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Sept. 13, 2003

Reporter's NOTEBOOK
An infant suffering from severe malnutrition stares listlessly at the fingertip of its aunt, as it is hospitalized at St Boniface Hospital. 13 mos old Dolph Descolline went from 4.2 to 5.2 kilos in a one week stay at the hospital.

Monday, Aug. 25

rom the air, Haiti is a mass of brown. Tiny shacks cling to rocky hillsides.

As far as you can see, the country is a series of peaks, one after the next.

Kathy Comito, the administrator of St. Boniface Hospital in Fond des Blancs, likes to quote an old Haitian saying: “Behind every mountain is another mountain.”

It refers to the country’s topography, but it also means that behind every problem another problem waits.

From the moment you step off the plane, Port-au-Prince is an assault on your senses.

The air inside the airport feels heavy and smells of sweat.

The women’s bathroom is hidden behind a maze of construction. A woman leads you there, through a closed door and passed two construction workers not doing much of anything.

The bathroom floor is sticky and wet. When you turn on the faucet nothing comes out.

--- --- ---

he drive through Port-au-Prince is slow, full of starts and stops.

A group of Haitian children stare when a car with four white Americans drives by. One starts yelling “blancs.” The others chime in.

Nannette Canniff, a Randolph woman who has traveled this route dozens of times before, explains that the word literally means white, but Haitians use it to refer to all foreigners. Black Americans traveling with her in the past have been called “blancs,” too.

You stare out the window, trying to take it all in, but there’s just too much to see. Buses and trucks painted in psychedelic colors are everywhere. Each has a message painted across the front, like “Merci Jesus.”

“Tap-taps” are the closest Haiti comes to public transportation. Twenty people squeeze onto wooden benches that don’t look long enough to seat 10. Some men hang off the back.

“Rivers” of muddy brown water and sewage flow between buildings. A pile of trash on the street stands at least 2 feet tall. Stuck in the middle of such a scene is a cyber cafe.
St. Boniface Hospital is less than 70 miles from Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, but the journey can take more than five hours by car.

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he road opens up outside Port-au-Prince, but the pavement is dotted with potholes 3 feet wide and a half-foot deep.

Cars are supposed to drive on the right side of the road, but drivers instead swerve back and forth in a constant attempt to preserve tires and shocks. It feels almost like a video game. Except more dangerous.

You stop in a village and the driver, Jean David Edume, disappears to buy cold drinks.

As you sit waiting, several women approach with metal trays of what looks to be miniature hot dogs balanced on their heads. Everywhere in Haiti, women and even children carry baskets, jars, bottles and bales on their heads. It is as if the laws of gravity don’t apply in Haiti.

Edume returns with Cokes, in old-fashioned glass bottles. There are no straws, so he wipes the spout of each with a tissue to clear away any lingering germs.

You can’t take the bottles with you in Haiti, so you gulp the soda before getting back on the road.

--- --- ---

ore than four hours after leaving the airport, the car turns onto a dirt road that slices through Fond des Blancs, where you’ll be staying.

Like in Port-au-Prince, poverty is everywhere, but it seems softer here.

Men with old faces wield 3-foot long machetes. One man, sweat beaming from his face in the afternoon sun, hacks away at a tree. He stops to rest occasionally, then resumes his work. Finally, the tree falls.

Here there are women balancing heavy buckets of drinking water on their heads. Father Gerald Osterman, a Catholic priest who has been visiting Haiti for 20 years, says some walk as far as two miles to reach a well with water safe enough to drink.

He and Canniff reach out the window, wave and wish “bon soir” to everyone who passes by. People look up, smile and wave back. Soon, you’re waving, too.

Edume leans on the horn as the road follows the tight turns of the mountain. The road is not wide enough for another car to pass. It doesn’t matter, though. You’re more likely to encounter a donkey that anything that runs on gas.

Later, Edume, the driver, eases the sports-utility vehicle into a river nearly 3 feet deep and jokes that you’ll have to push if he gets stuck. Trickles of muddy water seep in through the doors. That night, you notice your ankles are tinted yellow.

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The car pulls up to a gate at St. Boniface Hospital. A security guard slides the barrier open, revealing a simple concrete building.

You climb the stairs to a residence above the hospital where you’ll be staying. It’s clean and modern, with tile floors and bright white walls.

After a dinner of rice and beans, a woman knocks on the door. She explains that she wants to make sweet potato bread for one of the doctors. She has the ingredients, but no where to bake. The hospital has one of the few ovens in the entire area.

Later that night, a cacophony of sounds fills the air. Donkeys bray and chickens cluck. Dogs howl in response. Mixed in with the noises is the sound of a crying baby in the hospital.

Karen Eschbacher may be reached at keschbacher@ledger.com


Stories by
Karen Eschbacher
Photos by
Gary Higgins

The Patriot Ledger

Matters of Life and Death: A Punishing Poverty

Matters of Life and Death: A Road Too Long

Timeline of Help

Links to the South Shore of Masschusetts: How People Here are Helping

Faces of Haiti: Profile of Haitian Dr. Jean Baptiste

Reporter's Notebook

Numbers That Count: Health Care

Small map of Haiti (90KB)

Large map of Haiti (100KB)

Photos from Haiti (541KB)

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