The long way home: Bucking the stereotypes on America’s view of Haiti
March 27, 2013
EDITOR'S NOTE: "THE LONG WAY HOME" is a recurring feature in the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza penned by John Peltier, a 1998 Incline High School grad who went on to fly fighter jets for the Air Force after college. After 10 years of service and two deployments to Afghanistan, he chose for his next adventure a circumnavigation of South America by sailboat. This second installment was written during John's stay in Haiti. Currently, John is in Puerto Rico before heading toward the Virgin Islands next month.
My life has always been so regimented and scheduled that it felt great to one day say "tomorrow I think I'll sail to Hispanola instead of Turks & Caicos as I had intended."
And so I started on the three-day passage to a largely third-world island I was illfully prepared to visit. The first night, I approached the Windward Passage and noticed the only lights coming from Cuba were on the southeastern side near Guantanamo, and to my left Haiti was pitch black.
But I could smell their cooking fires and the agricultural fields, and it was a welcome change to the normal smells.
I finally rounded the southwestern corner of Haiti, to head east along its southern coast, the second night. I had to stay close to the coast to take advantage of the night winds, but didn't want to advertise my presence to any would-be thieves and so I sailed with my lights off.
I soon realized that drug runners do the same thing when a U.S. patrol boat from the nearby island of Nuvassa lit me up with the biggest spotlight I've ever seen. They're sneaky!
I did have one scare my last night along the Haitian coast, when a small, fast craft sped out from the shore on an intercept course. It was dusk, he had no lights, and there were no fish traps in the area — never mind the fact that fishermen don't have boats like that.
I monitored his position with my radar and he stayed within about a mile of me for an hour then I lost contact. I gathered my winch handles hoping that these guys would be armed with only squirt guns so that I could have a fair fight. Their activity was suspicious to say the least.
Upon arriving in Haiti, officials didn't really care that I was there and so I enjoyed a few days at Ile A Vache. Officials in the Dominican Republic cared. I stopped to anchor for rest at a remote island and was immediately boarded by their coast guard (they don't have any boats there and rely on local fishermen for transport).
Their inspection was as thorough as you could get, and they sampled every single bag of flour, powdered sugar, baking soda, and dried milk that I had aboard. Rather than resting for the remainder of the day, I spent it stowing all my stores back into the spaces they were crammed.
I might have been slightly more intimidated had the junior member of the boarding party not been wearing pink sandals with his camo fatigues. A lot of drug boats from Columbia do stop there, so I had no problem with the intrusion.
Now back to Haiti. It has the unofficial reputation as the "Somalia of the Caribbean." True, parts of the country are fairly lawless and crime happens regularly to outsiders, in particular white people. But you know what they say about stereotypes…
Ile A Vache is a small island on the south coast of Haiti with a population of about 10,000. The locals harvest bananas, coconut, potatos, and fish. Their other source of income is from the sailboats that stop there, since it really is the only safe haven for cruisers.
Upon entering the harbor, I was greeted by boys in dugout canoes directing me to good spots to anchor. As I was anchoring, even more boys and young men approached, asking me if I needed food, water, diesel, projects completed on the boat, etc.
I was overwhelmed and even irritated – all I wanted to do was secure the anchor and sleep. The next day all the same guys came back. They know that Americans have money, but none of them asked for a handout — they all wanted to earn it, something I admired greatly.
I employed some of them to polish my stainless steel, give me a walking tour of the island, and take me to the market on market day. They cooked dinner for me on two nights, leading me through the dark pathways of the village with the lights from their cellphones.
We ate a typical island dinner — rice and beans with fish — by lamplight in their small cement homes surrounded my palm-thatch fencing.
There is no electricity on the island, and they stay connected with a solar-powered cellular tower. Most speak decent English and they all seem to enjoy going to school for the promise that education can provide.
It was very humbling to spend time here, and a good reminder as to the treasures one can find when they drop the stereotypes.
It makes one wonder what they might have missed out on in the past because they were afraid of a people or a place, based on hearsay, but largely unfounded.