Friday, February 19, 2016

Ìle à Vache Isn’t Haiti

What an unbelievable day.  What an unbelievable PLACE!!!

It’s like I can’t even begin to put into words all of the….  See… no words.  The ability to describe how we felt at the end of our first day in Ile à Vache completely escapes me. 

What began as, I don’t know… some sort of I’m-not-gonna-let-my-fear-mongering-American-upbringing-keep-me-from-breakin’-these-chains kind of thing… with a healthy dose of subconscious if-this-thing-goes-badly-and-we-die-(or worse)-ain’t-we-gonna-look-silly… has now transformed into this other thing… this indescribable thing. 

What? You’re not making sense, you say… I know, I know!  Well let’s just get to it then.  So, Haiti is a bad place where people do bad things to you.  They have mosquitos that bite you and make you sick with AIDS and ZIKA so your babies have small heads… (Now attributed to the larvicide used in Brazil to kill the mosquitos btw)  The people will overpower you and, because they’re so poor and hungry, they will…  what?  Nobody ever tells you WHAT they’ll do to you…  There is just that FEAR. 

So I’ve already admitted that there was a certain amount of doubt and fear that has crept into my thoughts as we approached Haitian waters.  But for some reason, as we rounded Pointe l’Abacou into Canal du Sud and saw the many little sailing vessels bobbing along in the morning, we felt completely unthreatened.  The mountains in the distance felt protective.  The water went from the deep electric blue to a more Bahamian hue, even with the depths still in the 50-60 range.  And nobody paid us the least mind other than a wave and a smile as we motored past them.

Maybe it was because we were just so happy to stop moving for a while… Maybe it was the picturesque sight of the anchorage with several boats already tucked in safe and sound.  Maybe it was the smiles of the Boat Boys with their questions… is you first time in Ile a’ Vache?  My name is Michelin (or Odelim, or Evin…) What is you name?  WELCOME!!!  You have work for me? I like to do work.  Take garbage?  Wash laundry? Clean you boat? 

It was overwhelming as they came first one by one and then two or three.  First it was Felix, Justin and Nixon, obviously more well-off, in their boat with a motor.  They offered to fetch diesel for us from Les Cayes.  We asked them if it was good diesel and of course they said diesel from the mainland was good.  So we told them to come back when we got anchored and we would work a deal. 

We motored into the calm waters of this palm tree ringed pond and heaved a huge sigh of relief.  The three small dug-out canoes were waiting for us to get anchored.  They had to maneuver away from us as we circled to drop the anchor and backed away to get a good set.  As soon as we turned off the engine they brought their narrow little boats alongside and stood up to greet us. 

I had read about this and it was presented with such a negative tone.  But we see it differently.  These boys, some very young and others as old as 22 or more, are not here for a handout (although they will take what you want to give them)… they ask for work.  Any kind of work.  They come rowing out, some with real paddles and others using parts of palm trees as paddles.  They have very narrow dug-out canoes.  One boy told me his (a particularly roomy model) came from a mango tree.  I asked them if they made them and they told me no… and pointed to the village… a man there, he make them. 

With no exception the boys were dressed…. although they had no shoes.  They had big smiles and their eyes looked like they were a very deep blue.  And they all had to bail the water from their boat as it kept seeping in through cracks in the wood.  Although there were many of them at any given time, they all waited quietly and patiently for our conversation with the others to end.  No yelling, no rudeness of any kind.  They were soft-spoken and quick to smile or laugh if I asked them if they were married (15 years old).  One I asked if his Mother was beautiful… and his answer was quick enough to make your head spin “YES” and a big smile.  His Mamma would be proud.

See the people on shore?
Well you can imagine how tired we were after almost 45 hours on the water.  We could hardly think…. And here were these boys asking us for work.  We began telling them that we need to rest and to come back later in the day or tomorrow.  They were quick to do as we asked and we were able to relax and take a short nap. 

When we awoke it was still early in the day, only about 10:30 am.  Our boat was a mess from the passage and we just needed to do some housekeeping and get our bearings.  Before long, the boys saw that we were awake and came back again.  Mostly they had some English and we very much enjoyed talking to them and seeing their big smiles. 

Young Michelin, 15 years old, came paddling up to the boat and asked me to look at what he brought.  He opened his bag and inside there were some very pretty shells.  Shells like I had never seen before.  All cleaned up and ready to go home with some American woman.

I picked out the one painted shell...
I asked Bruce if he wanted to buy me something… to which his reply was quick ” – YES-  I wasn’t able to get you a Valentine’s Day gift so this can be it! “  I laughed.  OK, this will be a Valentine to remember for sure.  Nestled in the bag with the other natural shells was one that was painted.  Michelin said that he painted it himself and whether or not that was true… somebody here painted it.  That was the one I wanted.  We paid $3 for that shell. 

I continued on with my work inside the boat and came out to bring a tool to Bruce.  He was cleaning the bottom of the boat and checking the zincs.  Everything looked really good.  This was the first time in a long time that the wind was down enough to make it safe for Bruce to get under the boat.  

When the waves are bouncing the boat, I won’t let him go down there for fear that the boat will pound him on the head and knock him out.  He was feeling particularly pleased to know that we still have good zincs.  (Where would they go…?  We haven’t been in a marina or near other boats in forever…)

But the water in Haiti is dirty!!!  No.  It is not.  With the exception of a few floating things offshore, we’ve seen no evidence of this being a dirty place. 

Talking to the boys when this boat pulls up...
As soon as I came out, the boys were back again.  I had a wonderful conversation with Clevens and Winson.  They told me that they had seen the boat come in while they were over on the mainland, in Les Cayes, at school.  They go to school from about 8 am to 1 pm or so.  Clevens told me that they want to come to ask for jobs when the boats come in but they can’t because they are in school. 

Ploy or not, I think it’s admirable that they are in school at all from what we’ve heard about Haiti.  These two are learning French (they speak Creole – not French) and English.  Their English is certainly better than any second (or third) language I might have… The fact that the rest of the world has to learn English where Americans are held to a lesser standard does not escape me and I am grateful for our ability to communicate on common ground.  His English was really quite good and there were only a few things we couldn’t work out. 

The Lobstermen spoke no English, only Creole
So while Clevens, Winson and I are talking, this big boat comes up.  Men are rowing it with long oars and there are nets aboard.  They don’t speak English so Clevens translates for us.  They want to sell us lobsters.  They have nine… we asked them how much for four of them…  

The boys paddled over to complete the deal
The first answer delivered with a straight face was $100.  We laughed, they laughed…  No way!  So with more bargaining back and forth, we settled on $10 for the four lobster, still alive.  Small but perfect for our dinner.  We gave our bucket to the boys and they paddled out to the boat to bring our dinner back to us.  We tipped them as well for their help and told them to come back tomorrow after school to clean our sunshades. 
Picking the best of the lobster for us

At your service!
I wrote their names down carefully… I’m so glad that I did because before the end of this, I would have been so lost.  I wanted to make sure that I had every job accounted for and how much we had agreed to pay.  Bruce and I wanted to give jobs to as many boys as we could.  Everyone gets to do a little part so everyone gets a little money.  I had read that the going rate was maybe $3 per hour… we pretty much agreed to give $5 per hour since I wasn’t sure how old my information was. 

Taking our diesel cans to Les Cayes for filling
Next up were Justin and Felix.  These two had been the ones to greet us upon arrival and were here to take our diesel cans to Les Cayes.  They asked for $5 per gallon for the diesel payable in advance… so that they can buy the fuel… and then $20 for their work after they come back.  Agreed.  So off they went with the cans across the Bay. 

Now of course my suspicious and skeptical American nature was tapping me on the shoulder saying, “you know you’re never going to see that money or those jerry jugs again, don’t you!”… while my Pollyanna side said they would bring them back.  It took them maybe three hours but they did come back with the diesel.

See the eggs bottom left?
The parade just kept on coming… Next up, Mark.  He asked us if we needed fruit or vegetables or eggs… Yes Eggs please!  While he went off to get the eggs, we continued working on cleaning up down below… another young boy came up with some eggs.  I bought his eggs too!  They were small and covered in chicken poop.  He had them in a butter container and asked for his container back. 

They love having their photo taken once you buy something from them...

We examined our catch 

Small but FRESH!

One boy brought us bread from the market.  We were too tired to go ourselves.

The boy in the bottom carefully kept the eggs during transit
And then MARK came back!  He was paddling the boat and had another boy sitting in the bottom holding a drink cooler full of eggs.  He plopped an egg tray up onto the deck and began counting each egg and placing it in the tray.  There were 25 eggs in all.  I now had 33 fresh unrefrigerated eggs.  And no recipe for flan! 

A brief downpour washed our world clean!
The never-ending stream of boat boys was beginning to tire us out again.  Fortunately at that point a dark cloud came over to chase the boys away and gave the boat a nice freshwater rinse.  Saved us the trouble of cleaning the boat ourselves… although we were lining quite an impressive bunch to come back tomorrow and scrub boat for us. 

We just sat in the cockpit and watched it pour…

We had people coming to clean the hull, decks, sunshades and the stainless and someone to help crank Bruce up the mast to fix the wind indicator (it quit working).  Tomorrow would be very busy.  I had a list of everyone we had promised work and it was long.  We had even given our laundry to the one lady who had come out… Her name was Vilda and her husband, Doux Doux was rowing while she bailed.  They spoke only Creole but somehow we arranged a deal and handed over our laundry and my soap.  They would bring it back tomorrow.  I hope…

Late in the afternoon we met Kiki.  He is older, thirty years old, and speaks very good English.  He was sort of an ambassador and told us things about the services and the boat boys.  His love for his island and the people here rang true and his pride at our compliments was evident.  

He told us that the boat boys would sometimes forego school if there was a possibility of getting a job on a boat.  We hoped that the boys we had lined up for tomorrow weren’t going to keep anyone from school… several had been scheduled for after-school hours. 

We shared with him the overall fear that American’s have for coming to Haiti.  I could see the desperate hurt in his eyes as he asked me “WHY!!”.  That was painful.  We told him that people were afraid of AIDS and the mosquitos and the fearful acts that a poor population might do to us…  He said “Ile á Vache isn’t Haiti”. 

More than anything he wanted us to have a positive experience of this place and to carry that message to others, so that they would have more opportunities to make some money from other Cruisers.  What a forward-thinking attitude… and one that I will gladly convey.   We arranged to see Kiki again in the morning and he paddled his little boat away.

Darkness fell and we realized we had forgotten to eat lunch.  We were so tired and so hungry.  We still had to do something with the lobsters and I had no idea how to do it!  I pulled out The Boat Galley Cookbook and was thankful for directions on how to kill them and how long to cook them.  We had planned to grill them but we were just too tired. 

I read the macabre instructions.  It was going to be up to Bruce to do the deed…  He had to stick an ice pick between their eyes to kill them and I couldn’t even watch.  Luckily there was no screaming…  He twisted the tails off and handed them over to me for steaming. 

The BEST!!!
I swear they were the best lobster tails I had ever eaten.  We gobbled them up with a salad and went to bed.  We were both so excited about the day.  It seemed like such a huge deal for us.  The mountains, the beautiful anchorage, the people…  We’re in Haiti!!!

We were happy that we could provide some work for the boys.  Although we literally had to create things for them to do, at least they would have the dignity of providing a service and not just getting a handout…  Tomorrow would be another long day.  I wasn’t sure how I would manage all these boat boys but it was too late to think about hat now.


  1. Glad the info on lobsters proved valuable! I'll never forget the first time we were given live lobsters and, like you, had absolutely no clue about what to do with them!

    1. I've used your book SO many times! It really came in handy in this particular instance. Thanks for thinking of everything!