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Baptism

THE NEXT DAY JACMEL, ON HAITIS southern coast, seemed vaguely reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans, with its French colonial architecture, wrought-iron balconies and above-ground tombs. Actually, in my view, there’s no comparison. Jacmel, founded in 1697, was a bustling colonial port when New Orleans was a backwater settlement. Nestled between the mountains and the Caribbean and interspersed with bougainvillea and flowering trees, Jacmel looks much as it must have 200 years ago. Gaby had been admitted on Friday. I visited him each day to check on his progress. Saturday we did a health fair on the beach at Raymond-le-Bain. On Monday we would have to return to Orphelinat Bon Secours to read the skin tests for tuberculosis we had placed on Friday (it takes three days for a reaction to develop) and to bring Gaby and his mom home. Project Medishare’s teams rarely work on Sundays, and this group had earned a day off, with their hard work in Decouze and Raymond-le-Bain. I was feeling ebullient. Gaby’s was a life saved. Whatever else happened, we could take that to the bank. I promised the students that later I’d take them to Bassin Bleu—a 100-foot waterfall and series of connected pools across the river and down the lip of an extinct volcanic crater just to the west of Jacmel. The pools get their name from



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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti Baptism THE NEXT DAY JACMEL, ON HAITI’S southern coast, seemed vaguely reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans, with its French colonial architecture, wrought-iron balconies and above-ground tombs. Actually, in my view, there’s no comparison. Jacmel, founded in 1697, was a bustling colonial port when New Orleans was a backwater settlement. Nestled between the mountains and the Caribbean and interspersed with bougainvillea and flowering trees, Jacmel looks much as it must have 200 years ago. Gaby had been admitted on Friday. I visited him each day to check on his progress. Saturday we did a health fair on the beach at Raymond-le-Bain. On Monday we would have to return to Orphelinat Bon Secours to read the skin tests for tuberculosis we had placed on Friday (it takes three days for a reaction to develop) and to bring Gaby and his mom home. Project Medishare’s teams rarely work on Sundays, and this group had earned a day off, with their hard work in Decouze and Raymond-le-Bain. I was feeling ebullient. Gaby’s was a life saved. Whatever else happened, we could take that to the bank. I promised the students that later I’d take them to Bassin Bleu—a 100-foot waterfall and series of connected pools across the river and down the lip of an extinct volcanic crater just to the west of Jacmel. The pools get their name from

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti the curious milk-turquoise color of the water. I told the students, inventing myth as I went along, that the pools are sacred and that if they dive into the pools they are officially Haitian. They were either too naive, too in awe, or too polite to challenge my story. Being an early riser, I set out on my own at sunrise that Sunday morning to see if I could find a walking route to Bassin Bleu. The usual route required a four-wheel-drive vehicle, a river crossing, several guides, much clamoring for tips, and sometimes begging from women and children along the path. But the topography suggested that the stream should flow down to the sea at the end of the black sand beach that extended a mile to the west, on the other side of the river from the city. Heading west from the hotel, I passed first through a residential neighborhood. People were up already—children running around ni net, gentlemen engaged in earnest discussions, women cooking akasan and avwàn. The scents of vanilla, cinnamon, and charcoal invigorated my steps. Next I passed through a tiny park on the edge of the sea, populated by young people engaged in walking meditations or committing their devwa (homework) assignments to memory in the shade of magnificent palms. On reaching the beach I removed my sandals and felt the unique feel of black volcanic sand under my feet. Leaving Jacmel I had to first pass a squatters’ settlement at the point where the Grande Riviere du Sud empties into the bay. The squatters’ homes were perilously assembled like houses of cards on a plain of thick black mud. Pigs were running through the mud, as were children. I had to wade through a small fork in the river to continue on the beach, the mud-stained water coursing black, but cool over the black sand. It being Sunday there were signs of both industry and repose at the river—children meticulously gathering sand shrimp (a delicacy) with a strainer; men loading polished rocks washed down from the river into baskets to be used for construction; men and women bathed while others, their clothes spotless and shoes

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti Children on the beach at Jacmel, costumed for Carnival. shined, walked in from the countryside heading to church in Jacmel. The water in the fork was about two feet deep, and the churchgoers stopped at the water’s edge, removed their clothes, placed them neatly on top of their heads, waded the stream, and then redressed on the other side. Of course, everyone greeted each other with a genuine “Bonjou,” even saluting the “blan,” who curiously seemed heading in the wrong direction. Several people stopped me to ask me if I was lost and offered to guide me back to the hotel. If Jacmel seemed locked in an 18th-century maturational arrest, the countryside west of the river appeared not only further removed in time but also place. Clusters of small houses formed villages set in among the palms just inland from the beach with curls of blue smoke rising above the thatched huts from the morning cooking fires. Men with handmade hoes tended their fields. Others herded their oxen or

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti gathered in their sein-nets from the beach. Children darted down the paths from the village to catch a glimpse of me as I passed, some stopping at a safe distance, others boldly coming up to me, taking my fingers, and enticing me to play with them. “I could just as well be in West Africa,” I thought. Four fishermen were struggling to launch their boat from the high-water mark. “Blan, ede-nou souple” (“Stranger, help us, please”), said one, matter of factly. I put down my sandals and pitched in at the stern. By rocking and shoving and grunting in unison, we, imperceptibly at first and then with increasing successive gains, forced the barque over the rise and then down the slope of the beach to the point where the rising waves suddenly made it seem weightless. “Mèsi anpil, blan” (“Thanks a lot, stranger”), said my new-found workmates as they shoved off and I continued west. The black sand abraded the soles of my feet, and each wave left them tingling. The farther west I went, the fewer people I encountered. The beach ended abruptly at the base of a cliff, and, just as I imagined, I found there the little stream that assuredly led to Bassin Bleu. A footpath followed the stream and crossed from side to side, gently climbing the small gorge. The stream carved through an extinct volcanic crater. The path was shaded by mapou and royal palms and flowering trees I could not identify. The sweet scent of flowers was everywhere; I felt like I was hiking through the Garden of Eden. Pulling myself up over a small ledge, I came upon a young woman washing her clothes in a small cascade. “Bonjou, cheri!” I called as I approached. “Bonjou, mesye,” she sang. She coquettishly lowered her dress, exposing her breasts. She looked to be in her early 30s, although she was probably younger. Life in rural Haiti ages one prematurely. She was admittedly attractive, of medium build and muscular with breasts that were relatively large and upright. In fact, I suspected she was nursing

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti an infant. Her laundry pile suggested she had a large family, with children of various ages. “Eske ou vle mwen benyen ou, mesye?” (“Do you want me to bathe you, sir?”) The sense of flattery caused by this come-on was rapidly negated by the knowledge that I was middle-aged and, as a blan, ludicrously ugly. She must be from the village tourists pass through on the way to Bassin Bleu, I thought. I had found out about Bassin Blue several trips before this one, from Michel, a “gid blan” who was always hanging around the hotel. As likable as he was, there was something about the way he would ask, “Dr. Fournier, is there anything you want me to show you? Anything you want? Anything?” that made me wonder if he was strictly in just the guide business. Since the United Nations intervention, Jacmel had become a popular destination for army troops on weekend leave and there were lots of gid blan like Michel willing to show the soldiers the sights and more. So the thought of sexual tourism in Jacmel in general, and Bassin Blue in particular, had crossed my mind in the abstract already. But this was real and obviously not her first attempt. I was being seduced and propositioned. My principles were being put to the test. There was no one else around. No one would ever know. “Pa pa lage kò-w bay touris pou lajan. Se blan yo ki pote SIDA ak lòt maladi yo. Genyen fyète aysisyen-w. Pa mande!” (“Don’t give yourself to tourists for money! Strangers have AIDS and other maladies! Take pride that you’re Haitian and don’t beg!”), I said. She was stunned to hear this mini sermon. “Ou fou, blan” (“You are a crazy foreigner”), she said as she laughed. “Pa fou, men kontan fè konesans avèk ou. Ou vle danse?” (“Not crazy, but happy to meet you. Would you like to dance?”), I came back, as I shuffled my hips and feet in a poor imitation of compa. At this she pulled up her dress, gathered her laundry, and quickly descended down the path convinced, I’m sure, that I was crazy.

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The Zombie Curse: A Doctor’s 25-Year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti I continued up the stream, past the abandoned house of the Canadian who mysteriously arrived one day, built his home, married a village woman, and just as mysteriously disappeared. I climbed the approach to Bassin Bleu using first the makeshift ladder left there for the tourists and then the handholds and the footholds carved into the rocks by the Arawaks. I had the cascades, the waterfall, the pools, and the sheer rockface covered with ferns and orchids all to myself. I slipped out of my clothes and dove in.