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.

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.