Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Leaving Luperon


Back in Luperon after our week inland, I was pleased to see the boat still floating cheerfully out in the harbor.  A quick check of the bilge showed only a few cups of water.  Mark's patch seemed to be holding.

Flush from adventures in the mountains, we were eager to ship out again.  Strolla was given a good scrubbing, and put back in order.  We returned to studying the weather forecasts with renewed vigor.  Our arrival back in Luperon was well timed.  A stretch of weather was predicted in a few days that would be ideal for making an eastward passage to Samana, the staging point for a crossing to Puerto Rico.  We weren't the only ones preparing to leave.  A number of other boats were also taking advantage of the perfect weather.  The harbor was busy.

The day before we'd planned to leave we made a big shopping trip and loaded up on what I hoped would be enough rice and pasta and other nonperishables to last us the rest of the trip.  We also took aboard five dozen chicken eggs.  The eggs here come straight from the farm to the store.  As such, their shells still bore the residue of that end of the chicken from which they came.  Because they'd never been refrigerated, they last much longer unrefrigerated, about two months apparently, than eggs from home.  Egg salad, omelets, pickled eggs, its amazing how many varied and delicious meals can be made with eggs.  I've even started breaking a couple in my beers each night to help me grow strong.

The last step before departure was to clear out of customs.  We'd made the decision to clear into customs upon arrival and so, as we were already in the books, felt duty bound to make a legal departure as well.  our last day in Luperon, I grabbed the passports and ship's documents and headed to the port authority office.  It was late afternoon.  The official had gone home early.  The customs office next door was still open though and, after waiting half an hour, the man admitted me, glanced briefly through the passports and dismissed me.  He had stamped nothing, written nothing down, given me no paper to indicate that I had been cleared to depart.

He sent me across the footbridge over the drainage ditch and up the hill to get final departure clearance from the Commandante of the naval station.  The Commandante was not in.  Two young guys in gym shorts and t-shirts took down our information at the front desk.

They were very friendly and very bored with their job and very, very slow.  They stopped their copying repeatedly to pace around the room, to adjust the worn 9mm pistols tucked in their elastic waistbands, to engage my broken Spanish in lively debate.  They maintained a running argument about the actual name of the United States.  One believed it to be "U.S.A."  The other adamantly insisted it was "Los Estados Unidos" ("The United States" in Spanish). My opinion was consulted and disregarded and consulted again.  Finally, with the smug smirk of victory, one strode to a large map of the world on the wall and pointed.  "U.S.A."  The issue was settled.

After forty-five minutes, with our names, birthdays, and passport numbers carefully penciled into the ledger and me waiting impatiently for something to happen next, a call came into the station.  Seconds later, men were racing out the front door behind me, buttoning up camouflage fatigue jackets as they went, assault rifles slung awkwardly over their shoulders.  The two guys with me stared glumly after, anxious and agitated.  They were missing the action.  It didn't take long for the naval station to empty out.  Alone in the suddenly silent office, one of the two guys arrived at a decision.  I would have to come back tomorrow.

"What time?" I asked.  The station would be open at 6:00 a.m. they informed me.  They dodged into the back room.  I stayed where I was until they reemerged and ran past me.  Alone in the station, bewildered, I collected the passports and wandered back down toward the docks.

As I passed the guard's hut in the dark, the guard called out to me.  The port authority official who'd gone home early was on his way back to the office to see me.  I sat in the dark with the guard for another fifteen minutes until he arrived.  He roared up on his motorcycle, Denim jacket flapping in the breeze over denim shirt and jeans.  With the brisk air of a man in charge, he motioned for the guard and I to follow him around the corner of the office building.  He'd forgotten the key to his office.  We gave him a boost through the side window.

There was a fee to gain departure clearance from the Port Authority, $15.  I didn't have any money on me.  I also wasn't so sure at this point that I even felt like clearing out of customs anymore.  The official was holding  my passports and registration.  I said I'd have to come back and pay in the morning and leaned forward to take back my documents.  He pulled them out of reach.  He would be happy, he said, to wait while I went back for more money.

Foiled, I left the office and headed out along the government wharf to the dinghy dock.  Mark, Nate, and Becca had gone back to the boat in the dinghy.  Mark was supposed to return for me.  I had no idea when.  He wasn't back yet.  The navy high speed gun boat was gone from its berth on the end of the pier.  It hadn't moved since we'd arrived.  Strange men dressed in black, with bullet proof vests and thigh holsters were milling about.  Something was up.

Mark arrived in the dinghy.  He didn't have any money.  I left him on the dock and raced back to get my wallet.  Then the two of us walked back to the port authority office together where we shouted and gestured dramatically to show our displeasure.  The official still held our passports.  We paid, collected our things and went home to the boat and bed.

The next morning I was back at the naval office at six.  One of the same guys I'd dealt with the evening before was on duty in the front office, sound asleep at the desk, in the dark, head against the wall, mouth open.  I tiptoed back outside and came in again loudly.  He woke up and turned the lights on.  The Commandante wasn't in.  He said I should come back in a couple hours.

This answer made me angry.  After all, it had been he who'd told me to be there at six.  I'd even made him repeat it several times to be sure.  To show my anger, I said I'd wait.  There would be no more sleeping for him that morning.  I sat down, pulled out a granola bar and my book, and began reading.  Half an hour later, the power went out in the naval station, casting the office once more in darkness.  The guy walked out of the room to sort it out.  He didn't return.  I think he probably went back to sleep.  Sitting in the plastic deck chair, in the dark office, I was soon asleep too.

Two and a half hours later, the naval station had come alive.  The power was still out but the sun was up now.  I was awake and reading comfortably, ignored by everyone.  Someone, newly arrived at work, took notice and politely informed me that the harbor was closed to departures until further notice.  

As I traversed the foot bridge below the station yet again, another man caught up with me to give a more thorough explanation.  What I was able to glean from his rapid Spanish was that there had been a big drug bust on a boat just outside the harbor the night before.  That's what all the excitement had been.  The port was closed but, should be open by the next morning.  I could come back for my clearance papers then.

The next morning the naval station was back to business.  Passport information was taken again, this time quickly and seriously.  Forms were filled out and stamped.  Money changed hands.  I was ready for it this time, and then two men in combat boots and battle fatigues piled into my little eight foot dinghy with me to go out and make a final inspection of Strolla.  We ran out of gas but, I was ready for that too and topped us off with the little jerry can of outboard fuel.  When we got to Strolla, my crew were all still asleep.  I gave them a "Hello," waited awkwardly in the dinghy for them to get dressed, and then we three hauled ourselves aboard.

After a cursory walk through the boat, the soldiers got back in the dinghy with me and motored back towards the dock.  On our way through the harbor, we passed a catamaran, just arriving in port, having taken advantage of the same weather window we'd hoped to.  Seeing a chance to save themselves a second trip out, the soldiers motioned for me to take them to this boat.

The Canadian family of three on board, worn out and disorganized after an overnight passage from the Turks and Caicos, seemed a bit alarmed to spy me racing up on their stern in my little dinghy with two uniformed men crouched in the bow cradling assault rifles between their knees.  


The family spoke no Spanish.  The soldiers spoke no English.  I became their interpretor.  I did the best I could, standing in the cockpit with the wife, explaining and apologizing, while the soldiers poked around the cabin and the husband scrambled for their documents.

The soldiers intended for me to wait until they'd finished so that I could continue taking them  back ashore.  The wife on the catamaran, quickly grasping the situation, offered to take them back instead, releasing me from my duty.  Before anyone could change their mind, I jumped in my dinghy and fled back to Strolla.  The crew were ready and waiting.  We lost no time weighing anchor and sped out to sea, bound for Samana.

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