17 August 2012

Le Faux Pas (Première Partie)

Off the western coast of Haiti, south of the Windward Passage
"...OK, we've got Keke and Castro as guides tomorrow, We owe Karma for the courtesy flag and he'll watch the boat while we go to the market..."

"Lole's going to clean the bottom, Makendy's going to make us dinner. What were going to have Pepe do? And we still need something for Harold and Jasmine."

The irony of this is not lost on either one of us. The previous day's log entry starts, "It's hard as hell to get to Haiti." The offshore wind had been on our nose for the last three days of the passage and nearer to the shore, the mountains made the wind shifty and impossible to steer by. Jane tried everything she could think of to get us to Ile a Vache by sail, a goal with which I was more in agreement than usual. Typically, I'm the impatient one, the one who has little tolerance for sailing in ten hours a distance we can cover motoring in two. But we were down to one engine and on top of that, getting diesel onto JOY in Great Inagua turned out to be next to impossible. So for the time being I am a staunch supporter of sail power. Still, on the morning of the third day off the western coast of Haiti, I requested that we strike a bargain: she could try to outmaneuver the wind as long as she wanted so long as that we made Ile a Vache in time to have dinner at the Port Morgan Hotel. She agreed, primarily because there weren't any promising anchorages left between where we were and our destination. Were it necessary for us to tack back and forth all night, neither of us would get any sleep. JOY has her charms, but  sailing singlehanded isn't among them.

We tried long tacks, then short tacks, but we just couldn't get her to point high enough to make any way. Several hours into this endeavor, we replicated exactly the track from our previous outbound tack, meaning an hour's worth of sailing with not a mile, not even a foot to show for it. Jane calculated that we'd made a whole five miles to the good in as many hours. "It really is motorsailing" she said, dismayed, as she turned on the port engine. Yet, if there was disappointment to be endured at the underwhelming performance of our vessel, at least there would be some time to relax and a wonderful meal as compensation once we arrived.

JOY rounded the corner in to the Baie a Feret and entered the harbour just as the afternoon sun's rays slanted a golden light on the hill behind the anchorage. We hadn't quite made it in when a man in a small dugout boat began paddling over to us. "Oh, here we go" I said to myself thinking that he was coming to sell us some fish. Within minutes, there was another and another. They came, one or two to a boat. 

"Welcome Haiti." 

"Is this your first time Haiti?" 

"Tomorrow's market day." 

"You need a flag Haiti?"  

"Let me explain some things you." 

Eventually, there had to be a dozen young men strewn around the boat, holding onto JOY's rails as we tried to maneuver with our one engine to a place to anchor. Jane at least had a wheel in her hands to divert some of her attention; I was completely overwhelmed. They didn't want to sell us fish. They wanted to work.  

"Captain. I wash your boat."

"Captain, I get you diesel. The hotel charge fifteen dollars a gallon. I charge you five."
These offers all directed at me, of course. 

"She's the captain" I said, partially to amuse them, partially in the hope that it would confuse them for a moment, long enough for me to wrap my brain around what was happening. Some of them just ignored what I'd said and continued to refer to me as the captain, others turned their attention to Jane. Bad gambit on my part, as it turned out.

"Captain, I wash your boat." 

"Captain, tomorrow's market day. I can take you to the market."

"Captain, I clean your boat for you."

I'd never seen anything like it. They were in direct competition with one another. How were we supposed to decide which of them to have wash the boat? Come to think of it, we didn't want anyone to wash it or do anything for that matter. We were only planning to be there a couple of days, long enough for me to look at the starboard engine and to wait out a tropical wave crossing the Caribbean Sea. And at that precise moment, all we wanted to do was get the anchor down, a task made that much harder for being hemmed in by our would-be workforce.

In retrospect, what we should have done, what will do in the future, older and wiser sailors that we are, was tell them that we were tired, that it had been a long day, that they'd have to come back in the morning. We should have expected it. Haiti is the poorest country in the Caribbean, dangerously so. We knew that. But everything we'd read described Ile a Vache as an idyllic outpost, the one not-to-be-missed cruiser spot in Haiti. "Friendly and safe," our guidebook stressed. We interpreted this as miraculously excepted from the severe impoverishment all around them. Not so. 

Keke in his mango wood boat
It never occurred to either of us to send them away. We both negotiated jobs, once we finally got the anchor set, until Jane became exhausted and disappeared inside. I stayed with them for so long, talking and listening and taking pictures that some of them had time to go and come back with gifts of coconuts, bananas, and tamarinds.  Did I like caijou? They'd come back in the morning with caijou (no clue what caijou was). Eventually, one of the more mature of the bunch, a guy name Keke, excused himself and the rest, acknowledging that I was tired and that they'd see us in the morning. We'd made arrangements with some of them, Keke for one, who with Castro would come to take us to the market In the morning. (One guide would have been sufficient, but Jane had promised Keke while Castro was soliciting me). The rest would have to return in the morning for their assignments. One by one, they let go of JOY, each one asking if I would remember his  name, and paddled off across the harbour to their homes behind the mangrove trees. Finally, we were alone. Other than finding work for each of them, the night, what was left of it, was ours.

Initially, I was impressed that they weren't asking for a handout, that they wanted to earn money. Eventually, though, as Jane and I wracked our weary brains to come up with enough chores, chores we didn't really want to have done, I'd almost wished they were a less industrious group. It would have been so much easier just to slip them a few gourde. It was an interesting object lesson in adaptation, I have to say. Some of the young men--and it is only ever the men and boys; women do not go out and look for work--understood the concept of niche marketing better than others. Lole was the only one who offered to clean off our hulls, so he got the job. Makendy's speciality was cooking meals (or more accurately, getting his younger sister, Katiana, to cook them), so I requested a lobster dinner "to go" for the passage to Santa Marta. Edisson, a late-comer to the "welcoming party" offered to take us through his village to the island's other resort hotel. They were the more savvy entrepreneurs, in our opinion; they made it easy for us to employ them and we readily agreed. Others preferred to go head to head vying with one another for the opportunity to clean the boat or get diesel for us. Without any better way to pick, boat washing went to Pepe, the first person to approach us and diesel, we'd previously decided, would only ever come from the most reputable source available, in this case The Port Morgan. In thinking about it, there was only one job I knew I wanted done: a translation of our boat name into Haitian Creole for our website.

The next morning, well before we'd finished our coffee, they were back, everyone who'd been given a job and everyone who still wanted one. 

"How did you sleep? You didn't forget my name?" It was an assiduously well-scripted greeting. We handed out the rest of the work assignments. The "Monday people" were told to come back in an hour; the "Tuesday people" we'd see the following day. 

Getting diesel for JOY
We got a later start than we'd intended; getting our jerry jugs filled with diesel from the hotel (at the slightly less-than-advertised rate of $6 U.S./gallon) was far more time consuming than we imagined. That finally accomplished, we left for the market. Pepe had taken our rags and was presumably off somewhere washing them for use the following day. Lole was already scraping JOY's bottom while Karma dutifully sat in the cockpit protecting our worldly possessions from no one whatsoever.

The market in the village of Madam Bernard remains true, as does of much of Haitian culture, to its West African roots, so our guidebook informed us, an amalgamation of farmers' market, flea market, and swap meet. There are no cars on the island; local farmers and merchants transport their goods to market via donkey or on foot. The rest sail across the bay from the town of Les Cayes. The stalls, permanent structures made of wood stakes and palm fronds or corrugated metal stand in groups of four to eight with narrow, maybe two foot wide dirt paths separating them from adjacent groups of stalls.

Market day
Market days are Mondays and Thursdays and nearly anything can be bought there. Other than the section reserved for fishmongers, there didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the organization of goods. Vegetables displays sat next to breads, which were interspersed with (very out of date) over-the-counter medications from an assortment of countries, and vendors selling sweets. Nearer to the water, out in the open, there were racks of clothing and shoes of all kinds laid out on sheets.

Keke, who was older than Castro, took charge of the situation once we landed the dinghy at Madam Bernard.  He suggested that if we wanted to visit Sister Flora's Orphanage, we should do so before shopping. Unbeknownst to him we didn't really want to do any shopping--we had everything we needed, we just wanted to see the market. But even more than the market, we'd wanted to visit the orphanage.

Sister Flora's Orphanage, which may have an official name, but which is nonetheless eponymously titled, was founded by a French Canadian nun. It deserves its own blog post, so I won't dwell on it here. For now, let it suffice to say that Sister Flora's is a model of how much can be achieved with little other than a lifetime's worth of faith and determination.

"Communal Park for Pets. Please tie your livestock here.
Thank you"
Back at the market, we picked up a few inessential items. These Keke negotiated with great efficiency getting them for the same prices locals would have paid. In truth, we would rather just have strolled around taking it all in and hoping to get a few people to let us take their pictures.  It is considered rude in Haiti to take someone's picture without their permission and unsure whether Keke would have been willing to negotiate that, we didn't get any.  We'll need to be more bold about this next time. The foot traffic, the displays, the women carrying large washtubs of full of goods on their heads, easily and unconsciously, perfected by long hours of practice in childhood, together are a way of carrying on commerce entirely foreign to us. And this, after all, is part of why we came to see the world.

Curiosity notwithstanding, it didn't take long for us both to become overwhelmed by it all. Neither of us do well in crowds, particularly when there are a thousand things to look at at once. Our shopping more than done, we piled back into the dinghy and headed back to the harbour and our "temps". On the dinghy ride back, we thanked Keke for bargaining on our behalf. 

"They think that just because you are American or because you have white skin you are rich," he said, distinguishing himself from his compatriots. Jane later remarked that it's hard to know how cynical to be. Had he said that because he had a more nuanced understanding of geopolitical realities, or because while working for an American company he'd been told so continually? Was it his way of letting us know he was cognizant of our financial constraints or had he discovered it was a bit of lip service he could pay to cruisers to score an advantage in a game of "Good Haitian, Bad Haitian."

When we returned, Karma was sitting right where we'd left him. Jane had expressly stated that he didn't have to stay on the boat, just glance at it from time to time. We got the sense, though, that he'd stayed aboard on constant watch. Meanwhile, Lole was still working on the hulls. He'd worked his scraper down to a nub but just kept going. It is hard for us to comprehend the level of integrity and work ethic evident in everyone we'd dealt with. We were paying them a pittance, in both our economy and theirs, and in return they were going far, far above and beyond.

Yet, there was this other, less laudable side to our relationship with the guys that became apparent when we got back from the market. Castro was the first, but it was soon repeated by several of the others and by others still, mainly very young boys who paddled out to the boat to sell a handcrafted item, or to ask for a handout. While Jane was putting our purchases away and getting ice water for everyone, Castro asked to speak with me privately. He explained that he had a exam coming up in a couple of days, for which, thanks to the ten bucks we'd just paid him, he had half the sum required and wanted to know if we make up the difference. Eventually, Lole, Karma, and Jasmine would all make pleas for additional funds, or clothes or shoes (shoes seemed to be a particularly popular request) or food. Some made multiple additional pleas until they were sure rejection was certain. Not that it would have mattered really, we were already "redistributing" all the cash we had. In the two and a half days we were in Ile a Vache, we'd changed money at the hotel three times and with no ATM on the island, we had no way to get any more. 

Something in the utter consistency of their frankly unremitting requests struck us as either heart wrenching or duplicitous. Every request for additional money, whether it was for more work, or a straight donation, was education-related, every one. "Nothing is free in Haiti, nothing," we'd heard countless times over the last few hours and would hear countless times more before we left. There is no such thing as free, universal mandatory primary and secondary education, they explained. First, there is the cost of tuition; books are extra, so are exams. Regardless of age, they all seem to want to go--or go back to--school desperately. As callous as it sounds, it was this utter consistency that aroused our suspicion. Chalk it up to having heard too many, too sad, too scripted tales too often back in The States, but we knew that whether or not their claims were true, they'd probably worked in the past. A request for money to put more minutes on their cell phones wouldn't stand a chance. The surest way to separate cruisers like us from more of our cash would be to claim a fervent desire for self improvement through education. 

After we payed everyone and after a round of rebuffing their pleas for more of anything, we sent them off. We barely lasted until we were sure they were gone before we crumpled into debilitated heaps and wept. In the end, it was only that much more tragic if they were lying, if they'd have to do that on top of begging to earn a living. 

One day down, one to go.

Click here to read Part 2

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