Inside the hospital compound, past the guard station, the road split. On the east side of the ravine a branch curved up a steep incline to the hospital; on the west side the other branch spiraled up an equally steep slope to the residences. The first structure that the residence access road served was a duplex with a long, upper-level veranda overlooking the road. A little girl stood next to the guardrail. It was just past sun-rise and she enjoyed the relative cool of the morning before the Honduran day’s heat and humidity set in. She took her post seriously as she considered it her job to greet the people using the road. Those coming up were women who worked as domestic help in the homes on the hill; those going down were hospital staff also going to work. In the distance she could hear the faint hum of the ocean; nearer she could hear tropical birdsong; loud squawks, calls which seemed to say ‘peek-a-boo’, and crow’s caws. These sounds didn’t interest her for the noise which got her attention was a roar, from the ravine. It was the voice of a Howler Monkey. The monkey interested her as much as the people on the road, and she determined that in the evening she would ask her daddy to take her on a ‘monkey hunt’.
The monkey was temporarily forgotten when Reyna came around the corner of the road. Immediately the child waved and added her high-pitched voice to the cacophony of sound,
“Hola, buenos dias!”
“Buenos dias,” came the reply.
They had now exhausted the extent of the small girl’s Spanish, but she felt good about the exchange. She turned and caught sight of Dr. Dan, the visiting urologist, and his wife. He wore blue scrubs and backpack. He and his wife had dined with the little girl and her parents the previous evening. Now they hurried to the hospital to donate a day of patient care and surgery. He would perform necessary, often life-saving surgeries, most of which he once performed in the United States before the advent of Laser and modern technologies. Now, in this remote hospital, with minimum resources, his skill was invaluable.
“Hello. Good morning,” the girl shouted. She waved and jumped up and down in excitement on the terrace.
Dan and his wife paused and smiled. They waved.
“Good morning, Madi,” they responded. “Have a nice day!”
Madi could now hear her parents greeting Reyna and moving around inside the apartment. She knew that she would soon see them walking down to the road toward the hospital. Today her doctor parents were exhausted after twenty-four hours during which one or other had been on call. Her mother had sewn up a severe foot laceration caused by a machete; administered to a youth with gang-related stomach injuries; delivered a baby whose mother had severe postpartum hemorrhaging; treated a young woman with an abscessed tooth which would have to be pulled later; and administered to a child who was vomiting live worms. Her father had seen an equal drama: an almost comatose child who had eaten a poisonous fruit; a middle-aged man with several broken bones as a result of being hit by a car; a case of dengue fever which is a bone- and joint-aching illness similar to malaria; and a case of severe genital herpes.
There was a gap in the people using the road which gave Madi a chance to listen to the distant monkey. With her child’s acute sense of hearing she detected that he was now closer. She decided to greet him,
“Monkey, monkey, where are you?” Her high-pitched shout pierced the air.
Silence greeted her back, not even an echo. Her call was sucked into the essence of the dawning day. Just then a woman cradling a tiny baby stepped onto the balcony from the adjacent apartment. She murmured,
Madi walked over to the dividing gate, “May I see? May I see the baby?” She asked in the soft voice which she used when talking to her baby brother.
The woman, an American pediatrician, crouched down to show Madi her minute bundle. The baby slept. It was a premature born to an epileptic mother; it weighed three-and-a-half pounds, smaller than Madi’s doll. The American doctor was personally caring for the baby to give it a chance of life. She fed it breast milk donated by two of the mothers who lived on the compound. The baby’s own mother was unfit and unable to care for it, and the hospital nurses ill-equipped to tend for one so small. This baby’s only chance of survival in the critical first months of its life was this pediatrician’s warm-hearted love.
That morning Madi, escorted by her visiting grandparents, accompanied her parents down their road to the entrance gate and up the other side of the ravine to the hospital. By now the Howler Monkey was in full voice again. The loud guttural sounds echoed through the ravine. Madi asked to see the monkey, but her dad responded that the monkey’s call is one of the loudest in the new world, and carries more than three miles; so, he explained, the noise that they heard might be being made some distance away .They paused to gaze into the ravine and saw waving palms, tall trees, luscious green growth, steep sides, and an eerie damp stillness not yet fully illuminated by the rising sun. Madi shouted into the wet greenness of the abyss,
“Monkey, monkey, where are you?”
Silence ensued, and so Madi and her family continued their walk up to the hospital doors where they bid goodbye. On the way back Madi and her grandparents watched activities at the gate into the compound. They saw armed guards talking to patients and their families as they arrived on bicycle, occasional motor scooter, and a few by three-wheeled taxis. One gentleman arrived on a horse which he tethered on the far side of the rutted dirt track of a main road. All vehicles were parked at the gate obliging everyone to walk up the hill. They walked slowly, each taking a paused moment to greet Madi and her escort. The horse rider, a dark sun-tanned old man with toothless grin, approached and greeted them with a flood of gentle Spanish. The only word which the grandparents understood was “Niña”. While they smiled at each other across the language barrier, Madi ran to the edge of the ravine. She shouted into the trees,
“Monkey, monkey, where are you?”
This time she got a response. There was a sound of braking branches, and a large monkey swung down from a tree and jumped onto the verge next to Madi. Although recorded as one of the largest new world monkeys at a probable twenty pounds, he weighed about the same as Madi; however, his demeanor and hair made him look much larger. He sat a few feet from their group, rumpled up his short snout, and flared his wide nostrils before opening his mouth and howling. The deafening sound, at close quarters, alarmed Madi, who drew back and quivered on the edge of the ravine. The old Honduran horseback rider deftly reached out and grabbed her before she accidentally fell over the edge.
In the ensuing moments much happened. Madi began to wail as only a small child can wail. If her utterance had been heard by the evaluators of the Guinness Book of Records they might have downgraded the Howler Monkey from his entry as the loudest land animal. The monkey must have felt outmaneuvered for he gave one last howl, his mouth wide open and his throat throbbing, then he leapt off into the ravine. Madi’s awed grandparents attempted to calm Madi while offering effusive thanks to the old man. He smiled, shook his head, and resumed his climb toward the medical help which he had come to find.
This fictional story is based on a real place. If you wish to read more about the everyday challenges on this hospital compound in Honduras visit “Inside the Hotzes Beyond the Border.” At http://hotzesbeyondtheborder.blogspot.com
© Copyright Jane Stansfeld March 2015
While the scene is obviously different to that in which my two children grew up in India some of your descriptions brought back vivid memories. You described well the ability of children to pick up languages adults have more struggle in learning. You also described well the bond between foreign children who grow up in a host country and the local people who love and protect them. The monkeys we had as pets were not quite as formidable as your Howler Monkey but they could cause havoc. I’m off to visit your link site now.
Thank you for your visit. I’m glad that my story brought back vivid memories. In many respects there are similarities between Honduras and India due to the poverty, The difference which is most compelling is the population level – in India there are people everywhere not so in Honduras.
I can just picture it, Jane….the screeching monkey and the wailing child. Poor little Madi, so curious and probably fantasizing about a marvelous companion, but when it presented itself it was a fury. Shock and awe. A life lesson at a very early age. Glad you’re back, Jane. Hope you enjoyed the experience of Honduras. When living in Boston for many years, we had a lovely family of native Hondurans for neighbors.
Good to hear from you Cynthia and I’m glad that I painted an understandable scene – the scene is vivid in my mind. Madi did see a Howler Monkey but not quite in the circumstances which I took author’s liberty to portray