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.

Everything Looks Brighter With Caffeine & Flushable Toilets

A few days in and as wonderful as everyone is I need two things: to wander around and some caffeine. Haiti, oddly enough, seems to have almost no vices. I haven’t seen anyone selling cigarettes, booze or coffee but then again I haven’t been out much. As it is I’m rationing cigarettes. Smoking seems taboo here.  Obviously I can’t smoke on church grounds when there’s something church-y going on and there is almost always something church-y going on. When I go stand in the alley between the church and the market to smoke I attract an audience, people staring at me suspiciously. One of the other women, an occasional smoker, comes out with me once and noticing the gawkers agrees that this is uncomfortable.

One morning, in a lull between breakfast and the day’s project, I announce that I’m going out to look for coffee. Never mind that we never go out just to hang out or buy anything – my addictions are pinging like pinballs and if I have to dole out my nicotine I am going to find some caffeine. The occasional smoker wants to come, too,  and she speaks a bit of Creole. Nobody tries to stop us but no one comes with us, either. We never go out without the whole group so I feel like I’m doing something vaguely verboten or un-team-ish. But it’s gotten to the point where I’m remembering the nasty innkeeper in Santo Domingo with misty eyes and a warm heart due to her coffee maker. It’s time to deal with this before my whole world perspective gets completely screwed.

Coffee or bust.

We cut through the dirt road that runs next to the church and head out for the main road. I’m cognizant of the stares. There’s something very uncomfortable about Haiti, more uncomfortable than any place I’ve been in the past. I’m used to being in countries where I’m the only white person on the bus but I’m not used to the suspicion and almost hostility I feel here. It’s hard to say whether or not it’d be worse if people would actually say something as a few days here hasn’t improved my lack of Creole.

On the main road we find ourselves coffee-less. Both of us are a little too intimidated to try any of the little shops and pretty much everything is sold via street vendors anyway. A few hundred yards down the road we find someone selling bottles of Coke. Coke has caffeine. Good enough. And the Coke here is made with sugar, not corn syrup, so it tastes better, sweeter, than American Coke. Or maybe it’s just my lack of perspective rearing its ugly head. But like Cap Haitian, it’s sold in refundable glass bottles which no one will let you walk off with. We have to drink them standing next to the road, in front of the stand with the attendant audience, and then hand our empty bottles back.

Kind of screwed the idea of relaxing, smoking a cigarette and firing up the caffeine receptors but it’s still nice to be out.

When we get back the plan is that the group with go to the local museum together and then go work on a garden plot on a path outside the village. We head off for the museum carrying shovels and tools. On the way out the Mexican volunteer, a twenty-one year old guy with tattoos and a good sense of humor, brings up how nice it would be to have a beer after we get done.* The idea spreads through the group like wildfire. I don’t even like beer but I’m struck with the novelty of it. A BEER. In Haiti. Beer. It’s like wanting to ride a unicorn. I want a beer, too. The incredibly kind gentleman whose garden plot we’ll be working on thinks he can find some but he’s not sure. Everyone starts pulling out cash for the Post-Work-Beer Fund. I’m the only one with gouts so everyone gives me American money and I empty my pockets and hand them to him. Go forth and find us beer.

The museum is by and large the nicest looking building, after the church, that I’ve seen in Limbe. It’s on a huge fenced lot and the grounds are devoid of litter. There’s a little pool in front, sort of brackish and with an unworking fountain, but nice. Someone puts a lot of work into caring for the grounds and it shows. Like the old houses in Cap Haitian you can look at the pretty circular building and almost see what the country used to be like.  The inside is tiny but the history displays are in English and Creole and there’s some paintings of the slave revolution. It’s nice. I’m a geek. I like museums. There’s also an old masthead from a colonial vessel that makes me swoon. I’m a maritime history geek. I love shit like this.

And I’m an indoor plumbing geek, too. There is a bathroom. With a flush toilet and toilet paper and a sink that runs. I spy it while doing the circuit of displays and am intrigued. When I ask to use it the museum keeper shrugs. Wow. Even in a lot of places in Nicaragua they get whiffy about you using the bathroom without at least paying for the toilet paper and this Haitian guy is being completely nonchalant about it. Wow. I don’t even have to pee but it’d be a sin not to.

What a good morning. Caffeine. Museum. Old masthead. An American style bathroom experience.

After the museum we head out to the garden plot. We go back through town, down a dirt path by some homes and then into what seems to be mostly jungle with a few houses around. The garden plot is beautiful – in the middle of all these trees with raised beds already there, just covered in weeds. It’s also huge, probably half an acre. Immediately everyone else swings into planning mode while I stand around and wait to be told what to do. It’s our group, a couple of kids that are related to RoseDanie, the guy who owns the plot and his elderly father. The kids, pre-teen boys, are  sweet, polite and pain-in-the-assy. They have to be goaded to do anything and if you turn around for a second they go sit down or screw off. I get the feeling their parents or RoseDanie put them up to it and they act like kids who hate their chores anywhere in the world.  Even still it annoys the shit out of the volunteers, particularly the men who are constantly barking at them to go fucking do something. The elderly dad is a workhorse. I never hear him say anything the whole time we’re there but he picks a distant corner, starts clearing weeds and digging up roots and never stops. He works his ass off in the heat.

The path the plot is off of is well-travelled – it leads past the houses and down to a river. Within a little while we’ve attracted a crowd – a lot of older kids and some women who gather by the edge of the field to watch. Some of the kids start to help us. I gain a helper, a little boy about eight years old who picks a spot next to me to clear weeds and constantly taps me on my soil-covered arm and says ‘bella’ – beautiful – to me. I love him. I keep telling him he’s guapo – handsome in Spanish.

At one point I go over by the fence line, behind the palm trees, to have a cigarette and get in the shade for a second.  Sunblock be damned I’m cultivating a lovely back-sunburn. It’s cool and darker in the trees. I stand there smoking a cigarette and watching everyone work and everything seems bucolic for a second. This is what we’re here to do. It’s getting done. The work is hard and tiring and I like it. I’m halfway through my moment of contentment when something rustles a few feet away. In the undergrowth, shaded by a baby banana tree there’s a dog – an older puppy really – lying in the dirt frantically licking himself.

I get closer to him to see what he’s so frantically licking and he startles. He doesn’t get up but he stares at me with those I’m-about-to-bolt eyes. He’s a typical street dog – too skinny with short tan and white fur and prick ears. On his back is a burn of some sort, chemical or hot water maybe. It’s not huge but big enough. Looking at him I see the remnants of other burns, healed, on his back legs.  The fresh burn will probably heal but it’s weeping and is undoubtedly painful. It’d be an easy thing to treat – clean it out, give him some antibiotics, maybe something for the pain – but I have nothing to help him and I doubt he’d even let me close enough to try.

I’m sorry, I say. I’m really sorry.

There’s nothing I can do to fix this country but I could probably fix this if I had anything. Or at least make it marginally better.

He looks at me with his apprehensive eyes and goes back to his licking. About an hour later I go to check on him brandishing an aspirin I found in my day pack wrapped in part of a Clif Bar. He’s gone. There’s a faint bloody smear on the banana leaves he was sitting under. The aspirin wouldn’t have fixed a damn thing but it might have made it hurt less.

* T., the Mexican volunteer, was another Evergreen person but as he’s of Mexican descent and is living in Mexico, I refer to him as ‘the Mexican volunteer’. Oddly enough I never spoke Spanish with him. I don’t know if he grew up in the US or what but he spoke English like it was his first language, with no accent. I did hear him speak Spanish a few times but I always spoke English with him. I am unsure how he felt about my brain’s default slide into Spanish when confronted with Creole speakers.

Photos: Stolen cartoons. Funny 1950’s photos of dancing vices. I’m actually NOT an alcoholic but when the website  with dancing  cigarettes also had dancing bottles I couldn’t say no. Limbe museum. My sunburn, photo only inserted because I needed a picture to put in there for symmetry.