small houses scattered through the countryside, with families cooking over open charcoal fires. Women washed their clothes while their children bathed in a low-lying aqueduct built by the side of the road. People traveled on foot, on donkeys, or in impossibly crammed multicolored buses. A child walking toward us, carrying a small tin bowl on her head, held out one hand and rubbed her stomach with the other. She was pencil-thin, about eight years old, and dressed in an old tattered party dress. Lynn, who accompanied Miriam and John (Barth’s missionary college friend) and me on this trip, was particularly moved by the girl’s gesture, so he asked our driver to stop and gave her some of our food. Children in nearby homes who witnessed this act of charity were soon scurrying toward our car, forcing us to hastily speed away.
There was a perfumed scent in the air that mingled with the scent of charcoal, diesel, and cooking oil. “What’s that?” I asked our driver.
“Vétivert,” he responded, “a perfumed grass that grows in abundance on the southern peninsula. The peasants ship it to France, and it’s distilled into perfume.” I could make out the large trucks hauling this in front of us, heading for Les Cayes. As we traveled into the interior, the road became rockier and steeper, the houses smaller and more fragile. We passed through Camp Perrin, a small town that looked like it belonged in a western movie, complete with wooden sidewalks and hitching posts in front of its main buildings. We bought some supplies at the general store and then ascended up the mountains.
The altimeters registered 3,000 feet. We pulled off by the side of the road halfway between Les Cayes and Pestel for a “deworming clinic.” High in the mountains, people live in huts constructed of thatched and woven palm fronds, connected to each other by footpaths. Miriam was right: There was no water, electricity, or sanitation. Yet the people had their families, their traditions, and their little plots of land—their birthright. The government back in Port-au-Prince could do little to help them, but neither did it oppress