Sunday, January 16, 2011

Safety in numbers

Early to bed, early to rise. Was awake around 7am today. Not bad for a Sunday. It was gorgeous outside. The sun was shining without a cloud in the sky. No snow on the ground in Haiti!

I had worked much of Saturday and knew I had to work some today. (It seems everyone has been working overtime as a result of the cholera outbreak… which btw, our field staff have been fantastic and our unofficial numbers so far are encouraging.) So I was determined to have some fun.

Beach day!

I’d been to the nearby beach – Plage Azur – several times. And it normally was crowded with UN troops. But that was always in the afternoon. By arriving early, I was hoping I might beat the crowd and have the beach to myself.

But before I tell you about the beach, I want you to visualize the Grand Anse. Much of the coastline is cliffs or steep embankments. The beaches here are generally coves where sand accumulated, but they still tend to be at the bottom of a steep hike. Azur is no exception.

I had taken a moto taxi for the usual 50 gourdes, about $1.25. The driver dropped me off near the top and I walked down. As I descended, I passed two kids. And all I could think was… hmmm… what are these kids doing here? The reality is that few locals swim. And these kids had neither swim trunks, nor any sort of bags that could contain wet clothes with them. I was suspicious and cautious. The reality is that for Grand Anse, Azur is a “tourist destination” and such places always attract pickpockets, purse snatchers, etc. So despite the relatively low density (or more correctly, non-existence) of tourists, I knew I had to be cautious.

When I got to the beach, there were a few other foreigners there and no locals in sight. But I had seen those kids, probably ten to twelve years old.

After a few minutes, I got comfortable and went out into the water. With several foreigners there, I figured the likelihood of my bag being stolen was minimal. I mean, if they’re rich enough to travel to Haiti, they’re probably not purse snatchers. And they were clearly the tourists at Jeremie’s tourist destination.

They left after about ten minutes and I promptly left the water to attend to my bag, but with no one else in sight… I decided to head back into the water… knowing my bags would be unguarded.

Upon making that decision, I was fully aware that those kids had seen me headed to the beach and that I was alone. And since they clearly weren’t swimming… nor were they friendly… and since I had heard about vehicle break-ins / window smash’n’grabs occurring at the top of the hill where cars had recently parked… I knew there were thieves in the area. So I decided to take one very small, and seemingly useless, precaution.

I “clipped” my backpack to a tree. By clip, I mean I simply put the packs waistbelt around the tree and snapped the clip. Although such clips are quite common in the USA, I haven’t seen any in Jeremie. So I reasoned that a local wouldn’t know how to unclip it quickly and it would potentially deter any purse snatchers.

How right I was.

I went back into the water and kept watching the beach for about ten minutes. In looking at the length of the beach, I figured there were really two entry and exit points.

How wrong I was.

Although I was generally watching, out of nowhere one of the two kids appeared. I saw him run right past my bag and then scurry up the hill… a place I didn’t think anyone would be able to climb. Damn. Thankfully though, my assessment was right. The stupid little kid wasn’t particularly sophisticated. Even though he didn’t understand the clip, if he’d had a knife he’d have gotten my bag. What a jerk. What a dumb jerk. And poverty is no excuse. There are lots of people in Jeremie living in destitute poverty. But they don’t turn to a life of crime. Nope. He was just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill criminal.

I think the funniest part of the incident was that it was the same exact bag that another purse-snatcher tried to steal from me in an internet cafĂ© in Romania in 2002. That was another punk. He did outrun me, but not without me first smacking him… which had the instant reaction of him letting go of my bag.

I hate thieves.

Anyway, I decided to leave rather than hang around and wait for the criminals to return and try again. I headed to the top of the hill. On my way I saw the kid about 50 yards behind me. I hesitated and considered going to yell at him, but thought better of it. I wouldn’t be shocked if he had a knife. And I have no interest in that. I turned back up the hill and kept walking, now a bit more briskly.

Reaching the top, I was pleasantly surprised for the second week in a row. Both today and last week I scored rides back to town… and both times they refused to let me pay them as they weren’t moto taxi drivers. Last week, it was a member of the National Police. And this week I got a ride from a well-to-do printer who was going into town to pick up his son. I think both of them really just wanted to practice their English. I accommodated them both. I love learning and teaching languages. And it was good for me to get my mind off that little SOB at the beach.

The other highlight for me today was that I was finally given my driving test on a stick shift. I had told everyone that I was fine driving a stick, but no one believed it. So I went for my first test and was told that I passed with flying colors. I knew today wouldn’t be a problem though.

Outside of town, this particular area is mostly flat and straight with relatively little traffic. It’s the steep hills in downtown Jeremie that concern me. With all the people and motorbikes flying every which way… driving a stick on steep hills isn’t something I’ve ever done. Heck, most of my driving a stick was nothing more than a summer or two driving a forklift for John Romanik.

That was easy. 1st, 2nd, reverse and you never go more than five miles per hour… and there are no hills. Jeremie is a bit more challenging. But it is nice because now I should be able to go pick my dad up at the airport when he comes to visit in a few weeks! I’m looking forward to that and I know he is too. I think the last time he was in this part of the world was when he was the lead officer in some sort of “blockade” of Cuba back in the early 60s….

Tim White

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tim’s dad here. A brief clarification about my role in the 1963 Cuban blockade, which included many naval ships. I was a junior officer (rank of ensign) aboard a destroyer, USS Conway (DD-507), home-ported in Norfolk, Virginia. I was in charge of the deck gang, which included the duty of heading a boarding party, should one be needed. If any Soviet ship heading for Cuba dared to cross the blockade line, my ship would have fired across its bow and forced it to stop. Then I would have led a party of sailors armed with rifles in a motor whaleboat onto the Soviet ship and require it to reverse course. When it had done so and was outside the blockade, I would return the boarding party to our ship.

Not exactly a Sunday picnic, since the Soviet ships were also armed. But the blockade worked. The Soviet ships turned back. I never had to strap on my .45 and board one, which was fine with me. It wasn’t exactly a video game where you can get up after you’re killed in combat.