From my perch on the narrow edge of a long-river boat traveling down the Rio Coco, en route to the subsistence farming village of Walakitang (the second stop for our roving dental brigade, downstream about 3 hours from San Andres), looking out into the jungle, it is not obvious to me that the area has been devastated twice in recent history by hurricanes that have dessimated food production and food security in the region. There is, of course, no wreckage from toppled buildings, no abandoned carnage. It is quite picturesque in fact. Peaceful. Simple. Seemingly untouched.
The number of stunted-growth children cannot be ascertained from my vantage point on the river and I can’t tell that the people living just beyond its banks are facing challenges of climate change, extreme poverty, malnutrition, and poor quality water.
Emerging from the Rio Coco, however, and stepping out onto the banks, this reality becomes a little more…well, real.
We unload our supplies, and in the company of children eager to carry twice their weight in buckets, bins, and bags, we snake our way through the village to the site of the new secondary school. I stop to use an outhouse. Outhouses are typically held together by some combination of black plastic sheeting, dry sticks, corrugated metal and a healthy dose of luck. As per the norm, it is BYOTP and given the poo-stained spiral notebook paper scatterred about, I am tempted to buck convention and leave a roll inside. But, given that I have borrowed this roll of precious commodity from someone else, I do not risk the wrath.
We set up our hammocks in an empty classroom. And then we wait. And wait. And wait. For tables and chairs to show up to be used as patient beds in an otherwise empty school.
While we wait, I review the three or four words of Miskito I have written down in my notebook (Spanish is not the native language of the indigenous people either so the playing field is somewhat leveled on that front, but communication gets a little trickier) and toss a ball with some boys who take great pleasure in mimicking my every move. Before long, we are all spinning around, making ridiculous sounds, and giggling shyly. Simple pleasures for both of us :).
And then we meet Maria.
If not for her, we may very well still be waiting for the men to organize just where the tables and chairs were going to come from. Mary hovers about waiting to see a dentist, and having brought along an 8-month pregnant friend interested in doing the same, she inquires as to what we are waiting for. She then looks at us, as if to say – Tables? Why didn’t you just say so?
In a frenzy of Miskito language and a flurry of legs jumping into action, tables emerge from homes and begin arriving on the backs of locals. Yep, we found the woman who makes things happen here.
Assisting in the clinic, where my duties have expanded to allowing my hand to be squeezed (quite tightly!) by nervous women, I am prompted to put on a mask given that my poker face apparently needs work. Evidently, wincing, holding my breath, and making ooh or owww sounds can be a little disconcerting.
Patients leave the clinic with a frozen mouth, a few less teeth, the knowledge that their pain will be alleviated, a toothbrush in their hand, and of course a ‘parting gift’.
As a kid, I remember I used to always leave the dentist with a new gold ring complete with shiny colored stone of my choosing. Given that my mouth was riddled with too many teeth and too little space, I often left the chair with new holes in my gums and this parting gift always made me forget, just a little, the taste of blood in my throat and the soreness of my gums. The process here is similar, but the parting gifts were quite different. While there are certainly some trinkets – bubbles and bracelets and small rubber toys – the practical items are even more coveted.
A baseball cap to protect from the blazing sun.
Reading glasses to reveal the previously unseen.
A new used t-shirt.
Sure, emerging from the Rio Coco and stepping out onto the banks of Walakitang reveals the realities of the Bosawas, but up close and personal, it is still quite picturesque. Peaceful. Simple. Seemingly untouched.