As we were cleared for landing and began to descend, the country immediately struck me with surprise. It’s beauty from 30,000, 20,000 and 10,000 feet unmatched. An island in the middle of a beautiful blue ocean, the color of which doesn’t exist in a deck of crayons. If it were, the Crayon would be labeled “Caribbean Blue” – the same one we’ve all seen in photos of exquisite beaches and resorts that so define this part of the world. The beauty of the visual from altitude belied what I knew we were about to experience.
As we entered final approach, the reality of Haiti began to emerge from the natural beauty of its macro environment. The last mile brought the surrounding areas and neighborhoods into clear vision and perspective. This was a vision of buildings that appeared more like ruins than inhabitable structures. An innocent question from my daughter “Daddy, what is all that junk?” followed immediately by her recognition “unless those are neighborhoods….” As the wheels touched down, I looked past Shannon’s position by the window to see a jet sitting in a field. Apparently it’s final resting place. The grass and weeds grew around it, accepting the jet as a permanent fixture of the land.
As we deplaned we began a long wait in the Haitian equivalent of a concourse – a hallway with sealed windows on either side, and underperforming air conditioning units operating along the wall. Like the plane awaiting clearance to land, we were again in a holding pattern due to an underdeveloped infrastructure. The 767 spit its 300 passenger content into this concourse, a concourse with one exit option - a single down escalator that descended to a flock of people awaiting transportation to the next stop in entering the country. As the flock cleared, more passengers were allowed to descend the escalator. And again, and again….
As we finally descended the escalator to ground level the stale humid concourse air gave way to a comfortable afternoon. Slight breeze and mid 80‘s. A brief wait and the 9 of us were boarding an open air bus on the tarmac, not 50 yards from a wingover turboprop that was running up its engine for taxi out. The bus took us to the customs and baggage claim area; a metal building sitting a few hundred yards down the tarmac.
The undefined waiting lines lead to multiple Haitian customs agent. As Shannon and I reached our agent he took the passports. Without ever raising his eyes from his desk or the documents, he stamped them and returned them to the two of us. The human equivalent of an automated machine; signing, folding, tearing, stamping, collating and returning. We were in the country.
The baggage claim was a primitive alpha male competition. The lighting in the metal building so poor that the bag tags were essentially indiscernible. After frenzied baggage retrieval by all of us, the likes of which make LaGuardia or JFK appear civil by contrast, we assembled our team. The claim area so small that the area in which we assembled was essentially the area in which we stacked the bags –approximately 3 feet off the turnstile. The 9 of us then attempted to proceed as a single unit to the customs desk. A task at which we were only partially succesfull due to the non-stop pushing and jockeying for position. As we gave our declarations tag to the final customs official, he brushed us past his checkpoint. A handful of declarations documents in his hand, not a one of which I can only assume he ever so much as glanced at, as he certainly didn’t with ours.
By now we were beginning to receive much assistance from the red hats. A group of airport “volunteers” that grab your baggage cart and insist on pushing it to your awaiting vehicle. This is where the madness hit epic proportion. The red hats all screaming at each other in loud voices and speaking in Creole. Their conversation unintelligible to any of us, but clearly the only means of getting things accomplished in this uncontrolled environment. It reminded me of the videos I’ve seen of the old days in the pits of the New York Stock Exchange. Long before the days of automated trading, back in the day when the guy with the biggest courage and loudest voice made the deals – this was the exit scene at the airport. A cacophony of sound and rapid movement. As a red hat pushed me out of the way and placed himself into the operator’s position on my cart, my job became simple - keep my eye on Shannon at all times.
As we worked our way to the awaiting vehicles, the clear lack of transportation law began to become evident. We piled our luggage – all 40 pieces into a compact pickup truck with a topper. A Tap-Tap. The Tap Tap, once full, provided only two open seats at the back. These two seats, sideways facing, sat directly above the bumper. The job for these two guys … hold the rest of the stuff in the Tap Tap as we proceeded to the house. As fate would have it, I was one of these two guys. The rest of the group piled into the bed of an open air pickup truck to lead the way to the house.
Within a ¼ mile of the airport, we began to see the abject poverty of this country. Tent cities lining either side of the road. The road resembling a detonated mine field. The bumps and jars incredible. As with the Red Hats, the law on the road was the same - he with the biggest courage goes first and makes his way. An insane mixture of people on dirt bikes and trucks of all varieties. All with windows down, air conditioning an apparent unnecessary and unaffordable luxury, even for those driving vehicles.
The other guy on the bumper seat was Jeff, the Executive Director of our mission organization “Healing Haiti”. As we left the airport I asked him why the country hadn’t been able to capitalize on its perfectly beautiful Caribbean location. Why hadn’t it carved out a position as a leading tourist destination, as a means of capturing economic vitality? He explained to me a short history of the country – the success of the country in the 70’s at creating a vibrant tourism industry, the US blockade of the island nation in the 80’s - an attempt to drive out the country’s dictator that ultimately killed the country’s budding tourism commerce, the progress made again in the late 90’s and early 00’s, and Mother Nature’s sucker punch that dropped the country to its knees in 2010.
The path to the house was littered with debris. By US standards, the roads were impassable. The further we traveled from the airport, the closer the poverty encroached on the roads. Buildings that were foundationally corrupted, sitting at odd, Escher-like angles, clearly unsafe for human habitation and long since vacated. Tent cities everywhere. Our convoy of two small pickup trucks providing cause for the people within these communities to look up, observe and greet us. Some watching expressionless but most smiling, waving and shouting Creole greetings that I hope to be able to understand by the time I leave here.
The guesthouse will undoubtedly serve as an oasis from the madness all around it. As we arrived here, I used the opportunity to unplug. To try to digest the sheer squalor that I had witnessed in the last 30 minutes. To try to absorb the absolute lack of infrastructure and control that I had witnessed for the last 2 hours. This, without question, is a country fighting to survive. Trying to hold on, trying to keep from sliding off the map. And unfortunately the fighter appears to have both hands tied behind his back – able only to absorb the blows that Mother Nature and its own government have thrown against it. The guesthouse provided a perfect first stop – I was at my saturation point and I’d only been in country for 2 hours.
After an enjoyable guest house dinner prepared by Haitian staff, the group decided to take an unplanned trip into a tent city. Not a trip BY a tent city, a trip INTO a tent city - the tent city a mere 3 or 4 block walk from the house. With a local Haitian guide we journeyed in. Entirely ill at ease, I felt like an equal part spectacle and carnival observer. I felt guilty for descending on these people to witness their world. And as we progressed through the city, the horror of their existence became all the greater. 12 to 18 inches separated most of these tents on either side of a narrow, jagged trail. Hundreds of tents crowd this small city block, that looks at one time to have been a city park. It was early evening and the tents were dark inside – it was nearly impossible to see into the tents, and I didn’t want to try to focus. The squalor was beyond explanation. I walked around a man sitting with a sewing needle of some type, trying to repair his daughter’s broken sandal. Most sat seemingly without purpose, observing the activity around them, most notably our arrival.
As we reached a clearing I saw a boy with two badly under-developed legs. He was sitting in a wheel chair with a tarp roof overhead, presumably with his family. I am confident that he is only able to move to new locations with the help of others, the ground far too rocky and uneven to navigate alone in a wheel chair. But, as I pushed past my own discomfort, I noticed something unexplainable. This boy was smiling. The biggest most beautiful smile I had seen all day. His eyes were lit with joy – this child, with everything to be sad and miserable about, seemed genuinely happy.
We proceeded further into the city, my senses and consciousness on complete overload. I looked in bewilderment at the environment in which I was walking. It seemed surreal – surely this cant be reality in the 21st century. I stood there, watching, observing, processing – trying to come to terms with what I was experiencing. My heart breaking as I saw the abject poverty around us. Our white faces in far less contrast to the environment around us than our clean clothes and cell phone cameras. It was as if too much information was being fed to a computer – I simply couldn’t respond.
A small group of our team jumped into a soccer game and the kids, once they understood our intentions, were delighted. The soccer ball was a completely deflated ball of some nature. It didn’t bounce. The game was played out on a 10 by 20 slab of concrete. But it didn’t matter. This was the pinnacle of entertainment, the center of youth activity in this tent city.
The boys and girls flocked to us, wanting their photos taken and wanting to be lifted and held. One little boy asked me to take his photo. I did, and showed to him – to which he pointed to himself with a question, as if to say “is that me”? I assured him it was him and he beamed with delight. I took another photo of the boy, but others had gathered just as I snapped the photo. Boys and girls alike, thinking they had been included in the photo of the single boy peered to look at my cell phone camera. All with the same inquiry – “is this me”? It was a photo of one single boy, but a crowd of 8 boys and girls all wanted to know if it was them. I stood there in absolute disbelief – my head spinning - these children don’t know what they look like. They don’t know what they look like. How can that be? How is that possible? I knew I would find poverty, but I had no anticipation of this. I need to put even the most seemingly basic assumptions aside.
Next, a woman of probably 20 years asked me to take her photo. When I did she giggled with delight at the site of her picture. It was beginning to hit me – these most simple pleasures that we take so much for granted, are luxuries of the highest order to these people with not a single worldly asset.
Of all the days that I’ve been proud of my daughter, today was the greatest. She and I stood at the edge of the makeshift soccer game. I suddenly noticed my little girl holding a beautiful, quiet 5 or 6 year old girl. I asked her – how did that happen? She said “another girl from our team set her down because she could no longer hold two kids, and this little girl wanted to be picked up, so I did”. There she stood, loving this total stranger. This total stranger content and happy, and appreciating the loving touch of my very own daughter. A daughter that has enjoyed the loving touch of her family since she was a baby, now holding and carrying this little girl until it became too dark to stay any longer. I simply stared in admiration as she went about her work of loving this girl. I have an amazing and beautiful daughter; one who’s exterior is surpassed by an even more lovely heart.
She seemed so much older than 14 standing in the tent city. And I am growing increasingly certain that she is leading me on this journey – not vice versa. As my daughter was standing there holding this little girl, a little boy walked up to me, arms up in the air like my son at the same age. I lifted him and rejoiced at his smile. My discomfort was starting to crash down – thanks to my daughter’s strength and conviction.
Like the soccer game, the photos, the touch of a human being, the caring of another soul – in this environment devoid of all worldly comforts, the simple pleasures are the most significant. If I leave with only one thing I learn from these beautiful people, please God, let it be that.
Healing Haiti Team Member