Surf Haiti

Most mornings, I was invited into conversation by sassy Jamelian women on their way to the market. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, we packed our way into the back of the rickety yet proud pick-up trucks, known as tap-taps, which serve as Haiti public transportation, and dashed off east towards Kabik beach. At first I was secretly studied. Eyes slowly wandered my way, starting at my sandal clad feet, moving up, examining my brightly patterned shorts, and small hiking day pack. Being the only white face, I stood out like pink highlighter in a science textbook, yet I ignored the glares. Not because I was shy, but to play the the game that usually ensued.

Once on the road the chatting became boisterous as friends and colleagues exchanged stories, vented their daily frustrations, and told jokes. I eavesdropped and gleaned what I could from the conversations with my creole and I observed without looking overly interested the beautiful scene of camaraderie that unfolded daily before my eyes.

Picture of tap tap by Andy Morgan http://www.andymorganwrites.com/haiti-tap-tap-magic/
Picture of a tap tap by Andy Morgan http://www.andymorganwrites.com/haiti-tap-tap-magic/

The passengers would lose themselves for a moment, caught up in telling the howabouts of the day, and then realize that I was awkwardly sitting in their midst. Looking to the other riders one women would usually say, “I wonder if he speaks Creole?” The game would begin. They would whisper comments about me to see if I could understand. I would look them in the eye, smile, but not answer until they directly addressed me. Then one would say, “Eske ou pale Kreyol?” “Do you speak Creole?”

“Oui. Mwen ka pale kreyol si ou ba-m yon bon manje kreyol!” Yes, I would reply, I can speak Creole if you give me some good creole food!” The truck would erupt in chuckles and then I would then get bombarded by a string of questions.

“Do you like Haiti? Where did you learn Creole? Do you have a wife, kids? What are you doing here?”

I would try to explain that I was single and in Haiti to surf, but hardly anybody even knew what surfing was. I had developed an elevator speech of sorts, saying, “I have a board which I use to ride on ocean waves.” My captive audience always listened attentively, but no one understood what surfing was. After my explanation, the most common response was an eager,

“So you fish?”

“No, I surf,” I would firmly correct.

“Ah, we understand, so you go swimming,”

“No, it’s different!” I would say putting my hands close to my body, standing up in a classic surf-rider stance, trying to mimic myself on a wave.

“You swim in the water then,” they would excitedly guess again.

“Kinda…” I would reply defeated.

Surfing alone at Kabik Beach
Surfing alone at Kabik Beach

This would continue for several minutes until I reached my stop. Bidding my new friends farewell, I would pay the driver the 25 goud I owed for the ride, or 50 cents, and step off the truck. These responses made me wonder if there actual existed a surf community in Haiti. I had been there for two weeks and hadn’t encountered a single other surfer, local, or expat in the water.  

When I arrived at Kabik beach, I slowly unsheathed my surfboard from it’s bag. I stashed it with the manager’s permission at the restaurant that functions as the headquarters for Surf Haiti. There was certainly surf, lots of it, fun waves in a picturesque palm lined bay, surrounded by steep verdant mountains. Yet the small Haitian surf community seemed interestingly absent from the scene. I paddled out each day alone wondering where the surfers had gone.

——

I came to Haiti for this reason, to explore the surf, and meet a small group of locals riding the lesser know waves of the Caribbean sea. When I discovered Surf Haiti I was living in the Dominican Republic looking for a good adventure, and the opportunity to become an sufer- errant, in an era when most waves have been well mapped and all the wild fruits of surf travel already picked.

Marco walking to the beach
Marco walking to the beach

At first I was content riding the empty waves. I started surfing in Southern California, where surf spots resemble the local interstates at rush hour, and where surfers fight for waves like lions attacking small game. Yet after several days I yearned for companionship and the chance to compete and even scuffle for my waves.

Then one day I arrived. The fickle morning winds had blown out the surf, which was big, but now just a choppy mess. With nowhere else to be I waited to see if the conditions would improve in the afternoon. To my delight they did. It was a perfect cloudless day, the wind stopped and the waves turned into glassy walls of water. The day got even better when the locals finally showed up, all six or seven of them, walking to the beach with boards under their arms ready to paddle out.

I introduced myself, “I’m Nick, what’s your name?

“Samuel,” the surfer I approached calmly told me.

“I’ve been surfing out here and I never see you guys,” I excitedly said.

“Its because we have been in school and usually surf in the afternoon, the waves are better,” Samuel replied.

Overjoyed I clutched my board and headed to the water with Haiti’s — hidden in plain sight — surfers.

Ronal dropping into a wave at pistons
Ronald dropping into a wave at pistons

One by one we strapped on our leashes, did rushed stretches, too anxious to enjoy the good surf, and jumped in. Paddling out, I watched the first surfer in the water already catching waves, as the whole group hooted and hollered for their friend. Each wave was a cause for celebration and their were plenty to go around. Now in the locals territory, however, I waited respectfully on the shoulder until they started calling me into waves. After each set of rides we sat together exchanging high fives and sharing our stoke until the next set arrived.

—–

I would surf with this group almost everyday for the next two months getting to know them better both in and out of the water. They helped me understand  Haiti in numerous ways and unabashedly shared their lives. When the waves were bad Papito, gave me history lessons, Alex practiced his english, and Samuel joked around like any other sixteen year old.

Most of the surfers were no older that twenty-two so we connected easily. Standing in the street chewing sweet, freshly cut sugar cane, we talked about girls, surfing, shared stories, and our hopes and dreams for the future.

Samuel in perfect position at Pistons
Samuel in perfect position at Pistons

Haiti was hard. I stood out everywhere. I was for most people a symbol of power and privilege, in a country still suffering from years of colonialism, corruption, poverty, and natural disasters. Yet, in Kabik, it was different. There weren’t rich and poor, white and black. We were just surfers. The only distinction was the grace and ease exuded by the locals on waves and in this category they had me beat.

In Jacmel the best wifi was at the lovely Hotel Florita. There, I often crossed paths with other groups of foreigners, most of whom were in Haiti doing mission work. Seeing one another we exchanged pleasantries. “Who are you here with?” was always their first question. It was always presumed that I was working with some organization, building a church, teaching the bible, or digging a well. “No, I’m here by myself, I’m just surfing,” I would retort sipping on a cold prestige, my beer induced lethargy making me keep my answers short. What am I doing, building, teaching? 

This question felt odd. I could only think of how much I was being taught and given. Papito taught me about Haitian history, folklore and voodoo gods. Before surfing in earnest he would always look out at the horizon and thank Metague, the god of the sea, and then turning my way he would urge me to do the same. A laugh would usually slip out of my mouth, and sensing my humor he would say I could also message Metague, “Mesi” with Whatsapp, if that was more my style.

Haiti?

Haiti wakes up fresh in its strong body, cities stretch before they run, and the countryside groggily walks to the porch to check the weather.

Haiti is magical realism. It’s colors I didn’t know the eye could see. It’s a young boy who learned from the birds to fly. It’s Boukman fighting for freedom as a beetle.

Haiti is a quiet women whose face holds back pain, silently, like a dam bellow a long river.

Haiti is that same dam when it bursts.

Haiti is cheery organ music at the end of the day, and a symphony of street sounds. “Dlo, Dlo, Dlo,” and the sizzle fried bananas.

Haiti is mountains on mountains. And waves on waves.

Haiti is a beating drum, broken systems, a rebellious rhythm. Perseverance.

Haiti is inspiration and desperation.

Haiti is polite hellos and sassy exchanges. It’s excitement to see a friend you just saw the day before. It’s sharing with neighbors and dominos with the boys.

Haiti is spice.

Haiti is si bondye vle, if god wants.

Haiti is being comfortable. Except on Sundays, Haiti is suits and ties.

Haiti?

Haiti is never hidden but still always mystery.

—-

P.S.

I took a break from my blog for a while. I needed some time to walk barefooted, and feel Haiti, but I’ll be sharing more soon!

African Wisdom

One of the reasons I decided to come to Jacmel is for the surf. It is home to Haiti’s only small surfing community and countless waves. After the long 12 hour trip from Santiago in the Dominican Republic I arrived with my back pack and six foot board bag in tow.

It is not an easy object to travel with. Its long and awkward so when we arrived my first thought was, how am I getting this to the beach? In my mind my only option was to find somebody with a car or van to help me transport my board. I discussed this with my friend, Saint Ibert, in my workable creole, however when he motioned to a small scooter at the curb I doubted that I communicated effectively my needs. When I asked him again he said, “My friend with a car is not available so we’ll go with a motor taxi.”

I immediately thought, how are three people going to fit on this tiny scooter clutching a surfboard under our arms, be able to drive, and not damage anything in the process? I expressed my concerns, yet he told me just to get on. I sat down behind the driver, with my arm lifted ready to hold on to my precious wave catching cargo, when instead of placing the board under my arm, I feel it rest on the top of my head as my friend climbed on the back.

We took off in perfect balance. Our hands only had to stabilize the board over our heads, with gravity and other simple ergonomics doing most of the work. As we zipped though the busy streets, I saw we were not the only ones carrying things in this way. All the vendors as well had their products perched perfectly, like crowns of the working class, on the tops of their heads.

At first I felt a little stupid to not have thought of this. Yet quickly this thought left my mind, and I came to admire the ingenuity of what we and everybody else were doing. It was one of those special moments in travel when I realize that each culture I come across is so rich in another wisdom foreign to me.

This is African wisdom, which was carried here by the slaves who were brought from various places in Africa and forced to work for nearly 300 years, mainly in the lucrative sugar industry of the once French colony. Slaves from Guinea, Congo, Sierra Leone, Benin, Nigeria, and many other countries, all brought to the Caribbean a knowledge of life, nature, medicine, food, language, and spirituality from their home countries, which has either evolved to become something new, something creole, or stayed the same.

The way mainly female vendors or machan transport goods on top of their heads is just one example. I find it fascinating, intelligent, and very beautiful. One day I asked one machan why she carries her goods in this way and she casually replied, “Its just easier, my mom taught me and its how I sell [my products].”

This past week I ventured out to make a few portraits of these women. Their work is not easy, but they walk with ease as they go to the market or stroll through the city. Its a small glimpse into the Haitian culture, which is undoubtedly a glimpse into Africa and all its wisdom.

First Thoughts

Last Thursday, I stood atop The Citadel La Ferriere high in the jagged mountains that meet the northern coastal plains of Cap Haitian, Haiti. My friend Cenatus, a Haitian I met while studying in Dominican Republic, proudly explained to me that after the Haitian Independence, Henri Christophe, a military general, built the citadel to protect the nascent nation from the French who were eager to regain their prized Caribbean colony.

The path to the citadel
The path to the citadel

Together we explored this impressive feat of architecture that straddles the ridge-line of one of the prominent peaks of the area. Its strategically placed to prevent an invasion where the rugged geography of the area leaves an opening for would be invaders. It is large tool of war and contains 365 windows that allow for everything from small weapons to large artillery to be fired in any direction.

We wandered for a few hours exploring its various rooms and taking in its grand views. Despite its impressiveness, the site was almost empty except for a few tourist we saw on the path bellow. The citadel, like Haiti’s true history felt unknown and almost forgotten.

Preparing to come here, I was consistently asked the question from friends and family, “why Haiti?” which in its self says a lot more. Haiti in mosts’ minds is not just another destination, its soul stealing voodoo, dust and rubble from the 2010 earthquake, and poverty, which is lessened slightly by NGOs and missionary groups doing charity as they evangelize.

UN
UN “Blue Helmets” in Cap Haitien

Its not to say that these things don’t exist. Various interventions, other structural issues, and exploitation certainly have created crushing poverty. In these desperate living conditions criminality can thrive, and as my friends here have told me, there are voodoo priests and priestesses who hope to do harm. In addition, unemployment is high and there are many issues around quality and access to education. But there is another Haiti.

In Jacmel, where I am currently living, life is not only normaI, but in fact, extraordinarily vibrant. I can walk down to the boardwalk, which is lined with colorful mosaics and is filled with crowds of students that gather to study and socialize. Often there are cultural events, theater, and music. The most well know is Carnaval. I also have my surfboard and in the past week I have surfed almost every day an empty wave in the emerald colored waters of a palm tree lined beach with a few friendly locals.

Eating
Eating “bouillon” or soup with friends

Here, I recognize I have considerable privilege, and despite my best attempts to immerse myself in daily life, the Haiti I see will be different from the one Haitians see. Yet I feel I can start by exploring the Haiti I glimpsed at the Citadel. A Haiti of immense dignity and power that as a once nation of slaves, through the creation the creole language, and voodoo, achieved its independence as the first free nation in the Americas.

Celebrating Haitian Flag day in Bassin Bleu
Celebrating Haitian Flag day in Bassin Bleu

Over the next several weeks I would like to show this spirit of the Haitian people, which I see in the determined eyes of students as they study at the library, in the resilience of people who deal with another blackout by passing the night talking in the street with neighbors, in the playfulness of friends playing dominos, and of course, when a drum beat rouses everybody from their seats into dance.

My intention is not to ignore Haiti’s poverty, rather it’s to look past simple economic and development indicators, which only show Haiti’s deficits and take a deeper at this complicated and beautiful place.

The Jacmel boardwalk
The Jacmel boardwalk

El Cantante

My university commute is a short ten minute stroll through my neighborhood. It’s relatively quiet most of the time, a rare thing in the Dominican Republic, where the grinding gears and roaring mufflers of delivery motorcycles, honking horns, and blaring bachata music seem omnipresent.

There is still classic Dominican hustle. The men at the barber shop engaging in their usual rapid fire debates about sports and politics, groups camped out in the shade playing never ending rounds of dominos, and the industrias ambulantes or mobile vendors selling fruit, vegetables, and an amalgam of other random products. Lots of characters to say the least.

However, one in particular stands out, Jose, who comes everyday to the neighborhood to sing, see his friends, and greet pedestrians. I first met Jose, like most do. He had just finished singing a few verses of a passionate bolero with his deep commanding voice, when he held out his hand as I passed, greeting me, “Hello brother, how are you?”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor most of my time here, he has been on the street, singing for the masses, and greeting all who pass by with visible caring and sincerity. Jose is in a wheelchair. I would later learn he has been disabled most of his life from polio, yet despite this and the hot caribbean sun, he comes daily like clock work.

It is not hard to see Jose has spirit, that he has struggled and overcame adversity, and that he is one of the enlightened few who live among us. Talking with him recently, I learned he was born in Mao, a province outside of Santiago. He was stricken with polio at birth, yet he succeeded in getting an education, studying law, and traveling the world as para-athlete.

He told me, “When I was young, my father thought I was useless and that I could only stay in the house, so I became independent and distanced myself from him.”

After traveling, Jose settled down, married, and had three kids, two of which have recently graduated from the university, and one who will finish this year.

Jose, now almost 57 years old, shared with me that he travels close two one and a half miles each way to my neighborhood because he likes the environment and has many friends. And more importantly because he wants to contribute to something. He no longer works, yet he wants to keep busy, and build a stronger sense of love, community, and connection.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

He explained, “I believe in love…when I greet somebody with a song, a look, or a good smile, I feel as if I was knocking on the door of their heart.”

Jose, told me that there is beauty all around that we too often times we fail to see. That beauty exists in nature and people and that we can create it through our actions.

Everyday he comes to enjoy the everyday blessings of life and share with the community his gifts.

He is also a poet and is writing a book of his poetry called Viente poemas y una mujer, or twenty poems and a girl, in which he hopes to capture this beauty.

My relationship with Jose has taught me a valuable lesson of what it means to live with joy and purpose. Whenever I was perhaps feeling a little lost to my ambitions — some days trudging to class, my head full of thoughts, unsatisfied with myself, longing for more, to accomplish more, be more, and have more — Jose helped me to ground myself in all the good that already exists.

He showeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAd me that the world, even with its imperfections, greets us everyday with countless songs and smiles — from the Joses of our communities, by trees that sway in the wind, friends who treat us to coffee, and all the other simple, yet simply majestic everyday occurrences, we need to do nothing else to enjoy, but be present.

— — — —

In other news, I am currently in Haiti. It is a very inspiring, yet tough place to travel and blog. I am getting myself established here and will be sharing next week some of my first impressions and experiences. Stay tuned!

Memory’s Hands

I’ve been living in the Dominican Republic for the past eight months as a study abroad student at the Pontifical Catholic University Mother and Teacher in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic. My adventures have been many, yet I have been living a life to which, many times, only I, my journal, and a select few family members are privy.

 The other day Sitting on the patio of a friends house in a small mountain community outside of the city as thick fog covered the mountains, and the cool of night approached, I thought to myself, “this is too much beauty just for me!”

My days here pass like dreams that fade into the hands of memory not capable of holding them, and I wonder, why do I travel if not to share, to be a bridge?

I recently stubbled upon an Annie Dillard quote, which got me thinking, and motivated me to put the final, imperfect, touches on this blog. “Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

My time in the Dominican Republic is ending, and I have kept many experiences to my self, yet now heeding the advice of Dillard, I feel the urge to start depositing more of what my travels have shown me in safer places than the hands of memory.

The good new is I’m only completing a chapter in this year and I have more travels to come. In a week I’m leaving for Haiti and other Caribbean islands where I will spend the rest of the summer.

For now, to mark the start of this endeavor, I wanted to leave you all with a few images from a recent trip to the colonial city in Santo Domingo and a few Dominican scenes from a place that always is performing  for the curious viewer.