Monday, April 19, 2010

City of the Sun

(Photo by Beth McHoul)

As I sat on the back step of our white truck today, a boy of about 10 years of age pointed to the bright orange and red sun tattooed on my left deltoid. The mass of boys surrounding him watched the interaction, straining towards me, en mass, with increasing curiosity.

"Is that a tattoo?" he asked, in a tone of part accusation, part curiosity. In this neighborhood, a tattoo represents a gang affiliation.

"Oui!" I replied, running my fingers across the words printed in the center of the sun. "Cite Soleil," I read as I pointed to the words. They looked at each other, then back at my tattoo.

"Cite Soleil?" the lead boy asked, then looked at his friends. They chatted animatedly amongst themselves. I imagined the topic of their chatter. Cite Soleil? Wait a minute...That's our neighborhood!

"Did you do it with needles?" the lead boy asked again, as he wiped a finger firmly down the center of the sun. The rays smeared slightly. Busted. I grinned.

"Nope," I replied, gesturing like a pen. "With a pen...just a pen..."

The boys nodded at each other, then smiled knowingly. Small brown hands reached to further smear my Sharpie tattoo. One then lifted his sleeve, with great courage, revealing a tiny little deltoid.

"Do me, do me..." he gestured to my tattoo and then his arm. "Cite Soleil...Cite Soleil..." he repeated, gesturing.

The gang tats ruled. Our final tribute to the 'hood.

Today marked our last medical truck run to Cite Soleil, the City of the Sun -- the poorest neighborhood in Haiti, the most impoverished community in the Western Hemisphere, and, according to the United Nations, the most dangerous slum in the entire world. Just a few years ago, this community -- of 200,000 plus people -- was overrun by more than 30 gangs, devastated by extreme poverty, and terrorized by violence and kidnappings. While the poverty persists, the violence has largely subsided due to a permanent United Nations peace keeping presence driving the streets in armed vehicles, an armed bunker in the heart of the slum, and a shoot-to-kill anti-kidnapper mandate. In this hot labyrinth of cinderblock and corrugated metal shelters, expanding peripherally into post-earthquake tent cities, the disaster of 12 January was one more inconceivable burden placed on the bowing shoulders of an already too-impoverished community.

Yet, despite these challenges, it is indeed a community.

At first glance, one is struck by the garbage and pig-filled drainage and sewage canals that cut through the heart of the neighborhoods, the crumbling cinderblock shelters,and the sheer agonizing poverty. Gaunt, dark skinned Haitian children predominate, unusual reddish hair on their African features a sign of Kwashiorkor -- severe malnutrition, reflecting desolate poverty. The life expectancy in this slum, due to lack of access to the basic necessities of life -- food, water, shelter and health care -- hovers around fifty years.

But, just as these thoughts begin to overwhelm your psyche, a child appears, and then another, and they grab you by the hands. You look down into large brown eyes, alive with gigantic smiles. You overlook their sometimes grimy nails, and the occasional telltale bumps between their fingers indicating chronic scabies infection.

"Hey, you!" they say, as they try to pull you along down their street, perhaps to their home, with great excitement.

"Food!" they demand, pointing to their empty bellies.

And then, if you refuse them, "Water!"

They are sincere in their requests. For they are truly hungry. And thirsty. If you again refuse, they then progress to your baseball cap, politely requesting it. Upon your refusal, they might then point to your watch. The more street-wise boys undertake a more intense, imploring negotiation about why they are in need of a watch, despite their obviously rat-race-free life. And, you again refuse. So, when they finally decide you have nothing to offer -- except medical care...and a smile -- they shrug, smile back, grab your hand, and decide you are still a worthy friend.

And you observe first hand how difficult it is to be this poor. To be starving. To live without clean water. Or electricity. And now, without safe shelter. Yet, despite these profoundly gaping holes in their resources, you will watch with bemusement at their great human resourcefulness. A small child builds a kite out of sticks, discarded plastic bags and twine, and like any boy in any neighborhood in the world, creates a way to play. Another builds a car out of an empty bottle, with stick axles and bottlecap wheels. And a man, with not a cent to his name, finds enough to build a skeleton of a shelter out of sticks and a tarp, and creates a home for his now-homeless famiy. Creative, innovative human beings. Living. Surviving.

You will observe men sitting together on street corners, chatting and watching the world pass by. Others sitting in the outdoor market, selling their wares. Others carrying large sacks of whoknowswhat on their heads as they wander to distant destinations. Women walk past in beautiful, feminine, swaying form, miraculously sleek and clean despite the lack of running water or electricity. They chat and laugh as they pass by in small groups, arm in arm. Flirting. Smiling. Just people. Beautiful people.

And the first intimidating impressions of the slum fade away, and a rich, bustling, intertwined community is revealed.

Yes, there are those that call out angrily and unwelcomingly -- like any small town wary of outsiders. Men who purse their lips in a sexual yet fishlike smacking sound -- a crude invitation to who-knows-what as we pass by. (Uh, let me think that proposal over for a millisecond...ok, that would be a no. Thanks. But, no thanks.) A woman who grabs her crotch angrily, staring boldly as she yells something my internal language translator processes as "danger...unwelcome..." with a few epithets thrown in for good measure. Young children who yell, "Blanc, blanc..." White person. Not out of racist hatred, but more as a matter of you might yell, "Zebra!... Zebra!" if you were to unexpectedly spot one wandering through your neighborhood one sweltering afternoon.

I sometimes wonder what these people, particularly children, will remember of this strange spring that is post-earthquake Port au Prince. Will they sit as young men on a stoop in the 'hood ten years from now, reminiscing about the earthquake of 2010, comparing their fading scars. Will one say, "Damn, do you remember that crazy white guy who used to dangle off the top of that white truck....the one that used to drive by and bandage people?" Ten years from now, will some of them finally have electricity, and have the opportunity to watch a film with Angelina Jolie? Will they suddenly jolt and get the joke, saying, "Wait a minute. Angelina Jolie?! Didn't she used to tend our wounds?!"

We came to this City of the Sun at the request of one of its residents. When the earthquake hit Haiti in January, the orphans at the Heartline Orphanage were all adopted out on Humanitarian Parole. And immediately Hearline Ministries turned its attention to the urgent need for medical relief. One of the men who guarded the orphanage -- a respected leader from the slums of Cite Soleil -- approached the head of the Ministry and requested help. He told stories of many severely injured people in Cite Soleil, and no one willing to enter to provide them assistance or medical care.

So, Heartline took its truck, and its medical volunteers, and drove into the heart of the slums. At the request of this one man. And these American volunteers found, lying on the concrete, a collection of severely injured patients. Pregnant women with pelvic and femur fractures. Children with open tib-fib fractures. Crush injuries. Traumatic amputations. Massive lacerations. Overwhelming devastation. Truck load by truck load, patients were carried out of the slums, to the old orphanage across town that soon became our Heartline Field Hospital.

As patients were left behind in the streets, unable to fit into the truck, they begged, "Please don't forget me...please come back for me."

And so, they were not forgotten. And so, we came back in our truck, again and again and again. Sometimes to pluck the injured and ill from the street. Sometimes to return them home. And many times to provide continued care. In their neighborhood -- the most impoverished neighborhood in the Western Hemisphere.

Until today.

Dr. Jen, young Alex, midwife Beth and I worked in the back of the medical truck today, performing our final wound care in the streets. And on this day discovered that all of the earthquake injuries normally tended to from the truck had finally healed.

As we performed our last dressing changes, we noticed that, as usual, we were attracting our share of curious attention. Dr. Jen, on her right shoulder, wore her own Sharpie tattoo -- the word "Silver" inside of a bright red heart. A tribute to silver-embedded antibiotic dressings, an effective treatment modality which healed many crush wounds in the the months following the earthquake.

As we worked inside the truck, a young man of about 16 stood on the outside of the mesh metal cage.

"Silver..." he whispered seductively to Dr. Jen, having read her tattoo and apparently mistaking her for something other than an emergency medicine pediatrician. An exotic dancer, perhaps?

"Silver..." he called, a little louder. I snickered in undisguised amusement.

"Yo, Silverrrr..." I grinned mockingly, rolling the final r, gesturing to the young man behind the metal mesh. "I think you have an admirer." At that moment, he was shoving a rolled up piece of blue-lined paper through the mesh, trying to get her attention. He called her precious metal name again.

She ignored him. A complete cold shoulder. Absolutely no interest. Was he devastated? Embarrassed? Deflated? No. He quickly turned his attention to me.

"Angelina..." he called suddenly, in my direction. I, in contrast, was cynically flattered. I chose not to be, in any way, overtly peeved by his insultingly conniving, wishywashy, two-timing, less than monogamous intentions. I was impressed by the bold sixteen-year-old confidence that allowed him to turn his attention to me...despite the fact that I had just witnessed his impassioned, enamoured plea to the woman two feet to my left. He'd remembered my pseudonym-- Angelina Jolie; that scored him a few points. And, yes, perhaps lost a few points for the absence of subtlety and sincerity. But still, his score was in the black.

He raised his eyebrows and smiled sweetly now in my direction, imploringly, impassioned. He again tried to push the rolled up piece of paper through the mesh. This time, in my direction.

I raised a cynical eyebrow in return.

"For me?" I asked, with a smirk. Then, flatly, "I'm honored."

"Angelina...." he whispered. "I love you."

I laughed at him. He shoved the piece of paper further through the mesh, wiggling it slightly, urging me to take it. Finally, I grabbed it, and held it like a contaminated cigarette.

"For me?" I asked, amused. He nodded earnestly, eagerly. I turned to Dr. Jen. "See, now it's mine. Too bad for you."

I unrolled the paper with an air of sarcastic dubiousness, but as I read, I was taken aback. This was no quickly scribbled love note. This was, in fact, a manifesto. Not a spontaneous appeal. Not a childlike whim. No, this was, in that moment, an entrancing literary wonder. A blue inked seduction. Obviously planned for quite some time...with no particular audience in mind. Cleverly entitled, "Cherie..." (translation: "My dear...") to enable it to be shared with no particular woman...or, as in this case, passed around, until some poor sucker finally bit. I imagined this young man sitting intently with a Creole-to-English dictionary, a ball point pen and small notebook on his lap in his darkened cinderblock room in the slums, spending hours carefully penning this note. When had he written this? What had been his plan? How long had he had it, rolled up in his pocket. And, at exactly what point had he said, "I will write a love note in English, and hand it to every English speaking woman I meet, until, at some point, I succeed in my quest."

I read the note and smiled, definitely impressed. "That's great," I said. "That's really great." I attempted to hand the note back.

"No," he said, refusing its return. He gestured for me to keep it. "I love you," he said, in English.

"No," I replied, amused, trying to push it back through the mesh. "You don't love me."

He grinned, refusing to take it. I smiled, still gripping the end of the rolled up note.

"Well, okay," I said, and stuck the paper into my shirt pocket. "Merci. I'll keep this."

I smiled to myself, then turned back to my dressing change. He smiled back, completely insincere in his flirtatious, boyish grin. But sweet. And endearing. And completely non-threatening. An A+ for effort. A hilarious, sweet, amusing memory. Of innocence. And youth. Of boyish courageous charm. And love. And hope. And the wonder that it represents -- that this neighborhood is healing. That thoughts are turning, from sadness and devastation and loss, to flirtatious moments of happiness. Healing.

I suspiciously wonder how many copies of this scroll he carries, and in how many languages. But, for today, on our last day in this slum, it is a symbol for me of something sweet and innocent and kind and beautiful and welcoming that is the people of Cite Soleil. Our people. Our patients. This community of challenged, impoverished yet not poor, strong, driven survivors.

So, here's to all you potential suitors out there. Take note...of how you might effectively court a woman. (Of course, I would recommend you not choose one twice your age...and perhaps not one who speaks only a foreign language. And, if unsuccessful in your bidding, you might wait till the first one leaves before trying to court the second...or at least wait till she's more than two feet away, inside of a cage.)

But, if you're trying get a woman's attention, and get her to pause and take's how it's done.

"Cheri, Darling. You thrilling me. You give me goose bumps. You're driving me crazy. I fall in love you. I'm boun to love you. You really I need. I want to be with you. I want to be you sweet. Call you beautiful. I've a place deep on my heart for you. I think with you everitime you always on my mind baby. When I look at you I see the sun shining on your face. Please don't make me suffer. Im head over heel since I met you."

Yes, Citi Soleil...

City of the Sun...

When I look at you, I see the sun shining on your face.

I'm boun' to love you.

I've a place deep on my heart for you...too.


  1. Sounds like quite the lady-killer. How did you ever refuse him? I think I would have said, "Dude, I've got shoes in my closet older than you are."
    I'm glad you have these sweet memories to go along with the tragic ones. Praying for you all, Terri Urban

  2. Wow that was so powerful to read! Are you heading home soon? I feel like you could write a book with all you have seen! Remember the cast we took off with the silver underneath it? Amazing how well that wound looked!

  3. Most. Beautiful.

  4. How did you resist the young gentleman? Sounds like quite the lady-killer. I think I would have laughed hysterically and said, "Dude, I have shoes in my closet that are older than you are." Terri U.

  5. Another remarkable essay. You need to get published, Barbie Boots.

  6. I just absolutely love the ending.....makes my heart feel so happy & so sad.

  7. I hope you got a pic of the kid that wrote the note

  8. Hey Angelina...

    Thanks for writing about all your work; many times more informative than any newspaper article.

    As for the poem you received. I hope you don't mind that I sent it on to Sheri (I only had to change the first letter into an S and done) I hope see doesn't notice that it wasn't me who wrote it. :-)

  9. Barbie, I miss your posts. I understand that you're back in Alaska now. Will you be continuing to blog? I would like to keep up with your adventures. Are you on Facebook at least?
    Gramma Rolling (mom of Chris Rolling of Clean Water for Haiti)

  10. I am so missing my Barbie in Haiti reading ... makes me feel like I'm in Port again. Please continue to Blog, Barbie, no matter where you may be. You have a unique way to let us peer over your shoulder and experience life as it truly is, not as we would have it be.

  11. Hello,
    I came across your blog somehow (perhaps throught the Livesays or through Beth's?). I am an RN and now a nurse practitioner graduate (waiting to take my boards to become an ARNP!).

    I spent time in Haiti last August/September and I really enjoy your writing. Please keep it up!!

  12. I went to Haiti about 10 years ago, and I try to keep up with what Heartline is doing (we worked with them a bit and I was so impressed by them). So, as one Alaskan to another, let me know if I can give you a hand with stuff in-state! Fundraising, or whatever. Lovely to meet you via blogosphere :)