Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Sea Wolf Part I

In July of 1974 four of us arrived at Cozumel, Mexico after a four-day trip from the Dry Tortugas. The prevailing offshore wind was from the northeast, so we’d run downwind most of the way, flying two jibs wing-and-wing, spinnaker style, from the forestay of Bill’s 35 ft. trimaran.
(For those who are multi-hull enthusiasts, it was a Piver design, a "first generation" tri. Bill had modified the hull with a skeg, but it was still a dog to windward, and I never saw her go more than six knots. We did, however, have it weighed down with considerable impedimenta, diving equipment, and canned goods.)

After clearing customs we were directed to a new marina just north of the main city, San Miguel. Today it’s a bustling place with a population of at least 100,000 permanent residents. Back then it was still basically a sleepy little village. It was easier to sense some of the history and culture of the place without all the modern-day annoying glitz that we call progress.

There were maybe a dozen other boats in the marina. There was a couple other cruisers like us, some Mexican sport and commercial fishing boats. There was one huge motor-sailing yacht called the Sea Wolf. The Sea Wolf was about 100 feet in length, and seemed to be well appointed--mahogany rails, teak decks, a couple of Boston Whalers on davits. We were puzzled that, although she was docked, there seemed to be one engine running all the time.

After a few days of exploring the island, the gang decided to take the trimaran to a reef at the north end of the island to fish and dive for a few days. Another friend was tentatively scheduled to fly in and join us, so I told them to go ahead without me. I would be there in case she arrived.

The next morning, a Sunday, I went into town to a larga distancia to see if I could find out if she was still going to make it.

As I was waiting for my call to be put through, an affable man in his fifties approached me. "Excuse me, would you know what time it is in Miami?" he said. I knew it should have been an hour earlier, but I also knew that Mexico had a different scheme for daylight-saving time than we did, so I told him I wasn’t sure.

"Gee, then that’s a problem," he said. "Because if I call too early, you see, all my friends will be in church."

He spoke with a Midwestern accent, and seemed like a wholesome, energetic fellow. I pictured nice middle-aged couples going into a nice little church fringed with palm trees.

"Yes, I’m afraid all my friends will be in church." He looked at me, and as an afterthought said, "My name’s Al Lefferdink, by the way." We shook hands, and I introduced myself, and explained that we were on a boat at the marina, but that I was staying in town for a couple of days while the others went fishing.

"Oh, that’s great," he said. "We’re in the marina, too. Maybe you’ve seen my boat–the Sea Wolf?" Yes, it would be hard to miss it. "Well, actually I’m in a bit of a jam. Maybe you could help me out," he said. He explained that he’d lost his crew due to a misunderstanding. At the same time there was a possibility that the Mexican authorities had placed a lien on his yacht. For this reason he wanted to have an American citizen on board, just to keep an eye on things. He had to fly out that day on business, and would be back in a few days. Would I be willing to stay on board until he got back? I figured, "Perfect! This way I can stay right at the marina!"

He introduced me to a couple of Mexicans with whom he had been doing business, and gave me the names of a couple more that could be expected to visit, including the Port Captain. I got a few things from the trimaran, and moved on board, telling my friends where I would be staying, and as much of the situation that I knew. Mr. Lefferdink told me that he had the engine running because the ship’s generator was down. It was now off. The other systems on the ship, like the water pumps, weren’t working either. Apparently the ship’s engineer had disabled most of the systems before leaving, his own way of leaving an invoice for monies owed. It would be a little like camping.

Our trimaran pulled out of the marina. Lefferdink left his final instructions, and headed toward the airport in his rented Volkswagen Thing. I shut the mahogany gate on the ship’s rail, and observed the splendid surroundings of the luxurious yacht. I was now master of the Sea Wolf.

My smugness lasted until sundown. The ship had no power, and it was getting dark. I tried to read with a flashlight, but the only books I had were one I had brought with me, Spanish for Beginners, and one that Mr. Lefferdink had recommended, a paperback called Lansky.

I unrolled my sleeping bag on a comfortable settee in the ship’s main salon. Mexico’s a poor country, and this was an expensive mega-yacht. It seemed to be attracting a great deal of attention. As I closed up the cabin for the night, for example, I noticed that there still seemed to be people watching the boat from a rise over the marina. But it was pitch dark out. Didn’t they ever go home?

The fun was about to begin.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

More Haiti: Nou Komanse Travay -- We Start Work

After a scant three hours sleep, five o’clock came around fast. It was still dark, but it was time to get on the road. The Ford pickup was out of alignment, due to a bent tie rod from the accident the night before, but Jim O’Brien still drove like a madman down the narrow, twisting mountain road. It was important to get to the job on time, hopefully before Doug got there.

On the way down I got a fleeting glimpse of our new environment, signs in French and Creole, women walking downhill from the mountains to market with enormous, artfully arranged baskets of vegetables carried on their heads.
We passed though the upscale suburb of Petionville, past the offices of the Voluntaires pour la Securite National (the Tontons Macoutes), and into Port-au-Prince itself. The city was already awake and bustling, despite the early hour. Once downtown, we headed west through the coastal settlements called Carrefour, where Wirkus’ contingent of Marines had come ashore sixty years before. The road was large enough for three vehicles to drive abreast, but sometimes there seemed to be two lanes going in one direction, then two lanes in the other direction, with traffic dodging handcarts and pedestrians in what seemed a haphazard pattern.
After a while we were outside the built-up areas and into the countryside. We passed what looked like an abandoned factory. Jim said it was an uncompleted sugar mill started by Cubans some time before. At length we left the paved highway, and went on a dirt road for a few miles toward the small village of Darbonne. Sugar cane was growing on both sides of the road.

At the end of the road was the job site, several acres that had been bulldozed flat, exposing the river bed rock and gravel that underlay the whole plain where the mill was to be located. On a small hill overlooking the site was our "office," a small cinder block building with a tin roof. Outside a silver Peugeot 504 was parked. Doug was already there. Nearby there was a crowd of about 200 men, so many that they kicked up a cloud of dust as they headed toward the office. We parked and hurried inside, just before they caught up with us.

"Gentlemen, what kept you?" said Doug, spitting Skoal juice into a paper cup. Apparently word had gotten out that we were stepping up construction activities, and that we would be hiring more people. Word travels fast in Haiti, even without the advent of modern communication. It’s said that when the revolution that led to Haitian independence broke out on the northern peninsula in 1791, the message to revolt-- spread by word of mouth, conch horn, and drum-- reached the southern peninsula within twenty-four hours, quick enough to make Paul Revere look like a slowpoke. By this time the office was surrounded by people. I can even remember one man who pressed his face against the office’s one window, with one eyeball looking in, as if that act would guarantee him a job ahead of the others.
Amid the chaos we made arrangements for the welders on the job to straighten out the tie rod on the Ford. (They fixed it in an hour’s time–no lack of talent there!) Little by little we managed to sort out the prospective job applicants, arranging them into several groups according to the skills that they claimed to have. We already had a steel foreman, and we let him pick out his crew. We had a surveyor, who was told to hire a few helpers. We had a head mason, and he also had his crew lined up. A few of the applicants actually brought tools–most of these were hired as carpenters.

All of these people were actually going to be signed on as "temporary" workers, employed by our company’s Haitian counterpart. (This "temporary" designation was something that was going to cause trouble later. In most of the world, designation as an employee means far more than the casual, duration-of-the-job relationship that was common in the construction industry back home.)

There was another group of carpenters who had come down from Cap Haitien in the north. Our Haitian partners’ company set the rate of pay for the workers. Laborers would get $3 per day, for example, and carpenters $5 or $6, depending on their skills. The Cap Haitien men wanted at least $15 per day, and acted as an organized unit. Doug explained that he wasn’t authorized to pay that much. "No way, fella!" The Cap Haitien men stood their ground, and said that was their price, that they were worth it, and that if we wouldn’t pay them that much, then they were leaving. People from the Cap, I found out, have a reputation for being hardheaded, especially among the people in the south. O’Brien surmised later that we should have hired them, (the situation being a little like the story in the book of Judges about Gideon’s winnowing down his forces from 32,000 to 300 –quality over quantity). But the company wouldn’t pay more than the "going rate," so they left en masse.

We also hired a few who had references as equipment operators, a couple who were electricians, a few specialized helpers, including one guy whose nickname was "Easy Money" as a general factotum. The rest were signed up as laborers. Before the day was over, O’Brien also hired a man who had been pestering him for weeks, an older guy who was originally from Jamaica and fluent in English, with the improbable name of Bobby MacBean. MacBean was to be my assistant and interpreter.
Later in the day Doug had me ride with him into Port-au-Prince to meet the people at our Haitian partners’ offices, and to fill out some paperwork. As we dodged through the traffic of Carrefour, he commented on the merits of the occasional female form ("Look at the ass on that one!"), occasionally spitting tobacco juice out the window, and offering me a drink of "sipping rum" from a bottle he kept in the glove box of the Peugeot. I never knew either Doug or O’Brien to be affected by what normal people would call a hangover. And both of them seemed capable of going for days without normal amounts of sleep, or food. It was apparent that I had left one Marathon for another.

Next: We start to build

Friday, July 25, 2008

Postcard from Spain

While throwing some things out a couple of weeks ago I came upon a postcard my brother had sent me from Denia, Alicante, Spain about ten years ago. Fifteen years before that, after finishing college, he had gone to Spain and liked it there so much that he stayed there for five years. Here were his observations on returning there fifteen years later:

Denia has changed a lot! I know it's August (when most Europeans take summer
), but there are crowds of people, cars, motels, even two beaches
that weren't here before. It's like a parallel universe, where there is just
enough to make it recognizable, but everything else has changed. Or like a TV
show where the characters are the same but played by different actors. Having a great time in spite of this, though.
Reading this again I couldn't help drawing a parallel to Key West, and what has happened there over the last twenty years. Both Denia and Key West became increasingly popular with vacationers, and both places went noticeably upscale during the process. (The same process has taken place in other US locations, like Aspen and Nantucket, just to name a couple.)

In Spain, however, what happened followed a more orderly course. They created a "protected" real estate class that kept taxes for locals down. They provided for the concurrent creation of infrastructure to protect their environment and quality of life. So they kept their workforce housing, provided for a continued middle class, and assured a desirable environment for locals and visitors alike.

In Key West they waited until there was a crisis before even taking the loss of workforce housing along with their middle class population seriously. City and county government have provided relatively little in the way of facilities for locals over the years. On the contrary they have worked with developers to take away green space and allowed them to break promises to provide workforce housing and public facilities.

Is the difference because Spain elected a socialist government? Or is it because they have a king?

It's a shame that the real powers in Key West have seemed more interested in lining their own pockets, rather than leaving a legacy of good planning and good government that would be of benefit to future generations, not to mention their own embattled people.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

On Arrive en Haiti

I called Jim O’Brien in Haiti. The connection was bad, and the telephone call cost $22 (and this was in 1981!) I learned that the only way to call out of Haiti was to call collect. If the calls weren’t billed to an outside party, Ma Bell would have no way of collecting their share from the Haitian TPTC, Travaux Publics, Transports et Communications, a government monopoly. Even if they did pay, the check would be written on a Haitian bank, and the payment made in Haitian gourdes, which, then as now, was not the world's most negotiable currency. Jim said to get a one-way ticket to Port-au-Prince, and that if everything went according to plan, the company would reimburse me. I had only a little more than $300 left, and that ticket cost me $304. That night I had a vivid dream in which I pictured the place where I would be living and some of the things that would happen the first day. Still, it seemed like such a wild-eyed caper that I wasn’t sure what I had agreed to. There was a sense of unreality about the whole thing. Was this really happening?

The next day the phone rang. It was Mindy, Doug Gaines’s daughter, calling from Marathon. "Doug wants you to come up here and pick up a Schmidt hammer to take to Haiti tomorrow." A Schmidt hammer is a gadget used to test the hardness of concrete. Apparently this was really happening. (I found out later that Mindy was definitely a "chip off the old block.")

O’Brien called again. Another $22. "Forget the Schmidt hammer. But pick up two or three cans of Skoal snuff for Doug, and bring them with you." I told him when the plane was supposed to get into Haiti, and he said he would be at the airport.

Jim was at the airport as promised, along with a good ole boy from Greensboro, Horace Rogers. Somewhere I have a picture of my arrival, coming across the steaming tarmac wearing a pair of tennis shoes, a polyester sport coat I had bought at Eagle Army Navy Discount for about $10, carrying a tennis racket and snorkel equipment under one arm, and a few things in my father’s WW II army knapsack in the other. Horace told me later that I looked like the damnedest fool he had ever seen. "This guy’s coming here to work?" he said.

"He, who travels light, travels best," I had always thought, tennis racquet and dive gear to the contrary.

Jim and I went up to a fancy hotel on a mountainside overlooking the city to have dinner. The opulence and cool mountain air were in stark contrast to the slums and heat of the lower elevations. On the walls were pictures of celebrities who had dined there over the years. The only ones I can remember were Leonard Bernstein and Dick Nixon. We had a few drinks. Jim, being an Irishman, was known to enjoy a libation or two. Or three. The dinner was roast guinea hen, a Haitian specialty. It’s all one shade of meat, not dark and white like a chicken or turkey, more like a pheasant.

After we ate, we drove higher up into the mountains. Doug had decided that the only proper place to live was high above Port-au-Prince, and had rented an impressive multi-bedroom house from a prominent Haitian architect. As it turned out, he was right, not so much as to live among the Elite, but because almost all the Americans who lived near the coast got malaria. The house where we would be staying was a little more humble, a short distance away. When we got to the turnoff to our place, I noticed it was just as I had pictured it in the dream a few days before, right down to the little borlette booth at the corner. (Borlette is a Haitian lottery game, similar to bolita in Key West, or boledo in Belize. In some parts of Haiti every third enterprise seemed to be a borlette house. I have noticed that the poorer the country, the more gambling seems to be part of the culture.)

As soon as we got to the house and stashed my few belongings, the telephone rang. It was Doug. He wanted his Skoal. We had been summoned to the throne.

Doug was there alone, with a glass of rum liqueur in his hand. He was short and feisty, with a definite Napoleonic air about him. Smiling but ready to fight at any minute. I had met him once before, so I seemed vaguely familiar.

Over his lifetime Doug had both made and lost considerable amounts of money. A few years earlier he’d run afoul of the environmentalists in the Keys, when he had bulldozed a great area of protected mangroves on Grassy Key. Subsequently he had gone bankrupt. Shortly afterward he had gone to the retail fish market connected to the seafood producer I had been working for, and bought a huge amount of lobster tails and stone crab claws for some big shots he was entertaining. The bill came to about $600 in today’s money. "Put it on my tab," he said, "I’m Doug Gaines!" and walked out. When we sent him an invoice, we received a notice from bankruptcy court, saying we’d have to get in line, so to speak. I wrote him a letter saying, "Since you were already in bankruptcy when you bought the fish, unless you want to rip off a simple fish house, don’t you think you’d better pay it?" He came in and paid it. Then he came into the office to see me, "I just wanted to shake hands with the son-of-a-bitch who wrote that letter!" Of course when I reminded him later about how we met, he had conveniently forgotten the episode.

He seemed delighted to get the cans of Skoal, however, and he treated us to a few more rum drinks. (This sugary liqueur was called Barbancourt, after the famous Haitian rum manufacturer, but was in fact produced by another company, owned by an old German perfumist who had married a distant relative of the original Barbancourts. Through some quirk of Haitian law they were allowed to use the same name. His products were the basic hootch, mixed with plain sugar plus a variety of artificial flavors he had learned to produce in the perfume business. They came in dozens of varieties, e.g., lemon, lime, coconut, cocoa, coffee, hibiscus, peach, papaya, and so on.) Doug talked about his heyday in Marathon and the crowd at the Buccaneer Lodge, what they did, how he’d play backgammon for $10,000 a hand with his buddy Congressman Gallagher and other major players of the era. We left about midnight, thoroughly "wasted." We were expected on the job, about thirty miles away, at 6:30 sharp.

Jim headed his pickup truck down the steep, curvy road from Doug’s place. There was a heavy dew on the road surface, and the truck was light in the rear end. We fishtailed, and he lost control, with no traction on the slick surface. The right front tire went down into an irrigation ditch and we came to an abrupt halt. I vaguely remember being thrown into the windshield, then the door flew open and I fell out onto the ground. The roadside was covered with stinging nettles, something I had never experienced before. The stinging, and the shock of the accident, quickly sobered me up.

At this point I remembered a story I had heard a few years before from a friend from Long Key. Len was a Ft. Lauderdale insurance man who had a midlife crisis, got a divorce, lost 50 pounds and moved to the Keys to enjoy what was then the simple life. He said he had once met an upper class Haitian who had invited him to his house high in the hills above Port-au-Prince. After dinner, he and his girlfriend decided to take a walk around their host’s sizeable yard. As they walked, they got the feeling that they were being watched. They looked into the woods, and all around the yard, about 10 feet back, were hundreds of people watching them.

I looked up and saw a large number of young Haitian men coming down the rocky hillside through the darkness. By now Jim was out of the truck, looking at the situation. The frame was down on the roadbed, and the tire was suspended in the ditch. Then I remembered the dream I had, and somehow the right words came to me, even though I’d taken only one year of French, fifteen years back. "Nous avons besoins des pierres." We need some rocks. They happily obliged us, and within minutes they filled the ditch with rocks, making a platform so that we could jack the truck up, and drive off on the now-filled ditch.

Then we went home for three hours of sleep. The next day would be the first day of work at the new job in Haiti.

Next: The job begins; we hire some men.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

King Neptune Slaps Me Upside the Head

A phone call today reminded me of a story from long ago but never forgotten. It was a still day one summer in the Florida Keys. White cumulus clouds tinged with the green of Florida Bay reflected on their undersides, calm seas, and clear waters beckoned. I had a 19 ft. Lightning class sailboat, a wooden classic, docked at a friend's house, right on the bay. There was no one around, so I took her out by myself. The winds were light or nonexistent.

I spent most of the afternoon snorkeling behind the boat, secured by a twenty foot line tied to one of my ankles. The water was warm and comforting and absolutely clear. There was almost no wind, so I wasn't alarmed when the line worked off my ankle. The boat had hardly moved all day, even though the sails were still up. I saw an interesting shell, and swam down for a closer look. Somewhat alarmed, I saw the end of the line shooting away along the bottom. Must be a slight gust of wind, I thought.

I surfaced to see the boat sailing out into the bay. Not a problem, I thought. I can easily catch it. I started swimming after it, only to find that as soon as I got within reach of the line trailing in the water behind her, it would zip ahead just out of my reach!

Still, I didn't panic, and kept swimming after it. With someone on board, the boat had the tendency to come up into the wind and stop. (They call this "weather helm.") Not to worry. I put on a great attempt to swim as fast as possible and to grab the line. Once again the boat shot forward in a gust of wind, just out of reach. It soon appeared that without any weight on board, the boat was perfectly "trimmed," and sailed in a straight line as if she had an auto-pilot!

I kept swimming behind her, just out of reach. A couple more times I mounted a valiant effort, swimming as fast as I could, just missing her each time. By now I was starting to get tired, and realized that I had a problem. It was upsetting to realize I had to let the boat go, and start to figure out a way to save myself. I was at least two miles offshore, and the tide seemed to be going out, so I would be swimming against a current if I tried to make it to shore.

I thought about shouting for help, but realized I was so far out no one could possibly hear me. The nearest place I could get out of the water, except for the distant shore, was the marker at Sawyer bank, by my best guess a mile and a half away. I figured that was my best chance and so began the slow swim out to the marker, as my boat disappeared into the rays of the setting sun!

It took almost two hours to get out near the marker. As I approached it, I saw a boat pull up nearby, and two guys started fishing. I swam over to them. "Little far offshore to be snorkeling out here, ain't it?" one of them said.

"See that dot out on the horizon?" I said. "That's my boat. How 'bout takin' me out there."
They clearly thought I was crazy, but let me climb aboard, and soon we were near the sailboat, still zipping along as if sailed by King Neptune himself.

"Thanks!" I shouted, and dived overboard, this time reaching the sailboat. I climbed on, brought her about, pointed it back to the dock, and collapsed in exhaustion. When I got back to the dock about 9 o'clock I told my friends what had happened. They had a good laugh and poured me a shot of brandy, just about the best shot of brandy I ever had.

Moral of the story: Many, but basically don't ever do anything so stupid!

Centre Sucriere de Leogane

In 1982 there was a recession, especially in the building industry. In order to stem the inflation that had plagued the Ford and Carter years (some say it was caused by the expenditures during the Vietnam era) the Reagan administration tightened lending rates, and the construction industry seemed to crash almost overnight that spring. And as usual, when the rest of the county gets a cold, the Keys got pnemonia.

That spring I got laid off, moved all my wordly possessions to an aluminum storage shed behind my girlfriend's parents' house in Key West, and started to draw unemployment checks, pondering my next move. One afternoon we went to Key West Bight, hoping to buy a fish off of one of the charter boats for a reasonable price, when we ran into Mary White O'Brien, who was working as an agent for Gray Taxidermy out of Fort Lauderdale.

She said her husband, Jim, who was one of my best friends, was trying to get in touch with me. The previous March Jim had gone to Haiti with Doug Gaines, an engineer who had had a construction business in Marathon for many years, on what seemed to me to be some sort of quixotic jaunt. Both of them were men who were known to end up in odd places--not your ususal run-of-the-mill individuals, for sure.

I called Jim at the number in Haiti that Mary had given me. Within a few days I was walking onto the steaming tarmac at Francois Duvalier Airport in Port-au-Prince, the beginning of a most intense couple of years. A small group of Americans, along with a great number of Haitian workmen, was about to construct a new sugar mill in Haiti.

Jim's theory was that a cartel was trying to corner the world sugar market. This was just before the introduction of "high fructose corn syrup," which replaced cane sugar as the primary sweetener in soft drinks (remember the "New Coke"?), a development that possibly thwarted their plans.

The American Consulate's economic attache thought that the idea of building a new sugar mill was absurd. He said that diversified production of foodstuffs on small family plots was the key to Haiti's survival.

We found out later that the Haitians had a "scam" they ran every so often, of building a new sugar mill with foreign money. Whether they produced any sugar or not was irrelevant. In fact, every day as we drove to the jobsite, we passed an unfinished, abandoned, sugar mill that the Cubans had begun twenty years before.

We also learned that the equipment for the mill that we were building had been sold to Uganda, when it was under the control of "Big Daddy" Amin, the dictator whom the Israelis out-foxed in the famous Entebbe raid, and who was later deposed. The Italian company who had made the now obsolescent equipment arranged through European banks to sell it to a third party, in this case the Haitian government, in exchange for a 10 year participation in the anticipated profits.

In the next segment: We hire a bunch of workers, the Job begins, and a surprise visit from Baby Doc.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The White Goddess of the Andes

Fair Warning
Above: A billboard seen in Belmopan, capital of Belize, Central America

When I lived and worked in Belize back in 1983 and 1984, it was obvious that cannabis use was part of the culture. (A 1953 British colonial report on what was then the colony of British Honduras decries the use of ganja among certain segments of the population.) Initially, however, there was little sign of cocaine use. In the United States it had apparently been gaining a degree of "popularity" among a younger generation in the permissive era following the Sixties. This was also the time when "crack," a smokeable derivative of cocaine was about to make its debut among America's poor and uneducated. But in Belize there was nary a sign of it. Belize is a poor country. Coca plants don't grow there. Cocaine is relatively expensive.

I first became aware of cocaine use in Belize in a surprising way. Belize has several colonies of Mennonites, who settled there beginning in 1959. They are divided into several groups, some of which cling to the old ways, and still travel by horse and carriage. Others drive cars and trucks, and have heavy machinery. They are united by their fundamental Christian faith, and by their German language.

Peter F. was from one of the fundamental groups, but he had fallen for a Creole girl, and took up residence with her. Because of this he had been "disfellowshipped," or at least felt more comfortable living away from his family. He worked for one of his more modern brethren, who owned heavy equipment and, it was said. even had an airplane. Peter operated a backhoe that we leased from his boss. It was understood that he was on our payroll, and we paid him in cash every week. This arrangement had lasted for over a year.

Then Peter's behavior started to change. He started coming into the office for an advance on his pay. Since he'd been with our company for considerable time, we lent him the money. It was only a small bookkeeping inconvenience. Then it became an every week thing, until finally it got to the point that his wages wouldn't cover the advance. We told him that we couldn't front him any more money, and that if there was some problem we could help him with, to let us know.

He ran from the office. We found out later from some of the men that "suppliers" had been furnishing people with cheap cocaine, in order to establish a market, and to "soften up" the country for it. The disfellowshipped Mennonites were among the first people targeted.

Peter eventually straightened out, and came back to work, although he acted ashamed and stayed away from us for a long time.

In the meantime, the scourge swept Belize, causing untold violence, corruption and suffering. The crack epidemic spread among the poor and uneducated, as it did here in the USA. Among other effects, crack addiction led to prostitution and a soaring AIDS problem. Whole villages seemed to have been destroyed in a few short years. Some say, because of the ensuing corruption, Belize must now be classified as a "narcodemocracy."

The sign in the picture above is an attempt to get the message out. This stuff is bad. It's a deceiver, and leads away from happiness, not toward it. Sometimes I wonder if we are doing enough to tell our own people that this is a poison. It is insane to mess with it.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Další Dobrodružství

Or should we say, "Another Adventure"?

Above are Steve & Leon, two guys who spent '95-'96 in the Keys doing construction work. They lived in the complex at 3333 Duck Avenue, which was like a little United Nations at that time (and may well still be).

Leon was from the (newly liberated) Czech Republic. Steve followed his father, a Presbyterian minister from Kentucky to Miami to do post-Andrew hurricane relief, and gravitated toward Key West shortly thereafter.

In the summer of 1996 they drove from Key West to Kentucky, then to Chicago, and all the way to Oregon. The trip was a real eye-opener for Leon, who had only seen Florida, and who thought, "I have seen the United States. It is flat and hot."

This was one reason we encouraged him to make the trip west, before he flew home. The other reason is that this sort of thing is best done when we are young. The last we heard Leon is married with two kids, and is a computer tech in Prague.

Steve developed an interest in tropical plants while exploring the Lower Keys, went to college in Miami, and is now working as a botanist the Botanical Gardens on Stock Island.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Well, it's been fun....

"For every thing there is a season,
A time for every purpose under Heaven." --Ecclesiastes

I have left the Keys two times before, both for relatively short periods. Each time I returned wealthier and wiser. It was always good to be back. For me this has been home for almost forty years.

I've been both relatively well-off and poor as a church mouse, happy and sad, grateful and outraged. I've met some of the most amazing and wonderful people (and some of the most detestable rogues) you can imagine. Through it all I have remained true to the principles and standards taught to me by my parents and their ancestors before them.

I have found true friendships, love, adventure, spirituality, tolerance, and understanding during my time here.

Now comes the time to leave once more. Before my memory fades, I plan to write down a few of the things I have learned, and stories of people I have met. After all, "it's what we learn after we know it all that counts."

As far as Key West is concerned, my expectations are that it will be like Hemingway's Movable Feast.
And as always, in Key West only the actors change. The roles remain the same.

Exit stage left.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

More About Haiti

Here's part of an interesting story about Haiti "stumbled on" from a web site, . We've edited it slightly for clarity (and 21st century correctness).

After the Haitian revolution in 1791, the French tried to regain their richest colony. Napoleon sent a French expeditionary force which included a regiment of Polish legionnaires.
The Poles refused to fight Haitian liberator Jean-Jacques Dessalines and when the French were defeated in 1803, Dessalines granted the Poles amnesty and asylum. In due course of time one of the strangest colonies of Polish exiles was to come into existence.
Settling around the town of Carzal, the Polish legionaries intermarried with mulatto women. By the turn of the century, a Polish-mulatto strain developed with blue eyes, blond hair and freckles. Further, this Polish-Haitian strain carried such family names as Dombroski, Kowalski, Sadoski and others. The descendants had exceeded one thousand in number.
Faustin Wirkus, a Polish American Marine Sergeant from Scranton, Pa., area, spent ten years with the U.S. Marine forces sent in 1915 to restore order out of this political and revolutionary chaos that was intermittently ravaging the island of Haiti.
Sgt. Wirkus was to become a celebrity in his own right when he was crowned King Faustin II of the nearby Isle de La Gonave.
Later in the book "The White King of La Gonave," written by Wirkus and Taney Dudley, Wirkus described the strange sensation of walking the streets of Carzal with a friend and meeting blond kinky hair mulattos who answered to the name of Dombrowski and Kowalski.
Wirkus mastered the native Creole dialect and became knowledgeable with the voodooism that steeped the populace of that mysterious island lying low on the horizon from the main Island of Haiti. His tour of duty eventually included the Island of La Gonave. He administered his domain with tolerance and good old Polish common sense and before long the "Lieut. Blanc," as he was called, was looked up to as a friend and a father.
The Island of La Gonave with its scattered population of some ten thousand was ruled by two Haitian queens. The original king of this island dependency was Faustin I, who had declared himself Emperor of Haiti in 1849. In Faustin Wirkus the queens recognized the reincarnation of Faustin the First.
It turned out to be quite a day In the life of this young Polish American Marine when the La Gonave islanders crowned him Faustin II with all the mystic rites and ceremonies of the island's tradition.
We met the "White King of La Gonave" in New York City back in 1937-38 and were able to authenticate the unique pacification role that Faustin Wirkus played during those turbulent years of Haiti history.
As Wirkus' fame spread the president of the Republic of Haiti decided that a ruling "king" in his domain was undemocratic and Faustin's two year reign came to an abrupt halt.
Faustin Wirkus never returned to La Gonave and has long since gone to his reward in "God's Banana Fields" but were you to visit the island today you would learn that the natives are awaiting his return to his island in the sun as Faustin III.

There is more information and a better article at this website :

Wirkus had been stationed in Haiti during the American occupation which lasted from 1915 until FDR's Good Neighbor Policy began in 1934. We heard the story when we live in Haiti in the early 1980's, when it was rumored that a film company was going to make a movie of the story.

Wirkus was actually removed from La Gonave when the Haitian president and American ambassador visited the island, and the islanders descended to the dock to greet them waving the flags of their nine "Congo societies." The American policy had been to outlaw voodoo, as it had played a part in the slave revolt of the 1790's. The ambassador saw the flags as symbolic of voodoo, the president was embarrassed, and military authorities decided that Wirkus had "gone native," and that it was time to bring him back to the mainland.

In reality Wirkus had used the existing structure of the Congo societies to achieve a high degree of social organization on the island, to considerable public benefit. We sometimes think that what happened on La Gonave ninety years ago might be one of the keys to saving that island nation.

There are few copies of "The White King of La Gonave" still existing. I was lent one to read about twenty years ago. Even if the story is not a valid blueprint for social progress, it really could make a great movie.

Monday, July 7, 2008

More Eschatological Musings

Back in the mid-sixties, while helping a teacher map a layer of slate in upstate New York and adjacent Vermont, we came upon an old building in a clearing, bearing the sign William Miller Chapel. It was obviously an old building that hadn’t been used for years, but it was still in good shape. The roof, shingled with the native slate of the area, had withstood well over a century of frigid winters and hot summers.

Later I learned that the old chapel and nearby farm had been the setting of a notable event, the "Great Disappointment" of 1844. Miller was a Baptist preacher who developed a theory based on his study of the Book of Daniel that the Second Coming would occur between 1843 and 1844. When it didn’t happen at the appointed time, Miller recalculated this prediction, saying that the actual date would be October 22, 1844. Thousands of his followers, known as Millerites, assembled to await their ascension. Obviously it didn’t happen.

The Great Disappointment is still studied in college psychology courses, as an example ofthe phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. According to this theory the failure of Jesus’ reappearance in 1844 led believers to develop a variety of explanations to reduce the inward tensions resulting from the fact that the prediction was just plain wrong. Imagine a family sitting in a farm wagon with all their possessions, looking around in the cold October daylight! Now what are we going to do? The Millerites split into many groups. Some, having sold their farms and belongings, headed west. The largest group eventually became today’s Seventh Day Adventists, who later restored the chapel and the Miller farmhouse, now a museum.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

May I Make a Recommendation?

This is not for everyone. But even if you're part of the "over the hill" gang, don't rule it out. (I didn't.) And if you know a youngster who is tyring to tell you, "there's nothing fun to do here," here's a great, relatively inexpensive sport. It's good for mind, body (sunscreen or a long-sleeved shirt are a good idea, too) and spirit, and it's something that you can do for your whole life: kayaking (or canoeing) in the Keys.

It's true that popular perception relegates the sport to Eskimos and Boy Scouts, but with the coming increase in fuel prices, paddlesports and sailing will soon be seen in a new light.

The equipment needed is not overly expensive. (I built the kayak in the picture from a $50 set of plans, interrupted only by Hurricane Georges.) The only other items you need to make the venture legal are a life jacket, a whistle, and maybe a cell phone for emergencies.

The Keys have plenty of good launch sites. We've even paddled from Sugarloaf Marina to Snipe Point. (The trick is to plan your trip to coincide with low tide at your arrival point; that way you get a boost out and back.)

It's true that it's windy here for much of the year, but it's possible to find sheltered areas from many launch sites. There are a couple of good guide books available that suggest interesting trips, and give you an idea of the bird life and sea life you'll encounter.

And there's one other benefit. It's quiet. Paddling doesn't scare off the birds, fish, and other things that can make the experience so unique. On top of that, it's low impact on your body, on your wallet, and just as important, on the Keys.

The quiet places are still there, still beautiful. It's a way to remind yourself why you came here, and to renourish your soul. No, it is not for everyone (and that's a good thing). But if you try it and like it, you'll be glad that you did.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Lionel and the Laws of Karma

An old friend of ours, Captain Mike (the names in this narrative have been changed), once made the following observation

"Your karma catches up with you fast here in Key West. It’s an island. It’s round. There’s no place for it to go. If you do something to somebody, before you know it, your karma comes all the way around the island in a circle and hits you in the back of the head!"
Mike was the same guy who first pointed Lionel out to us. Lionel was a hip dude. Years before, when Mike briefly worked in our school system, Lionel had been one of his students. He was bright and a smooth talker, too bright and too smooth for his own good. Instead of finishing his education, going to the mainland and getting a good job like his classmates, he stayed in town, living by his wits. For a while, Mike told us, he operated an "after hours" club downtown, eventually developing a considerable "rap sheet," and spent periods of time both in our local juzgado and in the prison system upstate.

A number of years later Mike got into a domestic dispute fueled by alcohol, and spent a period of time as a guest of the county at our facilities on Stock Island himself. He was really grateful that Lionel was there to help him adjust to his new surroundings.

Time passed, and Lionel surfaced again. Another friend, a good-natured Irishman who lived in Marathon, was doing dock repairs at a shrimp house on Stock Island. He met an engaging fellow who, after chatting for a while, asked him if he could help him out by driving him and a box of shrimp he had just acquired from one of the boats to a customer downtown who was waiting for it. His ride hadn’t shown up, and the ice on the shrimp was starting to melt in the summer heat. The Irishman, being a fine fellow, was glad to oblige. When he got back to the dock, a shrimper came over and said, "Well, have you got the money?"
"What do you mean?" asks the Irishman. "He didn’t say anything about any money. He just wanted me to give him a ride downtown."
"That son of a bitch owes me $300!" says the shrimper. "He said you was supposed to bring it back!" Lionel had struck again.

Mike left town, and we heard Lionel was jail again. Time passed. A couple of years later we heard that the police were cracking down on drug dealing again and that a lot of the activity had moved into different neighborhoods. There did seem to be a few more JDLR’s (just don’t look rights) around, including, of all people, Lionel, riding around on a brand new shiny bicycle.

One day we were walking near the cemetery. We saw Lionel go by! A couple of blocks away, on a side street, a house was under construction. There was a Porta Potty in the yard. On the ground nearby was Lionel’s shiny new bike. "Look!" I said. "Isn’t that Lionel’s bike? I wonder where he is. Why would he leave his bike here?" We kept walking up to the corner, and headed home. I turned around and there was Lionel, furiously pedaling toward the cemetery gate, looking back over his shoulder, his eyes bulging out wide behind his fancy designer glasses.

A short time later the word "snitching" appeared below the word "stop" on all the STOP signs in the neighborhood.

We never saw Lionel again. (We did hear he got into trouble again and is doing more time upstate.) One day Mike called from his new home up north, and we told him the story of Lionel and the Porta Potty. "I can guarantee ya he was in the Porta Potty ‘getting off.’" he said. "Ya know, what happens with that stuff, after the initial rush, is extreme paranoia. He doesn't know ya from Adam. Ya really must have blown his mind!"

Crack House Blues

Key West is a unique and beautiful city. Located at the end of a 100-mile island chain, no more than four square miles, it is an old city with 19th century wooden houses. Despite the changes in recent years it has a culture of its own. Bahamian, Cuban, white, black, gay, straight, Yankee, and Cracker influences contribute to a melting pot under the tropical sun. Because of its compactness, everyone lives within an earshot of his neighbors. Almost everyone who lives there for more than a few months is connected via the "Coconut Telegraph." Because you’re likely to meet the driver you cussed out in traffic pushing a cart down the same aisle in the grocery store shortly thereafter, it’s a good idea to leave one’s "mainland attitude" behind. So proximity and closeness are another reason Key West is known for its "laid back" and tolerant ways, even today. People tend to mind their own business, and are unlikely to confront others doing something that they might deem objectionable, even though they know exactly what you are up to.

A recent post seen on the Bahama Village Blog (about drug dealing en plena calle) reminded me of another situation that occurred about ten years ago. (I know some us have had similar problems--even a distinguished city commissioner-- but most of us remain anonymous for obvious reasons: nobody wants a vindictive crack head on their hands.) Since our problem occurred more than ten years ago, and most of the players are long gone, I’ll tell the story.

An absentee owner turned his nearby rental property over to an unlicensed rental agent of dubious character. ("Why, he looks like nothing but a drunk!" said a police officer later.) He rented the relatively upscale furnished apartment to a young woman who, it was supposed, had just come into a sizeable inheritance. This explained the somewhat battered luxury car she drove, and the expensive motorcycle ridden by the oversized goon with whom she lived. But it soon became apparent that there was trouble in paradise.

A steady stream of "friends" were in and out of the apartment at fifteen-minute intervals around the clock. Another "faithful retainer," an older man, busied himself by day puttering around with bicycles in front of the house. In the early morning hours he would return with something that looked like a receipt book. There was a weekly visit from a young man who arrived in a black Mercedes with Miami tags. It was obvious that something was up.

After a number of weeks some of the neighbors began calling in anonymous tips. Nothing happened. Someone went to talk with the mayor. "It takes months to make a case like this. Be patient," they were told. Before long the situation deteriorated. Taxicabs would arrive directly from the airport for a typical ten-minute visit. The luxury car was towed away. The motorcycle disappeared into the apartment, where, we later learned, it was disassembled on the rich shag carpet. It was replaced by a scooter which the goon boyfriend rode in and out of the property every fifteen minutes around the clock. The young woman appeared rarely. She had lost considerable weight, and had open sores on her face.

At this point a friend who was "in the know" offered to help out. He spread the word among the "clients" that the place was "hot," and so most of the customers started shopping elsewhere. Due to the lack of revenue, they weren’t able to make the rent, and were eventually evicted. After they were gone, someone put up a big sign at the corner that said, "The Crack House is Gone: Smile for the Camera!" It didn’t last long. The "rental agent" tore it down in a fit of rage. We sometimes wonder if the sign had gone up six months earlier, we could have saved everyone a lot of trouble.