Life at the Margins

Isolation and Islands in the Bay of Gonave, Haiti


Truth is stranger than fiction. You hear this adage all the time, you dredge up a few examples as proof, and then you forget the wisdom of it.

Until, that is, life holds up a mirror to your face and whispers, “Remember!”

And when I think of that sunny day on the Haitian island of Gonave, I remember.

Sparse brown scrub covered the treeless hillsides as we drove north to catch the boat to Gonave. Here and there a few hearty goats nibbled the dry grass, without much enthusiasm. Great wasted areas of salt marsh reeked of sulfur on the other side of the highway. Compared with Port-au-Prince, this was no-man’s land.

At the dock, fifteen of us watched the ship skimming over the waves like a great white pelican coming in for a landing. It was a small ocean-going fishing boat, two decks high, one comprising the cabin with a non-flushing toilet and one for the driver of the boat. When all the passengers clambered on, the captain shouted, and the boat’s motor churned and sputtered for a moment, then roared to life. The waves lapped against the hull as the boat picked up speed and one passenger’s hat flew away in the wind, lifted high by the spray. I clamped on the enormous peasant hat, the one I bought in the enormous central market in Port-au-Prince. The brim measured three feet across and I tied the chin strap tightly , wearing my own parasol, protected against the relentless sunshine during the two-and-a-half-hour ride to the island of Gonave. That hat helped, as did being dressed entirely in white, a tip I’d learned by reading about Isak Dinesen’s life in British colonial Kenya.

After a lazy hour of drinking soda and wine coolers, I peered out from under that vast brim and saw something that seared into my memory like a branding iron. As the boat rounded the southern tip of Gonave, a small dilapidated fishing village rose out of the water on the left. About fifteen small weather-worn huts, constructed of flimsy slats and bamboo poles, gray like the flat coral rock on which they stood, seemed to float in the waves like small barges. Small fishing boats glided toward us, drawing close to catch a glimpse of us. Sails like great white arched wings jutted up from those crude wooden boats, the fishermen waving frantically, hoping to sell us the magnificent lobsters and fresh fish they held dangling from their hands. Meanwhile, their wives and children sidled up to the edges of the rocky precipice on which they lived and stared.

Rocking the fishing boats in its wake, our boat headed for shore, landing on an unsullied white beach where anywhere else in the world, luxury hotels would hog the terrain. While we swam and snorkeled, the boat’s crew grilled fish fillets and beef filets over a wood fire, on a makeshift grill constructed from an old bedframe. The cold salads — one of rice with corn and peas, one of potatoes, and one of cucumber and tomatoes marinated in lime juice — tasted wonderful with the crisp, crunchy baguettes, the crust almost burnt, chewy on the inside. Grilled lobster followed. We ate while standing waist-deep in the clear blue ocean, dipping chunks of crustacean flesh in the salty water and squirting it with wedges of lime on the small wooden trays floating on life preservers next to us.

All the while we were there, gorging ourselves, the local women had been gathering, setting up their shells and seed necklaces on sticks, hoping to sell us something, wishing for the small windfall that would make the difference between a new pair of flip-flops or bare feet. Few in the group bought anything, as the crew hurried us back onto the boat for the last stop of the trip, the “aldea,” as the Dominican boat captain called it.

Far from being the town I envisioned when I thought of aldea, a Spanish word for administrative seat of government, what we saw was the meanest cluster of humanity I had ever seen up to that point, even worse than the slums of Cité Soleil back in Port-au-Prince. I faintly sensed what African explorers must have experienced when they pulled up onto the shores of the Congo River, when all the people plied their canoes and stroked their oars to get to the white man first. The people of this meager village poured into the water in dugout canoes, or just on foot, intent on getting to our anchored boat first. Our captain warned us, “Do not take anything but your camera with you — these people are ‘muy caprichoso’ (meaning they were very persistent to the point of getting ugly about it).” Some of us jumped off the boat and waded onto the beach, led by a pot-bellied man, a simple-minded hanger-on who rode out with us, not a formal crew member. No doubt buoyed by two beers and the plenitude of cigarettes he’d bummed from the crew, this man chased the children away but like yo-yos they came back. Little girls grabbed the hands of the women in our party, one for each hand, scarcely letting go. The girl on my left asked for my wedding ring, the one on my right wanted my shoes. An elderly man crab-walked across the hot sand and asked my husband for his shoes.

These people, of the 60,000 who lived on the island according to the captain, were so poor that they could offer nothing for sale. Their houses resembled the ones on the coral rocks. Water problems precluded serious agriculture. I saw no chickens, no goats, no gardens, nothing. Dressed in rags, they clamored for something, anything, as they hung from every surface of the boat. The crew nearly had to beat them off. What could we do? I found a couple of Haitian bills in my wallet and shoved them at a little boy who then thrust two shells at me, falling back into the water as the boat turned.

Then, with the motor roaring again, we left. Back to our big expat houses, our cozy soft beds, our freezers and our generators, our refrigerators full of food. Dazed by the sights of the day and the heat and the sun, we dozed away the two-and-a-half hours it took to return to an entirely different world.

Yes, I remember.