Islands are sanctuaries. We are drawn to their simple clarity. Their geographic confines liberate our psyche. We envision life on an island as purer and more satisfying.
My life in Haiti is simpler than my life in the United States. When I arrive on Hispaniola I feel unencumbered. I rarely use the telephone; I check email but once a day. My mind wanders Haiti’s hilly contours. Daydreaming is not merely tolerated, it is encouraged. After all, I am on an island.
However, after eighteen visits I have developed responsibilities in Haiti. I have work and a semblance of schedule. The work is satisfying, except when it’s frustrating; the poverty motivates me, except when it numbs me. From my earliest visits I have developed a habit; whenever Haiti’s challenges overwhelm me, I pause and look out over the sea. There, floating on the horizon is La Gonave, rising out of the mist, a place imbued with peace and calm; beautiful in its simplicity. From a distance La Gonave’s serenity offers me solace.
Lex and Renee Edme, founders of the school we are building, carry long memories. Last summer two ideas came over me and I sent them an email request. I asked if we could inscribe Luke 6:48 somewhere on the new school (He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.). I also asked them if we could visit La Gonave. Lex was born on the island and has a boat that could take us there, on a rare day when neither work nor church beckoned. I mentioned these wishes only once, but in the fall, as the school’s walls rose, Renee pointed to the surface above the front door. “This is where your Bible verse will go.” Then, on the final day of my last scheduled trip, Lex announced that we would go to La Gonave.
The view of La Gonave from the hill above town or along the beach is one of god’s most beguiling creations. On clear days the island stands in bold relief against a crystalline sky and the smooth sea. When the weather is cloudy, it billows among its cumulus neighbors. On hazy days it merges with the muted blue-green of sea and sky, an ethereal realm of imagination more than any actual place of rock and soil and root.
I know that La Gonave is poor, so poor that men leave for months on end to be day laborers in Grand Goave. I know that La Gonave is awash in voodoo and mysticism; the natives crowned the Marine sent to patrol the island during last century’s American occupation as the ‘white king’ in fulfillment of an ancient myth. I know that La Gonave is a poorer, simpler version of Haiti, yet it had become my Bali Hai and I was compelled to visit.
The boat ride from Grand Goave to Au Pac takes about an hour. Unfortunately for the first twenty minutes we motor past the garbage from the river floating on the bay. Eventually the water turns ultramarine, the swells rise, the cross currents press against our hull and my dream island slowly grows. Tiny squares appear in coves along the shore, other structures emerge along the ridge line. Steep hills littered with scrub trees connect the parallel habitations. Everything comes into focus. Lex slows the boat to a crawl. His navigator stands at the bow, eyeballs the bottom and hand signals us through the narrow channel that leads to the small pier in the center of the village. Lex points out the school on a coral rock outcropping to the east; we have brought clothes and pencils and paper and cartons of energy biscuits. When we tie up, villagers line the dock. They brigade our supplies to the narrow sandy beach.
Au Pac fulfills every fantasy of an island paradise. The shallows of the cove are perfectly clear, fish squiggle among the wavy sea grass, clusters of clams cling to the coral bottom. Thousands of conch shells in subtle pinks and oranges form a berm between the water and the sand. We parade our goods up to the school where twenty-five or so children sit in pews and recite the numbers on the chalk board. Lex’s arrival upends the lesson. In minutes the entire village arrives. While Lex distributes his bounty I linger in the shady breeze outside. Powchino, a painfully thin local man with a pocketful of English at his disposal, appoints himself my guide. He tells me of the fish they catch in their wooden junks morning and night to ship to Port-au-Prince. He shows me the oblong sponges they collect with snorkeling gear and sell for $15 a kilo to a fragrance concern in Miami, though I cannot quite understand their purpose. He tells me of his brothers and sisters, his parents on the island, his own madame and two children.
After all of our cartons are empty we parade the length of town, a single path with shacks on either side, the sea to the south and marshes to the north. The houses are no more than six inches above sea level. At every storm the citizens scamper into the mountains, the sea washes through their world and then they return. There is no electricity to short circuit, no upholstered furniture to mildew, nothing that can’t survive a good salt water wash. It seems odd to me that they don’t build their houses on the slope, but it is their life and they choose to live it tight to the sea.
After two hours we have seen what there is to see. We climb back on our boat, I palm Powchino a twenty for his guidance and we shove off. We enjoy cokes and chicken salad from our cooler; it would have been rude to eat in Au Pac where we saw no crops growing or evidence of any food once our biscuits were devoured. The sea is mid-day calm, the cross current peters out, as smooth as vintage dimpled glass, as ancient as the village we left behind. The island of Hispaniola lay ahead, but it does not offer the comforting mirage that La Gonave presents from afar. Haiti rises high; the peninsula wraps around Grand Goave’s wide cove like monster claws. Compared to La Gonave, Haiti is complicated.
No adventure in Haiti is worth its salt without a hiccup, and sure enough we have watery gas in our outboard; it takes over two hours to sputter home. I do not mind. I sit in the bow and let my feet dangle in the direction of home. I think about Powchino and his parents and children, day in and day out in that village connected to the rest of the world by nothing more than a tenuous channel, no vehicles, no stores, no clinic, no tele-anything. Au Pac is beautiful in daylight, it would be glorious on a starry night, but how tedious it would be day after day, and night after night. Even after visiting, I cannot really understand how the residents pass their time. They exist on an island within an island; they lead a life of abject poverty and abject purity, a life we fantasize about when our world pulses with stress; yet it is a pristine fantasy few of us could bear to live.
Au Pac Village, La Gonave
Au Pac from the Shore
Au Pac Street