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A readers writes … By Jeremy Beckett

January 26, 2001

Jeremy Beckett is a former El Centro resident serving aboard the S.S. Lander, a humanitarian cargo ship.

The Voyage

After we left the States, we didn't see land for 21 days as we crossed the Atlantic Ocean until the Rock of Gibraltar marked land for us. You could see Europe on your port side and Africa on your starboard. We sailed into the Mediterranean Sea and ported in Ploce, Coratia three days later.

Ploce

Ploce is a beautiful little port that looks like it belongs in Colorado. It is a rich port and the grain we delivered there was sent to Bosnia and Sarajevo.

The people of Ploce really didn't like Americans, so we pretty much stayed by ourselves. The drinks were cheap there and you could rent a moped for $12 a day. Although Ploce was pretty to the eye, it was a cold place to the soul — not my cup of tea.

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The Suez Canal

For all it looked like I could have been sailing through the Salton Sea. I was a little leery of going through because two days before the U.S. Navy declared it was no longer going through the Suez because of what happened in the Gulf of Aden a week before (the USS Cole was bombed by terrorists).

I saw a lot of Egyptian military guards on both sides. We had Egyptian vendors come aboard. That's how I got gifts from Egypt.

To go through the canal, you must join a convoy that leaves once a day. The trip takes about 12 hours. Then a convoy traveling the other way goes.

We then entered the Red Sea and our next stop would be Djibouti, Africa.

Djibouti

This was definitely the most impressive place I've been. The average lifespan is 42 years. If you're 35, you're an old man. I saw people with no arms, beggars and people praying in the streets. There are rich French people there, but mostly you notice the poor. The French control the land and treat the people like dogs.

The blacks in Djibouti are friendly and when they find out you're American they treat you great. They only see us a couple times a year and think of us as the nicest and most generous people on Earth.

I go walking down the street and they think I'm French and say "hi" in French; I tell them I'm from the States and they smile and try their best English. One guy told me, "I'm really happy to hear English. I wish you guys would kick the French out of here." I do, too!

"Stick"

I was working … actually just guarding the gangway with my friend Virgil. We tried to help anyone who asked us for food until we got caught by the mate on watch. We were forbidden to give away any more food. There were too many people to help, anyway. The workers load trucks with the grain sacks and get paid about $2 a day. We did get permission to give people water and we filled up a huge Gatorade jug, which beats the traditional hose method.

Virgil and I were pretty sad we couldn't do more. We noticed one man who came to work every day wearing nothing except boxer shorts and sandals. He was by far the runt of the litter. Nobody talked to him. He was very black and extremely skinny. We nicknamed him "Stick." The other guys gave him the hardest jobs and pushed him out of their way.

There was one kid named Abdrella who spoke some English. I asked him about Stick and why they treated him so badly. He explained the local "pecking order": Djiboutis were at the top, then Ethiopians, then Somalis and then those from Sudan. The Sudanese are the newest immigrants so they're treated worse and have less than anyone else. Stick was from Sudan.

The more I looked at Stick, the worse I felt for him. It was my fifth day of seeing him and still all he had was his boxers and sandals. I knew he didn't ever have a Christmas or a night on the town or even a good meal. But he's just happy to be in Djibouti where he has a chance to exist.

The mate reminded me I couldn't help everyone. But I kept thinking to myself that I sure as hell could help one guy tremendously. So I put old pants and shirts in a bag. I added old shoes, a hat, a magazine, shampoo, a towel … every little thing I could throw together.

We called down to the trucks, "Stick, Stick," and everyone looked up — except Stick. Then we pointed to him and he came and got the bag as we lowered it to him. He waved and smiled and walked away. He went from station to station and gave away everything! He came back to a truck and started working, throwing heavy bags of grain. We called again, "Stick," and lowered down to him a new hat, a shirt, some pants and shoes. When he went to give them away, we yelled "No! For you only!" He put his new clothes on, gave us a big smile, yelled something up to us and went back to work happy.

Ten minutes later we lowered a huge bag of peanut butter bagels that Stick shared with everyone. A bit later we yelled for Stick and we lowered a jug of Kool-Aid. We then tossed packs of cigarettes. We just kept Stick rolling in gifts for our whole working shifts. Stick looked up at us with two thumbs up, grinning from ear to ear.

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