There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.
Like ants are we; a stream of human flesh winding effortlessly through pathways towards one common goal. The shoreline. Its 0330 a mass exodus has begun. Not one person missed the 0300 wake up call, every bag has been transported by head, back or drag, they are all accounted for on the beach and now many stand in awe under such a brilliant night sky.
I stand alone, facing a blackened shoreline, no light outlining its many features yet I still stare, eyes wide open hoping to trap light, any light, so I may gaze once more into the heart of this village. Our time here is finished, no grand parade, no tear filled goodbye, no one to see us off, just 10 half-awake missionaries, 6 passengers, and 5 crewmembers lining the sides of a freshly built rock formation known as the boat dock. My heart aches for the people I leave behind, the unknown in regards to the future of many and the state of being in a village run by tyranny.
As we begin to board a warm breeze covers my face, our boat is creaking with every movement of the tides, expanding then contracting under pressure from the water for which it lay. Loading is done as many hands form a chain, ensuring all contents and passengers make it aboard without a slip into the water or injury from the sharpened volcanic rock from which we are perched.
A pile of suitcases fill the belly of this wooden albatross, a vessel measuring at least 16 feet wide and 5 feet deep. It is the same sailboat that ferried us into Source a Philippe, therefore we are very familiar with its lack of substance. Looking more like a gigantic canoe with a series of sails attached there are only a few locations for passengers to travel; so we sit lining the rails, bow to stern. Captain Jackson fires up a 75 horse outboard motor, then directs crew members to slacken all lines and like a leaf in the breeze our ship slips quietly into the night.
He that will not sail till all dangers are over must never put to sea.
Silently we glide under the stars, it’s would be shameful not to notice the brilliance of this night’s sky. No ambient light to ruin its majesty a canopy of shimmering light from one horizon to the other is amazing. Looking around I notice people are chatting, some staring into the distance obviously half-awake and a few showing the signs of nervous stress, twitch about as the thought of making this journey again is more than they can bare. While taking account of all aboard I find Ms. Melissa half-awake; due to a combination of sleeping pills and anxiety medications she quickly has found her 6 foot by 2 foot piece of real estate aboard this SS Minnow and is drifting off to sleep. Looking at her peaceful demeanor one would deduce she has in fact found the only planks aboard this rotting vessel that resembled a sleep number bed! Eyes closed tight, slight smirk on her face, oh how I envy this mental state of mind.
Ten minutes into our journey the winds appear have picked up quite a bit. Trying not to become overly worried, I do my best shrugging off many thoughts rapidly filling my head. For you see if the winds are picking up here within the protection of this reef then out on the open water they will become much stronger, creating waves that I am sure will leave many aboard leery at best. Striking up a conversation with Preston, hoping to squelch my thoughts, he asks what the men standing in front or on the bow are doing. I reply they are using the stars to navigate us outside the reef. Little do I know (but find out later) they are using the stars not just to navigate outside the reef, but in hopes we miss a giant boulder that lays just beneath the water’s surface? A boulder that has damaged or sunk many a ship navigated by the inexperienced. Preston bluntly asks how I seem to know something about everything. Chuckling I explain that I really don’t, I am just one of those guys who focusses on things no one else would normally pay attention too. A mind filled with loads of useless information! I ask him if he’s ever heard of Cliff Claven? When he replies no; I laugh and suggest he watch an episode or two of Cheers, when he gets home, then all will become clear! He agrees; turning away I quietly take my potato that looks like Richard Nixon and put it back in my backpack as I now know Preston would never understand.
Gazing over the ships side, luminescence from plankton are brilliantly lighting up every wave that splashes from beneath the boats hull. This sight is amazing! There are so many wonders of this earth I have not seen! I yearn for more and am saddened at a lack of being able to video all nature’s beauty surrounding me.
Water is spraying every now and again with the rise and fall of our ship’s bow. Brent and Preston are taking the brunt as I only catch about a half of the water they are now wearing. My wife who is sitting to my right has leaned in to tell me she doesn’t feel good about the way the ship is moving. I respond with an understanding nod of the head, then in my simple honest way (which I hate and wish I could control better) tell her it’s going to get much worse! When she inquires as to how I know, I respond: I just know. Great answer huh? In the end it’s much easier than explaining wind, tides, geographic shelter, trade winds, along with the lunar gravitational pull on earth. When Preston hears this, he too inquires as to how much worse it could possibly become? My only answer is this; I have done a lot of fishing, and one thing I know for sure, if the wind is blowing here, the farther out we get the harder it will blow, for there are no land masses to slow any movement of air. No one seems to like my answer as they both smile a nervous smile in return. Jacy is hoping I am wrong as she hates when I am right, and unfortunately I am almost certain I will be right once again. Judging from the looks of this group and the age of our ship, I pray really hard it’s one of those times I am wrong. Not just a little wrong but dead wrong! So very wrong that being made fun of for being wrong will feel right and eating crow will be my pleasure.
30 minutes aboard and our ship has begun heaving to and fro. No doubt we have cleared the reef as our ship now slides down the back sides of waves as opposed to riding high upon their crest. Captain Jackson’s father is in charge and he calls for full sail. The crew scurries about rigging block and tackle, pulling lines and unfurling the main sail. The waves have increased in intensity and now this wooden relic is not only fighting the pull of a half unfurled sail but seems to be unable to find its way out of the trough! Up and down, back and forth, side to side this ship is moving about as though it has been thrown around by a tub bound five year old! People aboard are becoming worried, we have hit pretty hard on the downslope of many waves. Jacy nervously watches as our crew is bantering about! Leaning in their general direction she is hoping to pick up a misspoken word during the heat of the moment! She is not disappointed as suddenly crew members begin yelling at each other! Jacy sits up, leans into me and says; this is bad, very, very bad! When inquiring how she knows, she looks back and replies; because that’s what the crew just said! Astonished, before I can reply to this revelation our crew is tossing life vests to everyone within arm’s length. All of us now fully understand the dire situation we are in as no time is wasted putting these neoprene vests on our bodies. It becomes quite a challenge doffing these vests as our ship continues slamming down hard from bow to stern then rolling violently from port to starboard, resting mostly on its starboard side! Soon a rhythm develops and just as it feels as though we may be evening out, the sail fully extends and we are hit very hard from the port side by a gust of wind! Our ship yaws hard to starboard with the mast almost touching the water! The crew is screaming and motioning for everyone on the starboard to side to get up and move onto the port side for ballast! Water is splashing overboard, people are terrified, and I have a death grip on Jacy and Preston! My butt is sitting on the side of this ship, not the rail, not an inside plank, but the outside of the ship! My hands are locked tight upon the two of them and my foot has something hard underneath it for pushing against. We roll upright for a second and then are hit by an even bigger gust of wind that drops the boat upon its side once again. My only thought is if the mast catches we three are going over the high side, not forward into the rigging. Then we can swim around and hopefully assist those who need help getting back to our boat! Looking around taking mental note of all aboard not everyone has a life vest and hopefully the boat capsizing will never happen, but ever the doomsday prepper I have mentally come to terms with what may or may not happen within the next few minutes.
The next few minutes turns into 10 as the ship continues riding hard over onto its starboard side? It’s like riding a horse out of control, left, right, unstable for a moment then just enough stability to gather your seat! There is no Haitian coast guard here to rescue us, there is no distress signal to give, and there is no radio to send one. No one will know where we are, no one will know what happened to us, no one will come rescue us; there will be no one! So what do we do? Jacy is praying, Alisa is praying, Preston is quiet, Brent is reciting scripture, Heather is quietly wondering what the Hell! Melissa is sleeping, oh to be Melissa. Richard is terrified and holding Jacys leg while standing in the hull of the boat fighting the urge to vomit (which he loses valiantly). Jacy has begun unravelling a little and starts yelling what do we do?? Who do we call? No answer is forth coming from many terrified individuals. She leans over to Richard and yells even louder over the wind and waves; who do we call Richard, who do we call? Richard without missing a beat responds; GOD!
Alisa has pulled out her cell phone. Now there is no cell service out here, we have all tried many times during our tenure on and off La Gonave. But strangely enough here, at this moment, somewhere past the reef, out in the open ocean during a particularly stressful combination of events, one cell phone has service. Alisa quickly calls her husband Reuben per Jacy’s request! Reuben answers and Alisa spends the next few seconds telling him she loves him, where we are and what is happening. Then she tells him to listen carefully, explaining that if he (Reuben) doesn’t hear from her in 4 hours to call the American Embassy and report us missing. He agrees, and through tears Alisa hangs up the phone. That was the moment this situation became real for many of us.
Jacy quickly grabs the phone and tries reaching Sara at the guest house. When Sara answers Jacy explains our situation to which Sara replies; Ya-all think you may need to get into the center of the boat? Jacy say no the boat is tipping over and feels the safety of its crew and passengers are in jeopardy. Sara now grasps the urgency in Jacys voice. Jacy then repeats the very same request given to Reuben not more than two minutes ago; if you don’t hear from us in 3 hours please send out a search crew as we have most likely capsized and are in the water. Sara says she understands and will pray for us, before Jacy can answer her back, the phone is dead, no more cell service. Both women look at each other, Alisa looking nervous and Jacy still wondering what will become of us. During this time on the phone our boat has pitched wildly several more times to the gasps of several passengers. Some are beginning to vomit, others are holding one another, and the crew is still scurrying about. Still frantic, Jacy is doing her best to ensure everyone is ok when Kristina yells from across the boat; Jacy! PULL IT TOGETHER! Perfectly placed at just the right time my wife straightens up, takes a deep breath and agrees to this powerful suggestion.
Rocking and tipping, rolling and creaking, our boat continues bobbing around like a cork in a washing machine. This dance of hard wind gusts, our boat leaning all the way over, water spraying us from one end of the ship to the other along with heavy hits as we slide from the apex of one wave into the trough of another goes on for another 20 minutes to a half hour. We are all beginning to feel exhausted from battling the hard movements of this ship, when suddenly we are in a sustained rhythm. The boat seems to be gliding not bucking and our Captain has ordered full sail! We pick up speed as she cuts through the night air with less resistance from wind and wave. A sigh of relief overcomes me as I feel the worst is over. The darkness has definitely been the hardest part of this excursion. Not seeing a horizon line to focus on during the turmoil has indeed made this whole adventure more challenging mentally as it lends itself to those with a heightened sense of disaster. As the sun slowly rises Preston begins to feel the warmth of a morning sun. This boy is soaked from our 30 minute adventure upon the high seas and his teeth have been chattering for most of the last hour. Leaning in to ask me a question; He wonders what I was thinking during that moment of near disaster, I simply reply; faith. One has to have faith.
There are still sudden slaps of the hull every now and again, Jacy is pressed up against me and lets out a tiny gasp. Her nerves as with many others are a little frayed. She asks me if I was scared. If I thought we would die? I reply yes, for a moment I was scared. She smiles and looks away, to check in on Richard between vomiting spells, the poor lad was not born to be a mariner. Truth be told, when the mast almost hit the water my heart jumped, I felt the same panic as everyone else, but I had already devised a plan and when you have a plan, fear can be conquered, used to your benefit. But overall, yes the whole event made me nervous and for a moment I was scared. What strengthened my resolve during this moment of crisis? Faith! A calmness overcame me at some point during the calamity, I remember it vividly as a warm feeling enveloping my soul. My heart rate lowered, my eyes opened a little wider and my breathing relaxed! It was as if I knew everything was going to be ok. I had faith.
The next three hours or so are spent slowly spreading our bodies back across the hull. Everyone soon has a new spot of real estate claimed as she (the boat) rides gentle, slow and upright in the water. An ocean filled with waves of the slow rolling variety await our journey, which suited this group much better than the previous encounter. Melissa has come out of her coma every now and again, only to chuckle at our inability to stay calm and sleep through disaster! She definitely is the smart one in the group. Richard is still vomiting but now spends more time curled up in a ball then actually throwing up in a bucket. Alisa joins him at one point but she also appears to be much better now. I lay upon the deck marveling at this ships hap hazard construction and pondering just how many journeys this old battle horse has made? Before long, to our relief the shores of Petite Gonave are in sight. Jacy picks up a cell phone to inform the guest house we are fine; A few chuckles, some banter and Jacy is off the phone. Alisa calls Reuben, I can only imagine what this man has been thinking for the last 3-4 hours.
Gently we motor into harbor, the sails come down, and before we can count the number of crab pots passing by the crew drops anchor and a small skiff makes it way our direction.
Setting foot on hard ground feels great, if the terra firma wasn’t covered in bits of garbage I believe dropping to my knees and kissing it would have been appropriate! Standing under a coconut tree in a small courtyard the gravity of all we have encountered/accomplished begins to set in; there are the many people we helped, the pharmacy we stocked and surviving this final journey back to the mainland. It is mentally more than I can handle as delirium takes over. Gazing at my friend, my face grows long and my heart becomes heavy at the thought of saying goodbye to Caz. It feels like yesterday we reconnected after a yearlong absence and I feel as though we barely spent any time together. Milling around we gather our bags, head to the street and begin loading the transport. It appears after our voyage on the high seas all any of us can think about is getting back to the guest house for a little sleep and possibly a relaxing swim. Exhausted, covered in salt crystals from the waves coming over the side of the boat and dirty the thought of riding inside our transport is not appealing in the least. Please lord let this trip be safe and quick.
Driving through the streets of Petite Gonave, we are hot and sweaty, there is no air conditioning, the temperature is in the 90’s and humidity is at least 40%. Add a few hundred cars, streets filled with burning garbage and pollution from unregulated vehicles that race up and down these tiny corridors making up the provinces we are passing through and well our ride is interesting at best. Our driver swerves, then weaves, runs up to 60mph on side streets then sits gridlocked on thoroughfares. This reckless driving goes on for two hours until Preston needs to use a bathroom. Our driver slows down checking a few places until finally stopping at a little hotel on the beach. I find it to be a quaint little place with all the charm one can muster on a dilapidated road between Petite Gonave and Carrefour. Once back on the road I have come to the painful realization my ass is killing me! It seems after four hours of sitting on hard wood in a boat, this jump seat I am currently perched upon is leaving my ass and lower back writhing in pain! Looking around the van it appears we are all in various stages of nodding off, the early morning has taken its toll upon the masses. Looking over at Kristina she seems determined to fight off any chance of an asthma attack by wearing a respiratory mask! A good thing too as it seems every corner we turn has burning garbage, rubber or plastic! It feels as though you can taste the air with your tongue.
Entering Carrefour and Ronald is on the phone in what appears to be quite the heated exchange. At one point Ronald hands the phone to Richard who also ends up sternly speaking to the recipient on the other end? Confused by what is transpiring, Jacy leans in and whispers to me that Francois is on the phone. Ronald has asked Francois (his father) where the tip money we left them is , Francois has responded by telling his own son there is no tip money for him to have! Our suspicions have now been 100% confirmed. Francois is a greedy crook! As we stated earlier any father that would stiff his own son is dirty, rotten and untrustworthy! Our little ruse to flush him out has worked as planned! Although I feel sorry for Ronald, it really was the only option we had to flush out his father.
In Carrefour we also end up dropping Ronald off on a side street. He politely says goodbye as we thank him for all his help during the week. It is more than obvious he is dejected by what just transpired over the phone, but in the end it is probably better as hopefully Ronald will realize to become a great translator for these missions groups he may need to think about destinations beside his home town and working alongside his father. I truly wish him the best as he slings his backpack over his shoulder and disappears into a very crowded street. We are two and one half hours into this trip when low and behold we end up in a minor fender bender while doing some not so favorable jockeying through the market of Carrefour. Our driver Johnny gets out and begins waving his arms about while yelling at the driver of the other vehicle! It appears from the outside as though two Italians have squared off with an astounding round of insults! At one point it also appears as though the two might exchange blows, but to those of us who have been in country we know this is a normal exchange between Haitian men that ends with a wave.
Four hours of winding through city streets and we have finally entered the guest house compound! Sara greets us as we stretch our backs and shuffle off towards our rooms. Tired and sweaty we quickly all jump into the pool for a much needed swim. After an hour in the pool laughing through delirium about all aspects of our journey home, complete with a little Melissa bashing for sleeping through the entire journey, we crawl out and begin to go our separate ways. Jacy and I pull Tom, the guest house director aside to discuss some of the issues we witnessed and wrangled our way through in Source Phillip.
Tom is astonished at some of the things we tell him. There had been some murmurings about Francois’ abuse of power but nothing had been confirmed. We spend the next hour talking about costs, matching funds, paying the nurses, staffing the clinic and expired drugs in the pharmacy. Tom suggests we meet with Pastor Jackie who will be stopping by this evening. Reluctantly we agree as our mission will not be complete without some form of closure in regards to the issues at hand.
It is time to say goodbye to our interpreters. Richard gives us all hugs, emails are exchanged and kind words are shared. He leaves with many new clothes for the children he supports at a school he has founded back home. Caz also gives hugs all the way around. When he reaches me, we hug for a long time. I love this man, he is seriously one of the kindest human souls I have ever encountered. Last year I presented him with our department coin. This was my personal challenge coin so I would have to earn a new one, the coin cannot be given away unless a person has done a selfless act thus upholding the standards, morals and ethics befitting a firefighter. He had done all that and more! It was a privilege to present him with my coin and earlier in the week he showed me he still carried it a year later. This man will do great things in his country, his love for all humans and God is very powerful and resonates when you are around him. Caz and his family are in my prayers every night.
After a small nap and highly anticipated dinner (none of us had eaten since the night before.) we hold a debriefing with Sara where everyone’s feelings about our journey are heard and processed. She is amazed by what she hears and offers good support to all who listen. We have been at the guest house for only a few hours and this trip is already beginning to feel like a memory. Jacy finds me sitting alone, I am cranky and I don’t know why, I really don’t feel like talking, I have heard all I need to hear, my brain is fried and emotions confused. I am worried about the little ones we left behind, I am exhausted from continually playing this financial game of extortion with François, I no longer need to worry about the responsibilities associated with being an assistant to my wife, and my overprotective side is no longer worrying about the health of all associated with this trip. I’m tired and I just want to cry but I really have no reason too. My insides feel as though there is no pillar to support me should I collapse emotionally. Trying my best to explain the way I feel to my wife I just end up sounding like a selfish jerk. She says I don’t sound like a selfish jerk and she understands, but to me it’s just the opposite. I am supposed to be the one who helps people, I am supposed to be the one supporting you when you are down or taking care of you when you hurt. For me to feel as though I need help when I can’t even place my finger on one singular problem causing disillusion is unconscionable. I say goodnight to all, kiss my wife and disappear to bed, sad and blue, wanting to cry but not knowing how. Eventually I end up sitting at a table downstairs while everyone sleeps, listening to neighborhood dogs, feeling the cool moist air of a storm front rolling in and writing. Even now at 2345 hours almost one month to the day as I sit in the comfort of my fire station, recalling this very moment my throat is tight, my chest hurts and it’s all I can do to keep tears from streaming down my face. But why?
A question that I suppose will remain unanswered…..