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Thinking about Haiti

1/25/2010

I don't know if Matthew is dead or not. There's no way to find out if he died in the earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince, Haiti and killed or injured more than 100,000 people this month.

We lost touch, and I don't remember his last name, so there's no way to know. However, I do remember his bright smile and playful attitude.

Matthew lived with my family in Little Rock, Ark., for a summer during the early 1990s. My wife and I had met him during a mission trip to Haiti the previous summer. We were young and going to save the world.

I took a beat up fly rod on that trip to Haiti. I was going to be a globe-trotting, hot shot fly fisherman, writing about all of my world adventures to strange places catching strange fish. I think there're some fishing shows on cable like that nowadays, but I don't watch fishing and hunting shows anymore. (Lee Wulff once told me to go someplace exotic to fish at least once a year and by the time I was as old as he was, I'd have many fond memories.)

We flew to Haiti in a DC-3, supposedly the same one that years earlier had been hijacked to Cuba with the hijacker accidentally shooting a bullet hole through the back of the plane's fuselage. I don't know if the story was true, but it helped fuel that exotic world-traveler-adventure-angler-writer thing I thought I was.

After landing at the airport in Cap-Haitien in the northern part of the country, we headed into the mountains towards a little village named Pignon. This was Matthew's hometown.

First, I saw a big, silt-laden river flowing into Cap-Haitien. Ramshackle buildings crowded both river banks. A fisherman was pulling in nets while a woman knee deep with a large jug dipped up water. Just upstream, a man was urinating into the river.

As we ground slowly up the mountain, we came upon a small group of people surrounding a dead man lying on the side of the road, killed when hit by a "tap-tap," the local word for the garishly colored taxis and buses that drive the roads with no thought for anything or anyone.

Haiti was an assault on the senses, a place of deep poverty and oppression. We were told not to drink the water, to keep our mouths shut and not let any water run up our nose while showering. I survived the week-long stay only because of Imodium.

The mission camp was a walled compound. Rumors abounded of roving death squads terrorizing the countryside that had hacked and killed people of the wrong political persuasion. The drums we heard at night supposedly were voodoo drums, and we were told not to approach or stare at the witch doctors.

Yet the Haitian people were joyful and friendly. The children laughed and ran about pointing at us and shouting "Blanc, blanc" (white, white) when they saw us. The countryside was bare dirt except for a few scraggly trees.

A bird's nest sighted in one tree resulted in a boy quickly climbing the tree and pulling the baby birds out of it. The children chased each other laughing and screaming as they swung the birds by their tiny feet and wings. None survived. Haiti was the birthplace of John James Audubon in 1785. I saw few birds while there.

The coffee was thick, strong and sweet. We ate mostly vegetable dishes. The only meal we had with meat was goat. The people were so proud to provide it for us. The children played with the animal and then out of respect and thankfulness for such a prized treat, we had to watch its throat slit. A smiling man gestured to us while he skinned it, using a reed placed just under the skin that he blew into, the forced air separating the animal's skin from the meat.

My fly fishing adventure would take place on our one day out in the countryside. We decided to climb a nearby mountain and explore. This is when I got to know Matthew, who guided us. The hike was arduous and the few little streams were silt choked. "No feesh here," Matthew said. "Feesh all gone. All eaten." I never took the rod out of the pack rod tube.

It was one of those kiss-the-ground moments you've read about when our plane landed back in the U.S. We stuffed ourselves with airport cheeseburgers.

The first place I took Matthew fishing when he came to Arkansas the following summer was Illinois Bayou. It's a strange name, because it's not the typical slow-moving, bottomland backwater stream that the name "bayou" normally brings to one's mind. It's a mountain stream of the Ozark foothills that drains into the Arkansas River Valley.
We were canoeing, and I had that same little fly rod ready for goggle-eye, bream, smallmouth and spotted bass. The first fish I landed was a chunky 12-inch smallmouth. I unhooked it from the wooly bugger and tossed it back in the stream. A howl of deep anguish arose from the canoe's bow.

"Why did you t'ro dat feesh back?" Matthew wailed.

"So it will get bigger," I said matter-of-factly. "We'll probably throw all of our fish back today."

"Dat is crazy," Matthew said in an exasperated tone. "In Haiti, we eat dose feesh; everyting, the head an' tail too."

"That's why you don't have any fish left," I said smugly. I'd never gone hungry. I had no idea. He looked at me still aghast at what he'd just seen.

Matthew kept the two fish he caught that day on a spinning rod and tube jig I'd given him. Two pumpkin-seed bream not big enough to amount to anything. He fried them whole and ate all of them that night.

We fished a lot that summer. Caught rainbow trout on the Little Missouri River and bass, crappie and catfish from Lake Greeson, too. He always ate everything he caught no matter how much I teased him or tried to get him to understand catch-and-release.

At the end of summer, he went to start college in Chicago. We talked on the phone a few times over the next couple of years, and I saw him once briefly when he came back through Little Rock on his way back to school.

I heard when he graduated he went back to Haiti to a job in Port-au-Prince. That was in the late '90s. Maybe he wasn't there last Tuesday. I sure hope so.

I never seemed to get going on that fly fishing-traveling-the-world-writer-thing. And we didn't save the world. Stuff just happened.

I eat a lot more of the fish I catch now, too. Haiti really needs our help now more than ever.