Even before we've had a chance to eat breakfast a man comes asking the Pastor to look into his wife's mouth. Yesterday the woman had a tooth extracted. "She bled all night," the man says with a pained look on his face. "This morning, blood all over her face, all over the bed, all over the front of her body... "
This man and his wife are close relatives of Dionisio, whose family has assumed prime responsibility for feeding us. He's not the only close family member who has come to us with special problems. Apparently these family members feel more at liberty to ask special favors of us than others, for those without this relationship generally do not return. However, they certainly must bleed and ache just as much as do the members of Dionisio's family. In this immediate family we are seeing an incredible level of disease and misery. When I extrapolate this family's medical problems onto all those other families scattered through these mountains, it is mind- boggling.
Monday becomes another day of extracting teeth, washing ears, and handling various odds and ends. In the afternoon Dionisio takes me to see one of his failed projects. About 300 yards downslope we enter a cave with a mouth about thirty feet high and twenty feet wide, mantled with green moss, ferns and such pleasing wildflowers as a red-flowered member of the Gesneria Family (African Violets). Water gushes from the cave in a fast-moving torrent about two feet deep and five feet across.
Here we find what's left from the effort to build a hydroelectric dam three years ago. First, they'd had to dynamite an access path to the cave. Then they'd built a wooden sluiceway to carry water from the cave to a steel pipe about two and a half feet in diameter. The pipe had been laid running thirty feet downslope to a dynamo set in concrete. The idea had been that as water shot from the pipe it would turn the dynamo's paddlewheel, and electricity would be produced.
But now the wooden sluiceway is so rotten that walking upon it, as we do, is dangerous. The steel pipe is rusting away and the dynamo lies half-protected and full of ants beneath a sheet of corrugated tin. The steel pipe's lowest six feet displays a wide crack where once so much water pressure built up inside that the steel broke apart. Wire ineffectually wound around this section of the pipe tells part of the story that Dionisio seems happy to forget.
"The system almost worked for just a little while," he recalls. "We even got a little electricity. But the water coming out didn't turn the dynamo's paddle fast enough to produce the voltage we needed. We needed a bigger pulley. And then the soldiers confiscated the airplane and parts couldn't be brought in anymore, and the Americans went away. All that work... This is something that hurt us. For many days... we were very sad."
As we return to our barracks, for the first time I learn that two or three times each day I've been walking down the often-mentioned but never-identified airstrip. Though abandoned only two or three years ago, now the runway is overgrown with trees twenty feet tall. I'm astonished at the steepness of the slope up which the airstrip runs. The pilot who landed here either had a lot more guts, talent and dedication than I can imagine, or he was nuts.
On our last night in San Lorenzo we receive the message that the women with the abscessed rump-cheek still is in great pain, that now her husband is with her, and that she wishes for us to come and lance the abscess. So with flashlights we make our way through San Lorenzo to find the twenty-year old woman in her pole-walled sleeping room, lying on her stomach, with her two-year old child beside her. The young husband stands just outside the room's door, nervously shifting back and forth. The house is lighted by a single orange-colored flame issuing from a wick passing through the top of a small bottle of kerosine. Inside the room another small bottle of kerosine blazes and a neighbor holds a flashlight as Gudulia begins her work. (By the way, nowadays Gudulia's tooth-pulling manner has become much more expert.)
First she injects a pain-killer. Then she unwraps from its sheath a single-edged razor blade, smears merthiolate on it and the cheek, and cuts a two-inch long incision. She cuts deeply -- about an inch deep -- so deep that when she pulls the cut open with her other hand the tips of the fingers holding the blade enter into the incision itself. Then she squeezes the area, but only a little blood comes out. She cuts deeper, but once again a squeezing produces only clean blood. Then with the unattached needle of a syringe she pokes into the wound very deeply -- pokes and pokes -- about three inches deep. Finally she punctures the abscess and copious, bloody, cream-colored pus rolls out. Though the woman insists that she is not hurting, she whimpers constantly. The clammy odor of warm blood fills the room. The kerosine flame flickers nervously and though the situation really is not a dangerous one, a desperate feeling fills the house.
While Gudulia continues to squeeze out more and more pus, I step outside. The half moon is exactly overhead, shining so brightly that a black dog can be seen coming up the path, and the high peaks to the northwest, instead of being black on the horizon, are silver colored. Crickets and frogs drone monotonously, dogs bark and, like ocean sounds that on the beach seem to come from everywhere, all around us wash the sounds of children crying, laughing, screaming, calling...
Once the wound is cleaned and we're walking back up the slope, I think a lot about what I've seen these last few days. Especially I think about the children.
The children here, though usually dirty and frequently diseased, are delightful. They laugh much more than they cry, and when they peek at me from around the corner of a hut, and see me seeing them, they smile and their eyes dance, and their presence fills me with pleasure. In fact, in most households the middle-aged and old people generally appear profoundly tired, sick and depressed, but the hoards of children that always are present enliven the atmosphere and make one feel welcome. They remind us that life under almost any circumstances sometimes can be a delight.
Thus one person might come here and say that San Lorenzo's poverty and wretchedness is precisely because people produce too many children -- there's so many children that no single child can be properly cared for. But another visitor might point out that without the children, life here hardly would be worth living -- it is the rainbow of children that gives this community its very reason for being.
Fireflies flash inside dark shadows. Against the pale, late-night sky, clusters of banana trees display silhouettes of broad, tattered leaves. San Lorenzo in the night smells of mud, horse and mule manure, kerosine and wood-smoke. Who knows what it all means?
The hike back to Puente Benito Juárez takes place beneath a bright, hot sun. The nurses walk out of San Lorenzo much more slowly than they walked in, so the Pastor and I are able to take our time and walk almost contemplatively. Atop high ridges, 85º winds smack us like stiff breezes in the sails of a sailboat. Escaping San Lorenzo feels good, even though the people here have treated us royally, and have done their best to make us feel at home. But, the suffering we've seen, the desperation...
At Yerba Buena, the afternoon's cool wind streams calmly through tall pines glistening in pure sunlight. Because of the frost we witnessed on the morning we left, the banana trees' big leaves are nothing but brown, crumbled-up tissue-paper. Lots of mail from addresses in the U. S. await me but for a long time I do not read my letters, simply because it seems that some kind of violence would be committed were I to too nonchalantly mingle that plastic-filled, aseptic, bored world to the North with the mule-manure-and-mud, TB-and- intestinal-worms, marimba-music-and-weeping world of San Lorenzo.
[Upon the author's return to the U. S. he fell ill with a severe case of Hepatitis A. Judging from this disease's incubation period, probably it was contracted during the trip to San Lorenzo...]