Ile a Vache, Haiti

Alia Vita
Rob & Frances Lythgoe
Wed 24 Feb 2016 20:47
18:06.2N  73:41.75W

Where to start?  There are two places in the Caribbean where we are not insured, Venezuela and Haiti.  We had not intended going to either, but Ile a Vache is on our way to Jamaica, we go right past, stopping there would break up the journey, and we had heard positive things from the real adventurous types. To be fair, many of the 'real adventurous' types have been sailing for so long in the same boat that insurance isn't an issue for them, but it is for us. We decided that we wanted to go and we would not be put off by a bit of trivial bureaucracy. What could possibly go wrong?

We approached the island from the south, outside its protective reef, and as we closed in to binocular range the place looked like paradise, the kind of place they might use for a confectionery commercial. The only downside was that is was blowing a steady 25kts gusting 30 from the north. We dropped the sails and very cautiously (no insurance remember) motored round to the bay where we hoped we would have the company of some other intrepid sailors.

When we arrived we found the perfectly protected bay didn't have even a ripple on the water, but did have a full compliments of yachts, so we had to anchor outside in the main bay that was open to the weather. So here we are, in high winds and fair size waves that were breaking just behind us, dropping our anchor on a lee shore. Insurance? Who needs insurance? (the word 'shit' came to mind. Sorry mum). But it was late afternoon without too many options. The anchor seemed to be holding well and the wind was forecast to move round 90 degrees in 24/36 hours which would leave us protected. Any way, I'm writing this in Jamaica so it all went well.

Before we had got our anchor down we were approach by several young lads in dug out canoes, they weren't begging or even pestering too much, they were asking for work cleaning the boat or showing us around the island. Some of them were promoting their mother's laundry skills and the like. You have to bear in mind that at this precise moment, the swell is about 3 feet, the wind is blowing 25kts, Alia Vita is jumping around like a bucking bronco and all I want to do is get the anchor down securely without killing anyone.  On reflection, I may have been a bit terse with them.

By the following day we were all friends again!  You will all know that Haiti has had more than its share of woes. It is the poorest nation in the whole of north, south and central america, it had the bad earthquake in 2010 followed swiftly by an equally bad hurricane. On Ile a Vache, with a population somewhere between 8,000 and 18,000 depending on who you listen to, they have no electricity, no running water, no proper sanitation, no roads and hence no cars, but every one we met seemed to be happy and smiling. 

We met a few of the other cruisers, one of whom was an American 'Pastor', whose boat had been there for 16 months and whom had been coming there for over 20 years. I'm not exactly sure what a 'Pastor' is, but he invited to go with him to church in a neighbouring village with some other cruisers the following day (Sunday, obviously!). The 30 minute walk took us past a few other churches that were in 'full swing', and took us past rural scenes from long ago. We saw a field being ploughed by oxen, women and children carrying water from the well on their heads, all manner of livestock and humble abodes. It was really interesting, and everyone smiled and gave us a 'bonjour' (they speak French you see). The church was a simple affair, but better than most houses, and the local Pastor did of course have a nice house right next door. When I say 'nice house', I'm talking by local standards, I think he had an inside loo and would have someone else to empty it for him.

The congregation sat on wooden pews on rough, bare ground. The pastor and other church hierarchy had a nice polished concrete floor to put their much nicer seating on, but no one seemed to mind. The service was in Creole so we didn't really understand what was going on, but there was lots of joyous singing and clapping of hands and even I could see that this was good for those involved. That was right up to the point that the American pastor got up to do his bit at the end. I was then shouted at for 15 minutes in Creole, and whilst I didn't understand the words, he was obviously serving up the fear bit in ample doses to make sure everyone turned up again next week. Then the collecting trays were passed around. 

I really do get why these church people find a good cause such as exists in Haiti, collect some funds and take it there to help. Whats the first thing they do? Build another bloody church with their particular brand logo over the door. There were other churches for people to attend if they wanted to, all Christian, they didn't need any more, what they need is running water and sanitation. Why can't the 'doo gooders' just help with that instead of the self congratulatory accomplishment of building another church and spreading their version of whatever it is that they spread. I just don't get it. Its no different to corporate giants chasing market share, what's the difference between Coke and Pepsi if you haven't had a drink for a year? Its like the people who want to give to a good cause and build a ward or library or something, but have to have their name on it or a plaque with their name next to it. If you want to give or help, why do you need something back? Well I think building churches just so you can put your brand of religion on a sign is like opening a hospital ward that has to have your name on it. No difference. Here say I.

This is going to be a long post, I'm on a roll now.

I said earlier that there was no electricity on the island. That's not strictly true as there were a few generators providing electric to the bakery and the official buildings, but cooking was all done on charcoal and lighting was by lamps and candles. There were however about a dozen solar powered street lights than lined the footpath along the front of the bay we were anchored in. Very swish they were. They had been paid for by some charity or other.  Solar lights? They have no running water or sanitation for gods sake! Talk about priorities. They have never had electric lighting, ever, why would someone think they need 12 solar powered street lights (no streets remember) now. These people don't have watches either, they get up with the sun and go to bed just after dark. Apparently all that happens now is that the younger ones stay up late round the lights making a nuisance of themselves. 

The following day we took a local lad as a guide and visited the local market about a 40 minute walk away. It was again like stepping back into the 19th century. It was a hustling bustling place, full of rubbish and flies, but also fresh meat and fish plus homeware items that you couldn't imagine anyone using. The market is on Mondays and Thursdays and is a big event. We had walked over with small group of cruisers and a guide, and one of the boats were sailing around the world with two small girls on board, aged 2 and 4. As a result they had on board outgrown clothes and toys and wanted to donate them to the orphanage nearby.

The orphanage is run by Sister Flora, a French nun clearly heading for sainthood. She is 74, 5ft tall, 6 stones wet through and had been there for over 20 years. What we found inside was harrowing. There is a population of about 90 children living there, but 30 or so of them are very severely mentally and physically handicapped, some with zero quality of life. Unless you can call breathing a quality of life, there really was no point. These children needed constant around the clock attention which clearly wasn't available. Sister Flora seemed to have a grip of it, but I wondered how it might be when she wasn't talking to foreigners who were handing over clothes, toys and a few dollars. They were existing hand to mouth with no secure regular income. She had heard of the Zika virus but knew nothing about it. What will happen once that takes hold is unimaginable and she is oblivious. 

The walk back down to the market was a more solemn affair, and it made me realise that yet again the intervention of western sensibilities and standards on the third world is making things harder not easier for them. Before the orphanage was there, I would imagine that many of these severely disabled children would have died from infection or even by a lack of feeding after birth. Now what happens is that they are left on Sister Flora's doorstep for her to deal with. Frances told me that almost all of the most severely affected children that we saw will have had respiratory problems at some point, and must have received medication to survive. For what? I appreciate that may sound abhorrent to some of you, in fact to anyone in a modern, civilized society, by Haiti is not a modern civilized society, and they are simply not equipped to sustain some of these children. Sister Flora has to, because she is from our world, but the reality is that she isn't really equipped either. Just so you get a better picture rather than lambaste me quietly, or loudly as you wish, I am talking about children who have been blind and deaf from birth, with grotesquely deformed limbs that cant sit up never mind walk. Their only stimulation is to be fed so that the agony can be prolonged. Some of these children have survived for many years like that. There was one little boy who when stimulated, by picking him up for example, had a heart attack almost every time, which was always evident by his lips turning blue. He then had to be resuscitated. I am talking about a DAILY event here.

We returned to our little haven in a local sail taxi. This was an old wooden boat with bamboo mast and boom and constant bailing required. We shared the boat with the other cruisers, some locals carrying produce back from the market and a pig. I think I know what happened to the pig.

The next day we decided to venture to the mainland city of Les Cayes with our guide. The others cruisers weren't quite so adventurous, it was just us. This trip was made in a water taxi with an engine. Posh eh?  It took an hour to get there, but when I say 'there', I mean about 30 feet short of 'there'. At this point we transferred to a smaller pole driven vessel that didn't quite get us 'there' either. This must be the shortest public transportation ride in the world. Total distance 20 feet. So, just 10 feet to go, but the shore is strewn with rubbish, food waste, oil and every other imaginable thing. The final landing stage was basically a rubbish tip. Mode of transport? Man. There were 3 or four strong guys walking backwards and forwards the last 10 feet carrying people and cargo. Those that didn't have $1 rolled up their pants and took off their shoes, those that did have $1 sat on the shoulders of these guys. In local terms I think they were probably earning good money as they were always busy, but the open sores on their legs that Frances noticed did not bode well.

The city was laid out in a square format by the French, has two storey building down both sides of each street, has traffic of cars, trucks, motorcycles and white UN vehicles. Commerce spills out into the filthy streets and it is a busy place. We checked in and out of the country here, which most cruisers tend not to bother with, but we do now have our Haiti stamps in our passports. The city is in decay, but yet again, the people seem happy and full of smiles. Not once were we hassled or approached for money which was really surprising. The market was full of fresh produce and it all seemed to work, kinda. In the centre of a large landmark roundabout is the large, imposing, freshly decorated Catholic church. It had an air of opulence about it that I found quite disquieting. Here I go again....

I would estimate that at about 100 people a day make the taxi ride to and from Ile a Vache to the rubbish tip at Les Cayes. So that's 200 individual trips across the 10ft stretch of stagnant, filthy, polluted water. I also reckon that a small gang of guys could build a wooden dock that would benefit thousands of people for many years in the space of a week. The raw materials, wood, are readily available and close to hand. Why is it beyond the wit of man to get this done? Why did someone decide that just one more coat of paint on the church was a better way of spending the money that could easily build the dock? It's just mind boggling, just what are these people thinking? You know what? I might just go back and build it. The local people don't seem able to make the link between what they do today with the future payback. 

We met a lovely American couple who had a simple house on Ile a Vache and they invited Frances and I to dinner when we got back there. They spend 6 months in each of Ile a Vache and Minnesota.  He used to be a carpenter by trade and has a collection of rechargeable tools at his house there. He seems to spend a lot of time with his drill doing small jobs for the locals that could either never do or would take an age. One cordless drill in the right pair of hands is a wonder to behold.

Whilst at anchor there, we kind of adopted a quiet young lad called Jean. He was about 14, spoke reasonable English, and was just a 'nice lad'. Whenever we went in our dinghy he wanted to be pulled along in his dugout canoe, and whenever we walked along the front he was there next to us. Not once did he ask us for anything. We fed him a bit and helped him with his English. On the morning we were leaving, Tuesday, he came by the boat. I asked him why he wasn't at school, to which he replied that he had no shoes and you aren't allowed to go to school without shoes. You have to be sharper than that to kid me I thought. "Jean? Didn't you go to school yesterday?" Yes came the reply. "So you had shoes yesterday?" Got him! "Yes I did, but its my cousins turn to have them today". Talk about cutting me down to my knees. Needless to say we were leaving and had some local currency left over. If he doesn't have shoes now he has only himself to blame, you can take the horse to water........

I have just re-read this post and noticed there are a lot of question marks in it. I wonder if that means anything?

In summary, great place, lovely people, glad we went, a highlight of our travels so far. Sorry if I've offended anyone, but you have to see it to believe it, and seeing it just heightens the frustration.