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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.