I sat tired and exhausted in the American Airlines Admirals' Club sitting silent, staring dreamily into my laptop screen. I was applying the final touches to my seemingly-endless midterm -- an online, take-home test for the MBA Entrepreneur Technology class at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. I had a week off from school. Truly I had things to do back home. But the announcement had already been made on the American Airlines' Intercom System that my flight from JFK was ready to board lo mas pronto. Once again, I was in a hurry to get somewhere in a jiffy and in this case, I was heading to earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince.
I had heard it several times over -- almost in a trance -- every excruciating syllable as I read and re-read the key paragraphs of my take-home mid term for my Technology Entrepreneur class at the George Washington University school of Business.
Sooner or later, I had to click the send button -- regretting the hours spent procrastinating when I was actually planning my big trip. The moment was here, I was off on my first Spring Break in nearly 20 years. Grad school is tough. But it is even tougher at 42.
To say that this trip was rushed and unprepared would be a gross understatement. Not only had I not properly prepared, I decided less than a week ago to make this journey. Before this tumultuous week of preparations and midterm, Haiti wasn't even in my lexicon. Yeah, I had seen the gripping scenes flash before my eyes on CNN, but like virtually everyone else around me, the Haiti disaster seemed so distant so surreal.
It was only when I was sitting home studying for my midterm, wondering what I would be doing for spring break that I heard her call me. I didn't have any plans and Haiti seemed like the right place to be.
One of the first things I did was post a question on Haiti Rewired:
"I'm planning on going to Haiti for five days. Will there be any food and water there that I can purchase?"
Within an hour came a reply from one of the site's administrators: Rick Davis:
"Yes, there's food and water that you can purchase. Why are you going?"
Then came my response:
"To cover the plight of the people and their struggle. To tell their side of the story."
"There's plenty of media that's already down there. The place is a mess and you could put yourself in danger. IMO, you shouldn't go."
I boarded the flight from Reagan with a layover in JFK. Just packing for this trip and bringing everything that I needed was a daunting challenge in and itself.
But what was even scarier was the fact that I didn't have a place to stay. Not knowing anyone there, I was literally taking a step of faith by embarking on this trip. I had a sleeping bag and a mosquito net, but those two things could not protect me from the danger that lurked around the corner at nightfall.
Upon arriving at JFK, I checked the monitor to see a direct flight leaving NYC for Port-au-Prince. Terminal 2, 1:30 PM it flashed. My flight to Santo Domingo would be leaving an hour after that. Good. My one and only chance to meet people and perhaps secure a room before I arrived.
Eunice speaking to members of COTY
Eunice Tasson is a sister from Massachusetts. A spry women who both showed compassion and leadership, she had been visiting Haiti since 1984. As the founding director of the Church Outreach to Youth Group (COTY) in North Adams, Massachusetts, Eunice leads a group of young people up to the mountains several times a year. Their destination is Desab, a beautiful village located six miles up a dirt path in the mountains, a village without electricity, without running water and even things like healthcare is not to be taken for granted.
I was so glad to meet Eunice and she was so surprised that I didn't have a place to stay. No problem. I'll make a phone call right now. Her first call was to Veniel Jean, the manager of Wall's International Guest House. Once a popular and comfortable place to stay, the guest house was almost completely destroyed while people were inside. Many got out. Five people (three guests and two staff) were killed.
By the time I headed over to the Admiral's Club to finish my midterm, I received this email:
I was elated and thankful. Sister Eunice Tasson was my angel for my trip and Wall's Guest House would be my tent for protection.
The first stop on the flight was Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; Santo is a busy, breezy metropolis where people are friendly and there are lots of surprises at every block.
Night on the Beach
I spent the night in Santo in my compact rental, first on the beach, then in the airport parking lot. I was way too tired to worry about danger. If someone came swinging at me, I would be too tired to defend myself anyway. Awake for nearly 48 hours, I would soon be facing another bout of sleepless nights, under a droopy, leaky tent, the sound of helter skelter hungriness lurking all around me.
I managed to pop into downtown, through the Zona Colonial and under the massive Asian gate with dragons, lions and other Chinese allegorical sculptures and plants that evoke the culture, tradition and philosophy of over 45,000 people. Of this number, over 30,000 are Chinese--Dominicans.
I met several Chinese expats who have built and developed a Chinatown that stretches four blocks, boasting as the 8th largest Chinatown (not just in the Caribbean) but in the whole world. Along Avenida Duarte, there were several dozen Chinese-owned businesses: restaurants, laundries, supermarkets and video rentals. I spoke to a handful of them and looked and tasted their food -- it surpassed my expectations -- wasn't the deep fried chicken I expected, but authentic Chinese food with sweet and sour recipes, General Tso's Chicken and tofu balls dowsed in spinach soup. I was greatly satiated and I loaded down for my big trip the next day.
Enroute to Port-au-Prince
First thing next morning, I am sitting aboard an American Eagle shuttle, waiting on the tarmac because an announcement was made that the plane was over 600 pounds overweight, and we cannot take off unless we shed off some weight.
As the plane and ground crew worked out a solution (they simply removed a dozen bags off the plane), I kept my fingers crossed, hoping that my sleeping bag, inflatable pad, and mosquito net would make it to Port-au-Prince with me.
I managed a quick nap on the 50 min flight to PaP, which was ideal because in the day's ahead, I would be seriously deprived of sleep.
When we arrived in country, the views were dismal, an emotional tear rolled down my cheek as I looked around to assess the damage, the destruction, the downtrodden denizens -- I was not emotionally ready for what lay ahead.
In fact, many times, I shut my eyes, my mind could not comprehend, I stared in disbelief, in grief -- for me personally, there was deep shame, deep blame. Where did we go wrong?
In many ways, I read the US was partly to blame for exporting poorly-thought out agricultural policy that only hurt the Haitian economy while protecting the U.S. rice farmers and hog farmers.
By reducing tariffs, Haitian rice farmers lost out to the US and the Iowa pigs sent to Haiti frequently got ill and couldn't flourish under tougher Haitian conditions.
I saw thousands and thousands of families living desolate on the street with nothing over their heads except a piece of canvas and perhaps a filthy mattress they carried from the dump.
They were calling out as we passed, asking for bread, water, flip flops, anything that we could possibly give them.
"Merci beaucoup," I said -- about the only French or Creole that I know.
Straight ahead, a handful of kids were drinking water, from the ground, splashing a handful of water from the sewer. A lack of clean water is causing a dystentery and typhoid problem in Haiti -- another problem -- lack of city wide trash pickup.
Luckily, cholera had not surfaced in Haiti, yet. Despite all its setbacks, cholera had not shown its ugly face in nearly a century. However, this deadly disease is exactly what health workers fear after a natural disaster when the infrastructure is destroyed and drinking water becomes contaminated with fecal matter.
I thought about the malaria problem. I knew I had not taken any doxycycline before my trip, but I at this time I wasn't too concerned.
In the distance, several men from the three-thousand bustling full tent city were burning trash. The raunchy smell of smoke and debris was so pungent, my eyes began to well up.
Trash was everywhere -- on the streets, on the sidewalks, human waste -- the smell of desolation, the smell of dirt mixed with misery.
Sadly, Haiti a nation of 10 million, doesn't have a trash treatment plant. The residents just dispose their trash and human waste on the streets, wherever they can. They build up in the camps causing a pressing health threat spreading diarrheal illnesses and the stench of decomposing bodies that just won't go away. They attract insects that can easily spread malaria with the coming of the rainy season. Sometimes, you see an unattended child standing in a pile of trash. No one turns an eye; no one is concerned. This is Haiti -- the poorest country in the western hemisphere (before the earthquake). Even "Haiti's pigs live better than this."
There were over 700,000 displaced people living in make-shift camps. Just emptying latrines was a big issue. Without a sewage treatment plant, trucks often take the waste to the Troutier trash dump near the slums of Cite Soleil on the city's ragged edge.
In these streets of the seaside slum, where gun law is the only law, there is no food, no water, no nothing -- just violence and a whole lota bullets. Cite Soleil was always dangerous even before the disaster.
"No way am I going there," Veniel Jean said. "I wouldn't go to Cite Soleil if you offered me a million dollars."
Now, the earthquake has created a huge security vacuum. More than 4,000 prisoners escaped from the city's penitentiary. They returned to the slums now loaded with guns.
When walking through the tent villages, I always kept an attentive eye on who was around me and who appeared to be suspiciously staring down at me. If you notice a young man lingering around, then another seemingly watching you. They are likely tapping away on their cell phones. They are likely armed and are considering whether you are worth their trouble and how much money they could get if kidnapped.
I couldn't cry. Somewhere along, I ran out of tears.
But neither does much of Haiti have running water.