Thursday, 7 February 2013
San Mateo's Back Alleys
But to see the story behind the outward façade, you have to enter the back alleys, and that’s where Mary led me one morning.
I met her after her early morning duties at the diabetic clinic. She packed a diabetes tester, insulin jars and her blood pressure tester. From a tin she grabbed some $10 bills and stuck them in her pocket.
As we walked down the main street she greeted everyone with a “Buenas Dias”. They all knew her. A woman stopped her and told the story of her children, growing fast. Did Mary have any spare clothes? My sister promised to see what she could do.
We turned into a narrow alley. Grey water seeped into it from plastic pipes. The bright green algae on the pavement made the surface slippery. The alleyway opened into a courtyard with several houses. The one facing us had cracked walls, a hole for a window and a metal door. Mary shouted, “Permitte! Ave!” From within a faint voice replied. We entered a dim room.
A woman was sitting in a chair. Mary introduced me as “mi hermano” , as if I was royalty. Her husband lay on his bed watching television. Two children ran in circles. Mary asked the woman about her health; about her life. She pricked the woman’s finger. A tester strip soaked up a drop of blood. It contained 300 units of sugar, twice what was normal. The woman swore that she’d taken her insulin. Mary doubted it. She asked to see the insulin. While she held the bottle, she asked the woman what they ate in the house. Fried banana, fried fish and rice; what most people could afford. What about vegetables? The woman said that she tried some vegetables but didn't like them.
Down another alley we came to a family who had just moved in. Mercedes, a young mother with two small children, greeted us. A man of around twenty lay in his bed in front of a flickering television. The small finger on one hand was split open. Badly swollen. When Mary asked how he was doing, Mercedes said that he’d be fine and would soon return to fishing. The children looked on while Mary examined the hand.
She told Mercedes that her son must go immediately to Manta to see a doctor and get antibiotics, or he could lose a finger. Mercedes protested that the doctor wasn't necessary. The boy would be fine. After a lengthy standoff, of words that flew so fast that my rudimentary Spanish didn’t parse them, Mercedes agreed to take the boy to Manta. Mary thrust a $10 note in her hand to seal the deal.
Up another narrow alley we found a house with cracked walls whose cement and plaster were falling off. Fifty years earlier, the builders had opted for a cheap solution of mixing cement using sea sand. Now the residents had to deal with the consequences.
Inside the house water dripped from long fissures in the ceiling. A man sat on the balcony. In her buoyant voice, Mary asked how he was that day. The man nodded, but otherwise could not move. His wife answered that he was as before. Mary took his blood pressure, fortunately normal that day. She talked to his wife about the leaking roof, prices of vegetables and food. Before we left, Mary slipped the woman $20; said to her, “Se pase bien.” (the local expression for , 'take care'.)
“She’s a good woman,” Mary said. “Her husband used to be a trader, quite well off. He chased other women all his life, but then his wealth evaporated. He had a stroke, and the woman he never paid attention to, took care of him. She has no income. She has absolutely nothing.”
Alfredo has diabetes. The bed where we found him looked like one that Mauro made. Not content with building houses, he also builds beds and gives them to people who otherwise would be sleeping on the floor. While Mary measured Alfredo's blood sugar, I watched his wife weave a Panama hat. Her fingers moved in and out of the natural twine, like a blur. Hundreds of women up and down the coast wove those hats, taking a week to finish one. A good hat might sell for $100, of which the weaver would receive a fraction.
Weaving a Panama hat
After a longer walk down muddy pathways we reached a house on stilts, at the edge of a steep gully Rubbish filled an empty garden space. Inside we found a young woman who could barely move because of her rheumatoid arthritis. Her husband was out on the boat. She told Mary that he drank a lot. This was the second marriage for both of them. She used to cook over a fire --- several burning branches in a bucket, until the Barrio kids raised the money to buy her a stove top and propane cylinder. While we talked to her, her teenage son lay on his bed (made by Mauro). He played a game while watching TV. “Tomorrow afternoon, you must send him to the clinic to fetch you pain medicine,” Mary told her.