Years ago, when I was in the navy, I looked forward to visiting different countries and experiencing other cultures. The first ship I was assigned to, U.S.S. Davis DD937, was just completing an extended overhaul and the crew was preparing for refresher training at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. REF-TRA, as it is known, is an intensive exercise for ships that have been through extended lay off. It is a chance for the crew to indoctrinate new members to the way of living aboard a warship, while learning how to adapt to situations with short notice. Needless to say, upon completion of REF-TRA our crew was ready for a break, and a port visit was in order.
I looked forward to my first visit to a foreign land. Growing up in Michigan, the only place I had been that was away from American soil was across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario. It wasn’t much of a jaunt, and every one there looked and sounded just like us. I have to say though, that I was less than enthused when I heard we were going to Port Au Prince, Haiti. I had hoped for Jamaica, Cancun, or some exotic Caribbean resort island. But Haiti it was to be.
Nothing could have prepared me for experiencing such poverty. As our ship drew closer to the pier, young boys swam out, ignoring the danger of the ship’s propellers, and shouted out “Throw me a nickel Joe!” By the time we were pier side there must have been three dozen boys in the water around us begging for spare change. As each coin hit the water, one of the boys would swim down and scoop it into his cheeks and come back for another. Soon, each boy was swimming with cheeks that resembled stuffed pouches filled with nickels, dimes and quarters.
Passing through the gate at the end of the pier was another experience entirely. As my friends and I made our way to the city streets, we were instantly swarmed by people tugging at us to go with them. “I’ll show you around all day Joe…$1.00!” Suddenly a heavey set man grabbed me by the arm and took me aside. He said his name was Leroy Brown (really, he said that!) and that he had a car. For five dollars each, he would be guide for me and four friends for 24 hours. We took him up on the bargain. And all of us hopped into Leroy’s late 70’s Ford station wagon.
Leroy took us souvenir hunting, he took us to the rum factory, and he took us to some great places to eat. As we went from place to place, the poor conditions the people lived in were so evident it sometimes hurt to look. The streets all seemed to be dirt roads, but upon closer inspection you could tell that the pavement lay under six inches or so of compressed garbage. Each time we exited Leroy’s car, people would come to us begging for money. “Reagan is our friend! Give me $1.00 Joe!”
Towards the end of the day, Leroy secured a hotel room for each of us on the outskirts of Port Au Prince away from the crowds. We enjoyed swimming in the pool and considering where we were, there was also a nice club as well. Hector, our host for the night saw to it that we had everything we needed or wanted. Other guests in the hotel included mostly American contractors working in Haiti building government office buildings. We all had a great time, and it was nice to be away from the people begging money at every step.
When morning had come, Leroy was waiting bright and early to take us to breakfast and then to our ship. It was Sunday, and for the first time since our arrival the island was quiet. It didn’t last long; however, and soon we were again in the midst of a crowded city filled with impoverished people begging for a bit of relief. We all paid Leroy $10.00, double his asking price, and thanked him for a wonderful visit. As I walked back through the gate to the pier, I handed out dollar bills as if they were candy. I probably only passed out $25 or so, but I gave most of what I had left in my pockets. Back onboard ship, I took my place at the rail and flipped coins into the water for the boys to dive and scoop up in their mouths.
We spent two days in Port Au Prince, the place where we were supposed to get our R&R after two months of stressful training. This visit ranks among the best of my memories of traveling the world while serving the navy. Yet, my remarks here do little to tell you about what I experienced in those 48 hours. I can assure you, our trip to Haiti was an eye opener. I wanted to visit other countries, experience diverse cultures, and learn more about our world. In Haiti, I did just that, but not to the breadth and scope that I had first imagined. Instead, I experienced something that most Americans only see on television.
Before the earthquake, perhaps few in the world even knew where Haiti is, and fewer still might not have cared. Yet now, in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, the world is finally seeing Haiti for what it is; an island nation, poorest of the poor, filled with people in great need. This was the sad reality of Haiti even before the quake. With its beautiful landscapes and mountain peaks, Haiti can be a tropical paradise. Yet, as we have seen in the images of this week, Haiti is most certainly something else. On the evening news I saw the very pier where our ship moored, and recognized a few of the now crumbled buildings of the city. But for people too many to count, the images of Port au Prince, Haiti, as I mentioned above, seem to no longer exist.
Please do what you can for those in need.