Thursday, August 12, 2010

Devastation and garbage are everywhere

Day 1 (Sunday, Aug. 1)

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The severity of the sweltering heat hit me square in the face when I walked off the plane and through the hallway to the terminal when I was hit with a heat blast through a crack. I grew up in Arizona, so 110-degree, dry heat is something I dealt with regularly in the summer for 20 years. This was different; it was muggy and sticky.

After we gathered our 15-member traveling party (three met us there for their second week), we took a bus to customs. I saw my first tent in the distance near the tarmac. Once inside, utter chaos ensued. Everyone on our flight was standing in the same long, sweaty lines. Haitians, naturally, got preference going through the lines. In the distance, I saw hundreds of people trying to track down their hundreds of suitcases, while fending off hustling Haitians trying to earn a buck by taking your suitcase to the customs’ luggage checkout counter. It was a distance of perhaps 30 yards, but with the massive body traffic might take hours.

We spent roughly 30 minutes in line to get our passports stamped (my first ever). The building was your typical metal airport hangar, but with no air conditioning and only a few fans. I estimated the temperature to be 120 degrees F with 70 percent humidity. Sweat constantly dripped from my body. Most Haitians keep a handkerchief in their pockets for wiping their brow and face. I made a quick mental note of that.

Once through the line, we had to swim through some 300 bodies for our 25 pieces of luggage, including 10 extra suitcases with donated children’s clothes and tools and equipment for the construction team. Five different men boldly grabbed my suitcase, trying to “help” me, only to be given a stern “non!” and a wag of my index finger. I can’t fault them for trying to make a buck; they’re at least willing to work. One of my teammates offered a Haitian man $2 for maybe five minutes work and was told, “Not enough,” he said with palm out. “Take it or leave it,” he was told. He took it and went on to his next victim.

The various Haitian baggage handlers bickered constantly over who carried what bag and who should get credit. I know about five words in Creole, but I’m certain I heard a few loud four-letter insults.

The men in our group tried to take charge and protect the women in our group as best we could. We stacked carts four-suitcases deep, and I was in charge of one, with my personal suitcase and a second suitcase filled with children’s clothes on board. I didn’t let it leave my sight. I feared being asked by a customs agent: “Has anyone other than you handled your bag in the airport?” Well, yeah, 13 Haitians handled my bag. Duh.

Next up: getting all 25 bags through customs. The first cart was being handled by John, one of the 17-year-old twins. The woman agent asked him to open a bag, and she went through it for a minute. She waved him through. I was up next. I was motioned to put the top suitcase on the counter in front of her.

In broken English, she asked what was inside. I told her, “Children’s clothes.”

“For who?”

“An orphanage,” I told her.

“All of these bags are for the orphanage?”

I chose my words carefully, not wanting to lie. “Yes, all these suitcases are together,” I said.

She smiled. “You can go. All of you. Thank you for coming.” She waved us all through.

This was not your normal “Thank you for visiting Haiti” travel dialog. She was thanking us for coming to help the orphans. She knew what we were doing in her country.

It was the first miracle that our team experienced in Haiti. We would experience many more in our eight days there. As we walked out the door together, we silently gave thanks for making what could have been a difficult process as easy as possible. God had let us know in our first hour in Haiti that he was with us amid the chaos around us.

In the parking lot, en route to the truck that would haul us to our hotel, we had to dodge a few more aggressive baggage handlers. In the distance, we saw a “Cornerstone” sign and walked to it. For all we knew, this guy punched out the original sign-holder to make a few extra bucks. We met our contact outside, who led us a quarter mile to the parking lot, where our truck awaited us. We had a 10-minute walk through the bumpy, pock-marked parking lot, with hundreds of Haitians shouting at us for change or water. Most of the airport was heavily damaged from the earthquake and was closed.

Four kids loaded our bags onto the truck. Our leader, Jonathan, asked us to contribute $2 to the main handler, who would divvy up the $30 among his people, all for five minutes work. The good news is we didn’t have to pay for parking.

The drive from the airport to our hotel was 20 miles, but it took us nearly two hours in normal traffic. When I say normal, I mean normal for Port-au-Prince. We drove on the main road from the capital city to Leogane, the epicenter of the January 12 earthquake that devastated this tiny Caribbean island. Much of the road was not paved. Most of it was filled with ruts and pock marks that sent drivers from the far right of the road to the far left in a matter of seconds. Each quick swerve brought honks from on-coming traffic and gasps from the 22 passengers in back, including the five Haitians who bravely sat on the back with no handhold or seatbelt.

From the back of the truck, I saw nothing but crumbled buildings (but not torn down), utter devastation, filth, stench from garbage strewn everywhere and hopelessness on the faces off Haitians. Rubble from broken buildings lay on the main road. Blue tarps and tents were everywhere, side-by-side in every vacant lot and park in town.

One-person businesses were everywhere. Men and women of all ages hawked their wares on every street corner. Motor oil, bottled water, sodas, gum, clothes, fresh produce, cooked food, stores on a stand – you name it and it was for sale.

White people in the back of a truck brought stares from the thousands of Haitians we passed by. We quickly learned that a friendly “bonswa!” (good afternoon) brought a smile and return “bonswa” from Haitians. Most of the Haitians we would meet were friendly.

Traffic is heavy on every square foot of the road. It is filled with motorcycles (often taxis) with as many as three people on board, personal cars and pickups, trucks like ours hauling goods and semi-tractor trailers. And public transportation. No, not busses like we see in the United States but little mini-pickups that had metal cages in their bed with benches on both sides. It wasn’t unusual to see both benches crammed and with people on the floor, standing on the back bumper holding on for dear life and even sitting up on top. I counted 21 people in one pickup/bus. Every person had the same empty look on their face. Few vehicles have air conditioning. Haitians shout at each other for every driving transgression, then move on.

The larger your vehicle, the more respect you get when you weave. Thankfully, our driver was an expert at avoiding ruts and weaving through traffic.

I reserved three waters in my suitcase, but it was buried at the bottom of the pile. I was sweating profusely. Katy, one of the women in our group, offered me a drink of cold water. I swallowed my pride and took a drink, a big drink. “Thank you,” I said, humbly. “No problem. If you need more, just say so,” she replied. I said so a few more times on our long, hot drive.

All the way, we prayed. The truck’s transmission was shot and slipping constantly. Every time we stopped, we held our breath as to whether we were going to move again. Each time, we eventually moved. The road was dusty much of the way.

This form of travel was foreign to us foreigners but a common, everyday occurrence for the locals.

It is Sunday and many of the women and girls are wearing pretty dresses, and the men are in coats and ties, walking with Bibles in hand. Church is going on somewhere nearby – or maybe miles away. I could see a few open-air services going on as we drove through town.

Finally, we reach our hotel. Our 18-hour venture is over. Rest was coming. On the gate of our hotel was a picture of a gun with an X through it. Was this an ominous sign? We joked about it, but inside, I was wondering what I had gotten myself into.

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