Thursday, January 12, 2012

Remembering Haiti

I've been thinking a lot about Haiti this week, and wondering what story or picture to share on the actual anniversary of the quake. Today is January 12, the second anniversary of that horrible event. And my heart misses Haiti more today than ever before.
I went back through my old posts and my personal writings and found an experience I had mostly forgotten. It happened at the beginning of my trip, and just got buried in my memories. I originally wrote about it here- Days 2-5 In Country- Croix de Bouquets. It was written and posted while I was still in Haiti, and happened roughly 3 weeks after the actual first earthquake. Due to the circumstances I wrote it under, it isn't my best work. (Did I really write 'site' instead of 'sight' that many times?) I'd like to retell the story now, and add in a few thoughts.

The background-
I was working with the construction team in a town just outside of Port au Prince called Croix de Bouquets (roughly translates to "Woods Cross," which was a nice thought of home to all the Utahans). It was my second day waking up in Haiti. I went with two men from our task force in a small moving van (Uhaul size) back into town to pick up some extra supplies. I was still a little green on how to handle myself.
We parked in the construction district. A little neighborhood where you can buy every kind of home building supply Haiti has to offer. Considering the devastation in the country, this was a very busy area. But not as busy as you might think- people had no money to buy materials. They weren't looking to repair their homes. They needed to rebuild their homes altogether. The arrival of a large truck and 2 white people caused quite a stir (our 3rd companion was of Haitian descent).

Just another common scene in Haiti

I had barely opened the truck door. I hadn't even stepped out of the truck yet when a man walked up and started talking crazy to me. The two men I was traveling with had already exited the cab of the truck and had stepped no more than 2-3 feet away from me. Suddenly, without any warning, there were 20 men surrounding me. I tried not to look too scared or shaken, but in my head I was screaming, "HOLY CRAP!" There was a lot of yelling, and a little shoving among the men. I was grabbed by our driver, and forced back into the truck. We quickly drove around the corner, away from the group. The driver (of Haitian descent) went back to find out what was happening. We learned that the crazy man wasn't from that neighborhood. The other local men were yelling at him to stop talking to me and to get away so that their neighborhood wouldn't get a bad reputation. Haitians are interesting like that. They will start a fight to stop a fight, not realizing how it makes them all look to outsiders.
I silently vowed in that moment to never allow myself to get out of the sight of my companions again. Not even by a few feet like that. Later in the day, I would find myself making that same vow again.
We went about our work trying to find the right materials. We went from shop to shop (or what was left of the shops). We quickly learned that the presence of two "blanc blancs" (whiteys) was driving the prices up. Materials could be had, but we were paying the American tax. The driver sent my companion and I down the street so he could bargain without our assistance.
The "stores" where we bought our supplies were below this building. I think at one time the stores had been in the building.

A few minutes later, we met a man from New York who now lived in Haiti. He spoke perfect English. He told us his wife had been badly hurt in the "event." (Something I came to discover while there. The Haitians all referred to the earthquake as the "event." I never heard them call it the earthquake.) His wife was a school teacher, and was at school when the event happened. The school fell to one side. She grabbed a child and held on to him for several hours, saving his life. Her foot got caught on something while she hung upside down, holding the child, until help came. Her husband suspected that her foot was broken.
At first I wondered why this man would just come up to us and start telling us about his wife. It didn't take long to learn that when Haitians saw "blanc blancs" they just assumed they had food and/or medical supplies. Just by virtue of being there, this man assumed we had medical knowledge.
I was (and still am) a very out of practice EMT. I didn't have a medical kit on me, but I can still tell if a foot is broken. I agreed to go look at his wife and see if I could help. I looked at her foot and could see it wasn't broken. It wasn't even sprained, it was just badly bruised and swollen. But how do you tell a woman who lives in under a tarp in the back yard of her destroyed house to "ice it, keep it elevated, and try not to walk on it?" Especially in a city with no electricity or ice anywhere? I told her instead that she was very brave and a hero, and to not walk on it, and try to take some advil, if she can find any.
We had walked off the main road into the backyards of a few homes. The houses were giant piles of rubble and debris. The residents (mostly family members of the woman) had managed to get a few sheets and tarps out of the homes to string up tents. 
I stood up after helping her and turned around to find a line of people waiting for me. I was completely overwhelmed. I didn't have a medical kit or anything useful with me. (I had been sent out to buy building materials!) But how can you just walk away from a line of people looking desperate and sad? There was a little girl with a raging fever, and probably malaria. Another woman with paperwork showing she had been diagnosed with cancer before the earthquake but doesn't know what to do now. A little girl with a sore on her leg with worms crawling out of it. A young mother handed me her baby and said, "he doesn't see good." My completely uneducated diagnosis? From his severely pointy cone shaped head, and his inability to control is tongue, arms, or head muscles? He has cerebral palsy. Treatable and manageable in the States. In a tent city with no medical care? He will die in a few months.
What do you do? How do you stomach all of this? The answer? You just keep moving. I talked to each person. Pretended I was helping them. We found a bottle of Advil and gave each person one pill each.
Later that day, after finally finding a few construction supplies (emphasis on few), we headed back to Croix de Bouquets, where were were staying at an unfinished orphanage.
In Haiti it is very common to see broken down cars EVERYWHERE. Apparently Haiti is where old cars go to die. Not surprisingly, our box truck broke down. We had just turned off the busy main road on to a very, very bumpy dirt road. Our broken down truck was blocking the road and in the way. It was blazing hot outside and even hotter in the cab of the truck, so we hopped out to stand in the shade.
Out of nowhere, a young man appeared. I would guess he was between 16-21. He wore a bright yellow soccer (futbol) jersey and had crazy puffy hair. He didn't look like most Haitians. For some reason that still sticks out in my mind. He looked like the kind of teenage boy that causes trouble in bad neighborhoods in the States. I don't know why I still remember that so clearly.
He kept indicating that he was hungry by pulling up his shirt and pointing at his stomach. He kept saying “Manger!” (eat!) I remember thinking it was odd that he was speaking in Creole, when he looked so much like an American teenager. We had no food to share with him, but he wouldn't stop. He kept insisting we help him, and then starting banging on the truck. He hugged my white companion. He knelt in front of me and started kissing my hands. He banged on the truck again. Finally we figured out that he thought we had food in the back of the truck. After all, it does look like a food drop truck! We opened the back of the truck to show him that all we had was a few sheets of corrugated sheet metal. I thought for sure he would go away.
But no! He kept insisting. Suddenly more men arrived. Remembering that earlier in the day when a bunch of men suddenly swarmed like that it meant they were there to protect me, I thought for a split second that this was a good thing. But instead what had been one young man insisting on food, was now several angry men. Thankfully (and in answer to all of everyone's prayers for our safety) our “tow truck” arrived right at that moment. Our “tow truck” was actually an ancient school bus. The bus driver (a Haitian) jumped out, ran over, grabbed me by the arm, and seriously PUSHED me into the bus. Several of the helpers he had brought followed me, blocking me in the bus, clearly trying to keep me inside and protect me. I might add, the same treatment was not given to my other 2 companions. They came and joined me in the bus, but they were not forced in like I was.

Again, things escalated outside of the bus for no good reason. We allowed one of the angry men to come inside the busy and see that there was no food in it. This did not make anyone happy or help the situation.
I looked out the window and realized one of the men was holding a machete. NOT GOOD.
Because I really was too stupid to know better, I took a picture of it.
And then, just as strangely and quickly as the incident started, it dissolved. Machete boy stomped off in the opposite direction. We used a rope to tie the box truck to the ancient school bus. (And by “we” I mean the men on the outside of the bus, while I was kept safely on the inside.)
That wasn't the end of the boy in the yellow jersey or machete boy. Two weeks later, I was back out at the orphanage again. We had two helicopters land in the field to make an exchange with each other. (As strange as that may sound to you now, it was completely uneventful to us then.) The exciting arrival of two helicopters brought every man, woman, and child in Croix de Bouquets running to see what was happening. It was like the circus had come to town or something. They stayed on the outside perimeter of our fence, staring in awe as the helicopters landed and parked for a while. We the volunteers kept on working, but maybe had a little fun checking the birds out for a minute or two. It can be hard to stay focused when you know you have a huge audience watching you like that. I looked over after a few minutes and suddenly saw a bright yellow shirt again. We were working in a large field, with a very small fence around it. The school bus (our favorite form of transportation) was parked along the far side of the field. I had to walk in plain sight to get behind it, but I scurried over there anyway. From my almost hiding place I could clearly see machete boy and the yellow jersey boy in the crowd. And it was obvious to anyone looking that they were up to no good.
The view of the orphanage from the front gate

Just like box trucks meant food and supplies, so do helicopters. The Haitians couldn't tell that these weren't supply helicopters. And there was no doubt in our minds that the 2 boys were going to figure out how they could get some supplies out of us.
Truth be told, a huge supply drop had been made the night before and was locked up in the orphanage. But those were supplies for the orphans that were coming to live there in the next 2-3 days. They were not meant for the community. And truth be told again, they were not locked up very well. It was an unfinished building with a dozen ways in or out. We needed to worry about protecting the supplies, and ourselves. We decided that the only people who needed to hide were me and the 2 guys that had been out with me that day. For what seemed like an hour (but was probably just a few minutes) we hid behind the bus where no one could see us. We didn't want the 2 guys to see us and remember us, and think we had held out on them. We quickly told the helicopter pilots what was going on, and that we were worried something might happen. They completely understood and left as fast as they could. Sadly, the reason they had landed there in the first place was because when they had gone to their original drop points, the crowds were too big and rowdy and they couldn't safely land. They had to fly back and land to discuss a new plan, which is how they ended up with us.
I still remember the anger and fear I felt when I saw those two men. I had no doubt in my mind that if they saw me or could get close enough to me they would hurt me to get what they wanted. But then there was the flipside of that experience as well. To just be standing alone and have people line up in the most humble and desperate manner you have ever seen, asking for medical care.
I still follow the news about the recovery efforts down there. Much of the aid money that was sent to Haiti was never distributed because the Haitian government couldn't get its act together in time. The money "expired" in a way. Having been there and seen the different sides of the people, I understand how that happened. People react very differently in desperate situations.
I will forever be grateful for the experience I had to go down there and serve the people. I am forever grateful to those family and friends who sent money and supplies to help me go. I went there just a few weeks after getting laid off from my job. I had no way of knowing then how long it would be before I would find a job again. (2 years and counting!) I can say for certain that what I experienced and witnessed there changed my perspective so much that I have been able to handle unemployment far better than I would have otherwise. I will always be grateful for all that I have. Even the worst homeless beggar in the US still has it better than nearly every tent city Haitian. And that is something I will never forget.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for leaving a comment!

Working Girl

Recently, I've been picking up work as a background extra on various projects. In the past month or so I've worked on 3 different m...

Keep Reading! Popular Posts from this Blog.