Sunday, February 13, 2011

Santo 19

I'm walking down Santo 19, the two mile dusty, sun-scorched dirt road connecting our clinic to one of the main roads in Croix des Bouquets. A walk through a microcosm of Haiti.

I pass an outdoor basketball court with rigged up hoops and nets. Dark skinned, well-muscled-if-slim, shirtless, glisteningly sweaty young men play a game of pickup ball under the blazing sun. Their moves are slick and strong, reminiscent of boys from inner city Baltimore I used to pass walking home from Hopkins. Bystanders, instead of clinging to chain link fences, stand in high grass, speckled with street dogs and the occasional goat. Players and spectators carry the same toughness of those inner city boys. They watch me pass, claiming their territory with sideways, less-than-friendly glances, intimidating in the universal body language of young men of neighborhoods across the world. One boy points and laughs at me. I pretend not to see him. I look ahead blankly and keep walking.

Beneath my feet, I look down and spy the dusty, flattened form of a shaggy brown teddy bear. I wonder about his story. Does a child long and cry for him somewhere? Did he fall from the window of a passing car? The act of a sinister sibling, perhaps? Or the tragic result of a sudden slip of small fingers, jarred out of a grip on the bumpy road? Was he carried away from a house by a family dog? Or, was he just discarded by his owner, his purpose in his child's life fulfilled?

The lady selling bottles of Haitian rum watches me pass. I do not imbibe, so no sale for her today. The glass flasks of amber liquid are 40 Goud each, or one American dollar. This is the average daily wage of a Haitian. I wonder how many flasks she sells in a day. This is how she feeds her family...on the profit of street sales of alcohol, brewed from the sugar cane indigenous to this land. A drink with a history as long as that of the Haitian people...a drink of the pirates who once wandered and plundered these Caribbean islands.

I walk on. I pass 2 baby goats. I wonder ... do they know about the stew? I cannot meet their eyes.

There is a large black cow, tied to a frayed rope, which itself is tied to... nothing. Escaped? Did it gnaw itself free, in an attempt to graze where the grass is greener...on the other side? The end of the rope is dragging in the middle of the street as the cow grazes next to a sign proclaiming "Merci Jesus". Is this somehow an ironic physical embodiment of the cow's thoughts? The grass here is pretty lusciously green. Appears tasty. If I were the cow, that's probably what I'd be thinking.

Two slim young women pass and smile. "Good morning," one says shyly in English. I apparently appear pale enough to speak English. They argue amongst themselves as they pass me. Her friend turns around, laughing, and corrects, "Good afternoon!" I smile. "Bon swa," I respond.

I look down. There is the skeleton of a dead puppy crushed in the road. This is hideous....far worse than the teddy bear. Ribs protrude from the dessicated, dusty hide. For a moment, I wonder if the puppy and teddy bear could have belonged to the same child. Now that would be a rather unfair turn of flattening events. I hope not.

The road is lined with high, new concrete-block and stuccoed walls. New since the earthquake, which shook down nearly every wall in the city. The walls are topped with broken glass bottles cemented into place to prevent (or at least lacerate) attempted over-the-wall intruders. Some wealthier walls support threatening curls of razorwire, ironically entangled with pink flowers of surrounding trees and, for added measure, thick spider webs. Yes, I suppose if the razor wire is not sufficient, putting your hand through a thick nest of spiders might be a wall climbing deterrent. It would certainly effectively deter me.

An old man pedals by on a bicycle, a young girl of about five in a pretty green dress balancing on his handlebars. She waves happily at me as she passes, a gigantic smile illuminating a face framed with braids tipped with little green bows. Her spirit erases the bad karma of the teddy bear, the puppy and the hostile teenage glares. A smile illuminates the old man's eyes as he pedals by. He is obviously acutely aware of the preciousness of his cargo.

I wander on, through the giant divets and potholes in dirt road, destined to rip the undercarriage out of even the most sturdy of vehicles that attempts to negotiate the scene. I pass the leaning, still-crumbling form of a building...a former clinic....that was heaved askew by the earthquake last January. More than one year later, it still teeters threateningly towards the road, partially held up by the metal fence which surrounds it. Red spray painted letters on the fence declare the obvious...the building is condemned. Is there a plan to remove it? Or will it sit there, in memoriam, for infinity?

A yellow motorcycle speeds down the road, directly towards me, as I edge to the side of the road. The driver and his passenger yell intimidatingly as they pass, the passenger reaching out, grabbing at me. I leap away at the last minute. They speed past, laughing, shouting something unintelligible, the passenger making arm gestures at me. I glare at them angrily as they speed away, infuriated. In my mind, I rewind the movie projector that plays this scene and I play it again. Except, this time, in the new and improved imaginary scene, I have a long broomstick in my hand, and just as they pass and scream and grab at me, I thrust the stick between the spokes of their front tire, causing the motorcycle to flip end over end into the air, and, in slow motion, catapult its passengers into the trickling stream of water/sewage on the side of the road. I stop the scene there, as they soak satisfyingly face down in the dirty stream, and before they can pull themselves slowly out to chase me down and pummel me for the audacity of my imagination.

I walk on cautiously, now hypervigilant as I am passed by a string of other motos. They pay me no mind.

A woman sways past, gracefully balancing a 5 gallon bucket of water on her head. She is walking away from a water pump on the corner, installed after the earthquake by the the Army Corps of Engineers. A blessing of clean water for this community, especially in this era of cholera. Even in a non-era of cholera...a blessing Children no older than 8 or 10 years old gather at this pump, also heaving large buckets of water onto their heads. 8 pounds per gallon times 5 gallons equals 40 pounds of water. Carried by mere children. The potential consequences of this pump are broad reaching. By limiting the distance women and children walk to retrieve water for their families, we know that this community will have a better chance to instead educate its children. And women will have more time to pursue income generating activities to better support their families.

Girls in blue and black plaid school uniforms pass. They are the lucky few in this neighborhood who have access to this case, from the Catholic school that sits on the compound that also houses our clinic. I am told that there are no public schools in Haiti. That children can only receive an education if they can somehow find a free private school, or if their family is wealthy enough to afford to pay. I'm not sure how to confirm this piece of information. But, if this is true....

Oh, do you expect to pull your people out of poverty without providing the poor with an education? Can't you see? How many young minds will never reach their potential for this nation-- as engineers, doctors, teachers, politicians, writers, artists, etc. -- because they were never given the opportunity to go to school?

I am acutely grateful, in this moment, for my years of education. Some of which were, ironically, spent wearing identical plaid pleated uniforms, ankle socks and black leather shoes. Huh. Never thought I'd be grateful for that.

I wander past the school. Classes are just getting out. Excited young voices spill over the wall as children anticipate their walk home for the evening.

I retrace my steps, wandering back towards the compound which houses our clinic.

Tomorrow morning, 250 people will walk this dusty road, slowly lining up outside the clinic gates. Some will wait up to 8 hours to see a doctor. Or a dentist. Or a nurse. Some will bring their babies to get immunizations. Others to get medica mamba, a peanut butter based protein supplement for malnourished babies. Some will be dying of cholera. Some with malaria. Others with myriad other concerns. Some seeking physical therapy, from injuries sustained in the earthquake, or other traumas. Some with immunization-preventable diseases. Some will see the first medical provider they have ever seen in their entire lives....even those who are living, amazingly, into their seventh decade.

At the free clinic, at the end of the long, dusty, rutted path of Santo 19.


  1. I'm so glad for them that the medical provider they see is you! And so glad that you write about Haiti for us. Thanks Barbie.

  2. I love your writing! So descriptive, it makes me feel I'm walking right along that street with you! Thanks for sharing your experiences! I've been following you since you were with Heartline last year.

  3. I love your writing! I feel like I'm right there walking down that road with you!