Friday, July 16, 2010

The Air Over Haiti

I know I said I would finish blogging about my trip, but real life moves on. One day I'll get back and finish those two posts (they're basically already written in my journal), but for now I have more important and current events to write about:

I’ve never flown over the Caribbean before. It isn’t an hour into the flight that we were passing over large bare, muddy, soggy flat land, much the way I imagine Haiti to look in the rainy season. Storm clouds, anvils a thousand feet high, dot the landscape (airscape?) around our Air France flight. I can’t stop thinking what am I in for? Why am I going?

Eight months ago I was just returning from Peace Corps and a couple months of traveling. I needed a new adventure to take me away from the boring, day-to-day of law school applications and sitting around my parents’ house. After the earthquake I wanted to help. I didn’t want to give money, I wanted to give time and energy, so I applied everywhere I could think of or find online. Now here I am on a plane to Port-au-Prince (PaP in the international slang down here). First thing: My French is a bit rusty, but I think it will come back quickly enough. Second: I’m a bit nervous. No need to be really. I’m going to be picked up at the airport, my hand will be held a bit. I think I’m nervous about what I’m going to see – and what I can do. Oh, and of course, it’s going to be hot and humid. All these thunderheads are dropping a good amount of rain judging from the smear of gray that follows under them.

We fly over strange turquoise streaks in the water. Reefs? It’s always great to see a part of the world for the first time. So many new things.

I didn’t write much when I was in Seattle. Only a couple of pages in a journal, one blog post. It was a comfortable eight months. I worked, I played with friends. I didn’t meet a bunch of new people; I was trying mostly to reconnect with friends of old. I had some good dates (and some bad). It was comfortable and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the life there. I could have, yet again, satisfied and content, but instead I pushed myself out to do something different in a different place. I pushed myself to be uncomfortable. I wonder why I do that. It seems to be a family trait with Kate perpetually on the move. What happened in our childhoods to motivate this? I can’t think of our parents ever pushing internationalism. So where did it come from, this wanderlust?

The muddy land we flew over wasn’t Hispaniola. We’ve moved back over open water again, though it’s dotted with many islands, big and small.

I guess, for me, comfortable just doesn’t inspire me. I want to be inspired. I want a muse. Travel and new faces can be muses of sorts. I wrote everyday I was on the road. I wrote much when I first arrived in Niger. I plan to write in Haiti.

I think Haiti will be a lot like Niger.

A short nap and I awaken to “Nous nous commen├žons notre descente vers Port-au-Prince,” we’re beginning our descent into PaP. Similar thoughts go through my head coming in over PaP as did coming in over Niamey. Poverty is obvious from the air – shacks and trash heaps. The Earthquake is evident too, though less obvious. Some collapsed walls and rubble. Though what we flew over was a short stretch from ocean to airport, not many concrete buildings to begin with. One thing quite noticeable from the air are the blue tents. They stand out against the metal roofs of shacks and houses. There are so many of them, clustered in groups, sometimes standing alone in a concession or alleyway.

As we taxi to the terminal we base a full on military air operation based in the middle of the PaP airport. Helicopters, field tents and support vehicles arranged orderly in the middle of grass fields between runways. A Peruvian transport loading up a contingent of Peruvian UN troops to head out is parked next to us on the tarmac.

The airport itself shows signs of the Quake: cracks and exposed brick work. The main building is still unused it seems and customs and baggage have moved into a secondary building.

Not quite as chaotic a scene as when I arrived at the Niamey airport in Niger – the porters are all held outside the gate, down a walkway from the exit from customs. That, however, didn’t stop someone from pulling my bag off the baggage conveyor and stealing the hard drive I had in my side pocket. Frustrating to lose so many photos and all of my music. A short attempt to talk to the airport and Air France officials was useless. They just shrugged and said I should go talk to someone else. The run around.

After the hard drive fiasco and meeting up with another volunteer, it’s off on a crazy drive to Leogane, a city to the West of PaP where Hands On Disaster Response (HODR) is based and the epicenter of the January earthquake. Something like 80-90% of the buildings in Leogane were destroyed.

Traffic is always crazy in the third world. Rubble piles in the middle of streets don’t help the free-for-all style of driving much. It was just a mess in PaP with busses, pick-up trucks, and motorcycles all competing for their route and lives.

We took a route that passed by many damaged and destroyed buildings. The main cathedral was just a shell, the entire roof had collapsed leaving arching walls sixty feet tall and stain glass windows intact. The parliament’s entire front fa├žade had fallen away and many ministry buildings in the area were heavily damaged. I saw buildings that had fallen sideways, some collapsed, and some entirely all to rickety-looking to have been lucky enough to have survived.

Weather isn’t so bad. It is hot and it is humid, but it’s nothing worse than I ever experienced in Niger. Very much like Niger during the rainy season.The terrain is not all mud and bare ground as I had feared. A lot of green, palm trees and hills. No forests which I guess is what people are referring to when they say this half of the island was logged off.

People remind me of Niger also – friendly, energetic, loud, a bit pushy when it comes to waiting in lines. Here, though, I feel that being white will have a slightly differeny connotation. In Niger I was an anomaly, something out of the ordinary, but I get the idea that Haitians are more accustomed to the aid workers, especially after the Earthquake. It will be interesting to see how that affects relationships with locals.

It’s surprisingly nice to be back to this type of place and people, even if I’m not so comfortable with it yet. But, hey, wasn’t comfortable what I was escaping?

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