Huddled beneath a black tarp in a small open boat under the midday sun was not where I had hoped to find myself. Better suited for a somalian pirate attack than a ferry ride, the boat creaked and chugged its way across the sea. It had been almost an hour since we had left the bustling wharf of Les Cayes and I was beginning to get claustrophobic.
Huddled around me in the unbearable midday heat were 20 rural haitians, a few chickens, and many boxes of fruit, and despite the cover we were getting stung by the sea water. The boat swayed this way and that, and every few minutes our captain shouted 'left' or 'right', as he commanded us to redress the balance. As with all forms of transport in this country, be it on 2 wheels, 4 wheels or water, no vehicle leaves until overburdened and uncomfortable.
If you have ever seen a photo of african refugees trying to reach europe you will have a vague idea of what this was like, and I began to wonder if we too might end up adrift. Quite what everyone made of my presence I'm not sure but it was an adventure indeed and we were all in it together. At one point when the waves got bigger a bottle of Taffia was passed round and we each took a swig. It is a cheap and heavy rum that does little to quench thirst, but peoples spirits rose.
I have read that life in Haiti hesitates on the verge between tragedy and comedy, and as these words came to mind I laughed
Les Cayes was once known for producing the best rum in the world and I have heard that this is where the term 'OK' comes from. Shipments arriving in NY marked 'Aux Cayes', would contain the finest rums and be left unopened. This is of course the Haitian version, but one I quite like.
I had counted only 3 life jackets as a fisherman had carried me ably towards the boat on his shoulders. The small wooden jetty was rotten, falling into the sea and no use to anybody. The little port was filthy, and flies covered everything. Men urinated in the mud where they pleased and mopeds revved their little engines among the beggars and the street vendors. At first I was just relieved to be out of the melee and away from prying hands, but what lay ahead was worse.
Just offshore a container ship was unloading large sacks into waiting dugouts and about 20 of them vied for position; it was a noisy and aggressive scene, and I was pleased to push through them and reach open water. As we set off into the ocean I was reminded of Agoue, the voodoo divinty of water. Nobody had yet offered him a gift as is customary, so as the sea got choppier I hoped that I was not destined to become Jonah.
As things got worse I lowered my head, huddled among the others and prayed we had enough fuel. Every few minutes I allowed myself a peek over the edge to see if we were any closer, but at 5 knots and with a strong current this never seemed to happen.
At one point a small baby was passed up through the group, and being at the front it was wedged by my side. It soon began to bawl, whether because of the heat, the wet, her skin dissorder or me I don't know, but I was beginning to regret this trip. When people began to argue around me under the dark cover I felt this was an adventure too far.
I was trying to reach the little island of Vache, famed for it's beauty, and wanting my trip to be as authentic as possible had declined the offer of a private boat. I had told the people expecting me that I would find my own way to the hotel, yet this was not how I had imagined it. The journey had become both precarious and very lonely and out in the middle of ocean I was missing a friendly face or an english voice. I was even missing the little bus that had been my home for the previous 5 hours, and the regular jolts of the dirt road as I travelled through the mountains. Not even the taffia was calming my nerves.
Eventually however and much to my relief we made land and the first stop was mine. We pulled up near a beach as beautiful as any I have seen and I was again carried ashore. "Tout servis" they insisted. For once refusing additional payment.
I was the only one who got off here and as I turned around the boat was already pulling away. There were not buildings in sight, and I shouted after them the name of the hotel "Belle View?" They pointed inland and up the mountain and laughed.
Soaking wet, sunburnt and thirsty I slung my bag over my shoulder and headed into the woods up a little path. Soon I heard voices and found myself in a small village. Once again a cry of 'Blanc' went out and children came rushing. Receptions such as this get tiresome every minute of the day and I am getting desperate for some privacy.
A few minutes later I had been escorted to the hotel and found myself in yet another Haitian oasis, a little paradise. We were high on a peninsula overlooking a turqouise sea, lush hills, coconut trees and a small fishing village. It could not have been a more welcoming sight.
Hearing the children, a portly haitian lady popped her head out of a window under a low straw roof. "Monsieur Benjamin?", she inquired with surprise. I was dirty, wet, and the salt water had matted my hair into a wild mane. I hadn't changed in a couple of days and here I was emerging from the trees alone. She rushed to greet me. "We expected somebody a lot older" were her first words, and I soon understood why.
It turns out that this hotel caters for one specific type of guest - middle aged French men, single and wearing speedos. How could I have got it so wrong! Underneath the prices for water skiing, scuba diving and kayakking (none of which seem to be on offer) is a price for a speed boat to 'Madame Bernards'. I haven't yet inquired about this, but judging by the few girls who came in last night I think it is not for sightseeing.
I fell asleep early and was mauled by mosquitos. It had been quite a day and one that had ended as bizarrely as it had begun - at the home of a famous haitiaan rapper in port au prince.
Gemini is his name and he once recorded with Wycleff - in Haiti that makes you a god. He had very kindly offered to put me up for the evening in his ramshackle house and it was a wonderful experience. Sitting on a burned out car freestyling in creole (him not me) was surreal. Despite the rats around us and the regular powercuts he kept going for a good 30 minutes, and we had soon amassed a large crowd (as much to gawk at me, as to hear him).
He had asked only for a bottle of rum as payment and this also made us many new friends. A couple of women offered us their company but muttering something about a wife back home I refused. This seemed to make no difference however and they persisted. To my relief there was a Lakers game that evening and we rushed off to buy petrol for a generator.
We talked for hours about Haiti, its problems and its future. I have found that outside the aid workers and politicians there is little optimism here. Haitians focus predominantly on the bad rather than the good, and never ask how they might improve their own lives. This may seem callous on my part for they have endured much, but not once have I seen real optimism. They seem to have become used to living in misery and can imagine nothing else. It is sad.
Not once have I seen them embrace the aid that is flowing in and use it as an opportunity to build a new future. Not once have I seen them lead a project; they want it all done for them. In this culture it seems that 2 wrongs make a right, and I am starting to believe what I have been told a couple of times: "Haitians can be a barbaric people".
All over the country I have been seeing graffiti saying 'Bon retour JC Duvalier'. When I asked Gemini and his friends I was told that many people would like to see the return of a strong leader. They believe that under Baby Doc they saw better days; they had security and less poverty. Corruption among the police and politicians was no worse than it is now and for this reason hardly anyone intends to vote in the next election. "Preval is a drunk" many of them say, "and who will be different"? I do not agree with them for a minute, they have forgotten the horrors of dictatorship, yet the grass it seems is always greener.
At the end of the night Gemini insisted I take his bed. Despite protestations that I would sleep on the floor he would hear none of it. Despite everything that I have written today, there is a hospitality here that feels at odds with the cold reception you often feel. I finally accepted the bed and woke a few hours later with just enough time to queue for the bucket of water and sliver of soap in the alley.