Over the last year and a half, I’ve been to 10 foreign countries — Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Belgium, France, Ireland, Turkey, Haiti, Dominican Republic. I lived in Rwanda for a while and now spend most of my time in Haiti, and the rest I visited for work and play and travel.
In Belgium, I merely stared out the window of a speeding train as it raced through the rain from Brussels to Paris, where I discovered that my French, learned in Rwanda, was inadequate for the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe. Flights connected through Kenya and Ethiopia, and I never left the airports nor had my passport stamped, the true sign of having visited the country. I don’t really count those, experiencing the countries only through the transportation hubs, especially since I could not locate any beef tibs or doro wot in the Addis Ababa airport. I witnessed a Notre Dame football game in Dublin, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and whale watching off the coast of the Dominican Republic. Recently, though, I’ve rediscovered the joy and beautiful diversity of the greatest country in the world — the good ole’ USA.
I long for the East Coast cities that I grew to love and that I called home in a past life — Boston and New York City. I haven’t been to New York City in a year, and I miss good bagels and great pizza, the smell of urine steaming off the subway platform in the summer, going to museums on days off, and sitting in Washington Square Park with a beer, watching impromptu bands playing “When the saints go marching in.” I remember the spectacular tailgating for Red Sox games in the Fenway area of town, delectable dim sum on Sundays in Chinatown, and spending time with my cousins and their children in the suburbs of Boston. But in return for foregoing the familiar climes of New York and Boston, I gained experience in the far flung regions of this expansive country.
In February, I went to Washington D.C., the most beautiful city in the US, at least aesthetically, certainly not for the disgrace that transpires in the halls of power. The monuments give the city an air of the classic, a permanent lineage of democracy from ancient Greece unto today. The Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol could have stood alongside the Coliseum and the aqueducts of the Roman Empire without a second look. The museums that line the National Mall represent the culture of America, her history, and her place in the history of time and space. Breathtaking bridges span the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and sloping highways wind through the forests of Turkey Run Park and Arlington National Cemetery.
In March, I went to Detroit for the first time in twenty years. During that time, the city and her industry crumbled, slowly at first, and then accelerated downhill. Downtown resembles a post-apocalyptic vision of America, completely abandoned by businesses, people and, ironically, automobiles. I half expected a lion to be roaming the street in search of a pack of zebras, or the Ape King menacing the last few remaining humans from his elevated perch atop the GM building. A dozen or so thirty story buildings have been vacant for years, their front doors boarded up to prevent squatters from moving in, the carcasses a constant reminder of the exodus. Downtown comes alive only for Tigers’ games, and the occasional concert at the Fillmore Theatre, but the city still resembles the ruins of Rome, a place whose time has passed and never will return.
In April, I went to New Orleans to prepare a childhood friend properly for the confines of marriage. I hadn’t been to New Orleans since my first trip to Haiti in 2004, and I’ve since learned that the architecture of the American city was influenced by Haitian émigrés, mostly French and mulatto escaping Haiti after the revolution freed their slaves. They brought with them architecture, cuisine and a love of the French language. Now, the Crescent City boasts the most decadent revival of gluttony in the modern world — revelers gorge until they get their fill of food, booze, music, public nudity and whatever form of lewdness they fancy. The cuisine in New Orleans is filled with heavy cream-based sauces and typically comes fried or blackened. Even vegetables are fried up and dipped in Creole-spiced mayonnaise. Blaring jazz music accompanies the walk in Jackson Square, as does a 22 ounce beer because there are no laws outlawing alcohol in public.
In May, I returned home to Miami from Haiti to meet a new nephew who shares my name and then packed up and moved to Gainesville, Florida to start a new job at the University of Florida. The Department of Medicine has given me the freedom to spend the majority of my time in Haiti, working to build a breast cancer treatment program, to perform research to better understand the epidemic in Haitian women, and to teach residents about global public health. More importantly, they have placed their faith in my ability to achieve those goals and I will be eternally grateful for being given the chance to succeed or fail.
In June, I went to South Dakota to bear witness to the wedding of my college roommate. Near the border with Wyoming, Mount Rushmore was carved into a mountain face seventy years ago. The Black Hills National Park that surrounds the monument stands as a testament to the generosity of spirit and vision of environmentalism of one of the mountain’s residents, Teddy Roosevelt. By day we hiked through the rolling hills covered with birch and pine forests that inspired “Dances with Wolves,” and passed the evenings dining and drinking and dancing and gambling in the spirit of the founders of the rowdy town of Deadwood, adventurers who had come searching for gold on Native American land in the 1870s. After a wedding set against the backdrop of towering red cliffs, we wound our way down out of the mountains and into the plains that were once filled with grazing herds of buffaloes.
After a month in the USA, I miss Haiti — the traffic, congestion and smoke of Port-au-Prince, the lilting voices of the women’s “Bonswa,” the hymns of worship sung on Sundays by visitors to the hospital and the afternoon thunderstorms in rainy season. It’s time to go home.
Vincent DeGennaro is an internal medicine doctor and a global public health specialist at the University of Florida’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine and works half time in Haiti with the nonprofit Project Medishare. See his An American Doctor in Haiti blogs.