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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.