March 18, 2010

Sabaneta Stories 5

Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!" -- gospel of Matthew

The Dominican is like many other places in this world, including our own, in this respect: If you want to see the whole picture of life here, get off the main roads and get out of your car.  Highways have a way of making people and places move by too quickly for real connection, and sealed-up vans provide too much insulation and false-comfort for learning the land. (If nothing else, roll the windows down as you roll along. Smell the smells. Connect.)

But nothing beats walking. When you walk (in groups, of course), you have to make contact with the world around you.

A pastor here says, "Every year I pray a small prayer to God that I could get a big SUV like those American missionaries have over across the mountain. But God keeps saying to me, "No, you are the walking man." And we should be a walking people. It is important, and Chritian, to look a person in the eyes. To see them, and to be seen. Each "hola" and "adios" and, even better, "Como esta?" is an enfleshed moment, a human encounter. And so one must walk around here, and move off the main drags ... even off of Cancu's otherwise terrifically hospitalable street. His is a great street, but it is only one corner of life here.

We walk with a guide, a friend to many, and we see things that are hard to see.  Move off the highway, and with each block further away from the Sabaneta church building the life-issues move from the long-range future-vision of Cancu down to yearly, then eventually weekly survival.  Three of our men and three of their sons stand in a 8 by 8 ramshackle tin shed. Holes in the roof and the hot sun above form minature Hollywood spotlights shining down to the floor, a plane cracked and broken. Half dirt, half concrete.  "Seven people were sleeping here when we came through with our medical mission," our guide tells us. "You can throw all the pills you want at people, but if they are sleeping in the mud and bugs in a place like this they are never going to feel better." Standing there, smelling there, that makes sense.

The side roads here are craggy and hard ... until it rains (which is often), and then they become rivers of mud and slop. A few houses are bright with paint and promimse, but most are in various stages of masonary construction, if that.  In one section there is a quarter mile stretch of concrete curbing along the road, but no pavement to meet it.  Curbing, on a lousy dirt road. We all ask about this. "Elections" is the response. Will the rest of it go down, the pavement? Who knows. Maybe in four years.

Turn the corner, and tucked into a row of otherwise dilapidated houses is a brightly painted, newly-built storefront. "Banco," reads the sign above the door. Inside is a counter, with plate glass, and a window.  The small space is air-conditioned (nothing here is air-conditioned), and behind the glass sits a pretty young Dominican with a low-cut top.  She has a computer to use.  "Banco."  But it is not a bank. It is the federal lottery, and these little shops are everywhere.  Understand: Next door to this financial institution is a two-room dirt-floor shack that rents for about 500 pesos a month, roughly 14 American dollars, plus utilities.  But, yes, certainly this neighborhood will be helped by the lottery.

Our friend Richard needs to check in on a particular side-street family. On Sunday, they brought twin babies into the world.  They are Hatians, though they have been here in Sabaneta since well before the earthquake. We duck down into the low doorframe and step into the small corrugated metal house they rent. It's dark inside, even in the middle of a hot afternoon. The one beam of sunlight slipping through the roof reveals the dust moving through the hot air. Mother's sister, a teenager, greets us gently. She has trouble looking us in the eyes, and it is hard to know if we (but not Richard) should be here or not. "Ma ma?" he asks.  We move into a side room, half as big, about the feel of something in which you would store your yard tools and mower. Mom is there, and on the corner of the high bed are two diminuative infants. That description would seem redundant, except that these are the smallest newborns I have ever seen.

Mom looks tired. Sister looks concerned. Babies lay there, motionless. "They are not eating," she tells Richard. 

It occurs to me that sweat is now pooling on my back, and I realize for the first time in a few minutes (attention having been fixed on the babies) that it must be 100 degrees in this room. The air is thick, like a sauna on too long, and on the top of my shaved head I can feel the heat radiating off of the metal roof.  This is a toaster oven. But then again, it is their home. My own shirt now wet with persperation, I notice that the twins are dressed head-to-toe in matching blue and pink infant jumpers. Their feet are in socks, and their heads are in little knit caps. Knit caps. Their heads are covered in knit caps ... in this oven. They are motionless. "They are not eating."

Now don't get ahead of me here. She's a good mother. You can feel it. The place might be rude and bare, but it is clean and has a kind of order about it. The bed is neatly tucked and the towel-shades are drawn tight, to mitigate the sun's intrusion, I'm sure. She is trying. She is tired, but she is trying. There is a silence in the room that names how hard this visit is all turning out to be. No, I mean for her. She is away from her home, her country, and although no one says it (in Creole, Spanish, or English), all of us--black, brown or white--seem to know that the future for these little lives on the bed is alltogether uncertain. They looked to me almost like royalty, in their little stylish jumpers, dressed to the nines, crown-caps on their heads. One can only hope these warm royal robes are not their undoing. 

Remember, she is trying.

(We suggest some cooler clothing, or none at all. And cool rags. We leave some bread, and Jesus' name, and we take our leave. We step outside into the sun, and instantly it is 15 degrees cooler on the skin. She seemed glad we came, which is generous of her. Risen Son, help the mothers of the world.)

Speaking of mothers, met on other streets: With skin as dark as night, Hatian women enjoy faces that beam beauty. Richard has one cooking lunch for sixty Hatian children six days a week. Rice, beans, and bread. She is tall, this cook, and slim, and when she smiles at you and slightly drops her shy face during a greeting, you feel as though you could be meeting the Queen. But this is not aristocratic beauty. She is strong, and scrappy.  She has to be. She has in her care a dozen children (most of them not hers), and with giggles and laughter they all dart around the property like a flock of birds. While we hear tell of plans for a Haitian free clinic down the street, the younger Evans holds court with a gaggle of little girls, teaching them to make funny puppets with their fingers. Their giggles seem inversely proportional to their prospects.

They are surviving here, and mom-cook-queen seems more than willing to take on one more if needed.

And it is needed. Children keep coming here from Haiti every week, more and more since the earthquake. Families scrape together what they have and send who they can across the Dominican border to rally with families already here in the D.R.  I teach a six-year old girl how to high-five, and Richard tells me she has just come from Haiti to join her cousins here.  She made it from the border all the way to Sabaneta (probably two days) on 25 pesos (about 70 cents).  As it turned out, she did not have to pay for rides on motorcycles, scooters, and in vans until the very last leg of our journey. As we practice our high-fiving, I see her in my mind: perched on a the back of a third-hand American dirtbike turned taxi, moving down the northern coastal highway at 50 miles per hour, weaving in and out of traffic, with her arms tucked around the mid-section of whatever stranger is driving. She is holding on through each dart in and out of wild Dominican traffic; she is holding on (out?) for life. Richard says, "She just kept saying to each driver, 'Sabaneta. Sabaneta.'" It worked. She is here.  She is six.

Hatians making a go of it here in the Dominican have it hard. There is existing, to begin with. But what´s more, many Dominicans make sense of their world by looking down on Hatians ("Animals.") the same way most of us make sense of our world by looking down on someone.  For my grandmother, it was blacks; as such, there were plenty of place she would never walk.  Keep those windows up tight.  I wonder, who is it for me?

But when you are a "mama"-cook-quenn, and the living is one day-at-a-time, you don't seem to worry much about complicated social dynamics and racial tensions. You just live, under your holy roof, on these hard roads, unfinished curbing and costly bancos all around. You stand up straight and you survive, with the giggles of your children in your ear and the stunning beauty of your face and the memories of home in your eyes. 

These are the back roads, hard and holy.  

What a gift that Mercy has passed this way. 

(Matthew 20:29-34)