Monday, May 14, 2012

His Name is Filbert

Ile a Vache, Haiti - Imagine you are a twelve year old Haitian boy from a fishing family.  Your mother died while giving birth to you and despite the presence of your father's many female friends and their many offspring, you feel alone and do not receive much affection or support. Besides, there is no substitute for your mother. ... You have never been cuddled, or nursed, or sung a lullaby.  Your stomach is constantly growling and you only eat rice, porridge and the many mangos that grow abundantly around you.   You don't even eat the fish your father catches, because that is reserved to sell to the tourists.  You have gone to school for only one year in your entire life, so you don't speak French, the language of your country, only Creole.  French is reserved only for those who can afford to go to school, which costs a paltry $50 per year, but still your family cannot afford.  Despite your plight, you are a happy, gentle boy with a mega watt smile.  Your name is Filbert.
Like Filbert, there are many children with very similar backgrounds.  We met many of them as we pulled into Port Morgan on Ile a Vache, a small idyllic island on the southeast corner of Haiti.  these children immediately rowed up to Begonia in their dugout canoes bearing gifts of mango and breadfruit and asking if we had any odd jobs for them to do on the boat.  Everyone was eager to be the first to reach our boat to then be the "designated agent" and go-to person for us.  This has happened in many other countries and can be overwhelming since you are just pulling in and getting your bearings.  Many times people would come out and just stay there looking at us, which I think this is a strategy for us to give them things so they would just go away.  Once someone even came out to the boat about 10pm and I happened to walk out into the cockpit to get some fresh air and was stunned to see someone in their canoe looking up at me. 
Other than this minor annoyance, the island is beautiful and although we have never been to any other part of Haiti and did not visit the mainland, Ile a Vache seems far removed from the way we hear people live in the capital of Port au Prince.  There is a real sense of community on the island.  The dugout canoes belong to the village and are available for anyone to use. 
There is no leader to speak of and from what we gathered when we ask villagers is that a leader was not needed since there is no crime there and community members help each constructing houses, etc. so there would not be much for a leader to arbitrate. There is a fancy hotel, owned by a French cruiser who never left, up on one hill, but the rest of the island consists of small one room houses made of clay or concrete with either thatched or tin roofs.  Animals like goats, cows, horses and dogs share the dirt paths with the people.  The village is not set up in any particular organized structure, and most of it is covered in greenery and fruit trees. 
We were pleased to see there was a library that had been constructed by funds from cruisers from previous years.  There is a nice school.   We were surprised to see a solar-powered cell phone charging station set up in the middle of nowhere by the cell phone company itself.... But it is a great way for the company to ensure all villagers use their service!  Talk about a monopoly!  We were also surprised to see there is a bar/disco for the young kids to hang out. No electricity, no running water.  There is a central water pump about a 45 minute walk away into the hills at the midpoint between this village and the next.  So you see people making their daily walk to get their fill, and plastic containers or bottles of any kind are a hot commodity.  Many of the people approaching our boat requested if we had any to spare. Most people wear clothing that is barely held together; many people are barefoot or wear flip flops; but even when the flip-flops are worn way down and no longer work for their feet, they are cut down into pieces to work as buoys for fishing nets.  Everything is repurposed, reused, repaired, recycled, re-everything.
The hotel employs many villagers at a rate of $5 per day.  Other people are fishermen, and we saw many selling homemade food along the paths of the village.  We did hire a couple of young men to help with little projects... Not necessarily because we needed the projects done, but to help them out.   We were not surprised to find out that two of them had simply decided not to attend school for the day because they could help their families out more by working and making their $5 a day.  We did not know the daily rate and ended up paying $10 to a teenager who hoisted Sebastian up the mast, a total of a 30-minute job, and his eyes practically popped out of his head!
Between all this, we had our daily visits by Filbert.  He was quite shy and very respectful... A very pleasant manner.  The first day Sofia made him a bracelet out of yarn which I noticed he had on for the remaining time of our stay.  Little by little he would spend more time with us, swimming with the kids, playing in the dinghy and eventually would have lunch and snacks with us once in a while.  We introduced him to PBJs!!!! In my broken French I kept asking him about school, and in his Creole he had answered that there was no money.  Initially we did not understand if the school was closed because the school did not have money, or if it was because of the May 1 holiday or what.  Every day we got more information, and one of the other boys told us that Filbert did not go to school because his family could not afford it.  When we found out how much it really cost, there was no way we could not help this boy.
Initially when meeting with the Director of the school, we were quite frustrated. She ticked off the many obstacles preventing Filbert from going to school:  first they are approaching the end of the school year and we could not enroll him now for the Fall semester; next, what grade to put him in?  He is 12 years old but really needs to start school from scratch but there is no way she could enroll him in class with six  year olds.  He also could not go in class with other kids his age since he would be too behind.  Most importantly, the Director felt Filbert lacked support in his home.  By Haitian standards, Filbert was considered poor.  There were many mouths to feed in his house and Filbert was more useful helping his father fish or doing chores around the house.  The Director also confided in us that Filbert's current stepmother was not very nice to him.  She felt the main obstacle for many of the children was not money for the school fees, but their lack of proper nutrition.  With a growling stomach, it is very difficult to concentrate.  We could not believe that here we were willing to help one child, but were told that basically there was nothing they could do to help Filbert.  We all agreed to brainstorm and come back the following day with some ideas.
The next day we were a little demotivated.  The director was not at the school at the agreed upon time.  We were leaving the next day and getting ready for our passage.  But we thought we would give it one last chance... I mean, if we could make an impact on this child's life, we had to make the effort, so we went back.  And we were lucky we did!  Filbert had brought his father to the meeting, and we were all able to agree that we would find a tutor to work with him one-on-one during the summer months and if that went well we could enroll him in school in the Fall.  We put some metrics in place to monitor Filbert's progress and set up a way to pay the school directly.  We all felt very good with the outcome and if all goes well we can have made just a little bit of difference in a country where much of the aid received does not really ever go to the people who need it.  In fact, we heard that many of the donations sent to the country after the big earthquake a couple years back, are actually being SOLD to the people of Haiti and along the border to the Dominicans by the government.  Someone like Filbert just does not have much of a chance without a direct sponsor.
We left Ile a Vache with a great sense of connection with the place and the people.  It is definitely an experience that was unexpected and we will hold it close to our hearts.

Santiago de Cuba - Just saying the word "Cuba" elicits an image of cigars, old automobiles, rum, black and white photos from the 1950's of American tourists living it up in a tropical paradise, everyone wearing fedoras and dancing to "son" music.  But it also conjures up an image of Fidel in army fatigues, Che with his beard and "boina" hat, revolution, communism and a feeling of the "forbidden land." 
We never really had the island as a destination on our itinerary. But, interestingly we have been meeting many people along our journey who had in fact sailed there.  Many cruisers had said the sailors were very much welcome and the was no problem whatsoever.  The more we spoke to people and gathered information, the more it seemed very do-able.  So we went!
Upon arrival to the marina, we were greeted by many officials.  I say "officials" because of their positions and duties, but they were quite informal, joking with us, interacting with the children, suggesting places to visit, etc.  Still they were serious and very committed to the task each had to complete. 

Aside from the normal immigrations and customs officers, we had some additional people who we never experienced before.  One person was in charge of pest control.  He went through the boat looking at the food and the boat in general looking for any insects we might have brought from Haiti.  He did in fact find a questionable mosquito, caught it in a little vial to take to a lab for investigation, and he ended up fumigating our boat. Another woman was a doctor who had to review and write down all our medicine we had on board and make sure we were in good health.  Because the mosquito had been found, she was concerned we would get sick with dengue, so she told me that I must take everyone's temperatures twice a day and report the results back to her.  I had thought this would be kind of informal reporting, but, no, she came back to Begonia in a paddle boat the next day and made us take our temperatures in front of her.  Ironically, she did not even have a thermometer, so we had to use ours which was in Fahrenheit, and the doctor did not know if 97.5 degrees was good or bad.  
We also had a food inspector come and make us throw out any produce brought from Haiti (and we had tons of mangos!!!!) and made sure all my eggs were hard boiled.  We had the requisite dog come onboard and sniff for narcotics, but we also had two men come onboard who took all our handheld electronics, like VHF radio, GPS, EPIRB, as well as all our flares and taped them up in a bundle.  We were strictly told we could not access these again until we left the country.  The entire process took about four hours, during which none of us were allowed off the boat.
The marina itself is the only place in Santiago to stay.  You cannot anchor anywhere just on your own.  It is a little rundown, made of concrete docks that are either half built or half destroyed.  There are no cleats for your lines.  The building has showers and bathrooms that are very, very clean, but have no running water, no toilet paper and no toilet seats.  No internet.  There is a restaurant that actually closes at five p.m. - not open for dinner.  So, taking all this into consideration, we decided not to stay at the marina, but anchor out just in front of it.  We still had to pay (less than if we were docked) and the anchorage area is a designated spot in not very clean water.

I should tell you that there are two currencies operating simultaneously in Cuba.  There is the Cuban peso, officially used by the locals only, and then there is the C.U.C (pronounced "kook").  This is the currency is convertible and used only by the tourists and is basically one to one with the US dollar.  A taxi or bus ride is charged one price in pesos for the Cubans and a different price in CUC for the tourists.  It is quite confusing. An average salary is paid in pesos and is equivalent to about 20 CUC per month (which in turn is equivalent to about $20!!!!) and while the citizens still get monthly ration books for staples like flour, sugar, rice, beans, coffee, etc.  the rations are small and really only last a week or so, not a month, and the 20 CUC is nothing if you want to buy clothing, a book, a piece of chicken, etc.

And even though higher education is free, and a high percentage of Cubans has a university degree, everyone has a side job.  Many professionals moonlight as a cab drivers or tour guides, or have opened their homes as unofficial restaurants or "pensiones." The few official stores and restaurants that do exist are all priced in CUC are all government owned and run, so the irony is that the government knows people have side jobs in order to afford to buy things.  The government turns a blind eye to this black market that inevitably has to be established and then actually benefits from it by selling the products to the people.  The main government produce market and butchers for example are priced in pesos, but most people have to save and save their pesos for months, and then convert them to CUC if they want to buy anything else.  Even a night out at a restaurant can only be done every once in a while. Many professionals, like the doctors especially, are sent to other countries to gain experience.

The one doctor who came onboard at the marina had lived and worked in Venezuela for many years so she was able to save enough o buy a car and a house.  Even the house though is not officially hers, but leased, since the idea of private property goes against the fundamentals of communism.  If she were to pass away, she cannot just bequeath the house to her son;  he would have to "purchase" it again, meaning he could stay there but pay the government a monthly lease.

It was interesting to listen to the local radio and hear that words and phrases like "revolution," "proletariat," "comrade," "imperialist Yankees," "our struggle," were still being used.  It is like Cuba was lost in time and they don't realize that rhetoric is old school.  We met two twenty-something men who became our unofficial tour guides and we were able to ask them many questions.  They were educated, each spoke three or four languages, and they said the young generation does not buy into the system like the old guard who lived through the revolution and see Castro as a savior.  These young guys see and hear how other live outside and it is human nature to want a better future.  They see the new toys and gadgets like iPads or Blackberrys from the tourists and want a piece of the action too.  Can you believe these two have never seen the internet?!

One can tell that downtown of Santiago, which is the second largest city after Havana, was beautiful in its heyday.  The architecture is spectacular, very European... But everything is extremely run down.  The bones and the detail are all there; what's missing are some major patches on the roof to keep the pigeons out and a new coat of paint!  The government office buildings are impeccable though!

We were able to drive through what was once a wealthier neighborhood where people owned these beautiful homes before the revolution. Many homes had been completely abandoned when families fled the country, and have now been taken over by the government as offices. Again, these are well kept.

Santiago is about a 10 mile ride from the marina.  We normally like to take buses to get the real feeling of a place and be with the locals, but we soon found out the buses here were too erratic.  Sometimes they come ever fifteen minutes and sometimes they don't come at all.  Many people have trucks that are similar to this that transport horses or other animals and have enclosed them - so the police cannot see if they have exceeded the number of legal passengers.  We saw many of these, but could not bring ourselves to ride on them in the immense heat and without air, etc.  so, we opted for taxis, which charge 20 CUCs each way to town (about USD$40 total for us!!!!)  It is no wonder that one of the taxi driver opted to take us back and forth to town instead of going to his official job for the day, since he could make in one day double what he officially makes in a month!  

All along on this trip, it has been easy to just go to a local ATM and take out local currency.  However, this is impossible for those of us with money in a US bank.  There are ATMs for Europeans or other countries, but for us.  In Haiti on tiny Ile a Vache there was no bank nor ATM to speak of, so all we had were a few hundred dollars that we still had leftover from Puerto Rico.  The check in to the country was a couple hundred, each cab ride to and from town was $40, restaurants for tourists were not cheap either and soon it became clear we were not going to be able to afford to stay in Santiago.  We made a quick $10 phone call to Sebastian's mother in Argentina to send us money by Western Union (yes, Western Union, a US based company, is alive and well and works in Cuba!!!... A complete contradiction, because a US bank is not allowed, but Western Union,  so Cubans living in the States can send money to their relatives!).  Coincidentally though my mother-in-law didn't end up having to send the money because we met some Canadians at the marina who had lost their dinghy and were in desperate need of a new one.  We happened to have an extra one to sell, and voila!  Cash flow problem solved! 

Still after a few days, we quickly realized we were ready to leave.  We did not have time to sail or take the train to the north coast to Havana, which will have to wait for if there is a next time.  There were too many restrictions for us to want to stay:  we were not allowed to take our dinghy to any other place but the marina, so we did not visit any nearby beaches, which I am sure would have been beautiful.  The fear is that someone might try to steal the dinghy and flee the country.  The only way to see a beach would be to go by land in yet another very expensive taxi ride.   We could not take our sailboat, because you are not allowed to get off your boat just anywhere.   It was boiling hot and we could not swim next to our boat because it was just nasty.  The power plant next store belching out sulphur and staining our boat, did not help either!  A couple of trips to Santiago and there was not much to do to justify many more visits there.  The main town square has only a big touristy hotel called "Casa Granda" ( not GrandE, but GrandA, for whatever reason) where one could sit and have a very expensive drink or coffee and get bombarded by local Cubans, who are not allowed inside, all begging for money and trying to sell things, at the entrance.

We feel fortunate to have visited and seen Cuba firsthand and form our own opinion of the country even though we spent less time there than we had planned.  It was just too hard on our conscious to know we were spending inside a hotel on one drink more than that the beggar outside would make in month. It was too hard for us to go to check our emails at a place where the locals didn't go because Cubans were not allowed to have access to the internet. It felt suffocating to us, but at least we had the option to leave.  The majority of Cubans do not.  Don't get me wrong.... We loved to have visited Cuba, we just don't know if we'd come every weekend!

NEXT STOP:  Currently in Georgetown, Bahamas and will be making our way through the island to arrive in Florida the first days of June.
Our first meeting with Filbert

Begonia with the Hotel in the background

Beautiful landscape

View of town in Ile a Vache

Solar powered cell phone charging station

Typical Ile a Vache house

Giving the local fishermen one of our sails

Bananas, mangos, breadfruit, etc are abundant

Many goats and sheep run freely

We were able to see a local soccer match

Goal for the local village

Hanging out with local spectators

Swimming buddies

Another village shot

Local library where we have limited internet access

The kids love to have their pictures taken

Walking around the village

Benjie catches a ride back to Begonia

Riding "horseback"

Lambi lunch with Planet Ocean

It is not easy catching a running chick!!!

Making new friends
Meeting with the "Directrice" of the school

With the director of the school, Filbert and his father

That winning smile

In front of his new school

Beautiful calf walking by

Our friends from Planet Ocean offered a movie for the village

Buster Keaton transcends all cultural and language barriers

The audience ebbed and flowed but everyone seemed to enjoy it

Arrival to Santiago de Cuba

Like many ports, there is an old fort

Much more mountanous than we anticipated

Homemade Cuban flag

Like this old car you see many, very well preserved

This barbershop was straighth out of the 1950's... even the Captain has to take care of his appearance once in a while

The balcony and plaza in Santiago where Castro said his first speech to start the revolution

Another barbershop photo

the Santiago Cathedral

The requisite "mojito"

Like the "Buena Vista Social Club," this music hall discovered many great Cuban artists

Santiago street scene

The French Quarter of Santiago

Castro lived here until he was five years old

The Koziuras in Cuba!

Another street scene

Some new sailor friends with two Cubans who each spoke four languages fluently

Visiting another dance hall

The side room in the dance hall filled with pictures from the 1950's

A couple of great Cuban dancers


A tourist ferry

Crossing the bay

Fidel's current house when he comes to Santiago... much nicer than many of the homes there!

More local color

Houses on the water

View from the Fuerte del Morro

Two sentries doing their watch

Where the Spaniards kept their POWs

Another Santiago street scene

Just cruising

Ths sign shows the hours of operation of a small welding business but at the bottom says "Don't bother us!"

Some "Santeria"... hanging a cactus upside down with bows that represent jealousy and envy, etc.  This is used so the owner can rid himself of certain sins.

In the nice part of town.  Former private residence now used as a government office.  Nicely painted and maintained.

Private house appears to be abandoned, but actually there are people living here.

Bye-bye Fidel!