“It was like meeting a character from a book.” That was one of the pasantes who had observed me sitting at the kitchen table with Mountains Beyond Mountains propped up on my lap. I looked up smiling—yes, it certainly was. He had been telling me that he had just picked up the book recently before meeting Paul Farmer for the first time. For my part, I hadn’t read Tracy Kidder’s dynamic account since high school. Now, sitting at the heart of an organization that had grown from Farmer’s initial vision, it seemed only appropriate that I re-read the story of how it all began.
Kidder is far from stingy with his provision of details, and his account is undoubtedly made all the richer for it. His description of the Farmer who had grown up in both a trailer park and on a boat, who had gone from a small town in Florida to the hallowed halls of Duke University, and who had learned how to read, write, and speak French fluently after studying and working as an au pair in Paris, were not details I could have physically seen in any of the discussions I had had with the Paul Farmer I knew as my Professor. But others—the patient manner of speaking, the pointed nose, the “photographic memory” and knack for remembering personal details about almost anyone he met were details that I had seen come to life. I could still remember being taken aback by Farmer’s question, “how is your twin sister?” when I attended a panel event featuring him as one of the speakers more than a month after I had first met him in person. I was one of the many sophomores who had taken a popular global health course for which he served as a co-instructor. I didn’t remember mentioning that I had a twin, but evidently he did and ever since I have learned not to be surprised when his memory serves up details about past conversations that even I have forgotten.
Farmer’s respect for the mentors he has encountered by way of the writings they left behind was also a point of surprise for me when I first read about them. Kidder writes about the German polymath Rudolf Virchow, for example, who was a visionary in both scientific medicine and political life, as well as a thinker of particular note to the young Farmer. Kidder cites a litany of quotes attributable to Virchow:
‘“Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing but medicine on a large scale.” “It is the curse of humanity that it learns to tolerate even the most horrible situations by habituation.” “Medical education does not exist to provide students with a way of making a living, but to ensure the health of the community.” The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should largely be solved by them.”’
-pg. 61, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
I felt as though I could have held the entire community in the palm of my outstretched hand. He subido la colina—in other (English) words, I had climbed the hill—and the view of Honduras sitting pleasantly before me was the perfect complement to my Friday afternoon reading session. The journey hadn’t been so precarious—in fact, the most trying part had probably been my quick dash across a long wooden plank that looked less-than-well-situated for its intended purpose as a bridge. As I stood at the top of the hill, surveying the small paradise before me, I recalled a similar time in Tanzania two years ago, when our small gang had been visiting a banana plantation in the mountainous terrain of the north. Living on the edge was the literal description for the experience, for the only way to ascend the mountainside had been to tiptoe our way along a tiny footpath with our backs to the vegetation behind us. Below was at least a 100-foot drop. One step in the wrong direction and you and the bananas would be unequivocally split (pun intended). I can remember thinking, well, this is only a mildly pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Considering that memory, this small hill in Honduras had already exceeded my expectations.
Now, as I re-read Tracy Kidder’s novel as the sun just begins it’s daily descent into the sky above the Sierra, I can’t help but feel a sort of kinship with the feelings and recollections Farmer describes in Kidder’s novel. Though I am in Mexico rather than Haiti and living in a time when the teenagers around me save up 10 pesos so that they can use a wildly unpredictable internet connection to access Facebook, many of the experiences that the young Farmer had upon arriving in Port-au-Prince in 1983 are ones that I have begun to understand in a far more visceral way since setting foot on these red dust-laden streets. My present reading stoop is certainly a far cry from the one my high school self occupied in Richmond, Va as I read Kidder’s words for the first time. But the beauty of my new circumstances are that so many of the characters described in the novel have become my professors, mentors, and guides in real life through this journey that has offered lessons equally in both the value of administering care and that of administering faith. And what’s more, when I am inspired by a new question about how a certain illness is perceived here or what a mother would do if she was faced with a lack of medications in such-and-such circumstance, I can close Kidder’s book, pick up my trusty (and now thoroughly soiled) backpack and trek down the hill to ask the people themselves.
“I-chaaa-niii!” They’ll say as I walk into their cement-floored living rooms and plop down on a familiar stool. “He ido para platicar” (I’ve come to chat) I’ll begin in the usual way. And just like that—as if those were the magic words—I’ll begin to fill my mind and my small notebook with another page of notes that I hope the future physician in me will remember years from now when life has carried me far away from these mountains.