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.

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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.