By R.E. Spears III
At 2 p.m. on a hot spring day — in Haiti, all the days are hot, but the approach of summer adds a whole new level of intensity, like wrapping up in a wool blanket by a campfire at noon in Nevada — most folks in Montrouis are looking for shade, content to let the next couple of hours pass with as little physical activity as possible.
For 30-year-old Guerby, though, there will be no shade. On this small, hand-built green-and-yellow rowboat, he sits exposed to the full force of the sun, floating quietly in the Gulf of Gonave, several hundred yards off the shore of this coastal town about 90 minutes north of Port au Prince.
To the east is Montrouis, with beaches that quickly give way lush green mountains, their unusually thick vegetation a result of heavy and frequent spring rains this year. To the west is the hazy blue outline of the spine of the mountains that form Île de la Gonave, an island of grinding poverty in a nation where poverty is the norm.
La Gonave, as the Americans call it, mounts up from the bay area inside Haiti’s westward-stretching arms. It is the largest of the satellite islands around Hispaniola.
More often than not, this is where Guerby spends up to 18 hours a day, baiting his triple-hooked lines, dropping them into the water with a small piece of rebar tied as a sinker and hoping for a bite.
On this day, with three visitors aboard, the boat is cramped and Guerby strains against the water as he cross-hands the oars to move the laden boat into deep water. A sheen of sweat covers his dark face. He is barefoot and wears a pair of old Quicksilver board shorts and a fluorescent orange Fila T-shirt. These are the same clothes he wore when he spent the previous night guarding The Fish House, a small, pink block building inside a gated compound where Supply and Multiply houses short-term mission groups visiting Montrouis to minister to the elderly and other residents of that town.
Guerby has worked as a Supply and Multiply guard for about three months. Before that, fishing was his only source of income.
“He doesn’t know any other thing,” our translator says. “Fishing pays for school for his kids. Fishing pays for his rent.”
A fisherman plying the waters near Montrouis in a boat like this can expect to earn $250 to $300 U.S. a month, Guerby says. There are only one or two boat motors in Montrouis, but those fishermen who are blessed with them can earn $800 to $900 a month when the fishing is very good by getting themselves out of the overfished near-shore waters.
For Guerby, the job he landed as an overnight guard at The Fish House has been a rich blessing, despite the hours it adds to his days.
He and his girlfriend have two sons, and Guerby wants to build them a house. When that’s done, he says, he will marry her. It’s a common thing in this culture, though perhaps not as common as the situation of single mothers raising multiple children without fathers present. Guerby’s sons are not orphans, and they have a father who is involved in their lives, even if his work keeps him away from home for many hours at a time.
Today, Guerby is focused on fishing, and fishing is much the same in developing countries around the world. In fact, fishing at the level Guerby does it is much the same as it has been for thousands of years: Bait the hooks, drop the line and wait for a bite.
“My favorite thing is when I feel it hit the line and know there’s a fish on it,” he says with a big smile.
Indeed, fishermen are the same all around the world.
Most, however, would be puzzled by the rig Guerby uses. There are no poles. There are no reels. There are no nets. Arriving with the boat he uses in a partnership with Supply and Multiply that results in him sharing his catch with the residents of the ministry’s elderly care facilities, Guerby has a bucket of shrimp he has caught for bait in one hand and two plastic, 20-ounce Toro energy drink bottles in the other. Each bottle is wrapped in about 100 feet of fishing line, and each line has three simple hooks tied in series near the end, terminating with the rebar sinker.
As Guerby drops the baited line into the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, he allows the line to unwind from the bottle. When the rig has sunk deep enough, he crooks an index finger under the line and waits for the hit, which comes sooner than a visitor had expected.
Moving into action, Guerby begins hauling in his catch, pulling his line back into the boat, bare hand over bare hand, until the fish break the surface. He has landed a deep-water fish, the Southern red snapper, its air bladders distended and eyes bulging from the sudden change in pressure. Southern red snapper can grow to about 100 centimeters, according to fishbase.org. This one — and all those Guerby will catch on this trip — is about the size of his hand. But even if there were a distinction in the Haitian fisher between “keepers” and fish that should be thrown back to grow and populate, this fish was dead from the pressure change by the time it reached the surface.
Guerby tosses it into the keel of the boat, whose hand-fitted boards already have begun to leak. There, the fish will float, being joined by the others Guerby catches on his trip. When he finally gets back to shore, he will sell them at the market for a few Haitian gourdes. This excursion of a few hours will net him little toward his $250 a month.
As anyone knows who has spent much time fishing, some days are better than others. On one trip in the spring, Guerby hauled in a young swordfish, earning a handsome $100 payment and allowing the elderly residents of the Matthew 25 House to eat well for a couple of days. On good days, he might pull a wahoo, a sailfish or even a shark into the boat. One never knows. But Guerby, who learned to fish from an uncle, has been fishing these waters long enough that he’s not surprised — or even put off — by the kind of results he has on this trip.
“We don’t have secrets,” he says when asked about the key to being a successful fisherman. “Perseverance.”
There is a lull in the afternoon as Guerby rows the boat away from where it has drifted a few hundred yards from the shore. A beach beckons across the still water, and beyond that beach is a compound whose well-tended green grass testifies to an in-ground irrigation system. Nestled among palms and mango trees inside that compound is a sprawling modern home with an infinity pool. Peacocks roam the grounds, and their screams can be heard from the boat. Outside the gates of this compound, which is likely the vacation home of a government official in Port au Prince, children play, men bathe and women wash clothes in a nearby stream.
Back on board the Supply and Multiply rowboat, Guerby baits another line, and as he prepares to toss it into the water, our translator gazes at the verdant mountain lofting into a crisp blue sky over Montrouis.
“This is the first time I’ve seen the mount like that,” he says, his voice breaking with emotion. “It’s beautiful.”