These were almost my last words.                                                                              March 16, 2016

Last Tuesday two groups of nursing students from Indiana Wesleyan University accompanied me to Bwa Chandel where they did pediatric assessments on each child. It was a practical clinic for them, but a fun hour for the kids. After their check ups there were games and a hilarious skit about hand washing after using the latrine. And then there was lunch—-75 peanut butter sandwiches on fresh haitian bread. However, to get to the scene of all this activity the students had to endure a two hour trip in the back of pick up trucks over roads that were not meant for vehicles of any kind. That was followed by a mile hike down a donkey trail carrying all the food, water for everyone and their medical supplies.

Their group leader told me that they faced a three hour truck ride on Thursday to Pointe Latanier at the eastern tip of La Gonave. That is over 19 miles of some of the most brutal “roads” on the island. I said, “why not take the boat; it’ll be fun. It takes much less time and is much more comfortable.” Shelli, the group leader, thought it was a great idea as she was not looking forward to another punishing ride in a pick up. She invited me to go along.

Met Johny, the guest house manager, organized a fly boat with a good captain because, he said, there are a lot of rocks along the coast and you need a captain who knows the waters. The fly boats are big speed boats that carry about 20 people to and from the main island. Each has two 75 horse power engines and they’re notorious for flying over the waves at dangerous speeds. Your bottom pounds on the seats and you usually thank God you arrived alive and are not bleeding from the eyes. But we were going to be hugging the light blue reefy shoreline on a calm and cloudless morning with a safe and reliable captain and his pilot. Thus we began the day with hope.

And calm and cloudless it was. The sea was flat with just enough breeze to refresh. The students were saying what a great idea to take the boat. We waved to the lobster men in their wooden canoes. We hailed the conch divers and the passing sail boats. We passed sleepy villages where fishermen were headed out for the day. It’s always a good sign to see so many boats and sailing skiffs; it means there is enough breeze to sail but no danger from an angry sea.

Before long we saw the tall palms of Dub Salin, about half way. We were making good time as the captain maneuvered carefully through the mangrove islands. Then he stopped the boat. He told his pilot to hand him a plastic bag for his phone. He had the pilot put his phone in a storage space below the steering wheel. I looked out beyond the mangroves and saw ferocious white caps. Take the boat; it’ll be fun.

At first it was fun. We hit the waves carefully. There was cool sea spray and the students were thrilled by the excitement of it all. But as we neared the point of the island where we were to go ashore it became clear that the surf was much too rough. The captain felt he would lose the motors and his passengers in those pounding breakers. What to do? He circled. The waves increased to six feet. Shelli was the first one to lean over the side quite seasick. Take the boat; it’ll be fun.

One by one the students began to feel unwell and a few more heads went over the side. Two weeks ago I had a powerful tropical virus–fever, aches everywhere, strangely exquisite  nausea. I was either flat on my back or emptying my guts into the toilet praying my immune system would kick into high gear. I felt terrible seeing these students so nauseated and so far from home and safety.TaketheBoat

I looked at the captain for answers and he took off his pants, gave them to me and said “hold these.” Then he dove into the sea. Wait. What?

What I didn’t know at the time was that he was swimming to shore to find someone with a small craft and a little outboard motor to ferry us in. He sent another captain to swim out to us and man our boat. We dropped anchor and waited. A few waves hit us broadside and it felt as though we’d capsize. People began to gather on the shore. After 10 minutes all of Pointe Latanier was on the beach watching the drama unfold. What would they do? What should they do? Who can help? You could see them all talking animatedly about the poor stranded white people. I began to think of all the Haitian boat people in the early 80’s who drowned just off shore or were turned away in Florida. Payback is a bitch.

In fact the captain was as good if not better than Met Johny said he was. The replacement captain said that in fact another boat was coming which it did eventually— a small light skiff with a little lawn mower size engine. Two guys brought it out over the surf and it looked like it would flip backwards as it hit those six foot waves. Now I watched them bring their little boat alongside our bigger boat, and I watched them transfer the first four sick passengers from one craft to the next. But even as I watched I don’t really know how it happened because it was impossible to steady those boats in that sea, and it was equally impossible to get a person from one boat to the other without dropping her into the drink. I just shrug and say what the Haitians say: Bondye konnen selman. Only God knows. 

At shore the two boatmen carried the sick girls on their backs and placed them in the shade where Haitian mamas attended to their needs. It took four more trips to rescue the rest of us. I went in the last boat feeling very guilty for my bright idea. Take the boat; it’ll be fun.

The aftermath was anticlimactic. The team had their visit with the school they had planned to see. Everyone felt better and the sea calmed down magically for our return trip. The students and their chaperones were actually laughing about the day and the story they’d have to tell. There was just one more little event. While we were waiting for the small boat to bring us back to our fly boat another crowd gathered on the beach. These were not the school children and their families and the fishermen. These were some of the kids of Latanier who are not able to go to school. Latanier is an extremely poor area without water or growing land. There are an inordinate amount of children and only about half can either afford school or have sponsors. They no doubt watch with envy as school kids get visits and gifts and attention. It’s heart breaking. One ring leader girl began. Give me something. Give me one dollar. Give me. Give me. The asking turned to shoving. The shoving turned to grabbing. Years of want and envy had turned her into a punk of sorts. I hopped in the boat and gave her something–the finger. I’m pretty sure I’m the missionary who’s going to hell.

 Wishing you all a good night (bon nwi) and an even better day (pi bon joune)———-Nancy

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