Swimming in Deep Holy Water – A Haitian Odyssey

Deep Holy Water

Sketches and excerpted emails by Jake Welch.

The joke I tell is that I thought my twenty-three-year-old son Jake, a river kid since he could crawl, said he was going to Tahiti. Six classes short of receiving a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, he quit school, much to the dismay of his parents. In fact, he was bound for Haiti — to serve a nobler cause and, in doing so, test himself against larger forces in the universe. Scramble the letters in Haiti, throw in a “t”, and you have the famed Polynesian paradisiacal dreamscape. If you are a father, it is easy to hear what you need to hear.

After the mandatory gnashing-of-teeth episode, I performed a random survey of male friends (of a familiar age span) who I consider successful (in both conventional and nonconventional ways) human beings. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that at one time or another they had all, for different reasons, “dropped out.” Jake glibly called his retreat a “stepping back.” Exercising a father’s prerogative, I failed to mention that I had abandoned my pursuit of an English Lit degree decades ago and headed to the mountains. Years later, I circled back to academia between river seasons and picked up the damn certificate.

When I suggested that perhaps it was easier and cheaper to “step back” four decades ago, hardly any of my peer group disagreed. One curmudgeon with a contrary soul even dared to question the social, educational and employment value of today’s increasingly overpriced climb up the wobbly ladder of college education. Heresy!

The last time I checked, Haiti was still recovering from a devastating earthquake, but overflowing with historical oppression, widespread poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, corruption and the reemergence of cholera. Haiti, I soon learned, is also swarming with Americans, evangelical and otherwise, looking to do good and, if possible, harvest a few Haitian souls. The Haitians, especially the young (a major portion of the population), hope to harvest a few greenbacks.

Who can blame them?

Haiti drawing

Jake has never been a churchgoer, unless you consider that, on one of our annual river reunion trips, I brought him and the dozen or so other helpless children and teens into the fold of “The Church of the Flowing Water.” Complete with magic words, a sacred wine-bottle brimming with holy river water and a wallet-sized-you-are-part-of-the-river-forever-club card, the baptism was a big hit. Outdoor secularism with a sprinkling of pagan-fairy dust at its worst. To this day these now-young adults refer to themselves as members, river brothers and sisters. Jake, I suspect, is an agnostic with a spiritual hunger appropriate for someone his age. In the land of plenty his moral compass has pointed him to the land of poverty.

Somehow he managed to convince the Haiti-bound leader of a local evangelical group (in the college town where he lives) that he was a “Christian at heart.” Likely as not, the evangelicals saw a sincere applicant, as well as a donor and a potential convert. Folks who join the two-week mission must pony up roughly $2,000 — a good chunk of change — which goes toward various endeavors: supporting the orphanages, medical clinics and other programs on the island. The caveat, as mentioned earlier, is that one must also be a Christian of the evangelical stripe to join the mission. The impulse to help the less fortunate is an honest one; the desire to spread an Old Testament faith to hungry, poor people whose condition places them in a vulnerable situation, sticks in my craw. Apologists would rightly argue that the two are inseparable, have been and always will be. Jake insisted that he could slip under the pagan-detecting radar.

In a sense, these well-intentioned churchgoers have become “adventure missionaries.” Modern-day skeptics have given brief trips to locations like Haiti another name: “medical tourism.”

Jake also made the bold claim that he intended to stay for a year. I asked how he would accomplish that goal in a poverty-stricken country with no slack in the economic rope and his tenuous connection with a religious organization. “No worries, Dad,” he assured me. At the bottom of his emails, he leaves a proclamation, as well as a message to himself:  “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up to much space.” Egad! When I first read it a few years ago, the maxim sounded so familiar to my youthful inner ear, I had to stop and catch a breath. Once, on our way home from a river trip, I set about to seek an alternative mantra, or at least balance the scales. We came up with another axiom: “If you’re not dancing around the mystery, you’re running in circles.”

Well, here I am. I talked with Amber about the needs of the facility a bit and asked (in a round about way) if I could be useful. She said that the man to ask would be E.P. Later, after the group brought out play-doe, jump ropes and tiny airplanes for the kids to play with (a scene which quickly dissolved into jubilant chaos despite the best efforts of our team leader), Amber brought me to talk to E.P. I told him my desire to stay in Haiti for an extended period of time, and what meager skills I possessed. Long story short, he said they can use me. I helped teach a pack of preschool aged kids about the six days of creation. We handed out colored pages, one for each day and colored pencils. This occurred in a village far up a rough cut dirt and clay road. School here is held for four hours a day as the children must have time help parents work. In rough concrete structures kids are packed in thickly along bench rows and teachers stroll around with a length of electrical cord to keep order (though I never saw them actually strike a child, only the desk in front of them). Teaching is done by rote memorization: the teacher says something and the students, as one, call out the answer or parrot back. Even the youngest children are taught in this manner, which is rather depressing but I can’t figure out how else I would do it given the large student-teacher ratio and the simple lack of teaching materials. Only the students who really hunger for knowledge will progress in this sort of classroom. I was grateful to be able to supply them with the rare experience of coloring.

When Jake was nearly five, skinny and bespectacled, I dropped him over the gunnel of my dory into the flat water of the Main Salmon. All morning he had been watching the older kids, laughing and shrieking, leap off their respective boats. He had danced around the deck, badly wanting to join the club of daredevils, but could not bring himself to conquer his fear of the unknown. My encouraging words had little effect. That’s when I did what any good father would do. I lifted the whelp up and pitched him feet first into the River of No Return.  He never had a chance to be frightened in that terrible way. Call it the Sink-or-Swim School of Experiential Learning.

Of course Jake had his lifejacket on and the river was deliciously summer warm. When he surfaced, he stared at me in euphoric astonishment. How could I do such a thing? How could I not? He had discovered The River, not from shore or a boat or story, but through total immersion in the holy water. For the first time he felt the River — its current, warmth, sound. It was as if, at last, we shared some long-lost secret.

The boy had been liberated; I, of course, was doomed. For the remainder of the trip, he pestered me relentlessly to leap off the boat into the now-familiar “great unknown.” Since he could not pull himself up, I became his personal hoist. Once the flatwater fear was conquered, he turned his attention to the rapids. He wanted to swim the fast water.

Haitian drawing

His mother would never have allowed me to dump him overboard when we floated Westwater Canyon two years earlier. He was only three, the water was colder and the motherly instinct not to be trifled with. Theory #1: After sons know they have the fundamental, unconditional love of their mothers in the bag, they begin to look toward the sperm donor, their father, for something different. What that is, they are not sure. Thus begins the dance/wrestling-match-as-embrace of father and son as the latter begins the voyage, more often meandering than not, to adolescence and perhaps, one day, to manhood. Except that there is always another father cutting in. Call him the ghost-dancer. Call him grandfather. The duo is really a trio and they must learn to move in harmony.

I am not a Christian, but I’m not against spreading the good word (others will be even more surprised to discover) provided there is no coercion involved. People need stories, a spiritual history which can guide them and help them relate to people very different from themselves. Don’t underestimate the power of a little common ground. As far as my own beliefs go I will say that I find the Christian condescending, self righteous attitude fairly unappealing but that I believe that the universe is a far more passionate, intelligent and loving arrangement then atheists are likely to give it credit for. If you need to put me in a box, tick ‘other’; meanwhile I’ll be off doing tai-chi on a slack line, singing silent prayers in mantra to the jesus-buddha cooperative fellowship. That being said I am surrounded by Christen folk who do credit to their religion. Despite my misgivings about how they handle their beliefs, they are sacrificing their money, time and energy to bring a little relief to people in need. Their gentleness of spirit, their unselfconscious brotherly love, their passion for helping and their complete acceptance of me, a stranger, will ever serve as an example for me.

Around the age of 10, Jake discovered that he no longer wanted to be a mere passenger in my boat. The dory, ponderous and inhabited by parents and an annoying sister, never struck his fancy. With the purchase of a cheap, six-foot-long inflatable raft, best used for floating on lakes, the fledgling departed the dory-nest. Although he remained willing to listen to basic instructions for brief periods, he preferred the time-tested method for extracting the most fun out of rapids: Follow your friends no matter what. Over time he navigated the Rogue, Lower Salmon and Grande Ronde.

Just as a son’s growth is incremental and all but invisible on a day-to-day basis, so the father’s role in relation to his son changes imperceptibly. One day the person you thought you knew has already gone around the river bend onto the next stage of development, and the father is left onshore, scratching his balls and wondering “Where did that kid go?” If he is to perform his role adequately, Daddy-O must catch up and get out in front, but out of the way, of the young boatman who must never know what the ancient mariner is up to. A father begins a period of calculation: when to intercede, when to step back. Timing is everything.

I’m staying pretty safe. The orphanage in Mirabalais has big walls and if I do leave them, it’s always with a guide of some sort. The people have that island time mentality which makes them very friendly and easy going, though of course I’m never sure how much of my presence (a potential source of wealth) affects that. I’m getting better at smelling it out though, picking up the “something is not quite right here” signals that don’t rely on language. There is a furtive hand signal they’ll make to me when they want to usher me away from a group to ask for something.

The first night I was here I got thoroughly involved in helping clean a well that had just been dug, no easy task considering the hole goes down 230 feet. It all happened rather spontaneously as I was standing around trying out my meager Creole, B.S.ing with some Haitian well diggers and an old man from Oregon who had brought all the equipment (on his own dime, no less). Evidently everyone decided that my Creole was good enough to translate for them so I suddenly found myself in the midst of a project. My god it was glorious. I translated instructions and plans, I carried gravel, I helped patch piping, I feed piping down the hole and I watched dials on the massive machine which served as kind of a well digger’s Swiss army knife. We solved small mechanical problems together and hauled gravel.

One fella told me about his life a bit: ten younger siblings, parents too old to work and his own family to support. He is not married because he can’t afford the traditional ring, so he wants to buy a motorcycle with which he can work shuttling people around (a young person’s job as common as street vending). I sympathized with his plight and the load he had to carry. Later, rather out of the blue, he said ‘I pray to god that he will help me, and after I will pray that you will help me buy my motorcycle.”

Haiti house drawing

The summer of 2006, we launched from Mineral Bottom on the Green River. Jake, just turned 17, was rowing his own raft, a used 13-foot Pioneer model fitted with a pirate flag and a rag-tag crew of two other adolescents, the sons of fellow boatmen. His rig looked like his bedroom: straps flying, gear lying about, empty soda cans floating on the floor, granny knots galore, cooler open to the 90-degree heat. It was a floating nightmare. At the put-in, he ignored my suggestion that his oar set-up might need some adjusting. Fair enough. The 40-mile run down to the confluence with the Colorado is mostly flatwater. At lunch on the second day, Jake ran afoul of one of his River Uncles who found his tie-up unworthy of a boatman. It is hard to tie a knot around sand. River Uncle nudged the raft off shore, watched it circle an eddy, and then called out, “Is that someone’s raft floating away?”

I owe him a beer.

When we reached the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, the head of infamous Cataract Canyon, the mood among the boatmen changed. Though we were running on relatively low water and the danger of a serious mishap, even disaster, was minimal, the reputation of the rapids in Cataract and the residue of communal high-water memories, combined with the soaring temperatures, left us rubber-legged. Over the decades, enough of us have participated in, seen or heard the horror stories that we approached the rapids — Mile Long and Big Drops, to name only two — with caution, even at low water. Under a merciless sun, we preferred to nap.

Jake picked up on the vibe, listening closely as the most-experienced boatman pointed out the pivotal moves through the rapid. Unlike the past, he did not hover close to me. As the sorting-out process of who will run in which group at one of the Big Drops began, he made it known he preferred to be included in the first group of three or four boats, to follow one of his Uncles through the maze. Usually the novices and first-timers watch the first runs to gain information and their visual bearings.

I would wait on shore and watch.

Following an experienced boatman on the approach to a rapid is not as simple as it sounds. Spacing between boats can shrink, but usually expands, and, before you know it, you have lost sight of your lucky charm. Soon enough, Jake was on his own.

Nevertheless, he executed a flawless entrance, never flailed at the oars, navigated the brown-water maze seemingly effortlessly, and at the bottom of the rapid, wore a grin that lasted the rest of the day.

There is no trash service in Haiti. Garbage is simply tossed on the ground or into big burn piles which go up in cloying, plastic smelling smoke when ignited. This is the practice here at the orphanage, much to the offense of my northwest eco/health friendly sensibilities. It’s hard to come up with an alternative, though I’ve been trying. The sight of this beautiful land, strewn with the flotsam of man’s livelihood has had a visceral effect on me, mostly because there is no reprieve: everywhere you go, there is garbage. An unsettling vision of the future which we never get in America because we pile all our junk out of sight.

So I decided to try and solve the trash problem, if only in the walls of this orphanage, to the best of my ability. The easiest materials to process are the soft ones, food and paper products. So I went online to learn about paper making and composting. Dead interesting and both these projects require very little in the way of start up materials or expert knowledge. This is essential, because none of these techniques for waste management would have any great impact unless I could pass them on to the children of the orphanage. That is the crux.

There is a little banana orchard on the property, which looks beautiful until you walk in and see all the discarded clothing, candy wrappers (again courtesy of the teams who stay here), old building materials, paint cans, razor blades, broken bottles, diapers, used maxi pads etc. The adults throw their junk away there and so the kids do the same.

I thought about how nice it would be to hang out in the banana orchard, were it more hospitable and how important it is for kids to have wild spaces to play in. I had a really strong hunger to make the orchard into a nice place but the enormity of the task and the seeming futility was holding me back. What would I do with the garbage anyway? So I go to my journal to work this out.

I should go collect trash, not with the notion of ‘solving’ anything, nor getting anywhere, for there is nothing to solve and nowhere to go. I should do it for its own sake… because at the bottom of it all I am the one who is thirsty for a beautiful world.

So I went to collect garbage.

Three years later, Jake and I ran the Rogue alone. The morning we launched, the fall weather was glorious, the river virtually empty of other boaters and the river corridor awash in fall color and birdsong. We had a muddled discussion about rowing; I assumed we would share the task. Jake, however, announced that he wanted to row the entire river. Like the intermittent flash of a lighthouse on a fog-bound coast, he had been sending me a signal: he will “guide” me down the river

Perhaps he sensed my 22-year-old secret? Over time fatherhood had imperceptibly nibbled away at what I would call my “edge” — that blend of boldness, measured risk-taking and quiet confidence that had informed my rowing as a guide. A greater degree of caution, and thus, hesitancy, had crept into my mind. An eight-year-old and a three-year-old will do that to you.

We floated on low water — sun-lit, sparkling green and rock-infested. Not unreluctantly, I made myself a comfortable spot in the front of the raft and settled in. All I had do was keep my mouth closed. Sooner or later Jake would ask for advice on where to enter rapids. It is one thing to follow a run, another to be in the lead.

The first day he spurned even the gentlest of suggestions. At the entrance to one particular rapid (which even had me confused), I asked, “You got it?” No reply.  He was lost. We washed helplessly over a pour-over, bumping and grinding on a series of ledges. It was a sloppy, potentially bottom-ripping run. I said the very thing I hoped not to. “What the hell are you doing?”

As we bore down on a similar rocky maze Jake broke his silence, “What do you think?” Our roles temporarily restored, I gave some quick instructions and he nailed the run. At less-confusing rapids downriver Jake asked specific questions of the “do-you-see-what-I-see?” variety and made his own calls. We camped early. For reading material he brought along Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” an apocalyptic tale of a father-and-son road trip unlike no other.

If there is such thing as harmonic convergence, we stumbled momentarily upon it over the next couple of days on the Rogue. The rapids came one after another, fast and with little interruption. Perched on the bow I called out the names, pointed out markers, obstacles, the sway of the current. Jake’s runs were clean, his rowing effortless. We seemed to be of one mind, an extension of one another for the time being.

My policy so far is no hand outs. Mostly because it simply is not sustainable for me to be buying candy and drinks and motorcycles, but also because I think there has been too much careless giving. In our desire to help it’s easy to react emotionally and go for the quick material fix. This is disempowering and enables dependency. It’s very much a ‘give a man a fish’ vs. ‘teach a man to fish’ sort of situation.

Not to say that material donations are not important or needed, after all, people must have food in their bellies and healthy bodies before they can think about developing their situation. But giving must occur out of genuine sensitivity to a person’s need, not simple a reaction to our own confused guilt. The trouble is that there are not many jobs available in Haiti, especially for young people. So the streets are filled with vendors, on the move or in little temporary stands, selling everything from blow dryers to painting reproductions to refilled soda bottles (buyer beware) to ethnic looking wooden bowls. They can get quite intense sometimes, especially in the tourist rich areas where there is a lot of competition. It’s difficult not to react defensively and forget compassion for those who want to make an honest living.

Right before Jake flipped for the first time in his rowing life (Chittam Rapid/Mile 78/Main Salmon) on our annual dory reunion trip in July 2011, I gave him the usual bit of finger-pointing, hand-waving, ex-river guide advice on how to make the run. He was suffering a case of poisonous butterflies that threatened to erupt into projectile Technicolor vomiting. I know the feeling.

Chittam looked big and gnarly, but manageable. In hindsight, I misread the rapid, underestimating its ferociousness. The crux move was a tight, stern-first left-to-right cut across the tongue of a fast-moving river through a sizable lateral wave and hopefully into the purgatory of slower, eddy-like water. At high water, Chittam has been known to cause problems. Indeed, the Salmon was running so fast and high (18,000 cfs) that the Forest Service had issued a cautionary warning to private boaters on its webpage.

To knowledgeable shoreline observers, Jake was probably doomed from the get-go. That afternoon there was no slow water above Chittam Rapid. Once you pulled out from shore, the current immediately carried you away. No time to gather yourself, no room to correct position, no margin of error and, thus, little forgiveness. Jake later voiced a sentiment that most first-time flippers would appreciate: Whatever the reason, he didn’t feel right above the rapid. A little voice whispered: You are going to flip. The longer he listened, the louder the voice grew. Perhaps his desire to run in the first group rather than watch a run had something to do with his flip. Perhaps following behind the Old Man had given him a sense of false confidence.

It all happened in an instant. He missed the cut, hit the diagonal, got pushed back out into the wall-hugging churlish wave set sideways, and, before he could straighten up his raft, he was over. He surfaced under the raft, worked his way out, but couldn’t figure out where he was. e crawled atop the raft, still stunned. I happened to be in the eddy below and tossed him a line and with the help of Eric, a 30-year Grand Canyon veteran guide, corralled him to shore.

The chips are down here at this orphanage in Mirabalais: they know I’m not a Christian and they don’t want me around. The trouble sprang from my decision to not attend church last Sunday. I didn’t make this choice without due consideration. When deciding to go against the herd, it’s important to spend some quality time shifting through the social and personal consequences. Actually that is a bit of a fudge; I knew soon as I woke up that I wasn’t going to church. Later I figured out why it was the right choice. I instead went to organize the attic, which was one of the projects I use to escape people for awhile.

Later Pastor Luke, who I had been working in the clinic with three days a week, asked me where I had been. Up to this point I had successfully maintained a philosophical smokescreen in casual conversations about belief, but direct questions like that are hard to get around honorably.

“At worship,” said I. (True enough, I try to make all my work with my hands an act of worship.)

“Where? There (indicating the church)?” he persisted.

I couldn’t lie, so I just tapped my heart. It is with my belief that church isn’t what happens in the building.

“… in your heart?” he said. “Why were you not at church?”

“I worship alone.”

“No” he said. “No, you cannot do that. Here we worship together.”

“I worship alone,” I said, walking away.

Determined to have to last word he said, “You cannot worship alone.”

So just yesterday, after rather an uncomfortable week where I sensed what was to come, I was summoned into Pastor Yves office. I was rather sick with dread, for reasons that are unclear to me, but on another level kinda digging all the drama. There with several other people present he laid it out for me: your beliefs don’t align with ours, we want you to leave. To their credit they were very respectful and non-judgmental but it was still a very tense, emotionally charged scene. The details of the conversation are fuzzy to me, and rather irrelevant; we went round and round for awhile, dancing in the thorny land of reason and religion but it came down to this:

My hard work didn’t matter to them, nor did my ideas for improvement that I was willing to spearhead, nor did the potential positive influence I could have on the children here. It didn’t matter that I came here to help people, nor that I came here to explore my relationship with the wild, unseen potential that works in the world (sometimes referred to as god) or that I am open some of the very relevant and valid teachings of Christianity. What mattered in the end is that I don’t think the bible is the end-all-be-all of religious discussion. What mattered is that I think there is not one path to God, but many. What mattered is that I am not so arrogant as to think that I and my people alone are keepers of the truth.

These people had been so welcoming to me, so loving and open and generous, I didn’t think that my own personal situation/preference would offend them so greatly (especially considering the value I might have). It’s a strangely delicious paradox, to be savored perhaps, that these same wonderful human beings are absolutely inflexible and closed minded with regard to the central tenants that rule their life.

A month after he left the U.S., Jake returned home far short of his stated time goal of a year. His principled stand about not attending church services could easily be viewed as a case of not knowing which hill to die on. He had gone to right the world, put his finger on the scale of justice and fairness. Would an hour in church have fatally compromised his stated fundamental principle and goal: to help people? Could he have not meditated or dreamed of rivers he had run or mountain he had climbed amidst the hallelujahs?

But he had also gone to Haiti to remove himself from the all-too-familiar, to scrape away some of the social and psychological barnacles. Perhaps he came to realize things about himself that he didn’t like or wasn’t aware of: Helping people is tedious, relentless work; they are not always grateful; historical victims can become today’s predators; a solitary retreat in a communal, overcrowded country is hard to find; empathy and capacity for helping had limits; a shower is nice; so is food and friends back home.

Jake had not been completely honest with the evangelicals. It is possible that his refusal to go to Church was something of an unconscious ruse, a way to force them to toss him out. Then he would not have to bear the burden of quitting so early in the game.

It is also unfortunate that no adult in the evangelical congregation failed to get past their rigid orthodoxy and into a young man’s hungry heart. About the time he arrived home, a YouTube video, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus,” appeared. The video had been posted by Jefferson Bethke, a recently graduated student of Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon (outside of Portland). Pacific University is a small, independent, liberal arts college with long-time ties to the United Church of Christ. Bethke, who is Jake’s age, is certainly not a river-loving pagan. He evangelizes online. Within twenty-four hours, his video had scored a million hits. By April 2012 the number rose to 20 million.

That’s a lot of hungry young hearts in search of food for the soul in the 21st century.

Spirited atheist, long-time parent and MG senior correspondent Vince Welch co-authored “The Doing of the Thing — The Brief, Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom” in 1998. His latest effort, “The Last Voyageur — Amos Burg and The Rivers of the West,” will be released by The Mountaineers on October 5, 2012. Welch’s blog, “Rivermouth,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. 

Read Wandering Sacred Shores, another feature from our July issue