From my understanding, Haiti has an estimated population of about 11 million people. Port Au Prince, the capital and largest city, has an estimated population for the metro area of about 3 million people which makes it roughly the size of Chicago. This city, as I flew in, didn’t even remotely look like a city anything like Chicago. The poverty and destruction was evident even from the air. In US airports, you enter and exit the planes directly from the terminals within the airport. In Haiti, you go outside and ascend/descend on rickety rusty stairs that are wheeled up to the planes. And it was hot, too, as I exited the plane. When I left Louisville, KY, it was in the 30’s (Fahrenheit). In Haiti, it was in the 90’s. We were all herded onto a tram and packed in so tight you could hardly move. The baggage pick up area is basically a large metal barn like building with a concrete floor. The bags are unloaded from the plane by hand and brought into the building on big carts where they are piled together where the passengers root through the pile to find their bags.
Leaving the airport is when things really started to get interesting.The language barrier became evident immediately. Guys with photos descended upon us. They pointed at our bags and insisted that they carry them, despite the fact that we insisted that we could carry them. Any resistance was greeted by the photo ID badges that they wore. After exiting the airport, these same guys then demanded that we pay them for the “assistance.” This cost me $20, and I hadn’t been in the country more than 45 minutes. After that we met the driver from GrassRoots United and drove the 10 minute drive to the compound where I would be spending the next five weeks. The drive there was an amazing eye opener. The surrounding city scape looked like something from a post apocalyptic world. Rubble was everywhere. Trash was everywhere. People were everywhere. The worst road in any town or city in the US would be the best road in Port Au Prince.
Arriving at the compound, the taxi driver asked us to pay him $20 for the drive. We payed it to him. Immediately afterwards someone at the compound scolded us for paying him that much. It should have been $10, apparently. They were upset because supposedly he would want that the next time, driving up the prices for everyone else (my reaction was who cares… it’s $10 dollars extra! He needs it more than I do… but I’ve come to realize that sometimes it’s better not to rock the boat when it comes to money in third world countries… random handouts are not the way a difference is going to be made in Haiti or in any other place). At the compound, we were given a tour. The compound, while in much better shape than the rest of Port Au Prince, looks like something from the movie Mad Max with disarrayed and jerry rigged facilities.
At this point, I crashed physically during the trip. I hadn’t slept in almost 40 hours. I had a sinus infection, which got considerably worse during my first week in Haiti. After erecting my tent (all the volunteers bring their own camping tent and sleep on the ground), the volunteer coordinator recommended that I lay down. Unfortunately, being new to the place, I didn’t realize how quickly you can become dehydrated in a tropical country like Haiti. I got severely dehydrated. I overheated. I nearly passed out when I stood up after being woken up for dinner. I skipped dinner because I wasn’t feeling well. After being up for about an hour, I laid back down. Then, a metallic blue spider bit me. The only thing I could think was: I’m fucked… I’m in a tropical country, and a metallic blue spider just bit me!
After sleeping a bit, I got back up in hopes of socializing a little bit. It was probably about 11:00 at night at this point. I sat on a bench and just sort of took everything in. A guy named Aaron came by and sat next to me and introduced himself. More on Aaron later, but he’s a very cool guy who made a large impression on me. He’s from England and has been doing disaster relief internationally for the passed 7 years. He started when he was 21. He is one of three founding members of GrassRoots United, which is about one and a half years old now. Aaron and I talked for about 10 minutes. He told me then, after just meeting me that I would be back to Haiti because I’m the type of person who does long term relief work. After talking with a few other random people, I went back to bed. I woke up several times throughout the night convulsing with severe cold chills. Someone with a tent close by told me the next day that they almost woke me up because I was talking feverishly throughout the night (damn metallic blue spider?).
The fever broke the next day, though I took that day off, as well (not my choice, they insisted that I rest up since I was so sick the day before). Not realizing how hot I would get in my tent, I slept the day away. I woke up in the afternoon and everything started to spin when I got out of the tent. I struggled to make it to the kitchen area.& There I was given some ORS (Oral Rehydration Salts… basically it’s like a packet of unflavored Gatorade powder.. it’s REALLY nasty). I drank that and threw it up immediately.
After that I made it to the Hole in the Wall, an area at the far end of the compound (literately a whole in the outer wall where the Haitian family living next to us would sell us Coca-Cola, lemonade, rum, cigarettes, and beer). I bought two Cokes and downed them. After getting some sugar, calories, and something cold in me, I finally started to feel a little better. I forced myself to eat dinner. Afterwards I finally felt human again and then went to bed early.
to be continued…