East of Eden

A consistent volunteer both locally and abroad, S had been wanting to work in a place where there wasn’t a resident dentist. That’s how we found out about Helene.

You hear Helene referred to as another island – that is, on the rare occasions that you hear of it. It’s not, technically; a slim canal and a forest of mangroves (pretty much impassable, which is why pirates loved Roatan) separate Helene from the rest of the island. It gets a token mention in guidebooks, as there’s almost nothing there, no town to speak of, pulperias (the Central American version of a 7/11) with a lot of bare spaces between cans that look like they might be artifacts from the 20th century. Unlike other small islands and keys near Roatan, it doesn’t boast particularly good snorkeling.

What you do find is people, probably about one or two thousand, scattered among different settlements. They’re of African descent, fluent in English, Spanish, and an intriguing patois that throws a few words of the latter into a musical stream of the former with what seem like a lot of extra syllables. After a couple of days, it sounded a little less mysterious, and I started to see how the English words glided into place; with immersion, you could eventually understand it. Of course, we didn’t get anywhere near that point.

To get there, we first took the motorcycle up to Oak Ridge. already fairly far east on the island. We’d been there on the previous trip when we explored with the kid. Despite its American suburban name, Oak Ridge has an outpost feel to it, and a healthy dose of Tennessee Williams down-at-the-heels romantic decay.

It’s a tiny fishing village pretty far off the tourist radar, with one stop that’s somewhat legendary with the locals but that doesn’t make the tour guides, BJ’s Backyard. This was where we were told to park the bike. More about BJ in the next post; for now, suffice it to say that she pointed us to a safe place in her parking lot to stow the bike, and we were off on the “Spirit of Grace”, our transportation to Helene.

The candy-colored houses sit on stilts above the water, and Oak Ridge’s natural harbor joins the sea through a mangrove-lined canal. These shady, spooky trees feature roots tangled into Gordian knots; passing through them, I was thrown back to being 5 years old and on the Pirates ride at Disneyland, an experience that I swear helped turn me into a voracious traveller. I knew, even then, that all that stuff had to be based on some reality, somewhere, and I was determined to find it. At last, I had.

The minute or so in the canal didn’t last long enough for me, but we had a place to get to, and we were off, zipping across a mercifully flat ocean; when I asked our driver about the previous week of high winds, he shuddered. “Yeah, you be glad for this,” he said.

It was amazing to see the degree to which folks were still developing places this far east on the island. Roads, we know from experience, are packed dirt that become a 5-mile-an-hour (if you’re lucky) obstacle course in the rainy season.

I’m a city lover; I get a little tetchy without the secure knowledge that a latté is within 10 minutes, because you never know when you might really, really need one. And honestly, there are already so many gorgeous places to stay on Roatan, and the diversion of resources needed to keep these remote hideaways functioning strikes me as a tad unnecessary. But heck, maybe they dig their own wells, use solar panels, and throw the locals some employment. However tempting, I try (and don’t always succeed) not to get too self-righteous.

Anyway, we hit a point where the villas stop and the mangrove forest of my dreams sat, guarding Helene from the rest of the world. This is, apparently, not such a bad thing in the eyes of the residents. They don’t consider themselves to be part of Roatan, much less Honduras. The government seems pretty content with this arrangement; there are some power lines and one public school that goes to sixth grade, but that’s about it. This is one of the more densely populated areas.

Our destination: a clinic with one room for a doctor and one for a dentist, created by missionaries, not the state. A doctor is currently doing a one-year stint, his wife and two early adolescent kids in tow. The last dentist had been in Helene sometime last September.

S and I walked off the boat, dropped our backpacks, and went to work. There wasn’t time to be nervous about my first ever job as a dental assistant. Thanks to the lovely Margie, a young woman from the area who spent most of the year in Roatan but had come back to spend time with family and help us out, I learned how to set up a tray with the preliminary examination instruments and how to load syringes with novocaine.

On the first patient, I asked S if he wanted to numb the injection site first with a topical. “Don’t need it,” he said. Again and again over the course of the next few days, I saw him apply pressure to the patients’ gum with his finger, then ease in the needle. Save for the dreaded upper palate shot – “that one just hurts, unfortunately” – I never saw a single person wince.

Our first patient was a young girl who only spoke Spanish, a rarity; she must have been visiting. It was fun, if a little daunting to practice my extremely basic Spanish, but we got a couple of lines of a conversation in; I knew how to ask about her bebe. At the end, after S painlessly and quickly extracted a broken tooth, she whispered to me, “Esposo?” and pointed to him. I nodded. She giggled and gave me a thumbs up and a big smile.

We saw about 45 people from arrival on Monday to departure on Wednesday at noon. Tuesday was particularly rough, nearly all extractions. Often, teeth were so rotten that they were difficult to grab hold of. In one case, where all the roots had broken off and S had to basically extract by touch, it took nearly an hour. Other times, the roots were deep and the jawbones exceptionally strong; on one tooth, the roots buckled out like the legs of an ornate Victorian settee. (That patient sent word the next day through his father, who I shared a couple of meals with, that he hadn’t felt a thing.) If I’d had time to think, I would have been unnerved by all the blood; as it was, I folded gauze, held a few hands, smiled at people and mouthed, “he’s good, don’t worry” when their eyes met mine as S worked on their teeth; unlike me, many faced dentistry with eyes wide open. I felt a tiny bit of kinship to women who have helped out on battlefields over the years. I wondered if they felt as clueless as I did; I figure most of them had about the same amount of training. Of course, my circumstances were a lot less dramatic. Then again, think of your last toothache and you realize that what S was doing was a pretty big deal. In any event, there wasn’t room for a whole lot of reflection, and certainly no room at all to wimp out.

When we weren’t working, we walked down the dirt paths that led through small enclaves where people lived.

We stopped by the local cemetery; as in Key West and New Orleans, graves are above ground.

By Tuesday, we started to recognize a few faces, especially the children, many of whom attend school at the missionary compound, of which the clinic is a part.

We ate meals with some of the local men who help out at the compound – Jerry, Bye-bye and Teddy were great lunch partners – as well as the 22-member, multi-generational church group from Oregon that had come to stay for a week to help build houses and clear the endless stream of manmade trash; mangrove roots are spectacular at collecting floating garbage.

Of course, my favorite part was hanging out with the local women who cooked for the troops, Helen and Loretta. I found women here to be initially shy and fairly reticent to chat. After all, we’re just popping in for a day and pulling some teeth, then heading back to our lattés and internet. But cooking in restaurants for a couple years has always given me just enough cred to get my foot in a lot of kitchen doors. I speak fluent cook. As they made tortillas for baleadas (the national Honduran dish, basically a quesadilla with some smoky refried beans and hot sauce), we laughed and connected over raising kids, working with local ingredients, and culinary adventures. Imagine the scar competition in Jaws and swap out the characters for us three and you’re pretty much there.

S and I were tired when we left. It’s intense work; it reminded me of video production. You’re on your feet for hours, and you have to stay alert so that you can go from just standing around to getting stuff asap. But I love production, much more than sitting around in an office staring at a screen. I’ll be happy to assist again any old time a real assistant isn’t available. After all, now I know what a dentist’s elevator is, and how to tell upper from lower extraction forceps.

As we rounded the shore and returned to Oak Ridge, I saw it with new eyes. Huge. A beacon of civilization. And BJ, its leading citizen.

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