Capital Catharsis

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It´s the Itchy & Scratchy Show over here in Haiti. Everyone is itching. Moments ago I was talking to a nurse outside my tent when she bent down to rub her jeans around her shin; earlier, a doctor scratched at his neck while we discussed a prognosis. Tell tale signs. All day long I catch Haitian women slapping their braided heads, trying to alleviate the ubiquitous itch without an actual scratch. I too, am itching. This is par for my traveling course: scabies in San Francisco, an unidentifiable jungle funk that lasted 100 times longer than the five day trek to El Mirador, and a nasty something or other contracted in a chozo on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. What can I say? The bichos like me.

Scabies is epidemic in most post-quake scenarios and I’m half convinced I’ve got them (again). It sucks, applying the toxic lotion from head to toe and washing all your clothes and bedding – especially when there’s no running water. But I can’t resist hugging all those beautiful, wide eyed kids who are facing scabies and starvation and nowhere to shit. They need hugs, deserve them.

To be honest, the scene here is depressing and some days even all those smiling, jigging kids can’t help me shake it. The stench of shit, piss, and garbage (I hate to beat that drum again, but it surrounds us) is constant. Unavoidable, this olfactory assault, and the visuals aren’t much better: by day, little boys and muscle-bound men lather up buck naked in the street while US soldiers look on through dark shades, desultory machine guns slung by their side; by night, young girls sleep in doorways hunched beneath pink blankets.

It´s fair to say that every last person in Port-au-Prince today is sleep deprived. There is so much to keep us awake at night – the impending rains, the homeless families, the mothers with AIDS, TB, anemia, and scabies – but it is the terrible, horrific tales of rape that terrorize my waking moments. What protection can a single mother in an overcrowded, pestilent refugee camp provide her teenage daughter from the men who enter in the predawn to beat and rape innocent human beings? None, it seems. As I said – depressing.

The Haitian people are an extraordinarily religious bunch and I´m not talking voudou (although there´s that too and I´ve been promised a visit – you´ll be sure to read about it here if/when it happens). These are hard core Christians and ´Jesus saves´ is plastered on every ticky tacky tap tap in the city. ´Our savior shall return´ and ´placing my faith in God’ are also popular slogans painted on everything from barber shops to gas tanks. The other day I saw a wooden plaque that in my rusty French I took to mean ‘Jesus is the chef of this house.’ A Haitian friend pointed out that my high school French was indeed lacking; what the sign actually said was ‘Jesus is the boss of this house.’ Sundays are church days when everything grinds to a halt (much to the dismay of the Cuban doctors: this is their only day off and given their druthers, they would spend sun up to sun down shopping). There are so many things that don’t square in Haiti, the (professed) faithfulness to god and the prevalence of domestic/gender-based violence being just one.

The rubble, of course, remains. There are some motions being made to clear it – in buildings prioritized by the US high command or their private subcontractors (one never can tell) and by men salvaging rebar. De facto as these efforts may be, it’s more than is happening on any formal level. It’s part of the permanent landscape it seems, these piles of pulverized rocks and crumbled facades. We – Haitians, Cubans, internationalistas – just step around and over and through it every day, on every street. This capacity to ignore and move on and around puts me in mind of two anecdotes, one old, one new, from two worlds away.

The first is my mom’s archetypical tale of when my father, (long ago, for they’ve been happily divorced now for over 25 years), broke a glass in the dining room. Rather than go for a broom, he draped a piece of newspaper over the mess. My mom discovered this act of maturity by stepping on the newspaper and slashing open her foot. Divorce? You betcha.

The second is a contemporary story told to me by an Argentine doctor friend of mine trained at Havana’s Latin American Medical School. As happens in Cuba, motors break and systems fail, meaning we sometimes have to go without running water. There’s usually water to be found somewhere, and although it has to be hand carried (up several flights of stairs usually) it is available. One fine day, the motor that brings the water up to the dorm’s tanks and into the pipes burnt out. No water, for how long no one knew. Instead of hauling up the liquid gold to bucket flush the toilet, the students (male ones I hope and assume) began laying one square of newspaper after another over the pile of shit they’d deposited in the dry bowl. Eventually, obviously, the stack drew dangerously close to the rim. This is where I stopped my friend in his telling, but I have to wonder, why do men have such a penchant for covering the ugliness of life with newspapers?

[For the positive things happening in Haiti, visit my posts at]

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