Sunday, May 11, 2014

Il A Vache, An Existential Crisis

The captain was convinced we needed to go beyond the Bahamas, to experience true island cruising. The admiral agreed simply to get it over with, get it out of his system, and see what she might be missing. The process of deciding the north coast of Hispaniola or the south coast took several months of comparing others’ experience, reading Frank Virgintino’s cruising guides, conferring with him via email, and finally buying into the idea that the Caribbean Sea is gentler than the Atlantic. So windward passage, past Cuba, with the only tenable first rest stop being Il A Vache, a small island off the coast of Haiti. Technically not Haiti proper. It was 218 miles from the last Bahamian island to Il A Vache, for us, a 50 hour passage. The weather was supposed to be windless with almost non-existent swell . . . but the weather is a bit like the daily horoscope, rarely resembling reality.
Our first hours were pleasant, sailing at 6 knots in 12-15 knots of wind. But pleasant switched to unpleasant as we turned the corner out of the passage and into the Caribbean. The swell was 3-5 feet from the southeast, meaning Horizon was smacked on her starboard bow repeatedly. Sails were useless, so full motor with all the noise and discomfort that accompanies that. The cats were no longer open to snacks, it was every being for him or herself between watches. I prefer dead of night watch because I am not able to see the size of waves heading my way. The only seat tenable in our cockpit for a three hour stint is starboard, so the action was a bit close for comfort in the light of day.
As we turned into the harbor towards Il A Vache, we felt hopeful even as the waves continued to buffet us and the fishing buoys threatened to tangle our prop. It was quite the juxtaposition, a 41 foot sailboat with all sails down, motor running as the Batiments of Haiti were sailing out for the day’s catch. These wooden boats are sailed with the minimum of crew, no power, steering only by the positioning of crew and boom. I imagined their man overboard protocol, one less mouth to feed. As we turned into Baie de Feret, the anchorage at Ile a Vache, we were greeted by a dugout canoe being rowed by Pepe who sidled up to our hull and presented a letter of recommendation from another cruiser, in a ziplock baggie. We thanked him and told him we had read of him in blogs. Little did we know that Pepe was the first of way too many assistants looking for work and or food . . . depending on age. We had the dubious honor of having no less than 20 canoe-sized boats with villagers hanging off our safety lines while we anchored. Of course it took 5 attempts to anchor successfully. The admiral and captain were hard pressed to attend to the task with so many requests in English, Creole and French. We politely explained we were tired, and we would be available demain, tomorrow. Big mistake!
Post anchoring and feeding the crew, we slept for five hours, awoken by the sound of youthful voices swimming near the stern. Our bed is athwart the stern, with portholes on either side. I came to full consciousness when a brown haunch was tangling from the lowest rung of the not- yet-extended swim ladder. This is when the existential crisis started burbling. I felt violated, yet ridiculous knowing that I was living in a palace, and someone had simply tried to cross my moat . . .
I have never dealt well with people approaching me unawares. I also have never felt comfortable responding to need that seems much larger than my ability to respond. Sounds non-Christian, lame even. Jesus’ admonishment, I was hungry, and you did not feed me, reverberated in my head.
So began seven days of an experience we were unprepared for. We had gotten together school supplies to donate to the local orphanage, as suggested by the guide book. We had small treats to offer children as well. We had read of another boat leaving Il A Vache quickly because of the boat boys. We had even queried Frank Virgintino specifically about the boat visitors. He assured us that no one was hungry in Il A Vache, and confirmed that the children were no problem, would not harm us. They were gentle but persistent. The older the visitor, the less gracious the response was to our negative response. There was no violence, simply a bitter face. The children moved on the easiest, the adults were more persistent, one even hanging on the boat whistling for us for some time.
We were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of visitors to Horizon, any hour from sun up to sundown.
We hired many workers to do work we ourselves would not have otherwise done. Of the 60 visits the first two days, I divvied up labor to those who had been most appealing, kindest, stood out of the crowd. Pepe was our guide for the market; Ashley, who had stuck to the admiral’s side during anchoring, had much English and smelled better than both crew members, (criteria) was given the job of boat cushion washing. McKindree and Beethoven gave a coconut to us the first day, they were given exterior porthole washing. Vildo, who had told the captain he preferred dealing with men . . . was given the deck and topside salt wash. Each was paid well. Each came back many times for more work despite being told we were finished. While aboard, each expressed interest in some item that was needed, Captain, you have two anchors and use only one. I can use this one, etc. Mike clarified the need for a second in hurricane, high winds . . . but language and need complicated the exchange. It was embarrassing to have so much, and yet obligatory to have boundaries for our safety.
The presence of visitors was announced by the sound of the wooden canoe hulls bumping against Horizon’s hull as the villager was saying Hello, my friend, hello. Not Neil Diamond, but certainly an intro. The introduction was humorous when we met another American couple at anchor. They too had given away many treats, and warded off many offers of help. They had not hired any work, but maintained as many visits.
We said no many, many times, feeling guilty, feeling bothered, watching for a fair wind to leave. The second day we had 40 visitors to the boat, most saying “you said yesterday . . . “. As we hired men to scrub the boat, clean the portholes of salt, mend a sail, more came. In seven days we had at least 15 people asking for work or food on all but the last day. Some came three times in one day despite the “no, finish, no more work”.
Children were not in school. When queried, “school costs $25 US dollars a quarter, can you give me work, buy my almonds, my mangoes?”A fellow named Henry gave us two days of security for $5 a day, including free trash disposal. His strength was his receipt book. We jokingly called him the mafia, nice dinghy, several youngsters as collectors. Jean Jean, known for his restaurant, excelled at sail repair, hand sewing the entire foot seam of our mainsail. We gave him a surplus outboard in payment, along with fuel and maintenance supplies. He was back a day later for shoes. We ate at his restaurant, a simple dirt floor porch, an excellent meal of grilled lobster, fried plantain, salad, peas and rice. His youngest, Kathy, took my heart as she flirted and crawled into my lap to braid my hair. Jean Jean placed the outboard in their bedroom, also open air with a simple bed on the ground.
We would try to tend to above deck chores quickly predawn or post sunset, if a head emerged, the dugout canoes paddled as quickly as possible to speak with you. Sadly by day three, we hid below decks unwilling to engage in the hopeless exchange. To no avail, one fellow hung on the safety lines whistling for us to come forth. The youngsters would come, hang on the life lines, and whisper when you did not come up.
The encounters could be enlightening. One boy asked for headphones, using hands to express the need, when I said I had none he offered to bring me a chicken. I told him his mother may not like this trade, one can eat a chicken, not headphones. Another wanted spaghetti, for school lunch. I was surprised at the specificity of his need. Granola bars and chips were accepted.
Pepe was a most excellent guide on a 4+ mile walk to the town of Madame Bernard, for the local market. We were very glad we choose to venture off the boat because we were amazed at the vivid color and culture we witnessed. The trip helped us see why we had visitors so frequently and reinforced our own abundance. This is understatement. There is no politically correct way to divulge just how much we took in on our trip with Pepe. The pride, the colors, the adaptability, the determination, the livestock, the lifestyle.
The supplies we had for the orphanage were consumed by the village when Pepe released them to one of his friends. He said they would be well used here, the orphanage being five or more miles away.
Yasmin came late the second day, after I had divided all the jobs. He was convincing and intense. I could not say no, so instead decided as a student needing money for school books, I would have him write in a journal. He said he could only write in French which I accepted. I gave him five topics to write for my grandchildren, should I have some one day. His journal was short, his dreams specific, he wants to finish school so he can be an asset to his family. Because family is the most important thing. It was a good commentary on the sights we had seen in Madame Bernard’s. Many children, many pregnant women, few resources . . . spread very thin.
Lingering questions: How is it that a fair and just creator has one culture so desperately needing and another so ridiculously wealthy? I can’t see it as karma. I could not respond as I thought I should. As I gave out treats to the children, I felt I was perpetuating a problem. Who would pay to send a child to school when his begging reaps food for his belly?
What kind of government does not provide education? Is this the parable of the talents in the Bible? What faith can respond to this? Mike and I did the mitzvahs we could, but it was not enough. We felt exhausted by the continuous violation of home space, even though they were gentle and friendly.
We left the harbor as soon as the wind was tenable, willing to face nature’s quirks rather than continue to cringe in our home. I am not sure that the impact of the Mona Passage on the north route would have been as profound. I do think we may have been better prepared.
We will research the Canadian non-profit, Friends of Il A Vache, even though a cistern they had put into work at one village lay broken and mis-used.
There are rumors of moorings being put into the harbor. Could the money generated meet the need? No answers.

We entered the Dominican Republic pessimistically hopeful that it was in better shape. My daughter tells me there are only two categories of countries now, Developing and Developed. There are severe gradients in those two categories. Our DR guide tells us that the Haitians try to cross the mountains, many are shot. He speaks disparaging of Haitians. If I lived there, I would cross the mountain with my family for a better life, as would he.