While reading a Travel advertisement in the local paper recently describing the splendor of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, I was reminded of my latest trip to the Dominican.
As a Merchant Mariner for all of my adult life, I’ve learned to appreciate the really beautiful days at sea. There’s nothing like the serenity of being underway on a calm day. This particular day was one of those great days.
Resting my elbows on the port side of the rusty bow of our 4000 horse power tug boat, just taking in the sights, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful scene in front of me. The Dominican Republic, a Caribbean Island 90 miles west of Puerto Rico, seemed to rise out of the sea as we approached towing our oil barge loaded with almost 2 million gals of diesel fuel.
The peaks of the Island’s mountain range were accented with big white puffy clouds that seemed to be placed just so. The bow cut a path in the calm blue waters like a hot knife through butter. A mild breeze from the east gently caressed my face the taste of salt on my lips as I stared mesmerized at the shimmering water, daydreaming.
As we approached the sea buoy I was brought back to reality when I noticed a plastic cup careen off the bow, then a plastic bag, some plastic spoons and an old sneaker. Just a few more turns of the propellers drove the bow of our tug into someone’s old insole bobbing in the water like a discarded miniature surfboard. The closer we got, the more dense the trash. Small pieces of trash everywhere, it seemed to be attacking us. In a span of about 1 minute we passed plastic bottle caps of all sizes, plastic trash bags too numerous to count. An old sandal with pretty flowers, looks about the size a 10-year-old girl would wear. I wondered where the girl was who lost her shoe?.
Entering the channel an old flashlight, then a boot, and a pencil floated by. A paper plate mimicking a Frisbee in slow motion bounces up against an old water logged tennis ball. Medicine bottles and plastic bags were everywhere. The amount of Tupperware containers seen floating could outfit an entire kitchen. It seemed like we entered a floating recycling center.
To get an idea of what this looks like, imagine going out to a neighbor’s backyard pool (don’t do this to your pool) with a full trash bag from your house. Hold it over the water and cut the bottom open. Imagine what that would look like. That’s what I saw but on a much bigger scale. It is a sight all to common in this part of the world.
As a merchant seaman, I don’t go to the Dominican Republic you may have visited, or the one written about in Travel magazines. You know, the one with palm trees surrounding cool white sandy beaches. There are no tourists sunning themselves in cushioned beach chairs staring at the ocean sipping their favorite Island concoction.
My Dominican Republic is different from yours.
Haina is a small very oppressed town 30 miles and a world away from the affluent Punta Cana.. Close by is one of the Islands power plants, that supplies electricity to the residents. We are here to discharge the 2 million gallons of diesel fuel into their nearly empty storage tanks.
Unlike the greeting you get at a all inclusive, there are no smiles and no complimentary drinks when we arrive. Instead uniformed local authorities of all sorts complete with a security force greet us.
After mooring the barge to the dock we are greeted by a security force that consisted of 4 young men equipped with 4-foot long machetes. They are positioned strategically around the deck outside the tug. All our hatches are closed and locked from the inside. We are in virtual lockdown, with the guards patrolling our decks outside. They were with us the entire time we were in port, all 28 hours.
Their job is to deter people who are so desperate to leave the Island that the thought of stowing away on a rusty old tugboat seems like a good idea. In Haina, stowing away is a very common occurrence.( The company I work for seriously frowns on the idea that a local citizen would successfully stow-away on one of their tug boats. If you think it’s because of their concern for the safety of the individual, you’d be wrong. It’s because all the costs that are incurred when said stow-away is caught after his hair raising trip. The company is required by law to pay for court costs, hotel rooms, food and flights back to the Dominican and what ever else. I know this for a fact, because it has happened on the tug I work on.)
Being hired on as a member of this unusual security force is considered a great job. They get paid $20 a week and take their jobs very seriously. If a stow away was fortunate enough to be successful and make it out to sea on our boat, none of the security guys who worked that day will get paid. So they are quite vigilant.
A walk into town will afford you a first hand look at what real poverty is. As I walked up the street my first and only time going ashore in Haina I couldn’t help but feel uneasy as the streets were lined with garbage and dilapidated shacks. People just stared at me as I walked by. It is amazing to me that at one end of the Island, resorts are just packed with tourist spending huge amounts of money on a daily basis. The hotels, beaches and restaurants are just first class, while at the same time on the other side of the Island, women dressed in tattered cloths carry dirty 5 gallon buckets of water to their house.
On the other end of the Island at the resorts, guests are offered drinks, great food and whole body massages. On my journey into Haina, some kid in his late 20’s offered me his sister for the day, “only 25 US” he said. That was a bit eye opening. I respectfully declined his generous offer, but sadly wondered just how bad is life for him that he has to stoop to renting out his sister? And what about the sister? I wish I could have just taken her away from this life, and brought her home to our safe house in New London where she could have all the food and water she wanted anytime and nobody would hurt and degrade her. If she likes dogs and cats, she’d fit right in.
Since the guards are on board for a full day it is not unusual for me to befriend at least one of them. I’ll make them sandwiches and give them soda from time to time and they are so grateful. One particular guard I talked to at length. He was about 30. We shared info on our families. He had two young kids. Sometime during his stay with us, I slipped him a candy bar. (We’re not supposed to feed them. What is this, the zoo?) At the end of our stay as we were going through our normal pre-departure check list, which consists of searching every inch of the boat for stow-aways, this particular guard asked me in broken English if I had any more candy I could give him. He wanted it for his kids. I proceeded to fill a large freezer bag with M&M’s, Clark bars, Milky ways and anything else I could find. When I gave it to him he anxiously looked about hoping no one else saw this and hastily stuffed it into an old shoulder bag he carries. He was so grateful, patting my arm, smiling and thanking me profusely. For candy. For his kids. Think about that a moment.
When we arrived at San Juan days later, and it was determined we were successful in deterring any stow-aways, I thought of my new friend in Haina.
I hoped his kids enjoyed the candy.