AIRMAIL - AMERICAN LANDSCAPER:
From Hispaniola - In Search of Dr. Paul Farmer
Skeleton of a Spanish Conquistador - Photo by Peter Soderman
Before the Hollywood centrifuge of Facebook philanthropy stopped spinning and Sean Penn took the microphone from Anderson Cooper, I too gathered my lance and shield. Like a plate tectonic Don Quixote, I headed for Haiti.
Flannery O’Connor was right. Everything that rises must converge. Whether it’s a geothermic slide that crushes people into concrete in a third world country or an explosion on a derrick that punches a hole in the earth at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, things come up from way down under.
And so, last February I landed in a resort hotel in the Dominican Republic to wait for an email from Partners in Health in Boston. I was unappointed, unheralded, uninvited and unsummoned, but I mounted my steed, anyway, to lend the Haitians a New Jersey Blue Collar helping hand.
Instead, I remained chained to the judgment throne of a plastic chair beside the hotel's swimming pool. For one week, I watched people sheathed in sun tan petroleum float across the pool. While corpulent vacationers soaked in a hot tub of uncaring humanity, I thought about the man I’d met two years earlier, a man the Haitians and the International Medical establishment called Dokte Paul or just Doctor Paul Farmer, the man who would cure the world, and a character whom I’d met two years before at a restaurant in Princeton called Mediterra.
He sat alone at the bar writing his baccalaureate speech for Princeton University's graduation ceremony, which would take place the following morning and asked me to help him. I didn't know who he was, but understood that he was a man used to squeezing resources from strangers who were unqualified to give them. I wasn’t the cable guy or the restaurant manager, but the plant dude doing the night watering.
He needed funny one liners for the baccalaureate, and I had them since I aspire to be the Wendell Berry of organic one liners.
Then Farmer said, “What can I do about the horti-torture I commit on the plants at my house in Haiti and at my hospital in Rwanda?”
“Water them, dude," I replied. "Then bring in Martha Stewart on a Smith and Hawken Jihad with a weed whacker and some Miracle Grow."
He was half in the bag, tired and exuberant, still resonating high on a life lived with real results while embracing chaos. He talked about something Americans never hear about, which was tuberculosis. He was mercurial, ambulatory and with good reason, shared with me the triumphs of his brother’s career as Super J, a professional wrestler.
“That’s right," he said. "My brother was in a tag team match with Hulk Hogan and kicked Lex Luger’s ass. Put him out in the scorpion hold and he was finished. The final smack down.”
I told Dr. Farmer that the wrestler, Lex Luger, was a friend of mine and if anyone could have actually smacked him down, then wrestling had to be fake.
We talked for another hour and he described to me the philosophy by which he lived his life, the same one that Tracy Kidder described so well in his book Mountains Beyond Mountains: “Little sleep, no investment portfolio, and no family around, or any hot water. If you’re making sacrifices, unless you are automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you are trying to lessen someone’s pain. If I chose to take the steps to be a doctor for those that don’t have medical care, it could be regarded as sacrifice, but it could also be a way to deal with ambivalence…”
He walked off into the night and although we sent emails back and forth for one year, (We sometimes discussed the spiritual plight of Lex Luger, the wrestler who is now in a wheel chair.) I never saw Farmer again.
Photo by Peter Soderman
Back at the pool, my wide angle ire returned to the Aquatically Emerged, a politically correct term for those who love warm bathwater, but can’t really swim. And although I had no justification for judging anyone, I did anyway.
A man and a woman bobbed in front of me. They were very close to each other but still kept yelling. The man held a cell phone in one hand and a beer in the other. While yelling at his girlfriend, he stood in the shallow end smelling his chlorinated armpits to see if chlorine really killed bacteria, and then made sure to Twitter his Twit-worthy observation...
I sat in my plastic chair, getting splashed again, and continued to muse on the life of Doctor Farmer. I thought about the world’s clinical cases of true compassion and pontificated to no one in particular on public morality, social charity, and what it meant in the grand scheme of human history to be a bodhisattva without a web cam and a web page or a Facebook bragalogue to tell the whole planet about it.
While dipping her toes in the shallow end of the pool, another woman smoked and texted. Then, she perched her cigarette on the edge of her ashtray and dove in to meet her boyfriend. Like two homesick seahorses, they descended underwater reemerging to hawk up mutual phlegm loogies. She reached for the ashtray and pushed it across the water in her boyfriend's direction. The ashtray floated like a Marlboro boat captained by a lit Ulysses with the migrational conviction of a sockeye salmon.
Said boyfriend grabbed the smoldering cigarette and dumped the entire ashtray into the water by the skimmer.
It wasn't lost on me that the word Conspire in Latin means, "To breathe together."
There also were Carnival Cruisetations everywhere, lounging, eating, yelling and floating.
I thought about the Creole word, for hungry, Grangou, called out by children and the elderly in Haiti; an image painted in Farmer’s book, Mountains beyond Mountains, describing a bone thin man riding a starving donkey and a young patient of Farmer’s crying out in pain from hunger among other wounds.
And those Cougar Tours from America, where older woman scale the gang plank and pay money to cubnap younger men. (They refer to them as cubs.) They chase these young studs around the deck of the Love Boat for however long it takes to shag them. Maybe these were just luckier people from developed countries on vacation in spandex outfits.
But then I thought again, "No, this is wrong.”
Just beyond the hills and to the west were the traumatized Creoles, the ones who Dr. Farmer called the “Hosed of the hosed, the shafted of the shafted” crying from underneath a pile of rubble.
Few people know much about Haitian history. It’s a post sugar cane, Friday the 13th syncretic tale of divergent theodicies moving in pin-cushion Voodoo slow motion. But here is a gliimpse: In the early 1700s Spain and France divided the island of Hispanola with the western third, Haiti, going to France. Thousands of African slaves were imported to work the newly-planted sugar cane fields. In 1804, the Africans revolted and created the first black republic. But, the landmass to the north, the United States still condoned slavery and essentially shunned Haiti from world trade. Today, there is no formal healthcare system in Haiti and nearly all food is imported.
I thought again about the cubs and their cougars setting sail across the Caribbean and that was the end of it. I could not sit or lie here any longer or indulge myself by forming more of an attitude about strangers as they headed back to the bar and to the All You Can Binge and Purge Buffet at Glutageddon.
In my left hand was a copy of Felipe Fernandop-Armesto's 1492 and in my right a copy of the Tracy Kidder's aforementioned book about Farmer, who, well-schooled in the ways of obscurity works without a George Clooney, Sting, or Bono attaché. Doctor Paul was just over the mountains saving lives like a welder on a triage Titanic.
I rented a car, left the resort and drove to the place where the angst of the Occident began, landfall for the first Spanish Explorers.
There was a dead conquistador in a box in the sand and a hive of Africanized bees just above in a Noni tree. Inside the grove shallow malaria graves of unknown Spaniards, half a millennium dead, lay by a pile of neatly stacked terra cotta tiles, remnants from the first European dwelling.
I never made it into Haiti or got my email from Partners in Health, but I still took the Che Guevara Motorcycle Diaries ride on a muddy road through the mountains of the Dominican Republic.
At the border, I asked the guard what my chances were of crossing over into Haiti and he said, “Bad. They definitely will hack you.”
I peeled off like Steve McQueen in the movie the Great Escape and drove on through the rain. Ahead, there was a family of ten Haitian refugees standing under a gas station awning trying to dry off. The gas station was out of fuel, but one of them, a young woman, tried to sell her wares, a single mango, which looked like it would not be selling any time soon.
I did not photograph them.
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