A rugged mountain road in Haiti is an odd place to suddenly remember your childhood, but I began reciting the long-forgotten rosary prayer as I clung to the back of a motorcycle zooming to the top of a cliff, perilously close to the steep edge.
In the dark. With no helmet.
I clenched my teeth and held tight onto the driver, who hung my giant work bag around his neck, and ignored the shouts to slow down from the pack of low-cc cruisers behind us.
Far behind the pack, my colleague, Miami Herald photographer Patrick Farrell, was having the opposite experience. His bike was so under-powered that the driver kept pleading with him in Creole to lean forward as they went up the steep hill so the bike wouldn’t stall and roll backward.
So much for Patrick’s adamant protests about taking motorcycle taxis in a mountainous Haiti.
When Patrick and I decided to visit Île de la Tortue to investigate a recent rash of Haitian migrant boat tragedies at sea, little did we realize it would turn into such an odyssey.
After a six-hour drive through Haiti’s bucolic countryside in a pickup truck, followed by a two-hour rolling voyage on a rickety boat made from logs and a hand-sewn sail, and our two-wheel climb up the mountain in the dark, we finally arrived at the launching point of so many dashed dreams.
Once a favorite pit stop for 17th century pirates, Tortuga is the island made famous by Pirates of the Caribbean films, but there are no movie endings for most of the desperate, starving Haitians who flee from here — and risk sea journeys far more treacherous than the route Patrick and I took to tell their story.
Like the nearby grimy, dusty city of Port-de-Paix, this island in Haiti’s neglected northwest, is where some of the Haiti’s poorest of the poor live. Drought, man-made and natural disasters have all wrecked havoc over the years, stripping away the winds of hope that sail through here with every presidential election, every international community involvement.
“We’ve been forgotten,” Estella Coicou, a mother of a 9-year-old girl born with stumped legs would later tell me. “We don’t have anyone here who represents us. No parliamentarians, no one. Me? I’m never voting again.”
Our negotiations to reach the island began in a restaurant at a filing station in Port-de-Paix, one of Haiti’s largest and most neglected big cities. In the far northwest, it is disconnected from Port-au-Prince, the capital. It has a lawless, cowboy feel.
A local contact put me in touch with Sagesse-Fils Loriston. Loriston owned several wooden sailboats that ferry passengers between the island and mainland and a canoe that would take us up and down the mangrove-lined coastline. Perhaps more important, he was a CASEC or government representative who had a pulse on residents’ plights.
Loriston was well-aware that his picturesque but forgotten island was again becoming a popular launching pad in the Haitian migrant pipeline into the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos Islands and Florida. The people, he kept emphasizing, need jobs, a way to make a living.
There are no schedules for departures, and boats come into any number of ports along the poorly patrolled coastline, including as far away as Saint-Louis du Nord, a rural community east of Port-de-Paix. After making a few calls, Loriston announced that our charter was ready. We had to hurry.
We hopped on the backs of motorcycles and rushed to catch the boat, weaving in and out of traffic along the dusty streets.
At the water’s edge, we encountered our first surprise.
Our charter was neither a recreational fishing boat nor a yacht as Patrick had imagined, given the lengthy negotiations. Instead, it was a motorized, wooden sloop with sails. And it eerily reminded me of the 40-footer that capsized in November off the coast of the Bahamas after five days at sea, and the 28-footer that nearly toppled on Christmas Day in the Turks and Caicos. Seventeen migrants fell to their deaths off Providenciales.
Battered and with peeling blue and white paint, our “charter” was already packed with 21 passengers. Among them: a sleeping baby, a woman suffering from a very painful toothache, and two men who were the only ones wise enough to wear life jackets.
I later learned they all paid the equivalent of $2.32 for the trip.
As I uncomfortably stared at our sloop idling in the water, two young men hoisted Patrick off his feet and plopped him into a rickety canoe. As they turned toward me, I said in Creole, “That’s OK. I am going to walk.” This is probably a good place to mention that I don’t swim.
Several paddles later, we were alongside the sloop as two crew members reached in and ably pulled us aboard despite their thin frames.
Now this is not my first boat ride. My father, in his youth, was a mariner who plied what used to be a thriving trade route between Haiti and the Turks and Caicos, and I regularly travel by boat between islands in the Turks and Caicos chain.
But our charter was neither the Boston Whaler sports fishing boat I’ve grown accustomed to, nor the steel frame commercial merchant ships I’ve grown up with.
There were no seats. No bathroom facilities or even a rail to hold.
I shared a “seat” with a 55-inch flat screen TV resting on someone’s plastic covered mattress, while its owner kept a watchful eye. As I wondered about the luxury goods in a dirt-poor island with no electricity, I quickly realized why some migrants prefer to travel in the hold, rather than on deck.
“The scary thing about these vessels is they are overloaded and that decreases their stability,” U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor would later tell me, explaining why the sloops, which have been known to topple even in Haitian waters while ferrying passengers, are unsafe. “They can easily capsize.”
Long before I fought back visions of being thrown off the speeding motorcycle, I envisioned falling into the ocean as I kept slipping off the mattress’ plastic with every wave we hit, and the lopsided sloop tilted way too much to one side.
As I struggled to stay upright, curious passengers wondered who we were. It was only natural.
Despite its natural beauty and prized beach — Condé Nast Traveler named its Pointe-Ouest a top Caribbean beach — La Tortue doesn’t get many outside visitors. As we would later learn, while trying to find a place to sleep, all of the beach-side hotels were shut down.
The journey provided a glimpse into the risk Haitians routinely take here: at some point during the ride over, our sail suddenly snapped, sending the crew scrambling to bring it down, and me pummeling to the floor. Nearly two hours into what should have been a 45-minute jaunt, a rope had to be thrown from one of Loriston’s other boats to tow us in.
We finally arrived at the seaside rural village of Basse-Terre, where residents and survivors of the November tragedy, spoke of how that voyage had touched almost every home in the rustic village.
“We don’t have a chance here,” Raymonville Thelusma, 32, a survivor from the November capsize said. “Life isn’t good for us.”
Thelusma’s sentiments were repeated throughout as islanders pointed out that it hadn’t rained in a month and a half, and death, for them, had become an option.
The November boat was Bahamas-bound, where migrants had heard there were jobs.
“You can’t even afford a sack of rice here,” said Coicou, who later asked that we photograph her handicapped daughter in hopes of getting some assistance.
James Major, a father of two who had three times tried but failed to get to the Bahamas, vowed to try again. His recent near-death at sea didn’t deter him, nor Bahamian authorities’ penchant for rounding up undocumented Haitians and deporting them.
“Ever since I was a kid, I heard about them sending Haitians back from the Bahamas, but they still go,” he said.
The sunlight was disappearing, and we had to find a place to sleep. My friend, Jean-Cyril Pressoir, who runs a local tour company, Tour Haiti, remembered a hotel at the top of the mountain where we could spend the night. To get there, we had to go by motorcycle.
This is how I met my driver, who called himself “150cc” because he drives his 125cc motorcycle at top speed.
After finally arriving at our “hotel,” a sparsely furnished, hilltop mansion transformed into a bed-and-breakfast where we were the only guests that night, Cyril read my mind.
“We are hiking it down the mountain on foot tomorrow,” he said.
After reading about the residents’ plight in the Miami Herald, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe sent a truckload of food — enough to feed 1,000 families for 10 to 12 days — to the island.
The food, said Klaus Eberwein, who is spearheading an emergency task force at Lamothe’s request, is just an emergency response. The government, he said, is working on more long-term programs.
Eberwein, who admits to not liking boats, says he’ll soon make a trip to the island. I suggested he take a life jacket.