores (troubadours) and cantantes (singers), started to hang around, bringing their instruments, and accompanying him; they passed the day sharing music. The place was “discovered” by the taxi drivers hanging around Casa Granda Hotel, and the daily crowd grew with time. Eventually, it became a well-known, well-loved place for Santiagueros to hang out and hear good trova.

For a while, the Casa moved next door, to a bigger building with a second floor, but locals lamented that it was not the same.
Casa de la Trova Santiago Cuba.jpg
Casa de la Trova Santiago Cuba” by JialiangGao www.peace-on-earth.orgSelf-photographed. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.

Eventually the original little front-room auditorium was fully restored—all the old paintings and photos moved back onto its walls, the old chairs with leather seats and the legend “Casa de La Trova Pepe Sanchez” printed on each one—and now the Casa de La Trova occupies both buildings: intimate acoustic gatherings, free to attend, take place in the old Trova in the afternoons, and then a bigger, showier band performs at around 9 in the evening in the bigger La Trovita—with a dance floor, a bar, waiters—in the building just next door, upstairs, for an entrance fee of about $5.
La Trovita: Septeto Turkino playing
La Trovita: Septeto Turkino playing

Lost & Found

The atmosphere is much the same as always…rows of creaky wooden chairs covered in bald cowskin are arranged around a low wooden “stage”. There’s a shop in a back room that sells drinks and cigarettes. You buy a beer, light up a cigar, and sit down to hear whoever is playing that day. The front row is so close that you touch knees with any musician who’s sitting on the stage. Often, fellow musicians are in the audience, their instruments standing quietly beside them, and they will join in. People in the audience who know the second and third voices to a bolero, or the coro (refrain) of a son, will accompany the trovador. It’s very intimate, very welcoming, very special.
Juan, at La Casa de la Trova
I went every day for a week, after Jorge took me the first time. I made friends with some trovadoras. It’s easy: you listen, you don’t call someone on your phone, or have a loud conversation with your friend, while someone is singing their heart out in front of you. When you go to buy a beer for yourself, ask the barmaid what the musicians drink, and pick up a few cans for them, too. Try to appreciate the music—I know it’s hard when you don’t understand the language—and maybe buy the artist’s CD if you like their music, or leave a little money in their hat or bowl. The daytime trovadores don’t get paid for gigs or anything like that…basically, the Casa is just a place where they are welcome to busk, and its history attracts an audience they’d not find on a street corner.

Still, it’s a wonder they are still doing it, so few people give the artists anything. (Though they take plenty of photos…I have found so many photos of people I met, many are on stockphoto sites, for sale, and not even mentioning the person’s name. As these individuals have become friends that I care about, I feel a twinge of pain for them, and rage at how they’re being trivialised by photographer-tourists with cameras.)
Chely Romero & Nando at Casa de La Trova
One afternoon I arrived to meet the veteran cantante (singer) Aracelis “Chely” Romero, and her (gorgeous…sigh) accompanying guitarist. It was a bittersweet session…in between songs, they were having a heartbreaking argument: Francisco was sick of playing at the Trova…the horns and shouts and hubbub from the street, the insult these musicians suffered as busloads of tourists clomped in, twice a day, snapped their photos and selfies and GoPro videos—never stopping to listen—and then rushed off again in 15 minutes; the fact that Chely’s little basket was so often empty…he didn’t want to do it, anymore. It wasn’t worth the trouble.
Chely Romero & Nando at Casa de La Trova
Chely fretted, because she has been playing at the Trova for 40 years, and even though it’s hard for her, and doesn’t pay, she is loyal to the house and what it stands for. But no other guitarist was willing to accompany her, Francisco knew her entire repertoire, and she was torn between tradition, and understanding that a young man, like a son to her, needs more, wants more out of life. They weren’t including me in this conversation, but I was waiting for the music, sitting just to one side, and managed to pick up enough to understand what was going on. It made me so sad.
Chely & Nando

So I spent the whole afternoon there, listening to them as intently as I could, chatting with them. I bought them beers…which made the little bird-like Chely so happy that she sang a traditional drinking song, walking around the room (and even into the back room), touching cans with every single person that was there. Finally, all three of us were laughing again, and Fernando hugged me, told me “You saved us…by being here, by listening, by giving us your time and your good heart…” I wanted to sob. I went to the bathroom to clean my face up…slipping two five dollar bills into Chely’s basket while they were packing their instruments and things. When I came back from the bathroom they’d found the money, and each one just came up to me, “Ay, mi amor…gracias.” and hugged me a long time. I waved it away, and went in the opposite direction from them as we left the place because I didn’t want to cry anymore.
Chely Romero & Nando at Casa de La Trova

Dicen que murió la trova
La trova que a todos nos deleitó…

La trova no ha muerto, no…

Que surjan más trovadores
Que la trova es inmortal.

They say trova has died
Trova that delighted us all

Trova has not died, no …

More troubadours will arise.
The trova is immortal. 

“La Trova”, a son by Francisco Repilado (Compay Segundo)

Babalau

Santeria

We were let into a hallway that was no wider than the door had been…a narrow staircase took us to the second floor of the house, which expanded into a dining area and living room. Open French windows let onto small balconies, and flooded the room with morning light. Antiques—a china cabinet with beveled glass panes, a settee with woven cane seat and mother of pearl inlay, and a very tiny child’s rocking chair of dark turned wood—shared the space with a pair of faded armchairs, a framed reproduction of some 19th century French noblewomen in a garden, and a flatscreen television from which  Sunday morning cartoons were blaring. (HeMan? Thunder Cats? It was dubbed into Spanish.)

A shirtless man in his late 40s, with a rope of beaded necklaces twisted around his neck, and a cigar stub wedged between his fingers, and his long dreads tucked up under a crocheted beanie, greeted Jorge. The two men hugged each other, then left the room together.

The guy was Jorge’s babalau…a priest or shaman of Santería. When the men came back, the babalau gave a signal, and Jorge beckoned to me to follow them. Out a door at the back of the dining room, along a corridor flanked by several small bedrooms on one side, and the neighbour’s open courtyard on the other. At the very back of the house (colonial townhouses are narrow, but go deep into the lots they’re built on) we crossed a dingy kitchen and went out the back door, down a flight of steps to the ground level, where an open space with concrete floor served as the laundry area. It smelled of a pig being raised for food, and pet dogs.

I was ushered through a bamboo door into a very small, dim room. In the shadows I made out a  bench and stool. A plywood partition set off a closet-sized space on one side of the room, a curtain hanging from wire created another closet space on the opposite side. We sat in the middle space, as Jorge explained to me that “here can be found the three realms, of death, life, and the divine.” Behind the wooden panel there was an altar crammed with statues of Catholic saints, along with white flowers in vases, glass tumblers full of clear water, candles, golliwog dolls,conch shells, coins and paper money, and a dollar-store figurine of a Sioux Indian Chief with full headdress. These were the Orishas, or Saints, of Santería.

Behind the curtain on the opposite side, Death was represented by specific roots of trees, brambles and human figures made from tree branches; there were soot blackened baby doll heads attached to bodies of burnt logs, an ebony staff carved with skulls and owls, stuffed raptor birds, and a conical clay figure with eyes and mouth of cowrie shells that I recognsied as Elegguá, huddled together.

This sounds creepy, but really I felt perfectly safe, and the feeling in the room was one of refuge, peaceful and contemplative, like graveyards and church naves can be. Jorge was like my Virgil, sitting on my left, a smile on his chubby face, encouragement in his eyes. I had nothing to fear.

What followed was a “consultation” with the babalau: part fortune-telling, part faith healing. He told me what sort of person I am, the hidden troubles I struggle with, my deepest longings, my dreams, my fears, and what would happen to me…and he got nearly every single point completely wrong. *laugh*

I think the poor guy was used to dealing with women from his own culture; he probably understands them so well that, when they come to see him, he comes across as uncannily, amazingly accurate. He failed, however, to get into the mind of a Westernised woman, decidedly oddball, and everything he said was so comically off-the-mark that, if it weren’t for Jorge, I would have laughed out loud.

Instead I racked my memory for little instances in my life…the tiniest hints…of events that would fit the babalau’s pronouncements and save his flagging mystique from my disappointment. I agreed to everything he said, nodding slowly and reluctantly saying things like, “Well…yes…I do sort of have a violent temper…”. And that is how I found myself, half an hour later, standing before the saints on the altar, holding a candle while the babalau addressed his divine committee in gibberish Yoruba, asking them to fix things so that I could have a child…because oh, everyone knows that a woman in her forties who has never had a child must be nearly mad with grief and sadness, and would love nothing better than to bear a little bub of her own. Oh, crap.

Then he gathered his caracoles (cowrie shells which, because they resemble lips, are said to “speak”) and cast them on the ground between us. He announced that there was a dark-colored ‘indian’ spirit, and another that was a “tall, thin man with white hair” hovering over me and guiding me (Oh. Hi, Mom, hey, Dad, how’s it going?)

My road, the orishas had told him, was a great one. I was destined for fame & fortune, if I just made sure to develop my many talents and pursue my goals with determination and hard work. But surely this is true for 98% of the people on the planet? He added that I possessed the undeveloped power to become somebody that the spirits talk to, because they surround me and are trying to communicate with me…if I wanted to develop this power, it would only take two months of intensive study with him (I smiled and told him I’d think about it…I’ll bet he was pretty sure he could help me with the childlessness problem, too. Hah.)

When he’d said all he had to say (Jorge was appropriately amazed by this consultation) the babalau gave each of us a Montecristo cigar, and passed around a dirty bottle of fiery hooch that had twigs and leaves steeping in it. We swigged…Jorge making a face of disgust and spitting out a gasp every time…and puffed in silence. The heavy smoke hung low in the room, making cloud-javelins of the sunlight lancing through cracks in the bamboo door. The candles on the Santería altar sputtered and crackled. We smoked our cigars halfway, and then we left: back up the steps, through the house, and out the front door, which shut behind us without ceremony or goodbyes.

Blinking in the merciless light of midday on Trocha (we’d been inside for two hours), our cigars still wedged between our fingers, Jorge and I continued our tour of Santiago, and the clamor of the spirits in my ears faded to a gentle susurrus of traffic and city sounds.

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Sunday in the city with Jorge

Santiago de Cuba

I am looking for the photo that would make all the difference in my life. It’s very small and subject to fits of amnesia, turning up in poker hands, grocery carts, under the unturned stone. The photo shows me at the lost and found looking for an earlier photo, the one that would have made all the difference then….
…O photo! End your tour of the world in a hot air balloon. Resign your job at the mirror-testing laboratory. Come home to me, you little fool, before I find I can live without you.

—excerpt from Lost and Found by Maxine Chernoff

Santiago de Cuba

With just one week left, it was Santiago de Cuba that found me.

I was in the marina’s bathroom, after a shower, and the cleaning lady asked me if I’d enjoyed the New Year in the city. I told her that we had stayed home, which she thought was a shame. “Well, I go into the city most days, walk around, I draw sometimes; I want to get to know the real Santiago, but I don’t like doing tours of museums or getting steered around by jineteros…and I don’t know anybody, so I don’t know where to begin…”
Santiago de Cuba
Scandalised, the cleaning lady told one of the marina’s security guards that I needed help. Jorge was the friendliest of the guards: a boyish, pudgy, cheerful face, and a smile like Gary Coleman in the 80s. He was the only one I ever had normal conversations with. He asked me what I wanted to discover about the city. I told him that I had gone to most of the sites recommended by the guidebooks, but didn’t want to keep on being a tourist, paying for contrived experiences, or knowing the city only through photos.
Santiago de Cuba
Jorge understood completely. He loved that we had bothered to learn the language before coming, and that I wanted to get to know his home city on a deeper level. He offered to take me around, said he would plan a day of unusual things, and insisted that we go on foot in order to wander the smaller streets. I grabbed the chance to walk the streets of Santiago de Cuba with a local. I asked, but Kris didn’t want to go; he’s not a ‘people person’, he was exploring his own version of Cuba by going off alone on his bicycle, riding a different road into the surrounding countryside every day (he even went up to Gran Piedra, the highest point of Cuba, on bicycle).

I went into town by myself at 6 a.m. the next day. Jorge met me at the ferry landing, and we set off for the Santa Ifigenia cemetery to watch the change of the guards…
Sta. Ifigenia cemetery
…visited the tomb of Santiago’s most famous trovador (troubadour) and sonero, Compay Segundo.

Note: Son cubano is a style of music that originated in Cuba and gained worldwide popularity during the 1930s. Son combines the structure and feel of the Spanish canción with Afro-Cuban traits and percussion. The Cuban son is one of the most influential and widespread forms of Latin-American music: its derivatives and fusions, including salsa, have spread across the world.

Compay Segundo lived 96 years, eating mutton and drinking rum till the end…
Compay Segundo
We paid a visit to the monument and tomb of José Martí, father of Cuban independence, whose dedication to the themes of freedom, liberty, and independence were hugely influential throughout South America. He is also the author of the poem that later became the famous song Guantanamera
Marti's tomb
And we cast a quick glance toward the family tomb of the Bacardí family. (Bacardí rum was made in Cuba from 1862 until the family moved, around the 1960s, to Puerto Rico…taking their famous trademark with them.) The same rum is still made in Santiago de Cuba, under the label Ron de Caney.)
Bacardi family tomb

Leaving the cemetery we walked right across the city, going down little side streets that, in the 40s, had been the most dangerous streets in the city (Jobito, Paralejo). Here the houses, beyond the scope of tourism and shopping, stood unrestored. Looking into the large open windows revealed humble courtyards in shadow—washing on the line, pot plants, a toddler’s plastic ride-on toy, sleeping dogs—and heavily worn antique furniture, still performing their everyday functions without fanfare.

Emerged on Trocha (Avenida 24 de Febrero). Breakfasted on cafecitos (shots of sickly-sweet coffee served in thimble-sized cups) from an old man with a white beard and the star of david around his neck, standing in the open door of his home; then we had roast pork buns from a burly vendor further up the street who shaved the hunk of roast pork with a thin, flexible strip of metal in his bare hands, and crammed a fistful of the paper-thin slivers of meat into the buns with his thick fingers. We washed our sandwiches down with orange-flavoured drink, served in tumblers made from sawn-off beer bottles.

Fortified by food, we continued up the steep road another hundred metres, when Jorge led me away from the sidewalk to the doorstep of a tall, narrow, townhouse from the colonial days…the first in a row of eight. He rang the doorbell a few times, and a woman’s head looked out from the tiny balcony above us, disappeared again; as we waited for someone to come downstairs and open the door I looked at Jorge, one eyebrow cocked up questioningly. He gave me one of his big, happy grins.

<<Es una sorpresa … te vas a gustar, vas ver.>> (It’s a surprise…you’ll like it, you’ll see.)

Keys to the city

Santiago de Cuba

 Didn’t rain choke the animal throats
of the cathedral      sputter
against the roofs of the city      didn’t the flight
of stairs rise up above the cobbled street
didn’t the key clamor
in the lock      flood
the vestibule with clattering    didn’t we climb
the second flight
toward the miniature Allegory
painted on the ceiling
and touch the flat-faced girls
winged      part animal
who did not flinch and did not scamper
—Keys to The City by Richie Hofman

Santiago de Cuba

I must confess that I kind of wasted my first three of weeks in Santiago de Cuba. The first two, we visited some tourist attractions, and I took a ferry to the city of Santiago five times, but didn’t venture very deeply into its daily life.

Santiago de Cuba

I stayed on the cobbled streets, snapping photos of building facades, sitting—somewhat lost—on park benches, browsing the souvenirs or galleries, looking respectfully at monuments in squares, having coffee at one of the many places that serves only tourists, taking portraits of willing or unconcerned subjects like this little street pup…

Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba
But, after days of this, I remained on the outside. I was sick of taking pictures of every candy-coloured building and curly lamppost, tired of lugging a camera around, of being a spectator. I was looking at the city through a glass wall. I knew there was more to this 500-year-old city than the sugar-paste facades of beautifully restored buildings, the smooth English-speaking jineteros (‘jockeys’…so-called, because they ‘ride’ tourists) touting cigars, tours, cheap rum, or a room and a quick tryst, the charming sidewalk tourist-only establishments serving mojitos and cuba libres at 9 in the morning. I wanted the city’s beating heart, it’s radiant soul, it’s humanity…but where/what was it?

Santiago de Cuba

And then I spent the third week (from Christmas till New Year’s Day) on the boat with the flu, watching the distant fireworks blossom soundlessly from the direction of the city square at midnight on New Year’s Eve, feeling quite miserable. With just one week left, I desperately wanted to get in touch with the real Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba
Promised myself, that last night of the old year, to throw myself into the search with less reserve, to take more risks, to reach out—again and again, if I had to—until a door opened somewhere, somebody took my outstretched hand, and pulled me in…
Santiago de Cuba

El Morro fortress

El Morro
Santiago de Cuba

The first week we were in Santiago de Cuba, we did the tourist thing and paid a day’s visit to the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca fortress, at the entrance to the harbour.
El Morro
Instead of taking a tour bus or a taxi, however, we caught the inter-island ferry from the stop near the Marina Marlin to the next stop, Ciudamar. From here, we walked the winding road only as far as Los Veleros beach resort. If you cross their beach to the overgrown hillside opposite, you find yourself on a narrow trail that will take you into a side entrance in the fortress, halfway down the hill.

El Morro
You’ll still have to go from here up to the entrance (if you get caught, anyway, and if you want to see the exhibits inside the main part of the castle) to pay the fees. CUC 4.00 per person (about $4), and an additional CUC 5.00 per camera.
El Morro
Designed in 1637 by Giovanni Battista Antonelli, and more or less completed in 1700, El Morro was taken, or repelled attacks by several of the notorious privateers that plagued the Caribbean.
El Morro
El Morro
El Morro
During the 20th century the Rock fell into decay, but it was restored during the 1960s by Francisco Prat Puig.
El Morro
The fortress was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, cited as the best preserved and most complete example of Spanish-American military architecture.
El Morro
El Morro
El Morro

Haiti (1 massive post)

haiti 08
On our way to Cuba, we stopped at Île ‘a Vache, in Haiti. By some miracle of isolation, this island is the only truly safe place that a sailboat can go…we cannot recommend any stops, not even just to rest for the night, anywhere on the mainland, as too many boats have been attacked recently by gangs of men armed with machetes, and some of the stories we heard were truly horrific. We didn’t do any overland travel, so we aren’t in a position to say anything, though in the short time we were there we read news of two separate villages whose inhabitants had been practically massacred by armed bandits. That bands of murdering thugs would do such a thing to their own people indicates, to us, a society where the ethics have broken down completely.
haiti 11
Île ‘a Vache’s most interesting historical feature is that it was used as the home port of many of the pirates that raided the Caribbean…most famously, the British pirate Captain Morgan. The sheltered coves and cosy mangrove holes were perfect hideouts for their ships. It was from here that Morgan and his men looted the great ports of Cartagena, in Colombia, Camagüey and Santiago, in Cuba, and Panama.
haiti 21
Morgan’s ship, the Oxford, is still a wreck in one of the bays, here. Morgan had just managed to capture two French gunboats, which were tied up to the Oxford, and his crew were celebrating on board when the gunpowder cache accidentally caught fire, and the Oxford exploded. Morgan, who survived, was catapulted from the window of his cabin, but 200 of his men died. The French boats sank along with the flagship.
haiti 10
After the Queen appointed Morgan Governor of Jamaica, he commandeered a gunship, and tried to sail back to Île ‘a Vache, presumably to salvage something from the wrecks of the three boats. He ran into bad weather, and lost that ship, as well. So much for the great pirates of the Caribbean…they sound like a bunch of hopeless bunglers!
haiti 20
The wrecks are still here, were explored by a team in 2004, but are so heavily silted and grown over that to expose the ships and salvage anything from them would take a lot of expensive equipment and time, or so we are told. The area Morgan’s boat sank in is dangerous diving, too, with strong currents. Naturally, the island draws “treasure hunters” aplenty…they come disguised as Christian preachers, rabbis, orphanage administrators, missionaries, and the like. They have a lot of diving gear and diving experience, for god-botherers. Some of these “shepherds” of God’s flocks seem to spend most of their time drinking with local boys in the ramshackle plonkhouses ashore. The ships most likely have no treasure to yield beside a few canons, though, and are of little interest to anyone other than the odd naval antiques buff.

N.B. Île Tortue (Tortuga Island), just North of Haiti, was also occupied by buccaneers, but pirates didn’t actually keep their ships there, there are no safe anchorages.
haiti 12
In the end, we did not stay two weeks in Haiti. Although the cozy, sheltered Morgan’s Bay was calm and quiet (we felt utterly safe, here, and would even leave the boat open when we went on land…we never lost anything) and the small island of Île ‘a Vache was picturesque, we very quickly ran out of things to do after we had walked around the island a few times.

In the village of Caille Coq, adjacent to our anchorage,  there is no electricity (though some feeble solar-powered street lamps make for interesting shadow theatre along the waterfront, and resorts run their own generators) and this naturally precludes the existence of supermarkets, eateries, butchers, groceries, internet, or ice. There is a good boulangerie, where they bake every-other day. Very nice bread buns when they’re fresh.
haiti 16
We scavenged for each day’s meal, strolling the potholed dirt roads of the village, looking for women selling a few pieces of string beans or okra. We never knew whether we would find anything, or what it would be. Many times we cooked the canned and dry food stores we had on the boat. Little boys paddled out in their canoes, but they only ever had coconuts or mangoes to sell. We found out later that mangoes—small, hairy things, though plenty sweet—grew wild all across the island, and paying for them was like paying someone to bring you a bag of sand. The green coconuts, too, were small, disappointing. It’s as though the very soil of Île ‘a Vache—a densely-packed, super-sticky clumping clay—was stunting the plants and trees…everything seemed extra small and mean. The little shysters wanted a dollar for each coconut…ridiculous, given how small they were, and that nobody lifts a finger to look after the palms. We bargained them down to four coconuts for a dollar, which is what you pay in the village of Madame Bernard.  The market at Madame Bernard, on Sundays and Thursdays, was three hours’ walk (you can climb behind the rider of a moto-taxi to get there, too) and offered little more…vendors hawked pathetic little piles of manioc and sweet potatoes, good free-range eggs, stringy okras, onions, an eggplant on good days. We never saw tomatoes. (Bring your own bags and egg trays, the vendors can’t provide them.)
haiti 22
On the streets, in the evening, women set up tables where they sold fried “patés”…pasties. They were, ostensibly, filled with something, though it was impossible to say what it was…they had no taste other than that of crunchy pie crust. They were cheap, though…100 gourds ($2) bought 20 of these deep-fried pillows of dough. I only ever went for these oily things if I was drinking.

Other yachties go to the mainland to shop…a long trip, by water taxi, across the strait to La Caye, where you can buy stuff imported from the U.S. at a supermarket catering to the affluent NGO people and other overseas visitors. Besides taking an entire day to get there and back, there was the novel experience of stepping ashore at La Caye to go through: The sea is both too rough and too shallow for the water taxis, or any other boat, to approach the concrete ledge at the landing place. A big group of strong young men earn their living, here, by wading in the shallow water to the boats, and carrying people ashore on their backs.
haiti 18
The first time we went to La Caye I was sitting in the very front of the boat. I had just realised what was happening when the first of the porters reached our boat, took my hand, and said “Come, come.” In a split second I made up my mind to surrender to the experience gracefully and without fuss…I stood up in the wooden “Jamaica boat”, he reached his arms behind him, hooked them around my knees; I bent my legs and leaned forward onto him, wrapped my arms around his shoulders and across his chest, and piggybacked to shore. It was over in seconds, no problems. The body knows, intuitively, how to ride piggyback, and the position is totally natural, but many of us have been conditioned to struggle against this sort of contact with a stranger. You could tell the people who weren’t comfortable with bodily contact: Kris’ body, for example, involuntarily fought with the porter, and the guy nearly dropped him.

For me, the piggyback ride was an exhilarating experience…there is something reckless about putting one’s trust in a stranger, as well as about close human contact, that I really enjoy. It comes, I guess, from growing up in an overpopulated Third World country, where rigidly enforced personal space is a luxury, and physical contact with people around you is unavoidable. It’s something I’ve missed since I moved to Australia, where personal space extends much further, and people go to great lengths to avoid contact, physical or otherwise, with strangers.

Note: Never gave it much thought before, but the day I rode piggyback on some Haitian dude, and then watched as some of the other people panicked, struggled, or nearly fell into the water, I realised that I have never hesitated to grip a proffered hand or let a stranger help me, physically: climbing out of boats, getting onto mules, scrabbling up boulders, making last-minute leaps onto moving buses, squeezing past people to get into ferries, grabbing a stranger’s shoulder for balance. I often use my hands to manoeuvre through a crowd, and if I see someone else hesitating before stepping across the gap onto a ferry, I reach to take his or her hand without a second thought.
I’m also bad for giving people I’ve only just met a schmoozy kiss on the cheek: gregarious salesgirls, an amiable doctor, the restaurant owner’s doting mother, the giggling cooks peeking from the kitchen door, the languid waitresses in tight little dresses…I schmooze them all. I love the buzz that spontaneously ignites between human beings when they impulsively reach for each other—reserve and decorum tossed aside—with open hearts, with the determination to trust the moment, to trust the good energy coming from the other person, and create in an instant the electric charge of friendship, however short-lived.
haiti 15
It was difficult to spark any sort of genuine friendship with locals on Île ‘a Vache. We blancs are seen only as dispensers of cash or goods. The local males, especially, have grown accustomed, over the years, to receiving relief goods from charitable NGOs, handouts and generous tips from guilty white people on boats (examples, yet again, of good intentions producing bad results) so that they would rather spend their time and energy walking behind foreigners or paddling their leaky dugout canoes from one sailboat to another, badgering these people for things, than doing any real work (like tending a food garden or raising chickens in their backyards.)
One hardly ever sees the women of Île ‘a Vache. Presumably, the womenfolk are working in the fields, doing laundry, cooking, caring for elderly relatives, minding a handful of squalid children, and trying to keep body, soul, and family together.  The men, surprisingly well-dressed for layabouts, are often found drinking rum and gambling over domino games in the shade of large trees. “It’s so much like Africa,” Kris said, “the men loaf, the daughters, wives and mothers work.”

I met one matriarch, the mother of Ruth, who runs the most popular restaurant for yachties, whose beauty I found so striking that I asked Kris (as I don’t speak French, and hardly any of the older people speak English) to beg her to let me take a photograph. Haitians do not like being photographed, it is considered offensive and an invasion of their privacy, and they get very angry…the whole village will start to scream abuse at you, so ALWAYS ASK FIRST.

Kris asked with his most gallant and formal French, and Madame agreed delightedly but insisted we come back on a Sunday, when she was all dressed up for church (I think she mistook him for the photographer, and seemed disappointed when I turned up, later). What had drawn me to her, in the first place, was the way she dressed on an evening when all of the yachties were assembled for dinner at her daughter Ruth’s restaurant. She had been a real beauty, you could see that right away. Even at 80, she was very much the coquette…little bow-tied braids sticking out all over her head, with longer braids hanging down on either side of her face and threaded with red ribbons, and a white cotton top with low neckline, held up by flimsy lace ribbons over her shoulders; gold jewelry in her ears, round her neck, on her wrists. Her thin, plucked eyebrows were permanently arched in a foxy expression, and her eyes were big, dark pools in which distant torch fires flickered. She had a confident voice that I had often heard singing—loud enough to come clear across the bay—jaunty French songs that reminded me of La rue de Ménilmontant and others of that ilk.
haiti 24
On Sunday morning I got a lovely picture of her, true, but unfortunately she looks like a respectable matron (which is, of course, the way she’d like to be remembered) in her Sunday best, here.

And so it was the raggedy boys we saw a lot of—anything between the age of 8 and 15—as they came around every day, taking turns to use the same half dozen leaky canoes, to perform the same rehearsed entreaty at each yacht.

Billy asked me, “Can you give me 100 gourd?”
“If you bring me some coconuts, I will give you a 100 gourd.” Big sighs and sad puppy dog eyes when you ask these young men to do anything in exchange for money. Why can we not just hand money out to every small boy that asks for it? The way other soft touch sailors and bleeding hearts have, no doubt, done in the past.

One young man, Wenson, sat silently alongside our boat for 5 minutes, obviously thinking over his lines, and then broke into a loud, wailing melodrama:
“Oh, what can I do? How can you help me? I am so ugly! I have nothing! I have no diving mask! I have no sunglasses! You have no T-shirt for me? How about a baseball cap? I don’t even have a phone!” I had to stop myself from laughing.
“What do you need a phone for? How old are you? Thirteen? You live on a small island…who will you call?”
“I will call my mother,” he says, solemnly, hoping to melt my heart with this display of maternal devotion.
“You live with your mother, you silly boy,” I point out. He laughs, because it’s true.

I was amazed at the strength of their conviction that it was somehow my duty, a complete stranger newly-arrived to their island, to fulfill all their needs and to give my own things away without demur.
This may all sound very unpleasant, but it wasn’t. It must be said that they were very polite children…always starting off with a respectful “Bon jour, Capitain…madame,” and asking whether we had slept well the night before. There was no call for anger or standoffishness, to feel defensive or harassed, just because some little boys had come around to pester us for money and things…it goes without saying that they tried to make us feel guilty for having things that they didn’t, but that’s an old trick of the trade and didn’t get to us. The things they wanted were hardly survival necessities, and there was plenty they could have been doing to help themselves, if they weren’t so allergic to real work.

We found that if we sweetened our firm refusals with smiles, reasonableness, respect, the boys eventually gave up on pestering us for sunglasses, and would start to ask us normal questions about sailing and the boat. We would ask them about their families and find out that the family had a small farm, or that mother did laundry for a resort…
“See? Why aren’t you at home, helping your mother? She works alone while you live with her and eat her food?”
I elicited quite a few snorting laughs from boys under 14 when I suggested that they go home and do women’s work.. They were skinny and raggedy and ridiculous, but their eyes were older than their bodies…already they were haughty little Haitian men, miniature cocks of the walk, and I, although a blanc, was still only a woman who couldn’t possibly understand how important it is to be male.
“Then go on eating wild mangoes, boy,” I would shrug, and go below to read a book in peace.

One very unexpected friendship did grow in Haiti, however, and transformed my time there into something precious and memorable. Adam was a 38-year-old native American (Cherokee/Seminole) from Tennessee, a self-proclaimed hillbilly, and he had come to Haiti in his capacity as a builder and handyman, to help the preachers of his baptist church with their Haitian construction projects.

It was his first trip out of the U.S., and everything was an amazing, thrilling adventure for him. I took to his honest, childlike delight from the get-go. His heart was without malice, and he was most often found in the company of children…not because he was simpleminded or anything; he just preferred their open, guileless ways to the often catty, sly, and insincere dealings among the various adults on boats in the bay.
I felt as though I had always known him; we became close friends in just a few hours, found so much in common to talk about, traded stories without reserve, laughed and cried together, looked after each other, took long walks to nearby beaches (with his raggedy retinue of little boys, roughhousing and making a commotion, always in tow), and adopted each other as brother and sister. Before Kris and I left, I felt compelled to do a painting of Adam—inspired by the craziness of seeing him meditating while a cigarette dangled from his lip—and I gave the painting to him as a reminder of our Haitian friendship. On the back I had written “My soul is One with the Universe…but my Body belongs to Taco Belle.” It’s a good likeness, and I was very happy with the way it came out.
Adam