Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Twenty-five Years Ago, I Only Knew Enough To Name Them Beggars

Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea is the island of Hispaniola and a town named Puerto Plata. When Verlen and I landed at this seaport town, we had already traveled nine thousand miles in our solo canoes from the Arctic Ocean en route to Cape Horn. I sought the cool peace of sanctuary and walked down a street paved in dirt and bordered by open sewer ditches to a stone building with the sign of a cross.
On the steps of the church were women holding babies, the lame, persons deformed and diseased. A man with bleeding sores on his leg propped his open palm on his bent knee. Small children stood with distended bellies, not playing but quiet, watching. All had eyes of longing. Each hand was outstretched in need. I walked between the people, through the open wooden doors, down the marble aisle, making my way to the altar where I knelt and thanked God for the progress we had made to this island.
The journey had not been easy. There had been landslides on the Mackenzie. Verlen had broken ribs near Ft. Simpson. We had been chased by drunken natives at Red Dog, frozen to the seats of our canoes in Kewenaw Bay, spooked by alligators in Florida and paddled nonstop for fifty hours on one of the island crossings in the Caribbean. There were ten thousand miles of water way still ahead. I breathed deeply. The furrow on my brow that was becoming a characteristic facial expression began to relax for I had escaped the noon day heat and felt that at this moment there was no threat.
When I stood to leave, a woman came behind me and touched my arm. When I turned toward her, I could see her hand open and waiting. My spirit was refreshed by a time of prayer. I reached into my pocket and gave her a coin.
When the money touched her palm she opened her mouth. In the dimly lit church, her jaws became like a cavern of anguish that seemed to swallow all remaining daylight. she had no teeth and her waging dark tongue vibrated with the sudden energy of a rallying cry. The woman was calling her friends. I had been singled out as one who would give. Immediately, a throng of beggars pressed against me, all wanting help. I drew back and escaped into the street, hurrying away, sure that I was not meant to provide for all these people.
At times, the expedition itself pressed like a throng of beggars. During the thirty-three month journey, the question was the same; how much could I give. I had answered that question when we began. I was going to give everything I had. Yet, every moment I was asked for more. -- Draft excerpt from More Challenge Than Comfort, a kayak journey from the Arctic to Cape Horn.

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