Just Point Me Towards The Special Search Line/Bleeding Inside Is Strictly Prohibited.

Airports I have slept in: Anchorage. Atlanta. Managua. Manchester, UK. Cincinnati. Houston. Cincinnati. Miami. Seattle. Heathrow. Liberia, CR. Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Anchorage was the worst – I was stuck there for thirty six hours, camped out next to a large taxidermied bear and sitting stand by on flights full of pasty faced tourists while nursing what would later be diagnosed as mono. Manchester was shitty, too. After waiting five hours for a connecting flight I was treated to an eight hour delay doled out two hours by two hours so I could never leave the damn airport. And it was the brightest airport in the frickin’ universe with the worst, most expensive crappy watered down British coffee.

I never plan to sleep in airports. This is just what happens when you fly the seriously cheap-ass skies. Bad Priceline tickets, itineraries cobbled together out of two or three different airlines, frequent usage of uber-budget airlines.

In the theme of being the Greyhound Bus of the skies, to make every trip as ghetto as possible, Spirit Airlines flies out of Santiago at 3.30 in the morning. What this means is after I get the absolute last bus out of Sosua and get to Santiago it will still only be 8.30 at night. I have two choices – I can wander around Santiago with all my crap or I can sleep in the airport. If I sleep at the airport I have the bonus of being able to hand over my Haiti-reeking bag to bag check immediately. If I don’t sleep at the airport, I run the risk of getting mugged (though the bag should be a serious deterrent) or not being able to get a cab later and missing my flight entirely.

Chez airport it is then.

I’ll spare you all the details of sleeping in said airport except to say the universe hates me: the Spirit airlines counter is closed until 2 AM, thus I am forced to nap on a linoleum floor next to my reeking bag. The food court is full of people with children playing very loud video games, I am an object of intense fascination – it’s hard to sleep with a group of sixteen year old boys staring at you. I finally give up and drink more bad coffee, watch soccer, and look at the departures board.  My flight is sinking further and further down. Delayed. 3.45. 4 AM. 4.20. 4.45. I check in and hand the bag to the counterwoman who wraps it in a large garbage bag like it’s a dead body. It smells like one. I go through the customs check out line and the woman looks at my passport.

“You’ve been in the country for over a month”. She’s looking at the date I originally got into the Dominican Republic, before I went to Haiti. “You’re going to have to pay a departure duty”.

I try to explain that she needs to flip the page, that there’s an exit stamp and then another stamp from when I re-entered but she won’t hand me back my passport to show her. Estuve in Haiti, I tell her. Mira, por favor. Otra pagina.

Impuesto, she tells me. Tax.

Mira – otra pagina.

Impuesto.

I’m trying to snatch my passport back to show her, she’s holding it like she’s playing keep away with a six year old and repeating ‘impuesto impuesto impuesto’ over and over again. There are signs all over the airport about how they don’t accept bribes so I doubt that’s what she’s looking for. Either she gets some sort of commission on exit duties or she’s really, really stupid. I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m not paying a goddamn tax. ‘Jefe, por favor’. Get the boss. Screw this noise.

An older fat man comes over and she hands him my passport without saying a word. He flips it to the next page, points at the Haitian entry and exit stamps and hands it back to her. She shrugs and stamps me out of the country. This little drama has cost me time and now I have to dash to the gate as the departure screen is showing my flight as boarding. At the gate they heard us all down a little corridor, into a waiting room and………no plane. There’s no frickin’ plane. Just a bunch of people milling around in a space the size of a large supply closet staring out at an empty jetway. After twenty minutes the plane shows up. Through our little cattle enclosure we watch the people stream off and then they herd us all on. Eh, it’s a short flight. Who needs a safety check? Just put this thing in the air.

And they do. And then we are taking off and I am actually getting two hours worth of plane sleep. And then we are landing in Florida and waiting in another eternal customs line. There’s only two customs officers and probably a hundred people in line. To the side I can see two other officers, the special search line, just standing there empty. I know I’m headed there anyway; I should just be allowed to walk over. Instead I stand in line, half asleep on my feet. When I get up to the counter the man looks at my exit entry stamps, frowns, wrinkles his forehead.

Can we all sing this together?

“Miss, can you please step to the side?”.

I know the drill. By the time I get over to them I’ve already got my bag open, my belt off. They’re friendly, quick and neat in dismembering my bag and patting me down. Neither of them seem particularly excited to dig into my bag but I wouldn’t be either. They make it quick, no drug dog, usher me through and then I’m at the Dunkin Donuts kiosk like a drowning woman being shown to an oxygen bar. I can get to the crewhouse I’m staying in and go to bed and I really need to but a combination of my New Englandness and weeks of terrible coffee has made me compulsive. Give me the goddamn coffee.

That cup of coffee was like Christmas, the Easter bunny, sex and winning the lotto all at once. Forget military might, iPhones, dependable infrastructure – there is one thing that makes America the greatest country on the planet. And it is called Dunkin’ Donuts. I sit outside with my reeking bag smoking a cigarette and drinking my coffee and holy fuck it’s good to be home.

By the time I get out of the airport my phone has been turned back on and is dancing through all of its various vibrate notifications with messages. When I get to the crewhouse the clerk, a pointy, fussy man who looks like he just stepped off a yacht, looks at my bag and wrinkles his nose.

Where are you coming from?

The Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Apparently there’s a policy that anyone coming in from third world countries has to wash all their clothes before they can leave them in their room. Something about preventing bugs. I try to explain that I don’t think there’s a bug on earth that could withstand the smell of my bag but no go. No sleep. No shower. Laundry. He hands me a cup of quarters and points me towards a washer and dryer in the courtyard. It’s not that I’m not grateful for the chance to do laundry but I’ve just been up for over 30 hours, my head is buzzing and pinging from lack of sleep and coffee and I really want a shower. On my way to the machines I stumble over a loose brick and immediately blood starts pouring from my toe. Like horror movie pouring. It pools in my flip flop and leaves tracks where I’ve stepped. I limp back to the office for a band aid and the pointy man looks at me disapprovingly. I definitely can’t go inside bleeding like that, I’ll track it all over the place.  He hands me a first aid kit and points me towards a bathroom near the pool and issues me a stern warning about staying outside until the blood is under control.

When I rinse my toe off I see the gash – there’s a big flap of skin cut out from the top of my toe. Fanfuckingtastic.  I limp back to the office and ask for crazy glue. We used it in surgeries in Nicaragua all the time and this is first world crazy glue so I’m sure it’s even better. If I have to wait for this to stop bleeding on it’s own I’m going to turn into a piece of leather by the pool. Sleep deprivation is a good anesthetic. I clean it the best I can, glue the flap most of the way down and wait for my clothes to dry.

Welcome back to the US. Next stop, Colorado.

**Photo notes -#1) self portrait of feet, Santiago airport food court, 3 AM. #2) Exhibit A- note the Haitian entry stamp directly under the Dominican departure stamp – does anyone else see a problem here? #3) There might be a god and he might love me.

Lechery, Inertia & Living To Fight Another Day: Time To Go Home

It was Sucra that convinced me that it was time to leave.

Sucra is, at most, twenty years old and runs a gift shop on the main street in Cabarete- the only street really. You cannot get anywhere without walking up this street. And Sucra is annoying the shit out of me.  The lechery of Latin America is well documented in my other blog – the constant hissing and being looked at like you´re something to eat. You don´t even notice it after a while. But Sucra takes it to a whole new level. I cannot walk down his side of the street without his long arm blocking the sidewalk.

¨Tattoo girl, you are so beautiful you need a bodyguard. I want to guard that body. I want to be your king and you will be my queen. Why won´t you talk to me? I dream about you. Those tattoos, that body- don´t ignore me. What´s your name? Why don´t you smile, oh my god, your smile.¨

Every now and then this is complemented with a rousing version of ´Beautiful Girl´by Akon.  Or a sad howl when I walk by as quickly as possible, iPod on, not making eye contact. Or I duck the arm.

I have three theories about this

a) He learned all of his English watching MTV dating shows.

b) As this place is full of hookers, he is a boy-hooker.

c) This is how Sucra amuses himself.

Whatever it is, it´s obnoxious and annoying.  And in a place where everyone is behaving poorly it´s hard to stand out. But now I can´t walk  down that side of the street. If I want the cash machine, anything past the first block, I have to cross the street and subject myself to the gauntlet of moto-taxi drivers who hang out on the side of the street. This is where obnoxious hits quantity over quality. There is the inevitable hissing, the comments, and the constant imploring for me to purchase rides or drugs from them.  Usually the police are standing three feet away, lending credence to the theory that the moto-taxis work in concert with the police.

There is no good option here.

I slept the first five days I was here. The place where I´m staying is a surf and kite board camp. It´s a lot like summer camp. Meals are included and everyone eats around one big table. At first this stymied me. I am not a joiner. I did not go to summer camp. I avoid enforced group activities. I almost got thrown out of AmeriCorps for refusing to attend mandatory bonding trips. But this is cheap, clean and easy and I felt like black death. The first few days I emerged from my room long enough to eat when I could and then went back to sleep. Now that I´m feeling better the days carry on with a lazy sameness.

Kiteboarders, something I had never seen before, are insane. They ride little snowboards hooked to these enormous kites that shoot out over the water at ridiculous speeds. When they jump they go ten, fifteen feet in the air and the wind seems to suspend them there forever, dangling in the sky, before they drop back into the water.  It´s fast, dangerous, expensive and difficult to learn. Most of them are European or Canadian and a lot of them travel almost constantly, chasing the wind from place to place.  Cabarete is famous for it´s tradewinds but weird weather has hit and there has only  been two days with enough wind in the past week, maybe four in the last twenty days. On windy days you see the kites, what seems like hundreds of them, in the water and wonder how they don´t tangle.

There are some surfers here, too, a smattering of windsurfers. But mostly kiteboarders, some on long stays. We sit around, we talk  boo-sheet. We complain about the food (which actually is really good, though you do see those tricks where yesterdays steak turns up as today´s beef stroganoff). We talk about wind and water. We talk about who´s coming and going. We have epic conversations about people wearing really inappropriate bathing suits. We don´t talk about our lives back home.

It´s an easy life. Everyone is friendly and funny. I sit with the British girls at dinner and we talk sheet. I pal around constantly with Stephane and Chad, a nurse from Portland. We sit on the porch of Stephane’s bungalow and hack open coconuts to get the juice. We drink endless cups of terrible coffee at the surf beach and chain smoke.  After dinner we sit around and compare customs stories. I show the German couple how to call bats; throwing rocks in the air to make them dive for them. We stand around the parking lot and do that. I wind up telling the Canadian guy how to get bats out of his house.  I make good friends with Kim, an absolutely brilliant British girl who grew up in the Middle East and we swap life stories and man problems

I could stay here forever, really.

But I can’t. As much fun as this is and as much as I’ve come to adore my friends here I can’t really justify hiding out here  and as good as I feel, the kibosh was put on a return to Haiti by a South African who made the brilliant point that I’m already weak from the first bout with whatever. For all the sociality, my one attempt at the ocean ended with me taking a serious beating and concluding that I really am not running at 100%.  And it’s not like the living conditions have gotten any better there since I left.  Port-Au-Prince will be substantially worse than Limbe. “Live to fight another day”, the South African tells me. “Do you really want to go back there and leave on a stretcher? What good does that do anyone?”.

Thus I book  a ticket home. It’s kind of an epic journey. First a bus to Santiago, then a night in the airport and a 3.30 AM flight to Fort Lauderdale. A couple of days there. Then Colorado.

The day of my departure the sun comes out and the wind kicks up for the first time in over a week, sending the kiteboarders scattering to the beach. I go to the surf beach in the morning, drink more cups of terrible beach coffee, take pictures for some of my friends who are surfing. After lunch I go back, pack up. My pack is so much smaller now. I jettisoned a lot of stuff in Haiti, more here. I say goodbye to a lot of people, trade email addresses, distribute my leftover bug repellant and sunscreen. Kim is headed out to the water and I say a quick goodbye to her, a big hug, a thank you for the mutual girl-talk-therapy-sessions. I sit on Stephane’s porch and have one last cup of coffee. Chad comes over. He’s leaving tomorrow to meet his girlfriend in Santo Domingo. “Of everyone here” he tells me, poking me in the bicep “you are the one I will  miss the most”.

He’s going to the beach so he’ll take me out to the road to get a taxi, carry my bag.  Stephane, with his perpetual cup of coffee and cigarette, walks us out to the gate. I’ve known Stephane since the day I left Haiti. When I was sick and sleeping all the time it was him that would yell outside my window for me to come out for dinner, a cup of coffee, a cigarette. I’ve spent hours a day doing nothing but sitting around – at the beach, on the porch – talking to Stephane.  He has been my best friend here. I hug him goodbye and turn back around and walk out the gate. He yells at me “Yeaaah, see you later, eh, Finn?” in his French accent and I don’t even turn around, I just wave a hand at him and go on walking, tears bubbling up. Chad squeezes my shoulder. When we find a cab he puts my bag in the back and hugs me again, hard. Quiet Chad, who doesn’t say anything forever and then just pops out with these bizarre stories that make me laugh for days after. Who is the only white guy I would ever trust to drive a motorcycle in a third world country. Who I’ve woken up numerous times by standing outside his window yelling that he needs to get his hungover ass out of bed for the surf bus. Who has threatened to kill me numerous times in the past week.  The driver tries to get me to sit in the front but I shove my bag over and sit next to it and cry the ten minute ride to Sosua.

Herein lies the issue with travel: you leave home and you miss those people. Then you meet new people who you have to miss, too. I think of Marcus, Donna, Kathyrn, Pete, Jon Tonti, Linda, Allen – this whole stream of people in my head I just miss.

Right now my bag smells like the living dead – laundry was a big issue the whole trip. In the absence of laundromats everything is hand washed, usually with hand soap. In the absence of dryers, it’s hung out to dry. Which never really happens in humid climates. I haven’t seen clean clothes, a consistently hot shower, green vegetables or a decent cup of coffee in weeks. But I’m already missing this group of people all sitting around in semi-clean damp clothes drinking terrible coffee.

Photo notes: 1) Kites up over Cabarete beach. 2) Simon, my next door neighbor at surf camp, up. Photo stolen from Simon but if he wants to make a big deal over it I have a really funny story about happy hour, cigars and me thinking my next door neighbor was dead because not a peep came out of that room for 36 hours due to epic hangover. It would make a wicked blog entry. Kidding, Simon. Kidding. 3) Stephane, Chad, another surf camper and I walking back to camp, photo stolen from Kim. Stephane is one with face blacked out. Miss you, buddy.

Reeking and Freezing In Paradise/Boulder Interlude: An Australian Playlist Swap

Reeking & Freezing In Paradise

The last thing I did on my way to the airport in Florida was mail a big box of stuff back to Colorado. When I had been stuck there dealing with my mother’s accident Florida had been going through an odd cold snap. Luckily I had some extra warm clothes with me. Clothes, I thought, I would not need in Haiti. So I packaged up my laptop, most of the remaining warm clothes, some books and shipped them all back to Colorado.

Big fucking mistake.

I am now freezing my ass off in paradise.

When I get to the surf camp the temperature in the DR drops – an unexpected cold snap. Trouble and cold, it seems, are following me around. It’s rainy and damp and chilly and my warm clothes have been reduced to one pair of warm socks, jeans and a thin sweatshirt. My first night at camp I head off to dinner wearing this, sneakers and about four shirts under the sweatshirt. Incidentally all my warm clothes smell like Haiti. They were in the pack with what I salvaged and even though they had retained the smell I knew I would need them for the flight back.

Welcome to summer camp for adults. Let’s meet everyone in clothes that smell like rot and despair when you’re half dead.

I didn’t know yet about the amorphous dinner time. Elena told me dinner was at 7. Stephane, who shows up to come to dinner with me, says get there at 7.30. When we get there at 7.30 there is almost no one there. Slowly people start to trickle in. Much to my relief pretty much everyone is grubby and layered. The only exception is people who came with no warm clothes at all and had to raid the surf shops and souvenir stands. Apparently there’s not even that many places that sell sweatshirts here so a couple of people are wearing the exact same sweatshirt.

That said there’s about twenty strangers, one very long table, and a lot of benches. And I am tired and unsure about my ability to eat or stay awake. Intimidating.

As people come in everyone greets Stephane, orders a beer, sits down. I’m on orange juice. Most everyone is European, in their twenties and thirties, tan and healthy looking. A lot are here for longer stays – two weeks, three weeks, a month. A few, like Stephane, are on the multi-month plan. Some are here for a kite boarding instructor course which takes about ten weeks. While there are a few surfers and windsurfers almost everyone is here for kite boarding. More on kite boarding, which is insane, later. But the kite boarders need wind to get out on the water and there has been none for days. Now it’s cold and windless.

Like regular camp there’s a lot of talk about the food – speculation as to what we’re going to get, what dishes turn up regularly. Taco night is exciting. Goulash night not so much. I’m keeping quiet, listening to everyone talk. It’s a tight knit group and I am the new kid. Apparently on weekends the table swells with people who just come for a few days but during the week the majority of the people are the long termers.

Everyone is friendly. A couple of people ask and I give the abridged version of the Haiti story, explain that I’m a little sick right now. It’s easier than I thought it would be. The conversation is light and funny. No one really talks about their lives back home. After the intensity of Haiti it’s a relief. Sitting there in my reeking clothes I think I have made a good choice, that this is what I need.

It’s taco night. There is some sort of machismo contest about who can eat the most. I make it through two. Stephane makes it to eight. The win goes to a disarmingly goofy and friendly young British kid who bears a startling resemblance to Kurt Cobain. He makes it through ten.

The two tacos do me in. As everyone else hangs out and drinks and boo-sheets I head back to my room. It’s ass cold but Elena dug up a blanket for me. I fold it double, find my clean towel and throw that on top of it, too. Then I crawl between the sheets and crash out under my pile of improvised bedding.

This is what my life will look like for the next five days or so: I read. I sleep. The cold snap sticks around for a few days and I eat in my reeking clothes with everyone else. Washing anything is impossible – there’s no dryer and it’s wet for clothes to dry on the line. I get moved to a nicer bungalow with a bathroom. This one overlooks the lagoon too. Sometimes Stephane stops by with coconuts and a pocket knife and we sit on my porch and drink the juice straight from the coconuts and smoke cigarettes. Occasionally I walk out to the internet café or to the store for water but mostly I sleep. I live on the periphery of the camp, not really joining in but being friendly and getting my strength back.

And it is good.

Boulder Interlude: I Put You On A Pedestal, They Put You On The Pill

As we get closer and closer to the end of the story – or at least the part about being in Haiti and the DR – I have to interlude more and more. I don’t know what will happen to this blog once I get to the end of the story. Do I let it go and start a new one that’s just domestic stuff? Do I cut the ‘Haiti’ out of the title and keep it? If anyone has suggestions please feel free to email me. I have no frickin’ clue.

I am sitting on the patio of a bar on Pearl Street in Boulder with Chance and Aimee drinking toxicly strong margaritas and trying to avoid having a conversation with the creepy guy sitting behind me who is desperate to tell me about his ‘intuition’ and what ‘my body is telling him’. I had been refusing to turn around and even look at him, thinking this meant my body was telling him ‘stay the fuck away from me’. Apparently I was dead wrong. Creepy.

And then there are Australians.

I have a theory about Australians: when England created a prison colony there so many years ago they didn’t just send the prisoners, they sent the most charismatic, social prisoners – the ones that might charm themselves out of jail. Big strapping lads with the ability to have a fun conversation with a tree stump. Drop dead gorgeous women who could make a corpse laugh. Australia has created a race of the uber-charismatic. Australians are like American Express cards – they’re everywhere you want to be.

And now the patio has two of them. Both named Paul.

Immediately we go from being a congregation of separate tables to a big circle with the Australians at the center. Then we are in a contest – even creepy guy, who cannot peel his eyes or his intuition off of me – to name ten Scottish bands. Ten Australian bands. Top ten love songs.

Then somehow me and the taller Paul are frantically scribbling playlists on napkins. The shorter Paul promises to send me the ‘Dogs in Space’ soundtrack when he gets back to Melbourne. The top ten songs on our iPod turns into ‘songs you need to buy right now’ and gets into the twelves and thirteens and fifteens. ‘A New England’ by Billy Bragg makes it onto both of our lists and we are out front smoking and singing “I put you on a pedestal, they put you on the pill….”.

Then it’s time to go find cupcakes and Chance and Aimee and I head off down Pearl St, my back pocket stuffed full of scribbled-on napkins.

This is what I gave him:

  1. Exit Wounds – Tim Barry
  2. Going Once Going Twice – Ramona Falls
  3. She’s My Ride Home – Blue October
  4. 4 AM In Texas – 7 Seconds
  5. Shut Up & Listen – The New York Citizens
  6. Can’t Feel A Thing – Lucero
  7. Trying – Dag Nasty
  8. Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley or Leonard Cohen version
  9. Zippers and Jeans – Harlan T. Bobo
  10. Into The Open – Heartless Bastards
  11. 156 – Mew
  12. Monkey’s Gone To Heaven – The Pixies
  13. Rainy Night in Soho – The Pogues
  14. Who Are You? – Tom Waites
  15. Pal Norte – Calle 13
  16. Oh! Libertine – Viva La American Death Ray Music
  17. The Night – Morphine

This is what I find on the napkin,  the Australian playlist:

  1. Greetings To The New Brunette – Billy Bragg
  2. I The Kite – Centromatic
  3. Black Angel – Black Cab
  4. Trouble Weighs A Ton – Dan Auerbach
  5. Mansion of Los Feliz – The Eels
  6. Sequestered In Memphis – The Hold Steady
  7. Get To Leave – Howe Gelb
  8. Brand New Angel – Jeff Bridges
  9. Restless – Longhorne Slim
  10. Little Lion Man – Mumford and Son
  11. Chicago – Rogue Wave
  12. Help Yourself – Sad Brad Smith
  13. Where There’s Son – Thrift Store Cowboy
  14. 5 Years Time – Noah and Whale

I don’t get all of it – I’m too cheap. And some of what I do get I’m not crazy about – Jeff Bridges, for instance. But for the most part his playlist is damn good. I’m obsessive about music – when I find a song I like I’ll listen to it over and over again. Noah and the Whale and Black Cab wind up on my repeat list. I love new music – finding a good song to put on repeat is like making a new friend. The napkin is full of shiny, sparkly little treasures.

Since I started this blog I’ve gotten some mail off of it. Not as much as I did off Sarna Dogs, but I do get the odd stranger email. If you’re one of those folks that feels inclined to send me a random email, send me a playlist.

***This entry is for Lindsey – sorry it’s a whole lotta nothin’, an interim one, really. But you told me this distracts you so I sat down today determined to keep tellin’ the story, even the boring bits.  All my good thoughts***

Photo notes – 1) my bungalow at the surf camp. You can’t see the lagoon but the porch overlooks it.  2) Restaraunt with long dinner table at left and bar at right. 3) Australian napkin playlist.

Getting There: Ain’t No Vomit Comets in the DR/You Can’t Hate Elena

The Dominican Republic is just too frickin’ civilized.

In Nicaragua I saw the best bus fight ever. I wasn’t even on that particular bus, I was on a different bus but our driver pulled over to watch. It was Semana Santa, Holy Week – the big vacation time – and all the buses were packed. Apparently a few drunk guys got into a fight on the other chicken bus, the old school buses that are privately owned and operated and usually sketchy but how everyone gets around there. By the time we pulled up cops had waded into the fight bus – which had to be loaded to three times human capacity – with billy clubs and guns on their back and were just chucking people off. Once they got the drunks they beat the shit out of them, shoved them in the back of a police pick-up and got back on the bus to talk to the driver.  The offending drunks, bloodied and bruised, just sat in the back of the police pickup with no handcuffs. The cops there have AK-47’s. No one was going to make a run for it. Probably why there’s very little crime in Nicaragua, too.

It was a hell of a show.

That just ain’t going to happen in the Dominican Republic. I haven’t seen one chicken bus since I left Haiti, just luxury buses. Which is nice in that I don’t have to spend the trip to the surf camp desperately having to pee while someone’s pillowcase full of baby ducks slams into the back of my calves and people take cell phone pictures of my tattoos. It’s bad in that, well, it’s boring.  I always admired the tenacity of Nicaraguan travel. You could take a 1960’s school bus, shoot holes in it, paint “HOLY FUCK, WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE” on the side of it in huge letters, plaster the whole thing with St Jude, patron saint of lost causes and people would still spend eighty cents to ride on it. Not that I’ve ever seen one exactly like that but close.

And I’m certainly not going to see one like that in the Dominican Republic. Oh well.

To get to Cabarete, where the surf camp is, you have to take a bus to Sosua and then from there a cab to Cabarete. A nice luxury bus that sets me back a whopping $2. Unlike the one into Haiti, this one doesn’t even have to be watered every few miles. It’s clean with big cushy seats and pretty empty. Stephane and I choose rows across from each other and I put on my iPod and look out the window. I hadn’t realized how well off this country is or how much agriculture it has. The Dominican Republic has done well with everything. The fields were clean, neat and well tended. The cities were pretty and relatively free of litter. This is the third world? Really?

Stephane is the ideal travelling partner. He knocks on the door to my room to get me up to make the bus, gets us a cab to the station, makes sure there’ll be a room for me once we get to the camp. I’m still sick enough to be in various states of out-of-it-ness and when we get to Sosua he haggles with the cab driver.

Sosua is enough of a shit hole that it makes me feel a little less like a candy ass. The streets are lined with cheap hotels and bars. There’s some bakeries and pharmacies that look nice but there also seems to be a big hooker issue. As a result, there’s a big old-gross-expats-who-love-young-hookers issue and you see them wandering around the crumbling sidewalks, the women lurching towards the crappy hotels on enormous heels with paunchy seventy year old European guys glued to their side. Nice.

We throw our stuff in the cab and escape without even walking around. Stephane has been through here before and I am exhausted and have no desire to play explorer in Hooker Central. The cab goes down a long, straight road and I can see glimpses of the Caribbean through the palm trees that line the road. Then we are pulling into Cabarete. It’s all centered along one long strip that borders the beach. There are modern buildings and condo complexes and souvenir stands and shops and realty offices. This is usually not the kind of place I can afford to be. Stephane has the driver drop us at the grocery store and I stock up on water, a few snacks and a cheap bottle of wine. The wine is an optimistic purchase – no drinking until I am off the antibiotics and substantially better. But you can’t pass up a $3 Chilean Cabernet.

From the store we walk the quarter mile down the road, past a guarded gate. The guard greets Stephane by name. They missed him. A couple of moto-taxi drivers hang out around the gate, hoping to catch people coming out but we’re headed in the wrong direction. From there it’s another quarter mile down a dirt road and then another wall and then the surf camp.

The first two things I notice are that everything is painted bright colors and that I really, really want to hate the girl who greets us in the office. She is gorgeous, Russian, wearing adorable clothes and speaks flawless English. I am a woman, we are like this – you either want to be her or hate her. Meet Elena. Who is, unfortunately, as cool and nice as she is perfect and thus completely un-hateable. I will find out talking to her later that she speaks something like seven languages and manages to keep the surf camp from turning into a total zoo, a Herculean task.

Basically the place is comprised of a bunch of little bungalows on a lagoon. All the bungalows have little porches with benches. There’s one big luxury apartment above the laundry area. Then there’s a big villa where Ali, the owner, lives. There’s a couple of multi room apartments there as well. There’s also a covered open air kitchen/bar/dining room where the meals are served. It has one big table that, I’m told, everyone eats around. Visions of junior high school who-sits-with-who dance through my head but I shove them back. This is fine. We are all grown ups. I am not a fat girl with a lisp anymore. These are my people. This will be fine.

Most of the bungalows are connected. Pretty much all of them have private baths but for the first night I’m given the one connected to the office that doesn’t. There’s a  bathroom about ten feet outside the door. There’s a dock that goes out into the lagoon and a few paddle boards to use.

I’ll move you tomorrow, Elena promises, to one with a bathroom. The room has a ceiling fan, a sink, a nice bed, and a mosquito net. My porch overlooks the lagoon. It’s perfect. Stephane has one of the more luxurious bungalows – it’s the room he’s stayed in since he got there months ago and he gets it back immediately. Elena listens to our respective Haiti misadventures with sympathy and points me towards the book exchange in the office, tells me she hopes I feel better.

You cannot hate Elena. She is awesome and sincere. Damn her.

The whole place is beautiful. Obviously budget but beautiful.

Dinner is at 7-ish, breakfast is at 8-ish and lunch, if you want it, is at the beach house down the street. I just pay for two meals a day. I’m barely eating one now as it is and I’m too cheap to pay for optimism. The surf bus leaves at 8.30 and at 2 PM but I’m too tired to even contemplate that.

What 7-ish really means is that everyone shows up at the restaurant at around 7.30 and orders a beer and boo-sheets until 8 PM when they finally drop the food, at which point everyone sucks it down and keeps drinking but I won’t learn that until later. For right now I take my book, my summer-camp trepidation, my gallon of water and antibiotics and tromp off to my room to crash until dinner.

Tonight I have to learn to be a little social again. For right now I nap.

Welcome home.

**A note on title – vomit comet – another term for chicken buses. Also called chicken-and-goat-express.**

Photo notes:  boosted photo of what will probably eventually move to Central America to become chicken bus. Inside of luxury bus. Office at Ali’s Surf Camp as seen from right inside gate.

Colorado Interlude: Cranky, Half Blind, Always Hungry & Perfect/Hat Trick/The Vulture Tree

Cranky, Half Blind, Always Hungry & Perfect

It looks like there was an ice cream fight in the Beetle. Vanilla soft serve is smeared on the dashboard, the passenger seat, the steering wheel. It’s in the cup holders and making a gluey mess on the carpet. Last week I spent two hours detailing the inside of the car and now it looks like a snowstorm hit it.

Not only is it all over the car, my hands are sticky with it. Mercy, who is contentedly asleep, is covered in it. The top of one enormous bat ear is flecked with white as is her muzzle and her paws.

I didn’t eat any of it. Whatever didn’t wind up smeared all over my car, she ate. I bought it for her. It’s very hot out. She likes ice cream.

Ice cream is terrible for dogs.

So is rawhide, which has become her newest hobby, eating yogurt off my spoon, the entire beet my roommate gave her, and the 1/2 pound of raw almonds I split with her. Only the almonds upset her stomach. Her stomach, usually a temperamental nightmare, has stood up admirably to the onslaught of crap food.

Mercy is fifteen and has Cushing’s Disease. Cushing’s Disease, for those who don’t know, is a benign tumor on the adrenal gland that causes the body to overproduce adrenaline. The symptoms are hair loss, crankiness, constant hunger, a pendulous abdomen and muscle atrophy.

As she usually hates everyone and eats everything, it wasn’t until she started losing fur that I got the idea something might be wrong. The pendulous abdomen was written off as old lady gut. The muscle atrophy, which happened gradually, I thought was just the result of her getting lazier since she retired from dog sports a few years back.  But about a year and a half ago her blood work came back funky – early kidney and liver failure, odd levels on things. Further tests confirmed Cushing’s Disease.

Mercy and I have been together for over thirteen years. When I got her she was young, mean, wild, brilliant and obsessive. She terrorized my two other dogs. She stole things. She dug voles up from the yard and killed them. She even got a raven once but it got away. She didn’t relate well to people – she is aloof and occasionally actively aggressive.

She was a nightmare. In some sort of effort to harness the sheer evil intelligence I started taking her to classes. Obedience. She aced it. Advanced obedience. She practically laughed at the other dogs. Agility. Too much precision work, too much concentration. Hated it. Sheep herding. Had fun her, was totally fearless and had good drive but too expensive for me. Flyball. She picked it up in a day and loved it. She loved it enough that she didn’t even try to kill the other dogs. I put her in competition and for years it seemed we were on the road every weekend for a tournament somewhere. British Columbia. Oklahoma. Iowa. Texas. Utah. Alberta.

For most of my adult life I’ve had jobs that were dog friendly. She came to the office with me, always sitting on the back half of my office chair so I had to scooch my butt up to the very front to sit down. My co-workers gave her treats and she traumatized the other office dogs as well as any children that happened by. Merc hates children.

Thirteen years have calmed her down some. She still is not much for strangers or being patted. She snuggles with me and the ex but doesn’t much care to have other people touch her. About four years ago she retired from flyball. She divides her time between me, wherever I am, and living with my ex and the rest of his dogs in the mountains. I’ve had her the past week – a week full of ice cream, rawhide, whole beets and all around poor pet ownership.

At fifteen she is nearly blind, bald in spots, more stubborn about food, more barky. In some ways I appreciate Merc more now than I ever did before. I lost my other two dogs, my beloved boys, fairly unexpectedly. Seamus died suddenly at age eighteen. Simon was diagnosed with sarcoma, also at age eighteen, and was gone in three weeks. Even months and years later the hurt is so fresh I’ve never managed to write about either of them. Mercy’s Cushing’s Disease, as much as I hate it, gives me the luxury of time. Mercy will be here next month and the month after but it seems dubious that she can make another year. I have time for ice cream and rawhides and long car rides to nowhere just because she really, really wanted to get in the car even though we were just supposed to be going for a walk. In knowing that she is sick I have permission to spoil her, to throw all of my old rules about appropriate treats and being decent to strangers out the window.

I never knew, with my boys, that the time was running out until it was almost gone. Logically I knew they were old and old dogs die but it’s still a shock when it happens. Losing the boys taught me this appreciation, this cognizance of time running out. I hoard this week, this stupid seven days of her crashed out on my pillow and barking at me endlessly for a piece of sandwich, like money. I make a point of memorizing the sound of her snoring in the front seat, take a mental picture of her rolling on her back in the grass.

I know now.

Hat Trick: A Recurring Theme

Years ago I interviewed for a job at a hat company, right after I left animal sheltering. It was the worst interview of my life. Not because the woman was rude – she wasn’t. She was very nice. The whole interview went seamlessly. There was a nice tour of the hat factory and the warehouse. I was introduced around. It was lovely, really. Until we got to the end of the tour and whatnot and she sat me down, looked me in the eye and asked me the worst interview question ever:

“So how do you feel about hats?”.

If anyone has a good fucking answer for that one, let me know. I know how to answer all the bullshit questions you always get asked in interviews – where you see yourself in five years, what are your biggest strengths and weaknesses, blah blah blah. But how do I feel about hats? How the hell am I supposed to feel about hats?

In reality I hate hats.

No, I did not say that. Instead I stuttered out something about keeping the sun out of your eyes and the importance of accessorizing. Obvious bullshit. Obvious. I did not get the job. I assume it went to someone who was passionate about hats.

I argue with myself about what I hate more: hats or the way my forehead freckles in the sun. Freckles are adorable on fair skinned, light eyed people. Freckles are not adorable on Black Irish girls with an olive undertone to their skin and hazel eyes. In thirty five years no amount of zinc or SPF 8000 has managed to keep the forehead freckling from occurring.

This year I resolve to wear a motherfucking hat if I’m going to be out in the sun. I have a couple of cute ones – a pink and brown trucker cap. A little Gap army hat. A Billabong cap.

For the first time this year I put on The Hat. I’m taking Merc for a long walk and it’s sunny and then I have to work outside for a while. I put on the trucker hat, braid my hair into pigtails, put on extra lipstick, my darker black glasses. A-fucking-dorable.

The problem with hats is that once you start the day with a hat, you are married to it for the rest of the day. Hat head. After I’m done outside I go run errands, still wearing The Hat.

The guy at 7-11, usually so friendly, don’t seem to recognize me. When I hand him the money for my soda he looks at me hard for a second.

Sorry, he says, it’s The Hat. Weird. You don’t look like you.

I go to my favorite thrift shop, the one with the outrageously expensive clothes for ridiculously cheap. $200 jeans for $8. J. Crew sundresses for $4. My favorite girl is working there, the one who goes through picking out clothes for me, chopping the prices down on everything. I love her.

The Hat, she says, it has to go. She hands me a little checked sundress, a pair of jeans and a long Body Glove sweater. $2o for the whole lot of it, she tells me, and I know you’re iffy on the sweater but it’s perfect for you. When I come out with the sundress on she grins approvingly.

See? She says. You’re such a tiny little thing with those big long legs but you would never know with That  Hat. It, like, makes you look bigger. You can’t wear hats. You need to throw that out.

Last time I wore the little Gap hat someone told me I look like a female Che Guevara. I’m sure someone else would find that sexy or a compliment but I didn’t. Thanks, comrade.

In Nicaragua I bought a girly knock-off Billabong hat from a street vendor to wear during surgeries – keep the ticks off, keep the hair out of my eyes. Street vendors, who usually would slap their grandparents to sell you something, frowned when I tried it on. No me gusta, she said and handed me a bandana. Mejor.*

I bought it anyway and wore it twice.

How do I feel about hats? I feel like they’re great for some people but they make me look like an unrecognizable chunky revolutionary.

That’s what I should have said.

A Weird Aside: The Vulture Tree

As the end of my two month sublet in Ft. Collins comes up I notice The Vulture Tree. I had always noticed this one huge pine tree at the end of my street in Olde Town had a bunch of large birds circling it all the time but I never paid much attention. Crows, I assumed. Ravens. Big ones. The tree smelled funky and there’s always mountain of bird crap underneath it.

The other day I look up and on the branch, ten feet above me, is a vulture. A large, disturbing vulture staring at me with this look in it’s beady little eye like it’s wondering what I would taste like as roadkill.

In the middle of downtown this tree is full of vultures. They must nest up there. That’s what the smell is.

Vulture trees, in case you’re wondering, smell like wet dog hair and barbeque sauce. I have no idea why. And the whole thing is fucking creepy.

*no me gusta – I don’t like it. Mejor – better.

Photo notes: 1)Mercy as professionally photographed five years ago. 2) Merc racing in St. George, Utah – 2006 (?). 3) Mercy taking up the back half of my desk chair last week. 4) The girly rip-off Billabong hat. Viva la lack of good sense – I will tell you I look like shit in hats and then post a picture of myself wearing one to prove it. Nicaragua, 2009 5) Turkey vulture photo, boosted. Yes they look that. Gah.

The Electrocution Shower & Feeding The Street Dogs Fried Chicken: Three Days in Santiago

My knees are getting bonier. Substantially bonier. I am sitting on the balcony of the hostel in Santiago with my feet propped up on the railing drinking from a gallon jug of water and contemplating my knees.

This is what I do in Santiago: I sleep. That’s about 90% of it right there. I read. I try to eat when my stomach is down for it. I sit on the balcony and talk to Stephane and Missing Child Guy. I take shower after shower. I check my email at the place next door. I walk around a bit. I drink gallons of water interspersed with the odd cup of coffee.

My room is perfect. It has a bed with clean sheets, a TV I never turn on, a flush toilet that works and best of all, a hot water shower. The water heater is attached to the shower head and it has a short in it so whenever you put your hand too close you get a nasty shock. This, I realize, is dangerous and I should complain about it but I just can’t bring myself to. First off I am too fond of the hotel owner, the snarky ex-new Yorker, and his family to hassle them. Second of all I don’t give a shit if someone popped out of the drain and punched me in the face every time I turned the water on: I have a goddamn shower. It doesn’t matter.

Boo-sheet. That’s the technical European term for what goes on in the endless, intermittent balcony hours. Bullshit as said with any sort of European accent. We sit outside and we bullshit. The hostel has a balcony at the end of every floor. I’m right next to it. Stephane is down the hall. Across the hall from me is Missing Child Guy. I cannot decide if Missing Child Guy is honest and a very sad story or hiding something and really, really creepy.  But he’s interesting and I have all of the energy of a dishrag so I don’t put too much thought into it. It’s sort of like the electrocuting showerhead – whatever.

Missing Child Guy’s story is this: Years ago he lived in Boston with his girlfriend, a Dominican woman who was in the country illegally. They were happy, they were in love, they had a kid together. One day she’s out doing something and runs over a pedestrian with the car, killing them. So afraid of being caught she takes the kid and runs, leaving no note, no message, no nothing for Missing Child Guy. He knows she went back to the Dominican Republic so a couple of times a year he comes out here and canvasses the country trying to find his kid. He doesn’t want to bring her back to the US, he just wants to know his kid. He has a website up, too, with digitally aged pictures of what his kid would look like and pleas for information.

He seems like an incredibly nice, sincere guy – probably in his early sixties, dead earnest about his search. But I am the daughter of an FBI agent and I read too much. Stephane seems to buy his story and listens to him, asks him questions. I don’t know that I do. The DR isn’t that big – surely someone would have coughed up some information by now, particularly for a reward. If they were so in love why didn’t she at least get word to him somehow that his kid was okay? Why haven’t the authorities gotten involved? I don’t ask any of these questions. I just sit there and silently suspect him while at the same time enjoying the balcony-company. Silently suspicious and thinking the worst, that’s how I roll. If his story is true I feel terrible for him. But right now I just feel terrible in general so maybe my suspicion keeps me from having to muster up any more terrible feeling.

Missing Child Guy and Stephane sit in their chairs and drink beer. I drink my water. The time passes. The medicine kicks in a bit. I’m still beat but I’m up and about more. My stomach is still queasy and uncomfortable – it might be the antibiotics, I don’t know but I’m dropping weight quickly. Every day I go down to the restaurant downstairs and get chicken and yucca. I usually make it through some of the yucca but the chicken is a lost cause. There are two street dogs that live on the hostel street – an older one with bad eyes and a skittish younger one with a bad limp and a sweet face. After I poke through as much yucca as I can stomach I take the chicken out and feed it to the dogs.

Santiago is a pretty, modern, progressive city – or at least the bits of it I see. They have a humane policy towards street dogs – as long as they’re not hassling anyone in the neighborhood and people are keeping an eye out for them the city vaccinates them, tags them, and releases them back into their neighborhoods. As a result these are not the cowering, fleeing street dogs of Nicaragua – they’re reasonably social and friendly, the neighborhood folk don’t chase them around kicking them and they’re bold. They sleep on the sidewalks in front of the stores. Once the younger one figures out I’ll feed him he hangs out by the hostel entrance waiting for me.

All in all, Santiago is like a pleasant waiting room. Two days after I arrive the rest of the group from Haiti shows up at the same hostel. They leave the next morning to go back to the US. They’re short the cash for one room so I share mine with one of the women for a night. It’s nice to see them but I’m glad to be back on my own, even if I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing aside from showering, balcony-ing, feeding the street dogs and sucking down antibiotics and water.

Stephane’s story is thus: he’s been at a surf camp out on the coast for a few months. He’s not so much for the Swiss winters. Like other people I’ve met abroad, he makes a point of leaving home when the weather starts to get ugly. It’s sort of an international snowbird thing. He’s been all over everywhere but now he’s here, sitting out a Swiss winter at a Caribbean surf camp. He’d been there for about two months and was starting to get burnt out on the socializing so he decided to take a week out and go on a vacation from his vacation – Haiti. He had gone and hung around Cap Haitian for a few days, decided it was a massive suckhole and left. Hence him being on the bus back when we were.

He is the only human being I ever meet that decided to vacation in Haiti. Mostly he spent five days doing what I did for one day in Cap Haitian: walking around trying to find coffee.

His room back at the surf camp should be waiting for him and he should be heading back but he hangs around in Santiago, too, eating my leftover yucca and buying large amounts of amber jewelery to sell when he gets back to Switzerland.

When I was in Santo Domingo I heard about the surf camp – a young Aussie couple had just come back from there. “You should go” they told me “the beaches are beautiful, it’s cheap, all your food is included – it’s like summer camp for grown ups”.

These are the facts as they stand:

  1.  Santiago is a city and hence more expensive. Surf camp is substantially cheaper, what with the meals included.
  2. I need to eat. Badly. And sleep. And relax until I’m over this. And since they feed you there it would save me having to drag my ass off the balcony to go forage for food.
  3. I now know someone who is there. So it’s not like I’d be walking into the place based on a few sentences from the Aussie couple.
  4. My other options are try to make it back to Haiti half dead or continue sitting on the balcony. I don’t know if I can spend that much more time around Missing Child Guy without my doubts bubbling to the surface and sneaking into conversation.
  5. This is the big ‘BUT’. I do not like the idea of summer camp. My family didn’t do summer camps. When I was in fifth grade I did six days at a talented and gifted camp – a prize for winning Olympics of the Mind. In fifth grade I was fat and had a lisp. Can you say ‘traumatic’? Even at a camp for geeks I stood out as uncool. And I have just come off of the Haitian group experience which was more group-iness than I had ever done since fifth grade. The whole thing seems worrisome.

You should come, Stephane tells me, you can rest and eat. People will leave you be if you want to be left alone or you can hang out with everyone. Everyone is friendly. We all eat dinner around a big table. The food isn’t bad. You get a private room. And it beats bleeding cash in Santiago.

I feel vaguely bad about going, like I should be putting all 120 remaining pounds of my ass immediately on a bus to Port Au Prince. But I have ten more days of pills, I’m still so tired I’m borderline narcoleptic and running little fevers.

The weekend passes. The Haiti volunteers go back to the US. Surf camp it is. I decide to leave on Monday, take the bus back with Stephane. He calls and confirms they have an open room for me.

My last day in Santiago I run errands: I buy a $3 belt to compensate for the jeans that slide off my hips now. I go to the jewelery market with Stephane and buy a souvenir, a ring with a piece of Dominican amber with a tiny bug stuck in it. Stephane haggles it for me, having bought tons of stuff there. Final price, $4. I eat my last meal of yucca and say sad goodbyes to my street dogs, stuffing them full of chicken one last time. I take one last shocking shower and drink a cup of coffee with the innkeeper. I wish Missing Child Guy good luck and leave him on the balcony, drinking his Presidente. I shove whats left into the big red backpack.

Monday morning comes and Stephane yells outside my door “yeah, Finn, we go catch the bus now, eh?”. And a million times improved but still ailing I shrug my pack on and walk down the stairs.

Yeah, we go catch the bus now.

* A note on accents, writing accents, not writing accents, boo-sheet and not being condescending: I generally try not to write accents – it’s insulting, it turns people into cartoon characters and I sure as hell wouldn’t want my occasional slip from ‘four’ to ‘fow-ah’ or use of the word ‘wicked’ thrown into print to be read by a bunch of people who don’t know me. That said, certain people have little verbal idiosyncracies – like Stephane’s starting every sentence with ‘yeah’ – that become almost emblematic of them. I do include those.

The one exception to that is boo-sheet (bullshit). I take a free pass on using that because the pronunciation was the topic of a long, funny conversation with a bunch of Europeans and it became almost standard pronunciation there. You would sit on your porch after dinner and boo-sheet with everyone.

Interlude: A Leaving Haiti Soundtrack/The Crazy Preacher Lady/The Buddy System

I’ll Be At Lost & Found: A Leaving-Haiti Soundtrack

Stuck in Florida with way too much time and the horrifying realization that my laptop was not going to Haiti with me, I made playlists. Playlist after playlist after playlist. I made a playlist for every occasion. Not only did I make them, I numbered them with the idea that I would listen to them in order. Sort of a way of keeping things interesting without having to depend on ‘shuffle’ which I am way too obsessive about music to feel good about.

The playlists were an amazing act of faith on my part. My iPods get stolen with enormous regularity when I travel. Despite everything else that happened in Haiti, nobody boosted the iPod. Nor did it get jettisoned for stench reasons. Thus I found myself on the bus back to the Dominican Republic curling up with College/Alt Playlist Number Four:

  • It Can’t Rain All The Time –  Jane Siberry
  • Yes – Morphine
  • I’ve Heard – Dag Nasty
  • Talk About The Passion – REM
  • Turkish Song of the Damned – The Pogues
  • Bellyfulla – Ramona Falls
  • Missing Link – Del The Funky Homosapien w/Dinosaur Jr.
  • Ocean Size – Janes Addiction
  • Independence Day – Ani Difranco
  • See A Little Light – Bob Mould
  • Conversation Via Radio – Blue October
  • Toadvine – Ben Nichols (live – thank you Fuckin’ Dan)
  • Sin Exagerar – Calle 13 w/Tego Calderon (nothing to do with college or alt but they’re brilliant. If their lyrics were in English Calle 13 would be considered one of those innovative crossover success-story bands. Instead they get pegged as reggaeton and shuffed off under ‘latin music’.)
  • Something Fast – Sisters of Mercy
  • Omission – Quicksand

Since I was sleeping for most of the trip this meant I kept waking up to odd things. The bus would hit a bump and I’d wake up to Shane McGowan slurring in a thick Irish accent. When they stopped the bus to get us food it was Puerto Rican hip-hop. At one point I got up to take another anti nausea pill and the random Haitian guy sitting behind me asked to listen for a second. I gave it to him – which makes it even odder that this one didn’t get stolen as handing your iPod to strangers you’ve never spoken to is a bad idea – and he handed it back to me with a weird look on his face and asked me what the hell I was listening to.

I didn’t even bother trying to explain why Bob Mould was a seminal figure in American punk/alternative music. Think the language barrier would have been a bit much for that one.

In short, it made this whole surreal little bombed-out-of-my-mind-on-antibiotics-and-fever journey that much more surreal. Gave it a funky little soundtrack. Every time I listen to that playlist I feel vaguely queasy in a nostalgic sort of way.

The Crazy Preacher Lady

The trip back in to the Dominican Republic was mostly uneventful. At least I think it was since I slept through most of it. We had to pull our stuff off the bus for searching at the border. I walked up to the table with my bag, now half full, and the customs official just looked at me and told me to put it back on the bus. Maybe he was lazy, maybe I looked half dead, maybe he was more concerned with the American female preacher behind me that was probably the first person ever to come OUT of Haiti with six suitcases, I don’t know. But it was the first piece of decent customs luck I’ve had in my life. Except the preacher would not shut up, couldn’t handle her baggage on her own and picked me out to help with her bags. Everyone else on the bus clearly saw this chick was a train wreck, preacher or not, and cleared out. Being sick I wasn’t moving as quickly as the rest of the passengers so she managed to corral me. Despite barely being able to carry my own bag I slung one of her bags back under the bus for her and then skulked off to bum another cigarette before the bus left.

Instead of going back to Santo Domingo the plan was to go to Santiago, DR. A much quicker trip, cheaper, and quite frankly I didn’t give a crap as long as it was out of Haiti and had access to a shower, aspirin and a bed.

Once we got over the border it was two hours – devoid of mud piles and mountains of litter – to Santiago. T. had come through here on his way into Haiti so he knew a cheap, clean hostel. He was going to a friend’s house but both my new friend Stephane and the female preacher were going so we decided to split a cab.

The Santiago bus station had coffee. Nescafe, yes. Shitty Central American coffee but coffee. Because of my kidneys I wasn’t supposed to do caffeine or alcohol. The alcohol wasn’t an issue but the caffeine was. Particularly as my staying-awake record thus far had been about twenty minutes and quite honestly I just wanted to bathe in coffee. They also sold cigarettes. Stephane negotiated with cab drivers and loaded the preacher’s armory of crap into the cab while I delightedly sucked down a Dixie cup of coffee and smoked my very own cigarette.

I fed the monkeys on my back, the bags got stuffed into the impossibly tiny taxi and off we went. The open trunk bounced precariously from the preacher-lady’s luggage, threatening to dump everything onto the city streets with each pothole. She jabbered the whole ten minute ride to the hostel, verbally flying all over the place about Jesus, Los Angeles, Haiti, Hell, whatever. Either she had some sort of Haitian coffee connection that I never managed to tap into or she was batshit crazy or she was on drugs. I have no clue. Coffee aside, I was falling asleep again. The cab driver spoke no English and Crazy Preacher spoke no Spanish. Stephane was trying to talk to me. So Crazy Preacher was sort of talking to herself but it made her happy.

When we got to the hostel Crazy Preacher, who had stayed at the hostel before, strode up to the desk and asked for the owner. When he came out she announced she had no intention of staying there – she didn’t want to pay for the room and the church across the street had offered her a place to stay – but she needed to leave her bags at the hostel. Without paying. Oddly enough he smiled and said sure, no problem.

When she flounced out the owner, a younger Dominican guy who had grown up in Brooklyn and had a wicked New York accent, looked at me. “We’ll watch the luggage, no problem. Let the church watch her. And listen to her, too. God bless ‘em”.

The Buddy System

A word about Stephane/my male friends in general. There are a couple of defining characteristics that molded me:

  • I spent a lot of time in the punk/surf/skate scene growing up. This is a sausage party. Not a lot of girls. As a result most of my friends were guys. 
  • I travel alone a lot, usually to places that have bad reputations. Again, sausage party. The women you do meet tend to be travelling with friends or boyfriends. Women with their boyfriends think you want to steal them. As for chicks with their friends, well, women in groups can be like hyenas. They pick one and tear it apart.*
  • I grew up the youngest daughter in a house full of women. I have three amazing, awesome, strong sisters and no brothers. In my formative years I learned girls are the ones that kick your ass, throw Kleenex in your crib and pick on you.

The point is I tend to make friends more easily with men than with women. I have some amazing female friends that I’ve been friends with for years. I also have a lot of platonic male friends who are like brothers to me. My buddies. And Stephane, like so many of my male friends that I’ve met travelling, had no ulterior motives. He was just bored, had been on the road for months and was looking for cool folks to hang out and talk to. He wasn’t out to hook up with anyone. This had to be explained to some of the other volunteers who showed up in Santiago the next day on their way back to the US. At this point Stephane’s name became Stephane-who-is-honestly-just-my-friend.

*I do have to say this didn’t hold true in Cabarete, DR, which we will get to eventually. Not only did I meet some amazing women who were travelling alone, there were also The British Girls who could not have been more cool and friendly or less hyena-esque.

Photo notes: #1) That’s not really my iPod but it looks just like it. 2) Caribe bus station in Santiago, boosted photo. 3) Sausage Party Exhibit A – The Anthrax club in Norwalk, CT circa late 80’s. Note the predominant gender. There actually were girls there, we just stayed the hell away from the stage to avoid getting accidentally pummelled by stage divers, etc. And we definitely were a minority compared to the males. But I needed a picture for symmetry purposes. Unknown band, unknown photographer.

Another important note: I did not actually have typhoid – the Typhoid Finn thing was just a reference to the whole Typhoid Mary thing. And if you don’t know what that is, well, wikipedia is often useful for these sorts of things.

Febra: A Not Very Funny But Personal Entry About Exceptional Kindness, Gratitude and Limes. (Typhoid Finn Pt II)

Leukocyte. I don’t speak  Creole but the word is the same in English. White blood cells that show up when there’s an infection to try to fight it. Which means that there’s an infection in my kidneys. The doctor speculates that it’s because I’m weakened from another virus I picked up there or I drank bad water and then wasn’t drinking enough water to wash whatever it was out of my system. Either way something that should have been rinsed out hunkered down in my kidneys and raged. It doesn’t explain the vomiting – I’ve had kidney infections before without my stomach going off – but it’s probably the big baddy here. The last time I got my ass whupped by a kidney infection and didn’t treat it I wound up in a hospital with 106 degree fever. They can kill you. Lucky thinkin’ on hauling the arsenal of antibiotics with me. It’s not a miracle cure and I’ll still feel like hell for a while but it will keep things from getting any worse.

As I’m leaning up against the wall one of the church women walks over to me. Apparently there had been some talk about one of us being sick and people had stopped in to see what was going on. I didn’t recognize this woman, I don’t think she had been in our space before but she was definitely churchy – the flowered dress, the big hat. Her face was broad and smooth though she must have been at least in her fifties. Her teeth were very white and very straight with a gap between the front two. She laid her hand on my chest. Febra. She said. Fever.

I nodded and slid into Spanish. Estoy enferma – mis rinones. Infeccion.

Most of the church people had been friendly to me but I could tell I wasn’t a favorite. The tattoos, the smoking, the lack of Creole, being the only one who had to cover their shoulders – I could take a hint. If this was true, though, this woman hadn’t gotten the memo or didn’t care. Before I could even pry myself off the wall she was barking orders at a boy to get ice and limes NOW, asking how it was that this had gotten so bad and taking my hand, pulling me back to the room, telling me to take off the long-sleeved shirt, taking my temperature. 102.3. The salts had brought it down a little and I explained the doctor was coming back with some pills but she shook her head. Too high.

She spoke Creole, some Spanish, a little bit of English. I had my faulty Spanish and my English.

You poor thing, she told me. We are all children of god. So you are one of my children. And you came to do good. This should not have gotten this bad.

Whoever she was she also had clout. Despite it being after 9 PM the boy came back with the ice and a lime. She sliced the lime and put it in my armpits – a local remedy for fever. She chunked the ice into a washcloth and iced my face, pulled up my tank top and iced my stomach, my armpits, the insides of my legs. My skin was so hot the ice burned but she talked to me soothingly the whole time. She told me about her neighborhood, her farming cooperative, her faith, her life. I have an intense dislike of being touched by strangers but she was so motherly and unbelievably kind that I didn’t cringe or pull away. With infinite patience she iced me down, replaced the limes in my armpits, took my temperature. 102. 101.8. She made a little bag of ice and made me hold it between my thighs, on my femoral artery. It hurt so badly it made my eyes water. 101.4.

The pills came and I took them but she stayed with me, rubbing the melting ice into my hair, behind my ears, making me raise my head so she could hold it on the back of my neck. 100.9.

She had me turn over and iced my sunburned shoulder blades, the backs of my arms. She made me drink another bottle of the salts. 100.4. She kept talking to me.

I do not know how many hours she stayed with me. Her husband came in a few times and she told him she not yet. RoseDanie came in. I had told her I needed to leave and she said there was would be a truck to take me to Cap Haitian in the morning. T., the Mexican volunteer, was going to leave as well to visit some friends and would be on the bus to the Dominican Republic with me. She left to attend to the rest of the group. The church lady kept icing, kept talking, kept taking my temperature.

Finally she smiled, handed me the thermometer. 99.7. You are, she told me, going to be just fine. She made me drink some more salts, found a towel and dried the water and sweat off of me. Before she left she kissed me on the forehead, pulled a sheet over me. All god’s children, she told me. You are my child. Be safe.

And then she was gone and I was asleep, exhausted from the fever, from the strain of staying awake, from the fear and the frustration.

I wish I knew her name.

I still think of her sometimes and cry a little.

The next morning is a blur. I remember cleaning up a little bit, going through my stuff and packing some and jettisoning a lot. My plan was to go to the DR until I was done with the antibiotics. When I was better I would head to the hospital in Port Au Prince that had asked me to come help with equipment sterilization. A lot of my field clothes were lost causes – they smelled, they were filthy in a way that would never come out. I left them there.

RoseDanie’s cousin turned up with a pickup truck. It was a rainy morning and T and I squeezed in the front with the driver while RoseDanie wrapped herself in a tarp and took the back with our luggage. She was going to run some errands in Cap Haitian. While we waited at her cousin’s house a guy walked up the muddy street pushing a wheelbarrow full of gore. A freshly slaughtered cow, all it’s bones removed. I vaguely wonder if it was the cow named Cow. Then I fell asleep, slept through the hour ride down the mountain and into Cap Haitian.

The bus station is chaos again. When we go to buy the tickets I find the $40 in gouts I had squirreled away for my return ticket has become $30. Devalued currency. They won’t take a card for the remainder and RoseDanie pays the difference. Don’t worry about it, she says, you earned it.

Despite being sicker than hell and about thirty seconds away from needing my next nap, my addiction-o-meter is on at full blast. I smell cigarette smoke. I haven’t had a cigarette in two days. Standing next to the bus is a middle-aged European, smoking a cigarette and casually chatting in French with some of the Haitian guys. After they store my bag I walk up to him. Before I can even open my mouth he extends the pack to me. ‘Yeah, this place’ he says to me in a thick French accent like he was continuing a conversation we hadn’t even started ‘it’s not the Caribbean. It’s like fucking Somalia. After a nuclear attack. And you can’t even find a cup of coffee here. Here, you look like you need this. I had to bring these with me from the DR. It’s impossible to get a damn decent cigarette here.’

There would be two angels that whisked me out of Haiti – the unnamed, soothing church lady who dropped my fever. And Stephane, the cynical, foul-mouthed French-Swiss would become my brother-buddy and keep an eye on me, supply me with cigarettes and coffee and company while I recuperated. At that moment I didn’t want new friends, just a cigarette and more sleep. I gratefully smoked the offered cigarette, thanked him and got on the bus.

Stephane and T. sat in the middle of the bus across from each other, chatting. I walk way down past them, towards the bathroom. The anti-nausea pills are mostly holding up but I have my moments. And after the camaraderie of the group I want some alone time. I put on my ipod, curl up into a little ball and pass out again.

There’s a lot I wanted to put in this about faith and kindness and the small miracles of good people with no ulterior motives. There’s a joke here about being turned into a human margarita – filled with salt, stuffed with lime and heavily iced. Neither of them feel right. That twenty four hours just was what it was.

Did Someone Say Fever? Typhoid Finnegan, Part I

At 5 AM the next morning the church bells ring and I feel like death. I had exactly three sips of the beer before handing it over to the Occasional Smoker so I know that’s not it. My body, because of the cancer treatment, is sort of like a vintage Volkswagen: it runs but there’s a lot of duct tape and jerry-rigging holding it together and you have to know it pretty damn well to keep it going. I know my body. There’s something going on here that’s goes beyond an ounce of beer and a mild sunburn.

Everyone else starts to get ready and I don’t even make it out of my sleeping bag. My stomach is off, gone. If I try to move I’m going to throw up. One of the other volunteers isn’t feeling great either and she’s the first to bow out of the day’s project. I get up to pee and feel a painful twinge up in my gut and see something that could be blood. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. My kidneys are my canary in the coalmine and they are not happy. I throw up. I go tell everyone else I’m not going to make it out today. Someone comments that I look pale. I go back to my sleeping bag and pass out for another few hours.

The nausea gets me up. Within twenty minutes I’ve thrown up everything that was in my stomach and am pretty convinced that I’m peeing blood. I feel feverish and foggy. Back to the sleeping bag.

The other volunteer brings me water but I can tell she’s scared. She’s already feeling better and whatever has gotten into me is getting worse. The problem with getting sick here is the stakes are higher. Were we in the US it would be assumed I had a stomach bug, I would be brought some ice and probably cooed over a bit. Here typhoid and malaria are rampant and yellow fever is a problem, too. Any of that shit will kill you, most of it quickly, and two of them are highly contagious. Last night I was fine. Today I am horribly ill with no explanation. I would be freaked to be around me, too. Typhoid fucking Finnegan. Plus everyone else is out on the project, we have no phone, no resources and she doesn’t know what to do.

A default decision is made that I’m not leaving the room except to cross the hallway to pee. While there’s no air circulation in here, I’m dehydrating rapidly and moving is making the queasiness worse. Plus there are church people wandering in and out and I don’t want to deal with them. If whatever I have is contagious it’s best that I stay contained in one area. The good news is that the other volunteer decides I should have the bed. The bad news is we have to find a way to deal with the fact that I can’t stop throwing up and me moving is no longer feasible. She asks the church folk for a bucket but it’s no go – they need all the ones they have to haul water.

Welcome to the absurd: I have to buy my own puke bucket. Luckily I have the dollars that the other volunteers traded me for gouts for the beer yesterday. I hand them all to her – four dollars – and she manages to somehow communicate in Creole that we really, really need someone to go buy us a bucket. I ask for ice, too, as my fever is going up. Someone returns with a bucket but the ice is a lost cause.

Every now and again the other volunteer will drop off a bottle of water and a damp washcloth but she’s too scared of whatever I’m harboring to stay in the room. I have a thermometer and I take my temperature periodically. 99.5.;100.3; 101.1;102.4. Once I get over one hundred I force myself to stay awake – I know you can fall asleep, your temperature can skyrocket and you can never wake up again. I also know fever will burn a lot of bacteria off. If I go over 103.5 I’ll try to get out of bed to find the aspirin I think I brought with me. Otherwise I’ll let it burn in the hope that this is some infection that will cook itself out.

You know your darkest moments when you get there and I am smack dab in the middle of one. A brief inventory: I am all alone in a hot, dark room with a rising fever, not holding down water. No one can come keep me company and my head is too swimmy to read but I can’t let myself fall asleep. It’s pretty likely that my kidneys are infected but I have no way of knowing for sure. There is one other person in this building that speaks my language and she has no idea what to do and is scared. I know what will help – ice, a cold shower, a doctor – but no access to any of it and no way to communicate with the people who might have it. I really want to leave but there is no place to go.

In short, I am mostly alone and pretty convinced that unless something changes I might actually either die this time or wind up seriously physically damaged.

I don’t remember what happens first – either the other volunteers get back or the volunteer that was with me gets a cell phone and calls RoseDanie. But somewhere between here and there people turn up. The other volunteers come in and say hello but they’re skittish about contagions, too. Eventually RoseDanie comes in and tells me they’ve called a doctor and she’s on the way.

It is about 8 PM at night. My fever’s been holding at 103.1 for a while.

The doctor is beautiful, young, smart and funny. She reminds me of my friend Magally in Nicaragua – in her mid twenties and all business. She trained in Cuba and speaks English, Creole and Spanish. She sits down on the bed and holds my hand and I’m so relieved I start crying. Are you scared? She asks me. No, I tell her. Well maybe a little. Mostly just frustrated. I’m used to being able to take care of myself. And I’ve just had to sit here all day.

Immediately she sets to checking blood pressure, calling a lab tech to come, taking samples. Malaria is rampant here but she doesn’t think that’s what it is. RoseDanie comes in and asks her if I’m contagious. It doesn’t matter if she is, the doctor tells her, you all would have been infected by now anyway. We need to deal with your dehydration and the fever, she tells me, then we can worry about everything else.

On the way out of Santo Domingo I picked up an arsenal of antibiotics. They were cheap, over the counter and I figured if someone got cut we would need them. The doctor picks through them. I have nothing for dehydration or parasites, two of her big concerns, but something that would handle a kidney infection which she’s pretty sure I have from the blood and the back pain. There are rehydration salts in the first aid kit and RoseDanie has an herbal remedy for nausea. She has me take the pills and then forces me to suck down water with the salts in them. The first try doesn’t work  – they come back up. Twenty minutes later we try again and they stay down.

The doctor goes out to try to find something for the fever and some antiparasiticals. The lab tech turns up – a small, shy woman who doesn’t speak English and totes a microscope. RoseDanie talks to someone at the church and they turn the generator on for a bit so she can look at the samples.

Before the doctor leaves she tells me to get out of the room. It’s too hot, she tells me, you’ve been alone in here too long. Go sit on the porch and get some air. You’re not going to make anyone else sick. I get out of bed, shaky and tired, pull on my long sleeve shirt and go out to watch the lab tech in the living room. I have to lean against the wall but she’s right – the air feels good. The rehydration salts helped, too.

Even still I know one thing: regardless of what shape I’m in tomorrow I’m getting the hell out of here. I have no illusions that I’ll be better but there are things I need to be able to do to feel like I’m taking care of myself that I cannot do here. I need my autonomy back. Even if that means walking away from the group a day before the end of the project, weak and on my own. I am getting out of here.

The lab tech pulls the slide off the microscope and pulls out her cell phone. Leukocyte, I hear her say.

Yup, my kidneys have hit the shitter again.

*Photo notes – none of them are actually from Haiti except the last one, the prescription list the doctor wrote for me. As for the irreverence of the photos, sometimes when things suck really badly all you can do is make fun of them.

Take Me To The River/Like A Unicorn, The Beer Turns Up

Daniele felt bad about what had transpired in the field – the crowd, the shouting, our unease. When we finished weeding and planting the rows he offered to walk us down to the river at the end of the path. It was very beautiful, he told us, we really should see it.

As getting down there meant going even deeper down the trail and away from the village I didn’t feel great about it and I think some of the other volunteers were uncomfortable, too. But it would have been rude to refuse so we packed up our tools and bags and headed away from the houses and down the well-worn footpath through the jungle. It was pretty. A lot of people had either staked out their livestock or were letting them run loose back there. There were a fair amount of skinny horses tied out, most without water. Some of the other volunteers pointed out their backs. Like Nicaraguan ferreteria* horses they had huge, open harness sores. Some had them on their noses as well, probably from the same chain bridles. In defense of the Haitian horseowners these ones at least had their gear removed and were being allowed to graze, albeit hobbled in one spot.

I am not a horse person – I know Dr. Tom handles saddles sores and I’ve watched him do it but I’ve never messed with one. All I’ve ever done is draw up the meds that they use. Thus again I feel completely impotent. It also occurs to me that the other volunteers might be expecting me to do something for these poor beasts. But while I could Macgyver a linty aspirin out of a day pack for a burnt dog, I have nothing for a horse. Not even enough horse sense to keep myself from getting kicked in the head if I decided to try to take a closer look, which I won’t.

The path is reasonably crowded with people coming and going, some bearing laundry or herding cattle. While it’s better populated than the field was I still feel hyper aware of everything going on around me. It’s a nice day for a hike but truth be told I’d much rather be headed back towards the village, to the church with its masses of people everywhere. I’m still shook up. In small groups some of the volunteers speak in hushed voices about what happened but we don’t have a big conversation about it. The consensus was everyone felt jarred or unsafe because of it and we need to sit down tonight with the whole group and have a conversation about making sure it doesn’t happen again, make sure all of our concerns about communication and safety are being handled.

When we finally get to the river it is pretty – wide, shallow with lush green hills on the far side. Kids are splashing around, some naked, bathing and playing. Some folks are doing laundry. About a hundred yards upstream there’s a bulldozer. I don’t ask what it’s there for. I stand a bit apart from the rest of the group on the rocky banks, have a cigarette and feel disconcerted and tired. I don’t think I’m alone because no one goes in the water and within a few minutes everyone is ready go.

We thank Daniele for bring us down here and start back up the path. We pass a friendly older man with a walking stick, an older teenager herding a well-fed cow. Someone asks what it’s name is and he looks at us like we’re insane. It’s name, he tells us, is Cow.

By the time we get back to the church everyone seems tired and drained. I take a bowl-of-water shower and try to get the grit out of my hair. Some of the other girls clean up as well. We’re all sitting on the porch when Daniele, who had parted ways from us when we got to the village, turns up clutching a paper bag.

Beer. Seven brown squat glass bottles of Prestige, the Haitian beer. It’s not cold – in fact it’s kind of hot. There’s a hunt for ice and someone finds some half melted in a cooler. The beer is shoved in there. Everyone’s mood changes with the arrival of the beer. A little bit of home comes back. Normalcy. Work in the garden, have a beer. Nevermind what happened in the field. Nevermind that there are seven of us and only seven small bottles. Never mind that I don’t like beer. We are now just a group of folks sitting on a porch after working outside about to have a beer.

I’m pretty sure the church folk wouldn’t fly with this but no one says anything.

Cooling the beer lasts about ten minutes. Which means it’s not really cool at all but the anticipation factor is so high that people start cracking the bottles open. I take a sip and it tastes like…..warm watery beer. I offer to split mine with the Occasional Smoker so there’s more to go around.

By the time RoseDanie turns up and claims one everyone has mellowed out. The field incident is mentioned but everyone seems to have lost the courage of their convictions in regards to what happened. I forget exactly what she said but the general take on it was yeah, it was scary but nothing happened and we shouldn’t have been handing out the toys. We talk about another project tomorrow – going up the mountain to work on the same school they had been at the day I arrived.

I excuse myself to go read. I’m not really functioning at top speed – my skin feels a little warm and I’m queasy. This doesn’t really concern me – a mild sunburn will make you feel warm. I am Queen Central American Iron Gut. It’s a point of pride that I have never had Montezuma’s Revenge, Delhi Belly or anything else. I’m sure it’s just from being a bit dehydrated and maybe the beer.

Until the next morning when I wake up dizzy and exhausted, my skin burning and really, really needing to puke.

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