Katie in Haiti


Being an editor at a renowned publishing house, its a bit of an unfair comparison, but here is her update (not written on a mobile phone, like mine, and not accompanied by pictures, like mine ;- ).   That said, quite a bit more detailed and I agree with her various observations.  Enjoy

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The first 24 hours in Haiti has been exhausting—and it’s hard to believe that we left under the umbrella of fat, sloppy snowflakes just a day ago.  It is definitely not snowing here…

Despite a slightly delayed plane, we arrived safely in Haiti; along with a variety of other medical workers, family members of Haitians (seen carrying tents, clothing and other toiletries no longer available here), and a group of Search & Rescue team-members from the Army Corps of Engineers…who provided one of the more sobering moments of the flight when they admitted rescue operations were no longer really needed.  That being said, there was an interesting enthusiasm on the plane—people were eager to arrive and get moving, or find their families, or start helping; you looked out of the windows upon landing not see lush waters or resorts, but almost as gawkers at a car-wreck trying to glimpse the tragedy.  Our flight attendant summarized it best—it looks like one big construction site; the structural elements are in place, or some of them at least, but windows are gone and there is chaos.  Unlike flights to the Dominican, the flights into Haiti drop off passengers and return as quickly as they landed.

The airport was chaos, and immigration was in a temporary hangar, where our bags were unceremoniously dumped into piles.  From there we walked outside and met Al—one of our group members—and fought our way through the throngs of people waiting outside the gate and made it to the car.  Negotiating back into the airport—made only possible by the presence of a US passport, we located our last member, Ben.  Al is a firefighter—a 5’3” bundle of hutzpah from Orlando via South Africa—and Ben, an affable college grad from the Upper West Side.  Both piled into the car with us, our packs strapped to the back—and we began our long trek past Port-au-Prince and into the suburb of Leogane.  The city was indeed damaged, and is a mass of people, and markets, and chaos—but Leogane’s damage by comparison, was so much more profound; with nearly 90% of their buildings rendered unlivable.  The drive was a solemn one—masked by dust, burning trash, and the views of home after home left in shambles.

Our new home is quite palatial—in space, that is—apparently it was the town’s local rec center; basketball court, and…wait for it…nightclub.  Oh yes.  We are sleeping on the dancefloor of a nightclub.  The former stages at either end are now used as raised tent platforms, and the former “lounge” houses our computer area.  That being said, remnants of speakers, DJ equipment and colored lightbulbs echo what this once was…or, perhaps more fittingly, echo the promise of levity to come.  Despite the lack of techno music, our home abuts the local IDP tent camp, and their regular songs and religious ceremonies provide a musicality that is not only entertaining, but enduring.

After a tour and dinner—yes, shockingly it was beans & rice—we set up our own bunk; two lower halves of the bunk beds pushed together, air mattress, and lots of mosquito netting.  Good friends once said the true test of a relationship is making it through a trip to IKEA together…I suggest trying to string up mosquito netting in near darkness, after a long day of travel.  All joking aside, Philip’s reputation as a “prepared” adventure traveler, was a huge relief; and our bunk is most definitely four-star.  (on a side note, speaking of his preparedness, anyone who knows his propensity for dispensing with exercise-nutrition advice will find it unsurprising that camp members are now hitting him up for Endurance Gatorade powder and Carbo Pro).

Ben and Ali remain delightful compatriots—sharing food, laughs and irreverent humor as we set up camp together and prepared for sleep.  A surprising cool breeze comes through at night and in a small way, you all of a sudden remember you’re on an island…

And it would have been a perfect night’s rest if not for the ten zillion roosters crowing at 5 am.  It’s a most discordant alarm clock—but surprisingly effective (take note, Brookstone) if you’re looking for a surefire way to rouse even the heaviest of sleepers.  Shuffles back and forth to bathrooms and bucket showers, followed by corn flakes and tea—and then we were off to our site to clear rubble.

Philip and I were on a team of 9 headed to a small village 15 minutes away, that is part of a German program called GTZ—and if the homeowners clear their land of rubble, this construction company will come in and build their new home.  So our job is to clear their rubble (though a provision of the agreement is that the homeowners are required to assist in the work too).  According to Christof—the team leader I met later in the afternoon—they plan on making 1,400 of these shelters.  The village we are working in, is known as Petit Jesu—a (un)fortunate moniker that led us to name ourselves “Team Baby Jesus.”  If you haven’t already noticed, an effective remedy when wading head-first into tragedy is irreverent humor—sometimes, even with so much hope around you, the reality is still difficult to swallow.

So, Team Baby Jesus—which I’ll call TBJ—spent the morning clearing rubble from a former home.  Though we were operating under welcome overcast skies, our t-shirts were soaked within minutes, and even the darkest hair turned gray under the clouds of rubble dust.  Yoga and meditation aside, I’d highly recommend sledgehammering as an effective stress-reliever. It’s also a sure-fire way to prove your “worth” in the group—and always elicits a few smiles from the Haitian men and women who are not used to seeing women working, much less going all Paul Bunyan on sheet-rock.

Four hours of work later, two Nalgene bottles consumed, and countless wheelbarrow trips back and forth dumping off rubble—we hopped on the tap-tap (a pick-up truck with bench seating in the back…um, of course there are seatbelts…) and headed back to lunch; an event that largely consisted of eating as much rice & beans as possible and then crashing into bed for a siesta.

Back on the road, we headed to a site across the street (having pretty much handled the demolition of the first home)—a site that is the largest HODR has tackled to date.  A full-size home, even by US standards, it had completely fallen under—with concrete, rock and rebar in various states of mangled array.  We expect the job to take at least another 2 days optimistically (or realistically, see note about Philip’s nutritional plan above), assuming we can demolish the roof and rebar tomorrow and clear the rubble the following day.

In between carrying loads of rubble to the dump site, one wheelbarrow at a time, you pass the tent camps, the burning trash, the goats eating the trash, and remnants of former normalcy—dishes, lamps, stuffed animals, clothing… All of which are sobering no doubt, but tempered by the laughter and cunning of the Haitian children who Philip and others commandeered into helping.  I now understand the cruel tricks of parenting—anything can be done if you pretend it’s a game.  For example: let’s see who can lift the biggest cinder block (and then put in the wheelbarrow); let’s see who can push the rubble to the pile the fastest (quickest way to dump the rubble)…there’s not much a young kid won’t do when promised a wheelbarrow ride as a reward.  In contrast to the many people not helping out, I hope that these young kids will take pride and ownership in what they did to help out their families.

Another four hours later, a bucket shower under a blue tarp so refreshing it rivals any spa I’ve been to, and more rice & beans…it’s all left us exhausted, with hands and forearms tired from gripping axes, wheelbarrows, and shovels…(though you’d think it would stop me from typing so much).  Separated from creature comforts, especially those of us from large cities, you start to appreciate the art of conversation, and new friends, the simplicity of water, and the taste of melted chocolate has never been so flavorful—in short, you become thankful. Not for what you have, but what you carry with you—remembering to “bend from the knees” when you shovel snow (in this case rubble); having encountered that spider at Girl Scout camp made dealing with the baseball-sized tarantula a bit easier (ok, that’s a lie—it was still awful.  I just remembered not to squeal this time); and most of all, carrying with us the energy and support from each of our families and friends.  We may be here working, but we are certainly not alone.

So, with that, this blanca (Haitian for Gringo) bids “bon nuit” and am off to an assured good’s night sleep…that is, until the roosters start singing.

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