Thursday, April 4, 2013

Home Visits

One of my favorite days in Haiti was the day I volunteered to go out as part of a team on home visits.  This is where one of our clinic docs would take a few of us and, with a Haitian guide/interpreter, would travel out into the mountains to visit people who were too sick to get to the clinic.

Talk about humbling.

We visited four home in the course of an afternoon.   Each home was located progressively further from the clinic, and they were all at least two miles apart from each other.  And they each required a major hike to get to.  I can't begin to describe the steepness and the roughness of the trail.  Keep in mind that a major hurricane had hit the area just the week before we were there.  The trails, which were not much to begin with, had been washed away in the storm, making them extremely difficult to navigate.  Some parts of them you just had to grab on to roots, grasses, rocks, branches- whatever you could find to assist in dragging you up that mountain.

After what seemed like an eternal hike, we reached the first home.  It was a tiny shack in the middle of a clearing of tall trees, in the middle of nowhere.  An 86 year old woman lived there alone with a few chickens and a nephew who visited her once in a while and tried his best to keep an eye on her.  She was so tiny and frail, and when we looked inside her dark little house, I could not believe that people in the 21st century still lived like she was living.  She had nothing.  Of course there was no electricity and  no running water.  Dirt floor.   That is all standard fair for the area we were in.  But she had no furniture.  She slept on a pile of blankets on the dirt. The front of her house was divided into two sections- one was a small area she had set up as a bed, and the other side was her storage area where she had some beans and rice stored.  In the back of the house was a little cooking area- a place for a fire and a few cooking utensils.   The whole structure was maybe 6x12 at the very biggest.

We took her blood pressure and gave her some ibuprofen for her arthritis pain.  The doctor asked how she was doing and she said something to the effect of she did not feel like she was important enough to have the American doctor come to see her.  We asked if she needed anything else, and she replied in her Haitian creole, "only God can help me now".  We gave her some new crocs to wear, which she was slightly embarrassed and very pleased about, and left her there.  I won't ever forget walking away from that place, that ancient little lady sitting in her chair, just outside her little shack in the middle of the mountains of Haiti, with her brand new pink crocs on her feet and a week's supply of ibuprofen in her hands.

We were only a few feet away from her house when we came across a big tree that  had been uprooted and come crashing down on several other trees that had been surrounding it.  Esai, our Haitian guide, told us that it was the hurricane from last week that had uprooted that tree.   Upon hearing that, we turned around and took one last look at that little lady and her fragile, rickety little shack.  How in the world had that shack stood up to the winds of the hurricane when that big tree had fallen?  How in the world had that little lady sat inside her house while the wind blew and the rain fell, and come out alive?

Esai, who would turn out to be my hero, told us it was only a short walk to the next house.  Take my word for it: a Haitian's idea of a short walk and an American's idea of a short walk are two very different things.  It was again, at least a 2 mile up hill hike, up very rough rocky terrain.  When we made it there, we could tell immediately that this was a much more prosperous family than the first lady.  The first thing we saw was an older gentlemen threshing his beans.  I think that is what they call it.  He had a big pile of bean plants that he had gathered up onto a tarp and he was beating the plants with a stick to knock the beans off.  Every once in a while he would stop and gather up every single bean that had fallen  off the tarp.  As we moved a little closer in, he smiled wide and posed for our pictures.

 He was proud of his work and his home, and he had good reason to be proud.He had a nicer, airier home, although still little more than a shack.  Inside of the home, we could see several pieces of heavy, ornately carved wooden furniture.  It was beautiful. There was a bed with a huge carved headboard, and a buffet type thing with some beautiful china in it.  I wondered who had carried that heavy furniture up the mountain, and how they had done it.   This family also had a little garden, a green house and a cat. At the back of the house was another tiny dark little house.  Inside the house was  a young woman who was nine months pregnant. She was sitting in the dark, over an open fire, cooking a meal.  She said she spent most of her day in there cooking. Haiti is hot and humid.  I can't imagine the misery of sitting on a hard little stool all day, in heat and the dark, with the fire going, AND being nine months pregnant.

The doctor measured the carbon dioxide levels in the house, which not surprisingly were waaay too high to be safe,  and encouraged her to get out and take breaks as often as she could. He wished her well with the birth of her baby.  And we were on our way again.

The next part of the hike was absolutely excruciating.  The longest part so far.  Up, up, up to the very top of the mountain.  We stopped to take pictures of the amazing views of the valley.

Those mountains?  Yes. We climbed them.

Then down through more rocks, around and around, then up again. We met an old man on the way who called me Blanca.  We finally got to the river we had to cross only to be told by a young girl there that it was too dangerous to cross, and we had to walk further down.  She stopped what she was doing, and led us on our way.  It was at least a 30 minute walk down the river to where it was safer.  She saw us all safely across the water, holding out her hand to us as we crossed,  then showed us the way back to the trail.  We thanked her and then she started back the way she had led us, to resume whatever it was she had been doing

We hiked up yet another muddy mountain, grabbing at roots and rock and whatever else we could find to help haul ourselves up.   I would not have made it without Esai, who pretty much pushed and pulled me up to the top.  And at the next stop we were greeted by a huge turkey and a darling little boy.  The turkey was making all kinds of noise. The little boy was silent.

Inside this house was the little boy's mom, dad and little sister.  At first I thought the dad must be the grandpa, because he looked so old.  I would have guessed him to be in his 70's but then he told us he was only 46.  He had such bad back pain he couldn't get out of bed. I have no idea how this little family made it's living.  They all got new crocs, and we were on our way again.  I bet that turkey has since been served as dinner.

Stop number three was actually not too far up the hill from the last place.  These little kiddos lived at this home, and they had been to the clinic the day before.  They were STINKERS, especially that little boy.

 Their dad climbed up the hill with his machete and cut a bunch of sugar cane for us to take back with us.  Like five foot long stalks of sugar cane.  He was surprised and very happy that we wanted to take some of it.  He really, really wanted to give us something in appreciation for visiting his home.

The next stop was the only time I every saw a fat Haitian. That's him at the bottom of this picture.  Not bad for a beans and rice diet, eh? These guys  were building a tomb for their grandparents, about 25 feet from the family home.  The custom in Haiti seems to be to bury your relatives close by your home, in a cement tomb.  I guess they figured Grandpa was getting close, and it was time to start construction.   I am still puzzling about how they got all those bags of cement and sand up that infernal mountain.

This is not the greatest picture of their home, but this is the courtyard area between the two houses where this family lives.  The guy in the orange shirt is our doctor.  Just beyond where he is sitting is a CLIFF.  There were four or five little kids running back and forth along that edge the whole time we were there.  I was sure one of them was going to topple right off.  Nobody else seemed to think anything of it.  Crazy Haitians.

We hiked at least six or seven  miles that day.  We basically just made a giant circle, over and down one mountain then over and down another and then back to the clinic.By the time we got back, I was as bushed as I have ever been in my entire life.   On our way back, the trail got extremely narrow and rocky and at certain points we were walking through mud and water along the edge of some pretty steep places.  Slightly treacherous, especially as tired as we were.  We were getting close to the end when we met an old man who was on his way back home after visiting the clinic. And I kid you not, he was barefoot and blind.   I know, it sounds like something out of a movie, but it's true. He had walked probably two or three miles through the mountains by himself to see a doctor.   We asked our guide if the old man needed help getting  home, but he said no, he would be fine, he knew the way.  What about the rocks, I thought.  What about the water?  What about the EDGE?   I was barely making it through that trail, and I was 40 years younger, and had shoes AND sight.

That's Haiti for you. They run up mountains barefoot in the dark and think nothing of it.  They chop down sugar cane for you as a parting gift. They send their kids out the door at five in the morning for a four hour walk to school. They will gladly take an hour or longer out of their day to show a bunch of strangers around a mountain.  They are amazing.

 Many of them will also steal your money and your shoes the first chance they get, but that is a story for another day.

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