Haiti, the smell drifted across the water as our ship, Cutter Lipan, maneuvered to the pier slicing through the humidity and haze that filtered the scintillating heat of the sun. The crew was ready for some time ashore, away from the current drug patrol. Being the Duty Officer I would stay aboard for the first watch while the rest of the crew went sight-seeing.
The brutal smell of Port-au-Prince in the summer of 1984 was only second to the reality of life on its streets. The poverty, heat, and disorder suffocate the senses. I stood on the signal deck of the ship during that first afternoon and scanned the city through the “Big Eyes” (large binoculars). As Port-au-Prince sits in a half bowl that funnels the city down to the port, there is much to see. Just like the old city it is, the higher up the hills you ascend the better the homes and living conditions. The poorest of poor live close to the water.
One of the more potent images left in my mind, is of a man walking the shoreline casting a net hoping to catch a fish. I followed his progress through the big eyes, only to witness the man drop his pants and defecate there on the shoreline in full view of everyone around him.
I planned to visit a missionary that lived in Port-au-Prince, and formed a small exploration party with two like-minded believers from the crew. I didn’t know the missionary, but I had heard of them from Officer Christian Fellowship and wanted to visit and be a blessing in any way I could. Immediately upon leaving the ship we were accosted by vendors selling the ubiquitous carved wooden figurines. We negotiated with a hyperactive boy to guide us to our destination. Which it turned out, he wasn’t very familiar with. Our circuitous route took us into the heart of downtown, and as we were attempting to track our route on a map, we realized that our guide had gotten us lost.
Once we realized this we tried to explain this to the guide. Eventually, he understood where it was that we wanted to go and pointed the way and we were off. He said we were going through the Port-au-Prince market. It was down hill from where we were.
As we approached the market the smells began to amplify, until as we walked into the market they became overwhelming. This market, in any other city, would be “The Dump”. Hundreds of people crowded into perhaps one half square mile, contesting over piles of steaming garbage. Dump trucks were weaving in and out of stalls hastily erected by desperate entrepreneurs trying to find a place to dump their loads. Children, scrabbled over the tops of decaying piles of refuse looking for something to sell. Some, no older than 5 or 6 years old were standing by the dirty garbage encrusted road selling 2 or 3 coke bottles. Chaos reigned in that place.
Eventually, we wound our way through the market, and found our way up the hill to the Mission. True to the relative position the mission held higher up in the hills, the mission — and the surrounding neighborhood — stood on larger lot than the buildings down towards the port. It was a large whitewashed home with red tile for a roof. Shaded from the heat by eucalyptus trees, the mission sat encased in a quiet shabbiness. Here the noise of the city was forgotten and the neighborhood almost seemed deserted compared to where we had ascended from.
There was no answer at the front door of the parsonage, so we walked around back to where we found a playground. There surrounded by children, some obviously her own, was the missionary’s wife. It was evident that something was wrong. As we approached the children stopped to look at us and acknowledged our presence. But, when we stopped and introduced ourselves to the woman, we were presented with a blank almost catatonic stare. She never responded to us in any way, just kept staring out beyond the road, over the hill towards the harbor. I occurred to us that she was in shock. Later, as I thought about this, I realized that she was most likely suffering from culture shock.
We moved back to the street, took a quiet moment to pray for her. Then returned to the ship. The day had been a day of learning and a time of questioning. I know I spent time asking God what had happened to the missionary’s wife. Questions piled on questions as I attempted to reconcile my heart with my mind. This wasn’t the first time I had seen poverty. I had seen it in parts of Mexico on a trip I took after graduation from College. But, Port au Prince was different. There was and I imagine there still is — although I have heard it is getting better — an under current, a spiritual layer of hopelessness.
Later, that week we left Port au Prince and continued our patrol on the north side of the island, eventually anchoring in the harbor at Cap Haitien for another shore break. Cap Haitien is smaller that Port au Prince and much cleaner. At least it was in 1984. It looks like a small mediterranean town. White washed homes brilliant in the hot sun, clean streets that rise up from the waters edge, following the smaller homes to the mansions on the higher elevations.
Here again our small band of believers went in search of a missionary, a local independent baptist missionary. In this case the family had been there awhile. There was no catatonic missionary’s wife in this home, but a healthy family in a beautiful home well established in the community. They invited our small band for dinner and they made us feel at home. It turned out that we were the ones being ministered to. The homemade cherry ice cream was fantastic.
But, that night, after the sun went down it was time to return to the pier where we could catch the zodiac back to the Lipan. Ten blocks straight downhill to the pier. From the missionary’s house we could see the Lipan at anchor in the harbor, her deck lights reflecting off of the water. The heat of the day was gone, replaced by a cool but humid breeze. The only smells evident were the enticing smells of dinners being cooked in the homes of the neighborhood. The stars were brilliant overhead and framed the picture of a beautiful caribbean city. The end of a joyful and satisfying evening.
However, what we experienced on our way down hill reminded us that even when things look beautiful, there can be an undercurrent of evil that is hidden just under the surface. Many of the homes in Cap Haitien have stucco covered brick walls that surround the yards. So the walk downhill felt as though we were walking through man made stucco canyons in an abandoned city. We were the only people on the streets, which after Port au Prince seemed ghostly. The silence of Cap Haitien is much different than Port au Prince . . . at least until the voodoo ceremonies begin.
As we walked down to the zodiac, the drums and chanting began. First on our left, behind the wall we were passing, then coming from many other directions. The eerie sense of otherworldliness settled upon us and our pace quickened. As we progressed down the hill, the ceremonies multiplied. I don’t know if we just happened upon the “Voodoo Hour”, the designated time for the evening rites. Or, if what we experienced was the normal evening event for Cap Haitien. I just know that it has an indelible place in my mind.
Was I shocked by these experiences? More like saddened. Cultures around the world, were given to man by The Creator. Each is different and carries a significant seed of Creator’s destiny buried deep within the history of that people and their culture. As a believer I am saddened by how men and their cultures have drifted from the knowledge of The Creator. Thankfully, we have a Saviour Jesus Christ that will set all this right. Our job is to go and be His instruments of Love.