Last month, the non-governmental organization with which I volunteer shut down its operations for a week, in preparation for the next phase of its project in Leogane. I had the option of staying on base during the week off, but after much deliberation, I finally decided to leave Leogane and travel to Île à Vache – a small island off the southwest coast of Haiti near Les Cayes.
In order to get to Les Cayes, first I had to board a tap tap, Haiti’s infamously colorful form of public transportation, to Miragoane. There were two other volunteers who were traveling to Port Salut via Les Cayes, so we decided to travel together. At the bus station in downtown Leogane, we found a tap tap driver who offered to take just the three of us to Miragoane for 1,500 gouds (a little less than $40 USD). We took him up on his offer, and enjoyed a scenic, 1.5 hour drive complete with reggae music blasting through the tap tap’s speakers.
Once we got to Miragoane, we searched for transportation to Les Cayes, or Okay as it’s referred to by the locals. Instead of paying extra for a tap tap to ourselves this time, we decided to pay 100 gouds each (about $2.50), and waited for the tap tap to fill up with people. I initially sat inside of the tap tap, but as more and more people boarded, I moved to the very edge in the back to be sure neither my claustrophobia nor motion sickness reared its ugly head.
Overall, the drive was beautiful. Haiti has some really breathtaking scenery. The only issue I had was traveling in the tap tap. After a few hours of sitting on a wooden bench, my butt became very sore. And because more and more people kept boarding the tap tap along the way, there was no way to re-position myself or stand up to stretch my legs. I literally had people sitting on top of me for a good portion of the ride. So comfortable, it was not.
After roughly four hours, we arrived at the bus station in Okay. It was quite the scene, and I made quite a scene when I realized we were over-paying for the ride – 100 gouds instead of 75 gouds. Yes, it’s only 75 cents, but it’s the principle. Generally, I know I’m paying a higher price than Haitians for things because of the perception that, as a foreigner, I can afford it. Most times, it doesn’t bother me because the dollar amount is negligible. But the fact is, I can’t really afford to keep paying a higher price if I want to continue volunteering here. I mean, 25 cents here, 50 cents there…it starts to add up over time. Furthermore, sometimes I just don’t feel like being ripped off. And that day, I wasn’t in the mood. In the end, we ended up paying 100 gouds as agreed, but at least I know now what it should cost.
With two-thirds of my journey complete, I hopped on a moto taxi and instructed the driver to take me to the wharf, where I was to catch a boat to Île à Vache. After finally getting to the right place, I boarded the boat and we headed towards the island. The ride was horrible. The water was choppy, and my motion sickness began to make an appearance.
Finally, just as I thought I’d need to lean over the side of the boat and vomit, we docked at the Abaka Bay Resort. At the end of the short boardwalk, I was greeted by the bartender, who was holding a rum sour – one of many I’d have during my stay. As I sat and sipped my drink, I took in my surroundings. Beautiful artwork. Serene sounds. Turquoise blue waters. Well landscaped grounds. In a word, paradise.
I spent the next several days in “paradise” as the resort’s only guest. Each morning, I’d have breakfast at 8:00am, then lay on the beach and read. At 12:30pm, I’d have lunch, then lay on the beach and listen to music. At 5:00, I’d take a shower (that included hot water), then saddle up to the bar and talk to the bartender about various things. At 7:00, I’d have dinner, then retire to my room directly on the beach, read some more, listen to the waves and finally go to sleep.
One afternoon, I decided to venture out and see the island. Lafrantz, a local, had agreed to take me around via horseback (actually, it was a combo donkey/horse) for $15 USD. I saddled up, and we began our tour, with Lafrantz stopping every once in a while to take pictures for me. I have to say, that I was quite uncomfortable riding the donkey/horse, as it seemed timid navigating the narrow, unstable path on which we were traveling. So I asked Lafrantz if I could just walk. I really enjoyed the tour and my talk about everything and nothing with Lafrantz. The island of Île à Vache is absolutely beautiful. Despite some deforestation, it’s largely “untouched”, as there are no roads, no major companies, no big buildings…not a lot of development overall. Just simple houses, schools, fisherman and farms.
I reluctantly left “paradise” four days later to return to Leogane. I met up with the two volunteers again in Okay to travel back together, but ended up taking a tap tap while they boarded a rather hot, crowded bus. After the Jacmel experience, I had no interest in traveling under those conditions, so decided to travel back to Leogane solo. This time, I paid a little extra to sit in the front with the driver. He made sure no one else sat in the front with me, and we chatted away in Creole for most of the ride.
As soon as I hit the dusty streets and trash-filled canals of Leogane, I started day dreaming about Île à Vache. I appreciated the fresh air, unspoiled landscape and solitude so much that I wasn’t sure if I should tell other people about it or keep it a secret. But the fact is that few people will be brave enough to navigate the chaos and beauty that is Haiti. So while theoretically I’m telling “the world”, I dare you to actually pack your bags and make the journey to “paradise”.