A First Misstep

I nearly fell today. The event lacked the drama of my short but consequential drop during a climb with Erik on Lagonav in the summer of 2003. I didn’t, for example, bleed. No amateur surgery, however minor, was called for. Nevertheless, it promises to be a little bit of a nuisance, because I often have no alternative to walking, and it has already had interesting consequences of its own.

I arrived in Haiti on Wednesday, January 19, and made it up the mountain to Ka Glo early the same afternoon. A friend had borrowed a pick-up truck to meet me at the airport, take me for a quick visit to my godson’s parents’ home — always my first stop on entry — and then take me and my considerable pile of possessions up the mountain. I used the stop to reorganize my things and leave some of them I wouldn’t need in Glo down the hill, but in the confusion I forgot one of the bags that had things I did want. It happened to be the one that had my sneakers, so I had to postpone my desire to return to the consistent jogging schedule that the Shimer Dean’s Office had made so difficult to sustain.

I collected my sneakers Thursday, but was pressed for time Friday and Saturday, so Sunday morning was my big chance to get started. I left shortly after enjoying a sip of morning coffee, sweet and black, and had a wonderful trot.

The road that passes Ka Glo goes upward along the ridge overlooking the plain of Pòtoprens. It’s unpaved and very rocky, winding uphill for well over an hour’s walk. Because it is one of the few roads in the area that’s anything more than a footpath, running for me has usually meant running up it as far as I want to go, then heading back down the same way. I usually have walked back down because I worry about my downhill footing, but I had a friend whom I needed to see about halfway to the spot where I thought I’d turn, and he was pressed for time, so I ran down to his family’s home. Just before I got to him, I turned to stare down a couple of noisy dogs, and that’s when it happened. I took my eyes off the path, and made a fopa, or faux pas.

That doesn’t mean that I said or did anything tactless, but very literally that I took a false step. We would say I twisted my ankle.

It hurt a little bit, but I had no trouble getting to my friend’s and limping with him back to Ka Glo. He was headed down to Petyonvil. I sat chatting with some visitors for awhile, pretending that the slight pain would just go away, but it got worse rather than better as the morning continued. A friend who’s in medical school happened to be visiting, so he took a look. He was more inclined to see my ankle in terms of Haitian folk remedies than in terms of his training. He called for hot saltwater, and rubbed my foot with it until the water cooled. That’s when we saw Eli.

There are a lot of remarkable things about Eli, some of which I know of. He has a bright and easy smile and big laugh. He’s a serious and hardworking student, currently in the second-to-last year of high school. The road through school has been hard for him. Not only because he has an hour’s commute, much of it on foot, to and from school each day. Nor because of asthma that has made the commute a good deal harder at times. On top of it all, he has a tendency towards astute critical reflection. The flip side of this tendency is that he’s not great at rote learning. And the Haitian schools he’s been attending push memorization above all else.

He is very smart; he’s especially good at watching how someone does something and figuring out how to do it himself. He’s more than an imitator, though. He knows how to apply what he’s learned in order to perform new tasks. I remember watching him once, a few days after he saw someone repair a soccer ball, making a new ball from scratch using what he had learned.

When Eli saw what was going on, he came over. He asked what had happened, and had a look. Then someone told me that Eli knows how to rale. “Rale” generally means something like “to pull”, but in this context it means something more precise. A somewhat misleading translation would be “massage,” but it would be more accurate to say he knows the Haitian art of painfully pulling and twisting sore or injured limbs to help them heal. He was happy to work on my ankle, and immediately asked someone to roast an orange.

He talked a little with the doctor-to-be, and then poked, rubbed and twisted my ankle a little. It hurt like hell. They agreed that a vein had popped out of place. The swelling was obvious. Eli complimented the medical student for the salt water treatment. He said it would get my blood flowing. He then said he’d be back as soon as the orange had been roasted and cooled.

I sat thinking.

The nearest ice is about a mile down the hill. If I was certain that ice was what I needed, someone would have been happy to get some. But it seemed like a lot to ask when I wasn’t even sure whether it would help. Leaving the ankle alone seemed like a decent plan, but Haiti is a place where almost nobody can afford to let minor hurts slow them down. A lost day’s wages means a day without food for some. Although this is not the case for Eli, or for most of the people I know well, it seemed very likely that the need to keep going had taught people here a lot. I also like and respect Eli, so it seemed worth giving him a try.

When he came back, he told me to stand on the foot, and he felt around it to establish where it hurt and where it didn’t. He pressed hard on the sore spots until he identified their center. He then pressed harder, sweeping with his fingers along a line from that spot to each of my toes in turn. When he got to each toe, he pulled it, then he twisted it until it cracked.

All this was bad enough, but then the real rubbing started. He halved the orange and rubbed each half around and over the sorest part of the ankle. He later explained to me that the orange would loosen my vein ands get my blood flowing.

I began to feel light-headed. Children gathered round to watch, hoping I would scream or yelp or at least make funny faces. I tried to disappoint them. Just when I thought it had to stop, it did. I sat down and tried to concentrate as Eli explained that I should try to keep the foot moving as I sat and read or chatted through the day. I thanked him.

I went by the next morning to thank him again. My ankle was a little stiff, a little sore, but I had no trouble walking without discomfort.

Now, of course it might be true that if I had simply left the ankle alone it would have improved without Eli’s help. I can’t be sure, though it sure feels as though his treatment made a difference in the way my ankle feels.

But whatever it meant for how quickly I’m healing, one thing seems certain. It was worth trusting Eli, who is my neighbor, and the other neighbors who recommended him. As a stranger in a land that is still, after seven years, very foreign to me, I will need to depend on them a lot. The more I show my trust, the better off I’ll be.

A last note: Eli knows that I am writing this essay, and he has said that he would be happy to respond to questions that people have for him. Just append them to this text or e-mail them to me at [email protected]. I’ll see that he gets the questions and I’ll communicate his responses.