Every Christmas from the time I turned eight my family took a Caribbean cruise, nine in total. The ocean air and hypnotic sea gave my father a much-needed rest. He ran a large allergy practise on the Southwest Side of Chicago and worked such long hours we didn’t see much of him for long stretches of time. The first few days as we sailed south from New York City in the freezing air, he talked to no one. He’d find a deck chair, wrap up in blankets and read a year’s backlog of medical journals.
For me the cruises were social adventures, not just for the escapades around the ship with other children but also for the exotic islands. There, we came face to face with naked boys with swollen bellies and blind, withering women shaking coins in tin cups. Passengers from luxury liners weren’t supposed to see these people. We were supposed to take the ship’s organized tours to rum taverns with calypso bands, and ocean-side resorts with aquamarine pools.
My father preferred to hire a private taxi on the dock. “Take us off the beaten path,” he always said to the driver as my mother, sister, brother and I piled into the back of a rattled Chevy. “I don’t want anything touristy.” We’d head up into the jungly hills and see shacks, shanties and stray dogs; women wrapped in mismatched clothes beating laundry on the rocks, while their babies crawled over palm leaves on the riverside. My father always fired questions at the driver about housing, water, jobs, hospitals and schools.
After a few years of this, my mother preferred to stay on the ship. But every time we sailed to Haiti, the islanders could not be ignored. We’d anchor after sunrise out at sea, half a mile from the island. From a distance in the harbor we’d spot slivers of brown wood with oars like toothpicks, dipping in and out of the ocean til they enlarged and multiplied into fifty or a hundred dinghies and rafts, bumping and bobbing in the shadows of our giant ship. Five stories above, passengers would gather on the Promenade Deck and peer over the salty rails to the ticky-tacky rafts, far below. There, boys with protruding bellies and spindly legs wobbled and seesawed on the edges of their boats. Some bailed water frantically; others patted their chests with flat hands, as if to say, “Me! Me!” Then their knees would bend like springs and they’d dive in little arcs, arms outstretched like daggers as they hit the sapphire sea, racing for whatever people threw.
In the first hour of the morning passengers tossed nickels, dimes and quarters. Ten or fifteen boys would splash in at once, chasing a single coin. My father and I watched as crowds swelled on the deck. We’d try to figure out which boys belonged to each other – who worked alone and who worked as siblings, cousins or friends. I wondered if they dived for fun or dived because they had to; if they kept the coins for themselves, or brought them home to their mothers.
This routine on deck followed a similar pattern year after year, with a mild flavor of group sport. Men in Bermuda shorts and straw hats would single out a cluster of divers, saying, “Look at them leap! I’m aiming for that one.” After pockets emptied of coins, a husband or wife would have the idea of rolling a dollar into an empty perfume bottle. We’d hear people say, “Did you see that group when I threw that dollar? They all jumped on each other!” Someone would then think of throwing bread rolls and jam from the breakfast smorgasbord.
“What a great idea! They’re so hungry!” Wives would fetch bags to wrap the food while husbands waited, tossing more nickels and dimes. Then someone would say, “Why not give them soap from the stateroom?” There’d be discussion and some jokes over how to wrap the soap to protect it in the water. The boys’ diving always became more frantic when the soap bars appeared. So a passenger would say, “They don’t want our money, they want soap! They want to be clean! I’m gonna toss a comb!” Then, the grab bag would begin. Toothbrushes, toothpaste, sugar cubes, tea bags, aspirin tablets and pens flew off the side of our boat. By mid-morning, almost everyone on the ship – about five hundred passengers – would have paid a visit to the Promenade Deck. I could never really tell if the boys were laughing and diving, or if they were shoving and shouting at each other to be first to get the loot. We were too high up to know for sure. By the time the ferry was available to take us to the island after lunch, the boys and their watery dinghies had been cleared away.
Later that night, images of Haiti lingered over our shrimp cocktails and filet mignons. My mother said the hopelessness of the situation spoiled the spirit of cruising. I said the hopelessness gave us good reason to explore the island and find out more. My father’s opinion never wavered: Unless Haiti’s government changed, nothing would get better.
As we cruised from one port to the next – Panama, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Barbados – I imagined a map of the Caribbean, each island a theatre with a script all its own. I decided my own country was just another show. Looking down at the boys from the cruise rails, an image of myself – as one of the passengers throwing things – leapt from the dinghies straight back up at me. I wanted to shout down to those boys, “I’m not like these other passengers. I’m not one of them!” I conjured the message they might shout up to me: “We’re not as random as you think! We have names, histories, families.” Haiti made me a spectator and eventually a filmmaker. I disengaged from the theatre I was born to and the role I was meant to play.