A Long Walk, A Great Meal

I was thinking of my aunt. I think of her often enough. I’ve only ever had one true aunt. She’s an important part of my life, and she always has been.

But this time she was on my mind for two specific reasons. First of all, we had just arrived at Robert’s aunt’s house. It was well after dark, and we had hiked up from Pwentarakèt, where we had spent a few minutes with that very aunt of his. We had decided to walk to her house in Lapalmis because Robert needed to get back to Matenwa for school by 8:00 AM – he was giving his first graders their first-term exams – and we would be hard pressed to get there that early from Pwentarakèt. Lapalmis is within three hours of Matènwa by foot. If we got up by 4:00 AM, we’d have no trouble getting to school on time. The aunt herself would be staying in Pwentarakèt, where her husband and nephew were sharing a hospital room.

The day before, Robert had received a phone call. His younger brother Kenson was very sick, suddenly and inexplicably. Various a symptoms were described. Kenson hadn’t seen a doctor yet, Robert was told, because the problem was supernatural. He was sick because someone had cast some kind of spell on him. He was being consumed by a distant relative, a man who was in the process of becoming a vodoun practitioner.

Robert doesn’t put much stock in such explanations. So he was concerned that, because the disease was being attributed to magic, no doctor’s advice was being sought. He determined to go himself to see Kenson at the first possible moment to make sure he got to a doctor. Their parents are both dead, so Robert feels a strong sense of responsibility towards his younger siblings. He offers them all sorts of support, including financial, though his own means are limited and though he has three beautiful kids of his own to worry about as well.

The next day, even before he was able to get away from his work, he learned that Kenson was still very sick but that he had been moved to the hospital in Pwentarakèt. There his problem was diagnosed and was being treated. So Robert relaxed a little, and prepared to walk across the island of Lagonav to visit to see the younger man.

We left after school on Wednesday. I had asked Robert whether I could join him, in part because I met Kenson over the summer, liked him, and wanted to visit. Even more important was my admiration and fondness for Robert. He’s a really good first-grade teacher at the Matènwa Community Learning Center, a very enthusiastic participant in all the activities I’m involved in there, and a warm and charming person. The chance to spend an afternoon and evening walking and talking with him was too good to pass up. Finally, I was interested in the hike. I don’t get to walk around as much as I’d like to in Haiti. I just don’t have time. And I’ve seen very little of Lagonav, though I’ve been there often enough over the course of several years.

So we headed off early in the afternoon. It took awhile for us to get started, because first Robert needed to go to Nankafe. There’s a little grocery store there, and the store changes money. Robert had a some dollars that he needed to change into Haitian gourds so that he’d have some money to give Kenson for food. Hospitals in Haiti are different from those in the States. The sick person and her or his family has much more responsibility during a stay. The hospital does not provide meals or medications or sheets. The family has these responsibilities, and normally will have one of its members actually staying at the hospital as long as the patient is there. So Robert needed to make sure Kenson had food money, and he took care of that first, before we really were on our way.

It turned out to be lucky for us that we had to go through Nankafe, because there we bumped into some high school kids that were on their way home, up into the mountains between Nankafe and Pwentarakèt. They heard where we were going, and how we planned to get there, and told us they could show us a shortcut that would enable us to arrive well before dark.

The mountains outside of Nankafe are lovely. Much of the region is still thick with trees – something that sets it apart from the mostly deforested Lagonav – and after weeks of heavy rainfall, things were intensely green. We brought a thermos of coffee and some bread, so we had a snack. We got some water to drink from a house we passed at the top of a ridge. Looking across the trees and the plots of corn and sorghum, over the dark blue Caribbean, to the mountains of southern Haiti in the distance, I really felt as though I was in the midst of a tropical island vacation. It’s a sense I rarely have as I wander around the country in various forms of cramped, uncomfortable public transportation. Strolling with Robert was something different.

When we got to Pwentarakèt, we found Kenson in one of the three beds in the only room the hospital – really just a little health clinic – has. Their uncle was in another of the beds with complications from a broken foot that had not been well-set. Kenson was weak – nothing like the lively teenager I met over the summer – but he was improving. His fever was way down, the nausea was gone, and though he complained of a headache, he seemed to be mainly out of the woods. We didn’t stay long, because it was already getting dark, but Robert had time to speak both to Kenson and to their aunt and uncle. When we left, he felt confident that things were being handled well.

I was particularly impressed by their aunt. She was juggling a lot, with her husband and nephew both bedridden. Her husband has, it turns out, been disabled for some time, so just running their household without his ability to work on their farm or to do much in the way of carpentry must be a challenge. But she was cheerful and seemed to be concerned, as much as anything, that we receive a proper welcome for our unannounced visit to her home that night, even though she wouldn’t be there.

Robert told me that, since his mother had passed away, this aunt had done everything she could do to be a mother to him, and I believe it. A few minutes after we left the hospital, she caught up to us from behind. It turns out that, as soon as we had left, she had gone to buy a box of matches. She was worried we’d arrived in a dark house and be unable to find the sheets and towels we’d need for the night.

The path up to Lapalmis from Pwentarakèt was hard going because it was steep, narrow, rough, and it was getting dark. It must have been 9:00 PM or so when we arrived, dirty, hungry and tired.

The second reason my aunt came to mind is that what we ate when we arrived in Lapalmis was boiled pumpkin. Aselon, one of Robert’s young cousins, and the younger kids who were staying in the aunt’s house were already in bed, but they had boiled a pumpkin before turning in, and were happy to share it. My one and only aunt has a deep affection for pumpkin and other winter squashes so she comes straight to mind whenever I come across one.

It was delicious. Haitian pumpkins generally are. This one was no longer hot, but was still warm. It had been boiled in slightly salty water. As simple as that. There were grapefruit on trees in the yard, and Aselon got up and made some juice. Robert pulled a big avocado and some bread out of his backpack. It turns out that his aunt had slipped them to him at the hospital that afternoon. All in all, it was a great meal.