Monday, April 17, 2017

A Disappointing Ending

Our First View of Haiti
So, a lack of internet explains why I'm a little late in an update to our legal issues in the Bahamas. I will try to summarize the movie plot-like ending to our volunteer efforts for Haiti. . .

The Monday after the confiscation of donations and imprisonment of the IRG captain, those of us on the two smaller boats were called in for questioning.  After waiting for about a half an hour past the scheduled time, Bill (as the captain of our boat) was called in first.  He was gone for quite a while and, upon his return, the captain of the other boat was immediately called in after him.  The result of this "hearing" seemed to be a legal slap on the wrist.  Our documentation was returned to us and we were told to go on our way; we were just "strongly warned" not to do it again . . . although, since we were never actually found guilty of anything, I'm not sure was it was that we did . . . perhaps we were being told not to look suspicious . . .

The following day, we were told that the IRG captain was still being held on the grounds that his visa had expired (which it actually had).  During his hearing, the judge refused to even listen to or see evidence of the fact that he was running a disaster relief organization and the expired visa was an honest mistake.  The judge ordered a maximum fine of $3,000 or 2 years in jail . . . to put that into perspective . . . a typical sentence for drug running (much worse than charity work) is only $400 and the person(s) must leave to country within 24 hours. . .  

To add to the fishiness, the immigration office mandated that the fine be paid IN CASH; they even allowed this "criminal" to roam around town with a police escort with the sole purpose of stopping at different ATMs to withdraw money. Amazingly, the captain was able to come up with the money after only a few nights in jail.  As he presented the office with the money at 4:45 in the afternoon (the office was supposed to close at 5), he was told that they were shutting the office down early that day and would not be able to process his transaction . . . his cash transaction . . . he spent one more night in jail and was freed the following morning.

We spent that night throwing the captain a release party and the following day loading the donations back on to our boats (at our own expense and labor) and preparing to leave.  We even went to the trouble of creating an official manifest of the donations for both boats and having the head of customs stamp it (supposedly to prevent future issues).

Two hours before we were supposed to leave, a call came on the radio from the IRG captain telling us that we were all being ordered to return to the customs office.  Apparently, the captain had realized that they had neglected to return his cruising permit (needed to legally stay in the country).  When he had gone in to retrieve it, he was told (as we were when we got there) that we were now "illegal". We were told: Our permits should never have been returned (they promptly took them), we were being labeled as "commercial vessels" because we were "carrying cargo",and, therefore, had to fill out exit paperwork, pay a $75 fee, and leave the country NOW.

   "On what grounds?", you ask . . . My honest answer is corruption; utter, blatant, ugly corruption.  The same man that had just stamped those manifests we made and told us we were good to go had decided that he wasn't finished with us; he just had to throw one more sucker punch. When presented with the absurdity of the situation and asked why he hadn't bothered to tell us about these new "rules" when we last saw him, he became indignant and belligerent.  No matter how we argued, he was having none of it and, at one point, threatened to impound our boats (he'd have had no grounds for that but, I don't doubt that he would have tried).

A Rainbow for our First Morning in Haiti
So, we left . . . For three nights, we sailed until we were in Haitian waters. Unfortunately, Haiti has presented us with a different set of problems . . No doubt, you've heard the expression "No rest for the weary". . . Well, the good news is that we have had absolutely no problem with the government here. The one official we have come in contact with (the port authority) has been quite helpful.  He's assisted us with getting our passports stamped, obtaining fuel, disposing of trash, and, because he is also involved in IRG, even
helped us offload the donations.
These are the Kids We Gave the Sodas to

On the other hand . . . We have now been in three different harbors in Haiti . . . I am very sorry to report that our impression of many of the Haitian people is that they are self-destructive.  We have met a few exceptions but, in general, they are their own worst enemy.  Before we even dropped our anchor at our first stop here, we were approached by men, young and old, wanting something.  Now, we came here for charity work, don't misunderstand me, I have no problem helping other people . . . However, these men are RELENTLESS.
We Did Buy Lobsters from One of the Fisherman . . .
A Treat for Lunch

Two Nice Locals and Us - This is What Happens When You
Try to Squeeze Four People into a Selfie on the Back of a Boat
Our experiences have varied from a few boys asking for sodas (which we gave them), to young men asking for work (many of which we hired to do specified jobs on the boat), to down right commands of "Give me money!  Give me food!  Give me shoes!".  These men come to the boat on a constant basis, offering to do anything for money.  We applaud their efforts for trying to provide for their families and, as I said, we gave many of them work and were happy with the results.  However, we have also come in contact with those that try to hike up their fees once the work is done or continue to push for work even when told that there is no more work left.  Even telling them that you're out of money doesn't seem to phase them.  We even have scratches on the side of our boat and had to have part of our teak railing repaired from some of the more aggressive boats actually refusing to leave and allowing their boats to slam into ours.

A Large Motorized Canoe Serves as the Water Taxi

One of the worst examples is a man that demanded food. He continued to yell at Bill, "Give me food!".  When Bill looked into the man's canoe, there were at least 30 fish that he had caught that day.  Bill pointed out that he could easily feed his family on those fish and have money from selling the remainder.  His response? . . . "No, I sell fish!  You give me food!".  He didn't even offer to sell us the fish . . . he was demanding a handout.  For many of these men, a more respectful, hospitable approach would make all the difference in the outcome of their interactions with newcomers.
One of the Many Fishing Boats

There have been some good points to Haiti.  The geography is beautiful; serene anchorages, green mountain ranges, and pretty beaches.  At night, once the humid, stickiness of the day has faded away, the stars are abundant.  The local food is simple but, delicious.  Creole roots are ever present in the food, the language, and the culture itself.

We Had a Cruisers Potluck Here

Cool Rock Formations

Local Art is Abundant

   We do not regret helping IRG or the Haitian people.  I think that we have come in contact with the more intense part of the population and the majority of Haitians are good, decent, easy-going people. We just, unfortunately, have not been able to experience that side of the country and its culture because of the few that have left a sour first impression. It is a shame that we will not be able to experience more of Haiti in its untainted version.  We will soon finish what is necessary here and move on. Hopefully the Dominican Republic will offer a brighter picture.

   Please let us know what you think. Feel free to ask questions and leave nice comments. (If no one has commented yet, there will be a "No Comments" link near the bottom of the post. If someone has already commented, there will be a number and the word "comments" beside it. Just click whichever of these is there, click, "add comment" when the window opens, and type away.)

Sunday, April 2, 2017


Rafted up, we're on the right
   I am going to preface this post with a few words.  It both saddens and angers me to have to write
this down but, I must.  The account I am about to put forth has no bearing on the Bahamian people as a whole. We, along with countless other cruisers, have found these islands full of generous, beautiful people willing to lend a hand or give the shirts off their backs if necessary.  What you are about to read is an account of a a few third-world government officials gone corrupt.

   A couple of weeks ago, not too long after Bill and I pulled into Georgetown, we noticed a rather large, regal-looking ketch pulling into the harbor.  The captain made an announcement on the radio to warn any other moving vessels in the area that they were completely under sail (This usually means that the vessel is unable to run its engine).  Once the ketch had safely nosed into the harbor and dropped anchor (thanks to another sail boat in the area towing them in), we, frankly, didn't think much more about the old ship.

Donated sails on deck
   Fast forward to a few days ago . . . I had just returned from my jaunt in the States.  In my absence, Bill had found out that the large ketch was actually captained by someone we had met in Florida.  He heads up a charity called IRG (International Rescue Group). IRG takes in donations of food, medical supplies, etc. and sails them on donated vessels to places in need of disaster relief.  Haiti was where this particular vessel was bound.

   Unfortunately, just as we had suspected, the vessel's engine had stopped working.  So, while the captain was sitting at anchor dealing with engine problems, the supplies were also.  He took to the radio again, telling others of his plight and asking for help; If any vessel was headed in that direction, they could take on as many supplies as they could carry and bring them in for him.  Three vessels volunteered: the vessel that helped to tow him into the harbor, us, and a catamaran.

   The catamaran, loaded up what they could and left, Haiti-bound.  The rest of us needed a little more time to prepare.  So, we waited for the next weather window; that window was to start today, Sunday.  Since the plan was to leave first thing this morning, we (the two remaining vessels) decided to raft up along either side of the IRG boat and take on the remaining supplies so that we'd be ready for the morning.
more sails, medical supplies, tools . . . 

   We had just loaded the last bag onto our boat, when a couple of men came zooming up to us in a water taxi.  Customs officials.  One of them, wearing a black polo and jeans, waved a badge at us and, without a word, proceeded to climb onto our boat with a uniformed man on his heels. They demanded to see our passports and documentation.  They demanded to know where the owners of the other vessels were. They demanded that we show them all of the supplies that we had taken on and receipts for them. . . We told them we had just finished loading the donations and that, because they were donations, there were no receipts.  We hadn't purchased anything. Things continued to get fishy.
Another sail . . . nothing suspicious . . . 

   They asked for our documents and handed them back several times.  The last time they asked for them, they kept them, claiming that there would need to be an investigation to prove that we were actually going to do what we claimed we were going to do with these items.  Bill immediately got on the phone with the U.S. embassy.  The duty officer on the other end was trying to help.  She asked for our passport numbers, which, of course, we couldn't give her.  Thankfully she was able to start what she needed to with our names and birthdays.  She then asked for the names of the men, one gave his name to us, the other ignored the question and became irate at the fact that we had called the embassy in the fist place.   When she asked us if one of them would speak with her over the phone, they claimed that they had no way of knowing if we had called the real U.S. embassy and that they would call her instead.  The duty officer, obviously disgusted with their behavior as well, told us that they were required to, by law, call immediately.  The men stated that they would not call right away but, on Monday.

   They continued to cause problems, and the afternoon ended with all of the supplies, all of our documentation and passports, and the captain of the IRG vessel being carted back to land; The supplies, documentation, and passports in holding "pending investigation" and the captain in jail for the weekend.  Jail! What's their problem?  What grounds?? They claim that it is illegal to transfer goods from one vessel to another without reporting it.  That "pleasure vessels" (a.k.a boats in the country just to enjoy the area) are not allowed to run charity work; "Charity work is not for pleasure", one of the men said.  Bill pointed out that we get a lot of pleasure out of helping others; This didn't phase the man.  He simply sniffed at the air, rolled his eyes, and looked away.

   Now what? . . . Tomorrow is Monday.  We, the two vessels that were trying to help, are due in at the customs office at 9:30 a.m.  What happens after that is anyone's guess. They still have all of our documentation, we have been told that we cannot leave until things are cleared up (though we wouldn't without our papers anyway), the captain of the IRG vessel is still in jail . . . This is, in a word, ridiculous!  There are people trafficking drugs, rare animals, stolen goods, and even human beings into countries all over the world . . . and yet, who gets put under investigation? People who are trying to bring medical supplies into orphanages, backpacks into schools, and used sails to fishermen so they can feed their families and communities . . . The ones really suffering in all of this are the Haitian people . . . We might be dealing with international democracy and a couple of corrupt officials but, they are living in squalor, without basic needs or a way to make ends meet.

   In case you've been wondering, while reading this, about the Haitian government, forget it.  Haiti receives millions of dollars in foreign aid every year from the United States alone; enough to provide a small salary for every able-bodied adult in the country.  The average citizen never sees any of it.  We are trying to help a people whose leaders have betrayed them.                              

   Now that you have read this, please tell someone.  I know I don't have a big following but, I am trying.  Links can be shared, tweets can be made, texts and emails can be sent. If this gets to enough people or the right person, maybe something can be done.

   Please let us know what you think. Feel free to ask questions and leave nice comments. (If no one has commented yet, there will be a "No Comments" link near the bottom of the post. If someone has already commented, there will be a number and the word "comments" beside it. Just click whichever of these is there, click, "add comment" when the window opens, and type away.)