March 24, 2003
How do you explain the feeling of being dropped from the hustle and bustle of the technologically advanced United States into this seemingly forgotten section of the world? Three days ago I was zipping across the sky in air-conditioned comfort; today I am standing in the dirt, straddling a sleeping dog, and interviewing local residents to obtain a random sampling on what medical needs might best fit their lifestyle.
The homes in my survey area literally lay against each other, the corrugated tin screaming as it expands with the heat of the sun. If one home leans, they all lean. The roads here are little more than dirt paths. Yet, they are not smooth like the surface of a dirt walkway that has supported years of foot travel. There are lumps of cement and rocks that jut out of the dirt waiting to bring you to your knees. I am surprised to see many stalks of radiant pink flowers exploding from the dirty ground. They crawl up the sides of the tin houses in an attempt to escape the dirt and dust below. I pass some mud holes created by residents trying to avoid the dust. They use hoses, buckets, and bottles to splash water onto the thirsty ground.
Some of the houses are lime green, some are terra cotta, but many have one thing in common: a blaring television set. The first home on my survey assignment is actually cement with a tin roof. It is one room with dirt floors, wooden slats on the windows that fold in and out to protect one from the heat, and a large golden statue of an angel in the corner. This building is the same size and quality of the stall at home where I stable my horse. There is a battered dining room table and mismatched chairs. I am offered one of the sagging seats, and a kind gentleman politely answers my questions. There is no hesitation as I am invited into his home. Behind this home is a tin compound of colored doorways that open into the unknown. I approach each one with trepidation, only to find residents that are polite and eager to please. I am offered a seat at every home I visit, most being plastic outdoor chairs. One old weather-beaten lady is sitting in the only rocking chair, and it is located outside in a dirty lot. She is barefoot and her dress is drab, but she is working on a colorful quilt made of scraps. She caresses the squares as she sews. Her bare toes draw pictures on the dusty ground, and she continues to sew through my entire interview. Naked and half-dressed, dark skinned children are everywhere, many wanting their pictures taken. Some are shy and some are such camera hogs that I quickly learn to take fake photos. As long as I point the camera at them and ask them to smile, they are happy.
I stop at the next house, a rusted corrugated tin square with a dirt floor, and rooms created inside by hanging curtains from the ceiling. There is a scrawny horse and a colt eating a few sprigs of weeds growing beside the home—there are no fences. I am asked in and pass through several curtained rooms until I reach the third room back. I am offered a chair (as expected), along with a smile and a wink. It is not a gesture that makes me uncomfortable; it is rather comforting, such as a father might give a daughter. There is both a radio and television inside this dark dungeon of a home, and both have the volume set at full blast. Bob the Builder and local Latin meringue are turned down to accommodate a partial verbal exchange during the interview. I turn to thank the owner as I leave a notice a large, colorful Bruce Lee poster hanging from the wall. It defies the unfinished concrete walls inside the home, but is proudly displayed. Outside this home is a short, fat fire hydrant. It seems out of place and it doesn’t appear that there would be any water source underneath. It is a red beacon of comfort that most likely does not function.
I meet with my group and we stop at a local grocer for a soda break. This is little more than a yellow cement slab with a door. We are not permitted to leave with the glass Coca Cola bottles so we enjoy a chat in the coolness of the interior. I note that I would not stand around a local mart at home and finish a soda, as the proprietor would probably call the police. An old man selling grapefruit from a wheelbarrow passes by. The ice-cream man soon follows him. Yes, I was surprised to find that this little forgotten section of society has an ice-cream man. Did I mention that it’s not an ice-cream truck? It’s an ice-cream bike! Typical of an old-time vendor selling metal pots, he peddles his way into the hearts of those who can afford his wares. The familiar motorcycles zip through the dust, cutting a zigzag path around the rocks and dogs
I have been interviewing for quite awhile and begin to notice some similarities in the homes. Many have padlocks for door locks. Those with locks open the gate to let me in, and many will lock the gate behind me. I am always offered a seat and if it’s a cushion it will be fluffed, if it is plastic it will be wiped down. The locks open with keys that are generally suspended from string hanging from a rusty nail. I also notice that although I am always allowed to enter (and I am a complete stranger from another country), that not all visitors are permitted to enter. A man selling corn attempts to enter a home behind me only to find the gate snapped shut. The corn exchange took place between the bars of the gate. Many of the younger women are wearing hair rollers like cheap plastic tiaras that might turn them into a princess for the evening.
I have had only one refusal on my survey assignment. One gentleman even stopped enroute to or from a shower and answered my questions. I never dreamed that I would be interviewing a tall gentlemen from the Dominican Republic in a bath towel today. I did step on a sleeping dog in my hurry to exit and was happy that my leg was not chewed off. Most of the dogs are skinny and appear to be harmless, and they are as numerous as the rocks jutting up from the ground. They only add to our disability to maneuver the course; you must pay attention to where you are walking at all times. Our group meets at a dusty intersection of paths, ask about a street sign hanging from a pole, only to find that it serves as an advertisement for chicken. This will always be “Chicken Street” to me. Our translators find this hilarious. They have traveled with these OU students in hopes of completing their service learning requirements for school. What they get is a crash course on US college humor and some true, international friendships.
One of the students complains of the heat and says that he doesn’t want to continue and will wait on us to finish. I jokingly tell him that it is “tough” he has to finish. He does not understand the word tough and I attempt to explain. I try writing it down but he does not understand the spelling. I attempt to give examples such as too bad but he does not understand that either. We pass around some other words that might mean the same and finally give up and agree to try later. That chance appears when we stop for a break on the porch of a home in the shade. He jokingly states that he will sit on the wall until we come back around to get him. I tell him “tough,” take his arm and lift him from the wall. Suddenly he understands the meaning. We have a good laugh and it gives us a nice break from the reality of the project.
I am also noticing that when asked how many reside in the household, the respondent will name the members. If they live in a compound they will consider everyone to be in their household, as they believe in the extended family, not the nuclear family.
As I end my day of surveys that are now wrinkled upon my clipboard from the sweat of my labor, I pass a small playground across from a school. There is one slide and one basketball hoop. One wall is rusty corrugated tin, another wall is barbed wire, and the ground is covered in large gravel. This is a treat to these children. They probably have no idea of the opportunities that could await them in another place. This is one of the most trusting societies I have ever visited. It is comforting to know that what the people of San Pedro lack in resources, they make up in goodness. I hope that my presence here can someday make a difference in their way of life. I am ready to start another day of surveys, confident that I will be accepted into their hearts and their homes.