LABADIE VILLAGE, Haiti- “I live in my own little world, but it’s okay, they know me here.”
I read this painted on an inside panel of a boat taxi as I rode into Labadie village on the north coast of Haiti. I had paid 60 cents to ride in a tap tap (the back of a pickup truck with 20 other people) from Cap-Haitien to Labadie beach and then 10 gourde, or 25 cents, for a boat to the village. The Royal Caribbean cruise lines leases a beach called Labadie which is near to the village, though in reality, it is thousands of miles away. There is a large fence that surrounds the beach where 6,000 cruise ship passengers play in the water for a few hours before being swept off to another play place.
The cruise line passengers are not permitted to land on Haiti proper. Apparently, they feel it is safer that way.
Where the cruise ship passengers play is where the road ends. To go further, you need to go by boat. There is no road access into Labadie village.
“We sit here all day because we don’t have work,” a group of Haitian men explained to me in the village of Labadie on the north coast of Haiti. They were all smiling really big as they spoke.
I don’t think I have ever looked upon a group of idle men seeming so happy to tell me that they did not have to go to work. Usually, these statements flow contiguously with sallow faces and are often followed up with, “It is very bad here.” But these men did not say this, rather, they stared off across their village, which sits in a cove accessible only by sea, and asked me what I thought of their home.
“It is very beautiful here,” I had to admit. The sun was shinning, the sea lapped against the shore not 100 meters from where I stood, and a green range of hills rose up out of the village floor to a blue sky above. The men agreed with me and laughed.
“We look at this all day,” one of the men said and waved his arm out to present the scene that stretched out before us, “because nobody here works.”
“The problem with Haiti,” one of the men began, “is that everybody is poor.”
“But everybody talks to each other here,” I replied, “not like in America where everyone just walks straight ahead without talking to anyone.”
“Yes,” one of the men picked up the refrain with laughter, “that is all we do, we sit and talk to each other.”
The men continued to laugh, and I did not have the heart to remind them that the Royal Caribbean Cruise lines reputedly employs 200 people from around their village of 5,000. I just laughed along, and thought it refreshing that a group of full grown, healthy looking men could sit around all day chatting with me in the sun without starving to death.
“I think that it may be difficult for you here,” one of the men spoke, “you walk here and everyone wants to talk with you.”
“This is why I travel,” I confirmed.
Imagine the traveler’s disappointment when they find the end of the rainbow only to realize that they can’t stay.
“But you were charging $25 a night just three months ago,” I pleaded with the owner of Norm’s Place in Labadie.
“Well the situation in Haiti has changed,” Norm’s wife spoke without remorse.
The new price was $40 per night to stay in her abandoned hotel, the last hotel to remain open in the village of Labadie.
“But there is nobody traveling here!” I continued my haggle.
“That is the price, you can pay it or not.”
I offer $30 — no — I offer $35 — no, the price is $40. I then offered $80 for three nights, the highest price that I have ever offered to pay for accommodation in 10 years of travel.
“$40 per night is the price,” the woman spoke again.
“I will pay $80 for three nights or leave tomorrow,” I restated my position, figuring that this business owner would want the additional $40.
40 USD per night was the price.
As I walked off the boat into Labadie, I asked a young man, who was a fellow passenger on the boat, where I could find Norm’s Place — the hotel I wanted to stay in. He said that he would show me, and we walked together along the shore, through a boat workshop, and up and down little paths that wove in between small cubicle houses made from concrete and rebar that were seeming splattered down upon the earth in random order.
Villages seldom abide by any semblance of a grid system. Villages are much too organic to grow straight.
The path twited between houses, and small children ran to the doors of their home to watch my approach. One pioneering group yelled out “Good morning” over and over again. I returned the greeting twice just to realize that I would be quickly caught in this call and response cycle for infinity if I did not break it off fast. So I walked with young man, whose name was Evans, through the streets of his village.
“How many people live here?” I asked him.
4,600 was his reply.
I then asked him if he liked living here in Labadie. His eyes sparkled and his lips broke into a deep smile as he nodded his approval of his home village.
On first glance, the small stretch of land known as Labadie that rides between the sea below and the hills above is beautiful. Evans’ smile indicated to me that this impression could be long lasting.
Evans left me at the gate to Norm’s Place and I went in to squabble about the price. I walked out once and ventured through town in search of another hotel. I found Evans in front of his home. I told him that the price of Norm’s was too expensive for me, and he gave directions to another hotel. This hotel was closed. A sign on the door read “by reservation only.” I returned to Norm’s and paid 40 USD for a single night.
During the course of my walks that day I ran into Evans again. I found him working in a carpenter’s studio in front of his home.
“Are you a carpenter?” I asked.
He confirmed my rather base observation by holding up the circular saw that he was holding in his hand. He lead me into his workshop. The little shack was lined with shelves, boards, half finished projects, nails, and saw dust. Outside of the workshop were piles of scrap wood. Evans said that he helps builds houses, boats, but seemed most proud of his finish carpentry. He showed me some shelves that he made, and then a little model boat. But his real pride was inside his home.
We walked together across the path and through the front door of his concrete cubicle. Behind the front door was a bare gray concrete room filled with ornate, well carved, and glistening wooden furniture. There were a few couches and a chair or two.
“Did you make these?” I asked rhetorically.
He answered that he did, and smiled as I looked over his handiwork. Beyond the end of the road in Haiti there are men who still take pride in lagging behind the world of plastic, assembly lines, and fabricated wood. Here there are people who put time into their professions and allow themselves to be defined by their trade. The carpenter seemed to put himself into his work, he took his time, and as I watched him work, he did so with a smile.
“The problem with Haiti is that people work too hard here,” a young Haitian man told me as I was sitting by the bay of Labadie.
“What is your work?” I asked him.
“I am a diver. I work on that boat over there for a Cuban man.”
I had just seen him wading to shore in his underwear a moment before. I asked him about his work. He told me that he dives for lobster, conch, crab, and fish.
“Do you use any gear?” I asked, thinking of the reports I have read of skin divers going far down below the sea on their own power and lung air.
He looked at me and tried to figure out my words. I rephrased the question, “Do you use an air tank like SCUBA diving?”
He said that he did.
“How do you catch the fish?”
He made a motion with his fingers to indicate that he shot them with a spear gun.
“Tonight there will be a dance there,” the diver spoke as he pointed off towards the center of the village, “and voodoo.”
I nodded my head.
He then added, “and putas.”
I said that I may go.
He asked if I wanted to buy honey. I said that was not exactly what I was looking for. The diver’s father was a honey gatherer, he would go into the forest and smoke the bees out of their hives and take the honey. He talks of the health benefits of taking one spoon of honey each morning. I imagined sticky honey spewing all over the contents of my bag.
We then talked about traveling.
“I have traveled twenty times in my life,” the diver told me, and then added that the place that he wanted to travel to most was Miami.
“There are a lot of Haitians there,” I added.
He knew this already.
Hello My Niggah
“Hello my niggah!” I was greeted by a 10 year old Haitian boy as I rounded a corner in Labadie Village.
“Oh! you speak English?” I exclaimed in surprise.
The boy stared at me blankly. Apparently, hello my niggah was the first English phrase this boy had learned. I can only hope it serves him well someday.
I walked through the town center of Labadie. There was probably around 100 people just sitting and standing around in groups, those who could afford it were drinking beer, others just talked and watched the sea. We were right by the boat dock, and everyone would watch the passengers come into town and leave. I chatted with a group of men.
I answered the standard questions:
Where are you from?
What are you doing here?
Where are you staying?
How long have you been in Haiti?
What do you think of here?
At the end of this conversation I made a graceful exit. I walked over to a small park area with concrete benches. I passed a large, muscular Haitian man who was standing alone. We had the standard chat. I think he told me that he had been to New York. Our conversation was friendly, the man smiled at me, I smiled back. I walked on.
On the way back through, I was met by this same man. He was with a group of friends now, he began showing off. He walked up to me aggressively and yelled something in Creole at me. I turned and asked him what he wanted.
“I wasn’t talking to you!” he yelled, “Do you speak Creole!?!”
He then yelled something in Creole at me again. Another large man was with him, and the two made to box me in. The other man spoke in English — “He wants to know if you speak Creole?” — as he made to walk around to the other side of me, essentially blocking me in.
I saw what was coming, a machismo event. The men were showing off my trying to bully me.
I walked away without reply.
The two men followed for a few paces, and gave up the spectacle.
This was the first and only time I was challenged in Haiti, and the event was slight. But it did provide me with with another look at the culture. Men act macho in many places of the world. They often devise these power plays where they try to tell you what to do to see if you will obey. Sometimes it means sitting with them, sometimes it means crossing the street to talk, sometimes they will try to intimidate you, sometimes it is just a pointless order to see if you will follow it. These situations are not usually dangerous, it is just a group of dogs trying to determine who is the alpha-male. A traveler is a stray dog on a pack’s turf, and he sometimes will be tested.
If you don’t play along the event will often be called a no-contest. They men will laugh with their friends and act like they chased you away, or they will taunt you as you go.
Fine by me.
I was walking passed the soccer pitch in the center of Labadie. It was afternoon, the sun was shinning, the weather warm. Everybody was standing around in the village in little social circles talking. They all would watch as I walked by. Some would call out to me, sometimes I would stop to talk, sometimes I would just keep walking. The soccer pitch was full of young Haitians. The men stood in circles with the men. The women sat in gossip groups with the women. There was a cow chewing cud in the middle of everything.
As I walked by a woman called out to me, and waved her hand for me to walk over to her. It was apparent that she was not requesting that I stop walking and talk with her, she was ordering me to do so. I obeyed.
I walked across the soccer field to her group. She was probably around 25 years old, and the other women in her group were around the same age. They were sitting down on a tree stump or a ruined concrete wall or something, and I was standing over them. They looked like they were about ready to laugh.
“Where do you sleep?” the girl that called me over asked in French.
“At Norm’s,” I answered simply.
“Ok, let’s go!” the girl roared in English, stood up, and made to take me by force.
I stepped back with eyes open wide, teetering on the verge of a fantastic abduction.
The group of girls doubled over with laughter. I muttered a quick “I am married” and made a very fast get away.
I flattered myself with a fear for her seriousness.
One of my biggest disappointments in Labadie was that I could not afford to stay there longer. I had enough cash to support myself for three or four days at $25 a night for a bed, not enough for $40. I was interested in how this village sustained itself, how these men who boasted that they did not work obtained the resources to eat, about the forces that kept this little village by the sea afloat, smiling, joking, and laughing.
The Royal Caribbean cruise lines has leased a beach near the village of Labadie, and I was curious to observe how these monstrous ships that appear in the harbor every other day affected this little town. My guess was that the ships docked in a bubble, but I was curious to gauge the residual effects.
I shrug, there are more places in the world for travel, there are more villages where I can live for a price that I am willing to afford. I left Norm’s place the next morning as promised, still amazed that they would not give me any sort of discount to continue being the only guest they had in a week.
I pocketed my notebook where I had collected the above conversations, I gathered my camera where I had collected the above photos, I walked to the dock, boarded a boat, and watched Labadie fade into memory.
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