Saturday, February 17, 2007

Ile A Vache - by David

Ile A Vache
N 18 05 753
W 73 41 698

I am writing from the end of the world. If we do not drop off the face of the earth in the next few days we have surely been taken back in time. The world here is that of the 19th century and I feel as if I will not be able to escape (nor do I want to) for some time.
We are anchored in the calmest bay imaginable just a few meters from shore. In the evening as I look down into the black water I can see the constellations of Orion, Cygnus and Cassiopia reflecting off the bay. The ash from my cigar is the only disturbance in this calm anchorage and there is virtually no light pollution.
Ile A Vache is a paradise like island surrounded by palm trees, and beaches protecting the lush rolling green hills and fields that offer salvation for those seeking escape from the dust and grime of the mainland. The 2,000 or so inhabitants on this island work as subsitenence farmers, fishermen, and merchants. They have developed an extraordinary way to survive while living on about a dollar a day (minimum wage in Haiti is $3/day). The fisherman do not use motor boats as has become the norm in most of the world today. Rather they have become remarkably proffecient at constructing sailboats to use as work boats.
These sailboats cost between $100-300 USD to build and are a feat of humanity and engineering. The simplest are dug-out canoes with a bamboo mast and an extra long boom to provide balance for these keeless boats. Additionally they have a small jib which enables them to go wing on wing when catching the land breeze in the morning and the sea breeze in the afternoon. Their sails are made of black garbage bags taped together. As I say these are the simplest type of boat and where very common in Jacmel.
The next class of "yachts" are the more commercial fishing boats. They have a larger hull and actually have a deep keel that allows them to go upwind at a very high angle. They are usually double handed and the crew (as is the case in dinghy racing) operates the jib and provides ballast. In fact many of these types of boats have a trapeeze for the crew to hike out on when heeling over. These ships sail around the channel between Ile A Vache and Les Cayes dropping their nets in the morning and picking them up again by early afternoon. You can occasionally see smoke coming from the deck of the ship as it is obvious the skipper and crew are cooking lunch with charcoal.
Finally, the largest type of ship is the cargo freighter. These ships are anchored just offshore from Les Cayes where the cargo they carry is unloaded onto the dozens of gondolas there waiting and taken ashore to the dirty and grimy streets of Les Cayes. These cargo ships are wooden as well of course and are quite large, measuring some 30-35 feet in length and nearly 13 tonnes. They are quite intricate with a double head sail sometimes and lazyjacks to keep the main sail centered over the boom. They are more like vessels as Geert put it, than boats. They are quite deep and can accomodate (must accomodate) a large number of crew to man the sails and manage the cargo. They carry everything from charcoal to flower to people.
Geerts imagination has begun to run wild with adventures upon these primitive yet sound vessels. In fact we are going out tomorrow with a fishermen to work and sail on his ship. It will be very fun and interesting to see how well they sail and what exactly it takes to make one of these boats.
As we entered and left the harbor of Les Cayes I felt as if I was looking into the past and how the old shipping ports must have operated in the 1800's. Boston Harbor, Baltimore, San Francisco, etc. all must have been very similar to this before the advent of the steamship. As I said, I believe my journey back in time has only begun as Cuba awaits some 150 miles to the west.
Les Cayes is an unremarkable city, filthy and smelly yet lined with old French colonial homes that have been left to decay. The remind you of the Tennessee Williams play and subsuquent movie with Marlon Brando 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. Keeping with Marlon Brando I felt that after hearing the echos of "Stella, Stella", I could see the young actor working as a longshoreman on the docks hauling charcoal off the gondolas and onto wheelbarrows. But that is as far as my imagination and analogy will go...!
Yesterday Geert and I rented two mediocre horses to ride and explore the island of Ile A Vache. When I asked what my horses name was the owner replied, "Horse". I was riding a horse with no name. Fitting as I saw it since I was the only American on the island. Regardless, what Geert and I found was breathtaking. We set off on our own to explore and came across countless people bringing fish to the market, hauling water, sweeping their dirt lawns, etc. We saw a husband and wife arguing, kids kicking a soccer ball made out of tape, and old men dancing to music playing on their new radio. How much of this place is the essence of mankind? They are without a million things that most of us have without thinking about and yet they still argue with their wives, play sports and dance.
This is not meant to further illustrate the cliche of western commercialism or meager happiness, rather to show how alike we all are. Our sorrows, our pleasures and day to day activities can be broken down to a common denominator across just about every culture in every part of the world. For me at least this is comforting. My individualtiy remains intact for my own joys and sorrows are unique to me, yet I find comfort in that despite everything the western world has said and done to Haiti, her people are like the rest of us. They love a sunny day, they love to run around and laugh, they cry, they fight and they survive. Maybe that is what I have learned from my short time in Haiti...we are all alike and no matter what we have going against us, as humans we endure and survive. Haiti has survived for 200 years and while we seach for ways to improve life here, we sometimes fail to remember her humanity and ability to survive.
Geert, Dick and I have many adventures ahead of us in the next two weeks before we depart for Cuba and I can only imagine Cuba will offer her own unique perspective on the human condition and my individual place in this world. For now, we are off to dinner with French sailor named Guy who is sailing around the world.
From the end of the world....