“Passage to Haiti” – Part 2, The Village of Île-à-Vache

May 2, 2016

Nat Benjamin

In Part 2, Nat arrives in Haiti where he delivers a boatload of supplies to a local orphanage and shows us the Haitian coastal village. To read about the journey to Haiti, click here to visit Part 1.

There is a link at the bottom of this post if you'd like to donate to the Orphanage and Boatbuilder Fund — Nat will see that 100% of proceeds go to the orphanage and boatbuilders in Haiti.

 

At noon on December 8, four days after departing Bermuda, we were located at Latitude 22 20 North and Longitude 69 49 West, or 100 nautical miles northeast of Grand Turk Island. I set a course to take us between the reef-strewn Mouchoir Bank and the Turks Islands, and from there on to Le Mole at the northwest cape of Haiti. Although, still 350 miles from our destination, I sensed a slight sea change in our attitudes and expectations. The attentive companionship, communal friendship and shared experience on an ocean voyage is unique to the exclusive nature of its special environment and purpose. Approaching soundings, where the sea floor rises to a measurable distance below the keel—from miles of depth in mid ocean to fathoms or feet and eventually breaking the liquid surface to be called land—we aboard CHARLOTTE began to shift our thoughts in anticipation of landfall and the bittersweet knowledge that our freedom from worldly events, a significant part of the attraction of this passage, would also end. But the friendships made on a sea voyage endure with a timeless quality, like a bond with an old school mate before either of you had a care in the world.

The wooden schooner CHARLOTTE at anchor at Île-à-Vache, Haiti

CHARLOTTE at Île-à-Vache

We awakened in our secluded anchorage on the south coast of Île-à-Vache to a light breeze sifting across a palm-fringed white sand beach—a scene as captivating and beautiful as it had been a few hours earlier when we arrived under moonlight at 3 o’clock in the morning. All hands dove over the side for a long swim, something we had been trying our best to avoid during the previous 6 ½ days since leaving Bermuda. Now, we had new freedoms, and swimming in this effervescent cove was a welcome change.

Before the sun peeked over the hills to the east, a Haitian fisherman paddled out to CHARLOTTE in his dugout canoe to investigate this rare arrival of an American yacht. He greeted us cheerfully and gestured to the delectable display of fresh fruit and fish he had onboard. The mangos and papayas looked like a good complement to the eggs and beans simmering on our galley stove. Conversing in French, I explained that we had yet to arrive at Port Morgan, our port of entry,  to clear customs and exchange money, so I had no Haitian currency to pay for the fruit. He asked if we had an old piece of line to trade, which of course we did, and he parted smiling and wishing us a fine visit. Not a bad first encounter in a country so distorted by foreign media as being dangerous and troubled.

At midday, we left this idyllic anchorage and steamed around the west side of Île-à-Vache to what would be our home port for the next four weeks: Port Morgan in the Baie de Ferret. This protected harbor, named for the notorious pirate Henry Morgan, is conveniently tucked in behind reefs and a headland on the northwest corner of Île-à-Vache, about six miles south of mainland Haiti. While our anchor chain stretched out along the hard sand bottom, three dugout canoes came alongside manned by grinning 10-12 year old Haitian boys excited to see a new arrival in their mostly-vacant anchorage. We chatted with these polite lads who told us that the mayor would be out soon to check us in. Official customs agents were in Les Cayes on the main island but they were closed until later in the week.

The Boys

The Boys

A $5 bill took care of the mayor who informed us that we could take the water taxi to Les Cayes if we wished to clear customs officially, or that we could send someone over to do it for us—no hurry. Now it was time to launch the dinghy, row ashore, and search for Sam Alteme, our advisor and email correspondent over the past year.

Port Morgan

Port Morgan

Like many Haitian villages, Kai Kok, and for that matter, all of Île-à-Vache, has no cars or electricity. Without the ambient noise that is subtly pervasive in even rural areas of most first-world nations, a peaceful, natural quality greets the visitor like a calming infusion. Walking the waterfront along palm, mango and sea grape-shaded trails with the usual entourage of curious but respectful local lads to guide us, we became acquainted with this purely authentic Haitian village.

Port Morgan

Port Morgan

A dozen or more hand-crafted, colorfully-painted wooden sloops ranging from 18 to 30 feet lay at anchor, while others sailed off with a patchwork of cloth set on crooked spars for a day of fishing in the waters between Île-à-Vache and the mountainous main island to the north. Sounds of wood chopping and a caulker’s mallet led us down the beach to three boatbuilders who were shaping timbers for a new vessel and repairing an old one. The design of these sloops has evolved over the centuries through form, function and the shapes of the crooks from which the frames are cut with a machete and axe.

Port Morgan

Port Morgan

They are crude, but solid and well proportioned, and appear to sail well in most conditions under a sprit mainsail and jib. An oar is their only auxiliary power. Scattered along the sand and mangrove shore are the ubiquitous dugout canoes—man’s earliest conveyance on water that are still being chopped out of logs by skillful men with primitive tools.

Port Morgan

Port Morgan

Meandering through the village along its hard-packed dirt paths, we exchanged a smile and polite “bonjour” with everyone we passed. Donkeys, goats, pigs, horses, cows, and island dogs greeted us with sleepy eyes and docile temper. The hipped roofed Haitian houses are small and well built of wood, cement block, locally cut stone and metal roofs. Separate woven wooden kitchen structures contain cleverly crafted re-bar pot holders over fire pits where homemade charcoal burns in carefully measured quantities for cooking. The yards are planted with fruit trees and small gardens, with chickens clucking and ladies washing children and laundry in plastic tubs. Swept clean and neat, there are only the essentials for living—no clutter of “stuff.”

Port Morgan

Port Morgan

Back aboard CHARLOTTE at dusk, we saw a yellow dugout heading our way with a smiling Haitian maneuvering it with a palm branch in one hand and talking on his cell phone in the other—a confluence of millennium. It was Sam in the canoe. At 28 years old, Sam Alteme, like most of his generation, is looking for a less laborious life than his parents. He’s a goodlooking guy with a pleasant smile, a fluent command of English, and an entrepreneurial spirit that complements his helpful friendly nature. After nearly a year of e-mailing, it was a pleasure to meet and talk with him about the challenging issues that loom over a nation still recovering from the cataclysmic earthquake of 2010. Brad and Malcolm had to return to the snowdrifts of New England, so Sam arranged to get them safely to Port au Prince, and they departed the following morning.

Altema Family Compound

Altema Family Compound

By 0800, Ian, Zoli, Sam and I were dragging piles of vacuum-packed clothing and other items out of CHARLOTTE’s makeshift cargo space, and loading them into a 25-foot utility vessel owned by the Sister Flora Orphanage. The sputtering Yamaha outboard motor pushed us out of Port Morgan and along the north coast several miles east to a town named Madame Bernard, the capital of Île-à-Vache.

Cargo Sloop

Cargo Sloop

This bustling harbor, surrounded by reefs and shoal water, was teeming with activity in many forms. Burdensome 45-foot cargo sloops arriving from Les Cayes and other Haitian ports off-loaded their contents on dilapidated piers or directly on the shore while fishermen stood waist deep on the reef hauling heavy nets in unison, excited about a bountiful catch. Unlike Kai Kok, this port is chaotic with construction projects underway and a sprawling open market randomly spread upon the unsheltered mud streets along the waterfront. Shopping on a rainy day is not recommended. We loaded our offerings onto wagons that we pushed up the hill, past a shaded donkey-parking area, and through the gate to the orphanage.

Port Morgan

Port Morgan

Founded in 1968 by Sister Flora, a French-Canadian Catholic, this extraordinary facility has become a paradigm of success, benefiting of countless orphaned and handicapped Haitian children. Unreliably funded by government and private organizations, Sister Flora continues to struggle to make ends meet.

Sister Flora Orphanage

Sister Flora Orphanage

Our donations from the Vineyard were gratefully received and dispersed among the 78 needy residents, 26 of them wheelchair bound. It does not take a lot to make a big difference in Haiti. Our meeting with the devoted staff was cut short as the pre- Christmas Mass was about to begin, and we were ushered to seats in the Orphanage Abbey.

Sister Flora Orphanage - Nativity Scene

Sister Flora Orphanage - Nativity Scene

Attired in flowing white robes and seasonally appropriate liturgical accoutrement, and surrounded by shimmering synthetic Christmas decorations and a black nativity scene, two distinguished Haitian priests began the service with praise in patois and blessings to the 78 orphaned children who were with us in the congregation. Whenever the priestly ramblings seemed to be droning on excessively, Huguette, a lovely young Haitian woman who was raised in the orphanage, would break into song and lead us all in joyful Creole Christmas carols. This kept the clergy in check, and the congregation engaged and awake for an hour-and-a-half of pleasantly confusing entertainment, occasionally interrupted by the sanctimonious remarks of a portly, local dignitary dressed in a pea-green leisure suit and a white golf cap.

Sister Flora Orphanage

Sister Flora Orphanage

Without warning, a perspiring Frenchman in full Santa Claus costume bounded through the door, ringing a bell and carrying a large sack over his shoulder, to squeals of delight from the children and an indication to the rest of us that the formal part of the service was over. A small present was given to each child until all were quietly clutching their packages and waiting for the signal to unwrap them. Zoli, Ian and I, sitting in the midst of these kids with some of them on our laps, watched as they carefully and patiently opened their yearly gifts, taking great care not to tear the precious paper. They beamed with gratitude as they clutched a toy or a stuffed animal to their breasts. Thank you, Sister Flora, for your immeasurable gift to the Haitian children, and to visitors from afar. Before we began to process all this, two large tables were rolled into the back of the room, piled high with rice, beans, fried chicken, grated cabbage, plantain, a Christmas cake, and cases of beer and soda. It was time for the feast to begin and the wonders of Haiti to continue to unfold.

Port Morgan

Port Morgan

We spent the next few days in Port Morgan doing chores aboard CHARLOTTE and making friends with many of the local characters. A Sunday dinner with Sam and his extended family gave us a close look into their home life, sibling relationships, and shared values so similar to our own, but without the overwhelming distraction of excessive possessions or of conflicting schedules.

Port Morgan

Port Morgan

At last, Zoli and I had to return to Martha’s Vineyard for work at the boatyard and to spend the Christmas holidays with our families, leaving Ian and CHARLOTTE to look after each other. The water taxi, an outboard-powered, pirogue-type of vessel (narrow, wet and tippy, and without compass or life jackets) came alongside CHARLOTTE at 0500 with Sam and a dozen or more Haitians stoically clutching their offspring (all most likely incapable of swimming) to escort us across the Sound to Les Cayes on the main island, and then on to Port au Prince where we hoped to find our flight home.

Altema Family

Altema Family

In the pre-dawn haze our trusty transport nosed into a mangrove-bordered dumpsite replete with snorting pigs and fresh loads of city garbage. After negotiating the municipal landfill, we hopped on the backs of waiting motorbikes and sped through town en route to the bus stop, dodging dogs and small children as they scampered across the potholed streets. After some diplomacy, Sam had us all aboard for the 3 ½ hour journey through arable farmland and mountainous terrain on decent roads that, sadly, were littered with industrial nations' most prolific export: plastic.

Port Morgan

Tap Tap in Port Au Prince

When our bus lurched into the heart of post-earthquake Port au Prince, we witnessed the shocking consequences of a nation exploited and abandoned by most of the “developed” world. Statistically, Haitians struggle with 70% unemployment—but everyone is working just to stay alive. Discharged from our bus into the chaotic, shattered city, we exchanged farewells with our fellow travelers with pleasantries, smiles and promises to return. We then hopped into a dilapidated cab and headed to the airport—and to another world.

Sister Flora

Sister Flora

Two days after Christmas, Pam and I returned to Île-à-Vache, once again navigating the vicissitudes of third-world transportation, as we carried duffel bags stuffed with art supplies, more clothing, and $8,000 in cash raised for the orphanage. Sister Flora greeted us warmly and explained how auspicious our arrival was, since she was unable to make the monthly payroll for her staff. We also learned of the school (450 students) and the hospital that she founded and continues to manage. At 4’6” this pale white energetic 70-year-old woman has made a significant difference in the lives of so many. The people of Île-à-Vache revere her.

Community Center

Community Center

On New Year’s Eve, Roberta Kirn and Boyd Petersen flew in to join us aboard CHARLOTTE, loaded down with gifts for the local community center in Kai Kok. Boyd signed on as a crewmember and would be staying aboard for the rest of the winter as we sailed to Jamaica and Cuba later in January, and then home to Massachusetts in April. Roberta’s specialty is connecting with children through song—our universal language. Before charging out into the community, Roberta would prepare for her day with a 20-minute workout on deck, stand on her head, and then plunge over the side and swim somewhere to the north of our anchorage well out of sight. She always returned with a broad grin, ready for a hearty breakfast usually prepared by master chef Bo (Boyd). The rest of us would do our stretches and exercises on occasion, but not quite to the level of the bar set by Roberta.

Then Pam and Roberta would be off to the village with energy and expertise to share with the children at the community center. Pam nurtured the naturally-talented kids in drawing, understanding primary colors, learning perspective and shading. This activity dovetails nicely with the outreach mission of her non-profit organization: Sense of Wonder Creations.Org that, through the creative arts, explores environmental and ethnic diversity, community service, leadership, and how each person can make a difference. The youngsters were always receptive and thankful. Roberta would share songs from Kenya, where she also travels, and enjoyed learning the local Creole folk ballads of Haiti. Commuting to the orphanage required a two-hour trek each way, and the work there involved caring for the children’s most basic needs. This assignment was emotionally challenging, given the large number of handicapped children and the minimal staff. By late afternoon, we were all ready to take the 20-minute hike to Akaba Bay for a long swim and enjoy the sunset near the conveniently-situated, eponymous hotel where cold drinks and intermittent Internet service were available.

Hiking on Île-à-Vache is the best way to get around unless you have a donkey at your disposal. This suited our peripatetic nature, and Pam and I had some wonderful excursions through the hilly countryside. One afternoon, with some help from an 11-year-old local guide, we headed east from Akaba beach in search of a small fishing/farming village that I had noticed with the binoculars when we first arrived. Bo and Ian had also been near this hamlet on one of their surfing expeditions, and they agreed that we could probably find it without donkey or boat. We wove our way along shoreside and inland trails, then past a spectacular mile-long beach with a lone bull in residence, and on through fields and a valley until we finally saw from a high bluff our distant destination. This picturesque encampment with smoke rising from charcoal fires and a fleet of lovely local sloops rocking at anchor in a crescent cove, was as alluring as it was unattainable, given the rapidly-fading daylight. I knew we couldn’t achieve our goal on this day.

Akaba Bay

Akaba Bay

A short distance away, however, a family farm looked inviting—with adults and children scurrying about doing chores before dinner, which was simmering on the outdoor kitchen fire. As we approached this bucolic homestead, the occupants greeted us with welcome curiosity as well as smiles and laughter, which we returned. Strong, fit, young sons and, I surmise, extended family members, were working in the gardens and tending livestock in the fields to the east while the women cared for the domestic functions. Silhouetted on a knoll against the dimming western sky stood an older man who I presumed to be the patriarch of the clan. Looking like an Old Testament prophet commanding his people, he held a newly-crafted oar in his left hand while he finished shaping its shaft with a tool grasped in his right. A professional boatbuilder myself, I could not resist walking over to see what sort of plane or spoke shave he was using to create such a well proportioned and properly tapered source of auxiliary power for his boat. A kindred spirit, he must have sensed my intentions, and before I finished wishing him “Bonsoir”, he grinned, opened his weathered, calloused hand and proudly showed me a piece of broken glass that served as his tool.

Sunset Photo: Roberta Kirn

Sunset Photo: Roberta Kirn

When I enthusiastically recounted this story to Sam the next morning, he calmly gazed at me and said, “Yes, that’s Haiti”.

Nat Benjamin
Vineyard Haven, MA, October 14, 2015




 


You can CLICK THE BUTTON above to donate to the Haiti Orphanage and Boat Builder Fund. Nat will see that 100 percent of proceeds go to the orphanage and boatbuilders in Haiti (you can donate using a credit card, debit card or a PayPal account — look for the little credit card icons if you don't have a PayPal account).


 

5 Responses So Far to ““Passage to Haiti” – Part 2, The Village of Île-à-Vache”:

  1. David Flanders says:

    What a wonderful story, so beautifully, sensitively, respectfully, and lovingly told. Nat, you and Pam put your heart and soul, as well as time and money, into this which you are so committed to. Would love to sail with you. Also, as an aside, I was floored, after seeing Charlotte, by your saying “Charlotte, which I built…”. Jeez, you’re one hell of a human.
    My best, David Flanders

  2. Dick Vilamil says:

    Parts one and two were fantastic and brought back memories of sailing from Bermuda and US Navy days in Jamaica. Excitedly awaiting the report from the Cuban adventure!!!

  3. Torrey Sylvester says:

    Greatly enjoyed this post!

  4. Pete Mullen says:

    Nat, so glad I signed up with OCH and came across your tale of the Haiti voyage. Great sea story, even better cause. Congrats. Especially belly-laughed at the paragraph right under the ” Snowy departure off West Chop ” pic. Ellie and I have stayed close to Maureen and I’ll bring her up to speed on your ramblings which may be a nice interlude from the reconstruction of her new/old house. Best, Pete Mullen ( Charley’s old tennis buddy )

  5. Edwin Spears says:

    Diff, on my bucket List!

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