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True Poverty


By Jeff Benitz 

You have not seen true poverty unless you have been outside the United States. Because of the nature of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) operations at sea, it often means their ships pull into isolated ports for replenishment and equipment transfer. These are not the ports of cruise ships or tourism. Likewise the ships operate solo, like a Nantucket whale ship in the 17th century. Most Navy military ships operate in fleets with support and berth in well-frequented ports where lots of sailors are to be found. WHOI’s Navy ships have small crews and small ports.
Most of the world’s shipping is to transport goods from one place to the next. Most Naval work is to do the same or patrol. It is rare a Navy ship dawdles around alone on the high seas and wanders into ports where no one else goes. Sometimes the ports are one-horse towns. When I speak to friends who have served on Navy ships, they speak of very different experiences. Imagine a fleet unloading 10,000 people in a port? At WHOI there may be five seamen on “liberty” to head into town.
On The Street
Though I had seen varying degrees of poverty in the United States and over seas, I had never seen true poverty until I hit a third world country. The first, “heads up” is arriving in a port where under the standard quarantine a whole variety of inoculations or vaccines are required: Yellow Fever, Hepatitis, Malaria, Typhoid, Diphtheria, and so forth. You know you are headed into filth. Poverty and filth seem to go together. According to the U.N. (September 2007) nearly half the world’s population, 40%, roughly 2.6 billion people do not have flush toilets. Water is always the problem, especially contaminated water. People who have managed to live in such an environment have totally conditioned immune systems.
Though a buddy system is recommended I often headed off the pier alone. One gets tired of the same folks month after month, and near the Equator the furnace like air seems fresh compared to the cramped cabins of the ship. In a poor town trash is everywhere and people live on the dirt streets. There are the hucksters who see the ship come in and have something to sell or barter. Their clothes are dirty and they grin with no teeth. They are young.
There is also no lack of modesty. It’s not uncommon in South Boston to see a man peeing on the sidewalk but in these ports they squat and deposit right out in the open where others sleep. During the day or night people are just laying on the ground, ribs showing, with no energy or purpose to stand up. It looks like there is dog s*** everywhere. Parents with young children start pushing them into the road to hound and beg for coins. They pull at your clothes and are hard to shake off. If they don’t get any money they get a beating. Soon the 12-year-old girls begin to follow you, trying to make conversation and walk along with you, hoping to sell themselves for dollars U.S. That’s when it’s time to get moving because you can see in the shadows thugs/pimps/fathers/mothers observing their success. If you don’t take up an offer their likely to kill you for good measure. They take it as an insult to their girl.
There was one time a man came out of a doorway and started shouting at me and following me because I rejected his young girl, he started calling to other people on the road who started to appear. He was saying I thought I was too good for his girl. I didn’t think this was the time for a discussion on class warfare or economic injustice so I ran away, fast, for about a mile. None of them had cars, phones, or electricity. I waited until after dark to stealthily skulk through the neighborhood back to the ship.
The same day, I passed up a street vendor who was selling Coca-Cola in plastic bags. They get the syrup somewhere and mix it with the local water and sell it in a bag that looks like something your newspaper would come in, tied at the top. Everything is for sale to the American. The older, scab covered prostitutes offer themselves, but no one takes umbrage when you reject them. I don’t think they work for anyone anymore.
When I talk about the incredible filth associated with poverty there is also the crime. There are pickpockets and muggers everywhere. The street vendors will try to cheat you. They have signals they give to others on the street if you flash money. If you’re dumb enough to pull out a $20 U.S. bill for something you are most likely dead.
At The Bar
Usually, the bar is what a sailor seeks when on land. That is an equally impoverished area. Often the bars don’t have refrigeration so beer is kept in ice buckets. That’s no good. The medical officer who gives the shots will tell you not to eat local food or drink local water when off the ship. What some people don’t think about is bottled beer from a reputable company is still poisonous if it is chilled in local ice. The lip of a can or bottle can be contaminated. Never get a mixed drink with ice, the alcohol does not sterilize on that level. It’s back to the water thing.
In the bathroom of some bars I have seen more dung heaped up on the floor than I have seen in neglected horse stalls back at home. Bathrooms where the water hasn’t worked for quite some time. And back to the crime situation, there are those who wait in bars to attack a tipsy sailor, later. One time, some shipmates showed back up in a state of agitation. They were at a bar on the patio and as they looked out on the street two men came out of a building arguing. One pulled out a pistol and shot the man dead on the street. The shooter walked away and they watched as the blood puddled on the road until it stopped like a fried egg. Three hours later the police showed up, threw the carcass in the pick-up and drove off. No questions.
In such areas the police aren’t much better off than the public. A good indicator you are in an area that is bad is the police travel in pick-up trucks in groups of eight; two in the cab and six in the open bed of the truck. Five in the bed will have M-16 rifles and one a pump shotgun. More than once I know shipmates who have been shaken down by such police and left practically in their underwear.
On The Watch
I Reflected on some of these experiences and images as I was holding the 24:00 to 08:00 security watch for the ship. There is only one officer and one seaman for the watch and the officer is on call. So, I stood alone in the dark overlooking the pier. During the night, different stragglers walked down the pier to look at our trash in the dumpster. Some fought over crummy mattresses we had thrown out, others were happy to take discarded paint cans that could be cut and flattened into metal for shingles on some shanty. Others, just the plastic trash bags were cover.
Late into the night a pack of wild dogs found the dumpster. They were all half starved, mixed breeds, and sized from small to large. It almost looked like a Disney movie but the humor was lacking. They gathered in packs as an instinctual thing and warred over scraps in a pecking order leaving clumps of hair to blow away with the wind.
The rat guards held up well. They are 24” discs placed over the hawsers to prevent rats from climbing the lines and getting on the ship. The rats were running around but they didn’t make the noise that was most disturbing. The pier was covered with cockroaches. They came out in armies, some were 2” in size. There were so many cockroaches that you could HEAR them shuffling along the pier. It was a ticking, crinkly sound that in mass almost made a hiss. You could see what looked like cloud shadows move.
Two late arrivals at the ship remarked that you could follow their footprints back all the way to shore, left by the crushed bugs. They said it was like walking on cornflakes the whole way up. There are times a sailor likes to pull anchor and head to sea. By morning, the overflowing dumpster was empty.
So the next time someone tells you they are in “survival mode” because they can only afford basic cable TV, or they can only go to MacDonald’s with the kids once a week, tell them to travel outside the U.S. From what I have seen, true poverty is: death, dying, sickness, starvation, and filth.


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