I met Caroline Ryan on November 30th. Caroline lives in Billings MO about 4 hours from Saint Louis. She and I would be travelling together to Haiti to meet up with Father Rahab and other people to spend a week visiting towns, villages and orphanages. There were supposed to be other people coming in, but the slow burning fear people are warmed by when they see or hear or read about Haiti, kept them safe in their cloistered lives in middle America where they can get a Big Mac 24 hours a day.
I had packed up hers and my collected donations into two 50 pound boxes. She spent the next two nights in Saint Louis and was going to fly down to Miami the morning of the 2nd of December. I was flying down on the 1st to Miami and we were to meet at the airport at noon on the 2nd.
We left Billings in the late afternoon and stopped in Rolla MO at a UPS distribution center to weigh the boxes and ensure they were not over the limit.
Unfortunately, Caroline was not allowed to check in the boxes and had to leave them behind. American Airlines has an "embargo" on checking boxes in on flights to Haiti for December and the first part of January. Apparently, there are too many people this time of year trying to bring things in to Haiti that American has had to institute restrictions. Poor American Airlines, they really have so many burdens. I'm so glad they have decided to restrict and make it more difficult for people to bring things in to Haiti. You know things like tampons for women who have nothing, hand sanitizer so that the spread of cholera can be limited, clothes for naked children, vitamins for malnourished children, shoes, coloring books and crayons, soccer balls.
Is it just American Airlines that has finally stood up to this blantant abuse and advantage taking by people trying to bring in these useless items to a country where people bath in the same water they shit and piss in? It's about time someone or some company has finally said no.
So in any case, 100 pounds of donated and bought items to help some Haitians at this time of year sat at the Saint Louis airport. To add insult to injury, they sent Caroline an e mail (which she could not read while we were there because there is limited electricity and that is what is needed to obtain an internet connection) stating that if she did not collect the boxes by December 10th, they would be destroyed. We did not get out of Haiti until the 11th.
Fortunately American Airlines doesn't always uphold it's policies (tsk tsk) and the boxes were not destroyed.
I, on the otherhand, learned that her boxes were not shipped when Caroline called me as I sat on the shuttle from my hotel to the Miami airport with my two 50 pound boxes and two carry ons (one of them a two room tent for a family in Port au Prince --- Thanks to Jan Bond of San Diego for donating the money for this purchase).
I was more fortunate. At the ticket counter after initially being told I could go BUY luggage and transfer all the box contents to the bags, the Supervisor allowed me to check them in. Afterall, rules are to be broken especially when you ask nice. The actual begging came in when I was told the tent was 4 inches, can you believe my audacity and stupidity, 4 whole inches too long to be taken on board as a carry on. I asked the woman if she had been to Port au Prince and had seen how these people were living. I was very nice and finally had to beg her. I guess she had a little of the Christmas spirit because she let me through. I was not so fortunate with American Airlines in my previous trips to Haiti where I have had to pay hundreds in additional fees to bring in supplies.
So Caroline and I arrived in PAP at around 4.15 pm. Previous trips, the chaos and quick thinking started as soon as you left the aircraft and found yourself on the tarmac making your way to the hangar serving as immigration and baggage claim. On my first trip, I wondered why people ran.... I learned that pretty quick. Now, however, they lull you into a sense of normalcy as they have jet bridges now and the corridors are new and clean.
It's when you get to the stairs taking you to the shuttle buses to the hangar that the fun begins. Every man for himself which continues when you get to the hangar and there are no immigration forms to fill out and "someone has gone to get them". I remember fixing Caroline in a place and shoving my way through the crowd for a form. The first timers are easy to identify. They are the ones making that scruntched up face which says "how rude" or "wait your turn"... silly geese, you better learn quick or by the time you get around to eating the corn thrown at your feet, it'll all be gone.
Those of us who have done this before get clever. My hat off to the young french woman who shoved her way up and volunteered to assist and hand out forms, she got a hand full and took care of herself and her companions and then let whoever could grab the remainder have them. We smiled at one another, shook our heads and I told her "bien fait" She said "merci" and we proceeded to the next stage.
Most people go to a counter or table or a wall to fill out their forms. The experienced shove into the immigration line and use the back of the person in front of them or their luggage as a desk top to fill out the form. The form gets completed as you progress in the line. Once through, it's time to queue for a cart. As most people are bringing in lots of things, there is a demand for carts. Carts are plentiful, the problem is that they cost $2 each. Most people travel with $10's and $20's. If you have exact change, you get to jump the line because the women selling the tickets for the carts NEVER has change. So as the novices stand there with their 10's and 20's, those of us who bought gum and water in Miami to stock up on 1's, go to the head of the class.
Then comes the luggage retrieval. Again, traveling in two's allows one person to stand guard at the cart and the other to push through the crowd, identify a Haitian personnel that looks competent and start collecting bags, boxes or whatever and loading up the cart.
Now in most places, once you have a cart, you can negotiate out of the airport yourself. Not in Port au Prince. First comes the customs control. Your packages will be opened. This is why you place clothes or vitamins or tampons on the top of your packed items. There is no interest for that. Wine, if you happen to bring it in, soccer balls, shoes, that stuff goes on the bottom. That's the stuff they may want.
Once you are though this, it's time to go through the big archway and make your way along the last smooth concrete you will see for your entire time in Haiti. Within several feet you are walking on crumbled concrete, stones and over pieces of metal that at one time in the distant past were the guide rails for a non existent gate. Negotiating over all this with a cart piled high with four 50 pound boxes requires two people and the Haitian you "hired" inside now meets up with his partner and they move your baggage through the crowds to the "parking area".
All this time, people are asking you in Creole, French, English, Spanish if you need help, who are you looking for, do you have a ride..... There are small walls and fences and the best thing is to step up above everyone else and scan the crowd. This is where being white comes in handy. As I step up and glance around, I become a lightening rod and anyone looking for me can easily see me. I also only travel with my red STL baseball cap, so who ever is meeting me can spot me.
This time, no one was there. The traffic was insane and I soon realized that we would have to wait. I positioned ourselves near the fence and waited. Our Haitian bellmen hanging out nearby, one always within range so that no other "bellmen" could swoop in and take away their fare. Many times, others in the throng will make eye contact with you and through gestures try and lure you away from your "bellmen". It's a game and there is no sinister meaning behind their attempts to get you to go with them. Everyone is desperate to make a buck.
As it started to get towards dusk, the crowds thinned and our ride arrived. We loaded up the Toyota 4 x 4 and I climbed up on top to wait for a friend, Dieubon Lucien, to arrive. He and his family live in a tent in front of their destroyed home and I had supplies and money for him. He was stuck in traffic and arrived just as it was getting dark.
While waiting for Dieubon, I realized that loading up the two 4 x 4's next to us with boxes marked "cholera" was Sean Penn. Here he is with some of his team. I eventually shook his hand and had a quick word with him. I really wanted to ask him what Madonna was like back in the day, but he seemed busy.....
We set off for the central plateau which is a good 3 hours north of the capital. The road that the European Union is building is great by Haitian standards and winds up the hills and into the moutains. It is not complete and there are sections which suddenly become gravel and rutted and then soon turn back to asphalt. This time we were heading to a town north east of PAP called Savanette. In Mirebalais we left the road and continued on what I can only describe as a goat trail. We covered the 13 miles in 2 hours and 5 minutes...... in pitch darkness with the Toyota's headlights dancing off the cliffs and trees.
We arrived in Savanette around 11 pm and had dinner: Goat, Plantain, Rice and Goat gravy..... In Haiti, you eat goat. Lots of it. Seriously, you eat a lot of goat. It tastes good, actually, but if you ever go to Haiti, bring dental floss. It's odd, but goat meat shreds in a unique way when it's chewed and it sticks between your teeth.