Just before we knock on the first door, my fellow clowns make a little circle and everyone puts a foot forward. Our leader, Tortolita, leads the obligatory chant,
Virgen del zapatico
Que las risas
Lleguen a todos los niños
En este bello día
I’ve never been a hospital clown in my life. This is my very first time. I trust Tortolita, though. I have to. She knocks on an already open door.
“Hola,” she says softly.
“Can we come in?”
There’s a little girl sitting on a bed and her mom is talking to her. There’s no air-conditioning and the windows are wide open. The woman says hi to us and waves her hands with enthusiasm, but the little girl, must have been around three years old, looks like she’s about to burst into tears.
We cannot go into a room without a green light from everyone in it. That rule is sacred. There’s a kid in there too with her mom that clearly wants us to enter, but this little girl hasn’t said anything to us. So Tortolita asks again, “can we come in?”
We’re cramped at the door frame waving at the girl and smiling at her. The girl throws an even sadder face, and Tortolita changes her approach. “Alright, we will play from here, we’ll play the zoo, would you like that?”
The girl says nothing, but pays attention.
Tortolita asks the mom to come and play. The mom leaves the girls at the bed and comes with us to the door, and all of the sudden Tortolita says, at the count of three you’ll be an elephant.
The lady doesn’t have time to agree when Tortolita counts,
“1, 2, 3!”
Immediately, the mom does this awkward walk and pretends to use her arm as the elephant’s trunk. She comes up with this super lame whoosh sound that sounds nothing like an elephant. Everyone laughs, and the girl smiles a little from the bed.
Tortolita makes the mom do another animal, but not immediately, she builds the suspense.
“Mmm… what animal should we do next?…”
I say “make it a hard one”
And the mom is all like “nooo.”
We are still cramped at the door still, mind you.
“uno, dos, tres, a duck!”
This time the mom does nail the sound, quack quack, and even does a little duck-walk around the room. She’s doing her best to cheer her girl up.
“We’re coming in, but we’ll stay close to the door, you just tell us how close we can get, is that okay?”
The girl nods, and all the three of us enter in this cartoonish stealthy way for no particular reason, I just follow suit.
I’m a clown now.
“Is this close enough?” Tortolita says.
And then we hear the first thing coming from the girl’s mouth, in the most fragile and tiny voice: “it hurts.”
Tortolita just keeps going.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry, we’ll play from here. At the count of three we’ll play zoo, and each person in this room will be a different animal.”
Everyone picks an animal, I chose the dog, and at the count of three, the hospital room turns into a zoo of sorts, the mom joins in too. The kid who wanted us to come in just keeps eating his arepa and enjoying the show.
I’m nailing my bipedal-dog impression, walking around the room among the other animals, and then out of nowhere Tortolita says:
Everyone just freezes in their position. Tortolita waits a few seconds and then asks, “should we leave them like that?”
We can’t move, but we shake our heads when Tortolita is not watching.
The little girl nods.
“Are you sure, should we leave them like that?”
The girl smiles and nods again, she doesn’t let her hand off her belly, where it hurts.
Eventually, the girl unfreezes us so we can go to the next room. The next room is a room of moms.
We’re doing this during a visit with the Dr. Yaso Foundation, a Hospital Clown NGO founded in 2005. Their Ciudad Guayana division is called Guayayasos, it’s volunteer run, so most visits are on weekends.
Today, we have two experienced clowns, four others that just started this week, the pasillero, and me: I barely received any training and I don’t know a damn about clowning. But here I am, outside the Uyapar hospital at 9:00 a.m., ready to make sick kids laugh.
A lady in a milicias bolivarianas uniform keeps a record of every person that enters the hospital. The Guayayasos are no strangers. After a short conversation they let everyone in.
In minutes, we’re transformed: pigtails, makeup, colorful pants and, of course, white lab coats with drawings and the logos of the Guayayasos foundation. Canuto, the only male clown this time, even has a stethoscope.
Again, no air-conditioning and windows wide open. Everyone looks like they could use a bath but had to spend the night here. The same greasy and tired face.
Tortolita seems to be figuring out the games as she goes, and she’s amazing at that. This room has 5 women, 2 kids and some babies. She says we should do a fashion show, and goes over each of the ladies giving them silly hairstyles, like front ponytails. She pretends to spit on their hair while she makes comments:
“Mija, what you need is a blowtorch not a hairdryer.”
We make them walk across the room with their hairs, while we do the misses song, “en una noche tan linda como esta”. Some of them paraded carrying their babies, and their tired faces disappeared.
One of them seems to be malnourished, but even she paraded gladly with her palm tree hairstyle.
In this room, we mostly played with the adults, and even though the kids were watching, everyone was having a blast. I’d say the adults needed the clowns just as much as the kids.
In the next room, we had to be really quiet. The pasillero told us the room only had one bigger kid that wanted to play, and the rest were babies sleeping. So, Tortolita just whispered at the kid. I couldn’t catch what she was saying, but the kid was having fun.
After that, Tortolita went to talk with one of the moms of the sleeping babies. I was just getting there to hear what they were talking about when she throws this:
“I’m gonna’ leave you with him (me), he’s Sin Nombre, and he’s an expert in silly conversations”
And then she left me with that lady.
I’m not an expert at silly conversations, I didn’t even do the mandatory one-week training! but the lady believed it and was already smiling at me in anticipation, so I just rolled with it:
“So… where are you from?”
“I’m from Core 8”
“Is that before core 7?” I ask
She laughs and says “I don’t know…”
“But it is before the core 9 right?”
“haha yeah, probably”
(I can’t believe this is working)
Her baby was sleeping and had a tiny cast in one arm.
“Or maybe….it started as Core 1, and then it started growing, Core 2… Core 3, now is core 8. Probably after a few years, it will become core 9”
“Yeah, with all of these constructions they are doing we never know, it might turn into a Core 9 in the future”
This went on for a while.
I went after Tortolita, who was talking to another lady beside a sleeping baby, and she did the same thing: she introduced me as an expert in silly conversations. I just did my best.
In the other room, the other group of clowns joined us in the middle of a game, so we had to come up with something that included everyone.
We decided to play traffic. The people that were outside the room watching came in and the clowns made them be the traffic cones. They put their hand in a triangle over their heads just stood there.
The rest of the clowns did a train formation, but we pretended it was a perrera, we just circled the cones and stopped from time to time to pick the passengers, mostly kids, and some adults. One of the kids that had a foot injury, even got up and went in the perrera for a couple of stops.
Midgame we agreed that it wasn’t a perrera and made it a Transbolivar accordion bus.
At one point the room disappeared, as we announced the stops at different places of the city, the sickness, the shortages, the lack of air-conditioning just vanished in the background… everyone was just having fun.
Only one kid that was laying in his bed besides his dad wasn’t smiling. After the public transport craziness, the dad raised a rose apple and said to the clowns: “Whoever makes my kid laugh wins it”
Canuto, the other experienced clown besides Tortolita tried first. I was looking forward to see him in action, I already saw Tortolita and she was a genius at this.
Canuto decided to cheat and said to the kid “If you laugh, I’ll give you a rose apple.”
I thought It was pretty funny, but it didn’t do the trick. Some of the other clowns tried one by one with no luck.
And then Tortolita takes out a bubble blower, At this point two other kids (one of them followed us from the previous room) were standing beside the bed too trying to cheer the kid up too. She started blowing bubbles, and the other two kids tried to pop them with their hands. It took three seconds for the kid in the bed to smile and start competing to pop the bubbles too.
Everyone in the room throwed a “EEEH!!” in celebration. The kid at least smiled.
Now to the next floor.
The clowns have this this bit where two of them stand at different sides of the room and act as if they haven’t seen each other in a long time. Then they hug each other, but in the process, lock a distracted passerby in between them. Then they start talking and catching up while keeping that person trapped in the hug for a while.
In our way to the emergency room, Tortilita and another clown tried the hug thing with a lady. She politely smiled, but after they let go, the lady hugged Tortolita and just started crying.
We gave them some privacy. These things happen.
Back in the emergency room we saw people with symptoms of malnutrition, and malaria patients. It was cramped, but we did our best to cheer people up by asking them silly things. There weren’t many kids around.
We finished the visits at 11:15 am with a little meeting. At the end of every session the clowns all share their experiences, and feedback.
I participate too, I tell them that what they do is amazing. It’s Sunday morning, all of them could be doing something completely different with their lives, but they chose to be there and visit sick children, for free. It’s moving.
They’re normal people: accountants, pc repairmen, housewives, students, but when they’re clowns they become superheroes, shoulders to cry on, angels. They say laughter is the best medicine, but for some of the patients we visited it might be the only medicine they get.
Want to support the Dr. Yaso Foundation? Please do! They take both bolívares and dollars, anything counts.