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April 15, 2003
Haitian Refugees

How odd to be writing this entry in such stark contrast to what I wrote yesterday. It's exactly what cruising is like though: the best of times, and sometimes the worst of times too.

I'm tired today. Last night, we returned to the boat after a big day re-provisioning in Puerto Plata. The winds were picking up, and we could see the gray clouds forming around the anchorage. The outboard on our dinghy went kapoop the other morning, so we had to accept a tow from the friends who'd gone to town with us. It was a wet ride and when we finally made it here, there were bags and bags to unload from our tender into the boat, and then the arduous task of trying to stow them aboard. It's reminds me of those mind bender games on lawyer's desks where you have to get a ring through a hole half its size, or a unwind a knot through a loop. Putting the stuff away isn't the hard part, it's figuring out where to put it. I flipped on the VHF radio, took a big sigh, and stood with my hands on my hips amidst the mountain of groceries to try to think about where to start.

By the time the task was done, I was beat. It was 9:00pm. But of course, leave it to Mother Nature then, to deliver her squalls. The rain began a deluge in the harbor, the winds picked up, and thunder cracked overhead. I was sitting at the navigation table watching the GPS to see if our anchor was holding, when I heard a distress call on the radio. It wasn't until then that I realized it was on 16, and I'd forgotten to switch to 68- the hailing frequency used here in Luperon. Somewhere, a boat called It's Magic was reading a distress call from off the coast of the Dominican Republic and was trying to raise help from the Commandante here in Luperon. Once my ears were tuned in, I could hear the man in distress as well. The unnamed boat sounded like a Dominican man, and from what I gathered, he was hailing from a handheld VHF. He was at sea in a pirogue, trying to collect people from the water. He was speaking in English with a thick Spanish accent… there was a boat sinking. There were 150 Haitians aboard. They had no life jackets. He was trying to save as many people as he could, but his boat was small and he couldn't see since the light from the moon was being masked by the thunder clouds overhead. He was crying for help. There were too many people. It's Magic heard them, and was trying to relay the message on channel 16- I told him to try 68 to reach an official in Luperon.

It's Magic tried to no avail. The Commandante (alleged, "navy") we later learned had his radio off. It's Magic was trying to hail anyone then on land then that could use a phone to call the Coast Guard, the US Navy- anyone who could help. A flurry of radio traffic ensued from boats in our harbor, but the time was passing like a nightmare when you're trying to run from the bad guy and your legs are making no headway in a pool of molasses. As cruisers helplessly deliberated to figure out what to do from here (we don't typically have phones), people were drowning out at sea. Someone ashore at a restaurant went to try to find the Commandante's house. The Bueno Hombre ("good man"), as he was later being hailed since no one knew his name, was trying to stay in radio contact, and tell us where he was, but he had no GPS. From what we could tell, the bay he was off of would have been unreachable by sailboat: upwind and up current. The first thought from everyone was the US Coast Guard in Puerto Rico - but one naysayer said that they wouldn't deploy to help the Haitians. My face grew hot with anger. IF it were true, who has to tell them they're Haitians then? Give them the location with a mayday, and if they arrive to find the refugees, I'd like to see a soul who could peel the fingers of a drowning family from their boat's decks. I just couldn't believe we wouldn't help. It was worth a try.

A cruiser hang-out in town was able to reach help on the phone. The Dominican "navy" sent help- by trucks ashore. Not much help as the people were out at sea. Someone in the bay was suggesting they didn't really want to help, but perhaps they only were interested in sending the survivors back to Haiti. The restaurant was also able to reach the US Coast Guard, and two planes were being sent from Puerto Rico: thirty five minutes via air to the general area, as Bueno Hombre still could not offer latitude and longitude… only that they were eighty miles from Haiti, six miles from Fantasy Island, and near Punto Rosia. It's Magic had since begun to try to walk Bueno Hombre through how to use the GPS who, by this time, had located one on the sinking vessel.

From a mundane day of going about the slow business of maintaining our cruising lifestyle, we had been thrust into the middle of a disaster and a firsthand testament to the bureaucratic horror that affects living and breathing people that have done nothing more to deserve their persecuted existence than be born in the wrong country. The Dominicans hate the Haitians, and sit with their arms crossed before they will offer aid. They speak of them with disdain accusing them of being dangerous and filthy people. As an American, I could not believe we wouldn't offer help, knowing all too well (as we can see from the recent business in Iraq) that we feel at liberty to stick our nose in anyone else's business, no matter who's waters or who's land is involved. There are situations like the Middle East, that seem so far away on a TV screen from your living room - that make you think, who are we to stick our nose in another country's business? But when you see someone before your very eyes, or within your arms' reach in need of assistance, I could only feel proud and grateful that our country would offer help. What's the right answer? It looks quite different when you see it unfold right before you.

As the clock ticked on, we listened and followed radio traffic from various sources in the harbor: Bueno Hombre, It's Magic, Bahia Luperon Restaurant, Bahia Blanco Marina, cruiser after cruiser from their boats. One plane had to be sent back to Puerto Rico with engine problems, the other could be of more immediate assistance to someone nearer. A third plane was deployed to try to help the people. More pirogues and local fisherman were trying to help people from the local waters. The thunderstorm had subsided. The final news we'd heard was that miraculously, only one person was known to have drowned, seventeen were unaccounted for, and that sixty were safely ashore. The numbers didn't add up, but this was the only information we had heard. This afternoon, we still haven't heard anything more. The incident didn't appear in the national papers here. We saw the Commandante race past us on a motoconcho, but I couldn't think of what exactly I wanted to express if I could sort through my emotions and translate them into Spanish. And who am I? A guest in their land. It felt like I had no voice as I watched him go by. I felt mute and numb.

So here we're left with another view of the world from just beyond the decks of our traveling home, and it appears to me, to be a kaleidoscope. What once seemed so clear now has so many facets that it shakes up how I once saw things entirely. Another peek into lives seemingly more than many worlds away from life in the United States - but look at a map. They're practically our next door neighbors, this the poorest country in the western hemisphere. As I listened last night, my heart just broke. What's the answer? How can you help and what can you do? Today, a young Haitian boy sat next to us on a park bench to try to sell us treats. He was the most beautiful thing, with a bright beaming smile and glistening eyes that were too shy to look directly at us. He was so happy to talk with us, he was so happy to just be sitting there. Here he was - close enough to touch… not just a two dimensional image on the page of a newspaper or TV screen. I didn't have the answer. I could only talk warmly to him and admire, and revel in his smile.

The event will plague me in some way forever, though I'm ashamed to wonder if time will dull it's impact. What's the answer? What's the answer? I keep thinking. I can't find it.

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