The first day is always the longest. Starting in SFO at 8p on Thursday, I arrived in Port-au-Prince just before noon on Friday. As I traveled across the country through LAX and Fort Lauderdale, I saw increasing numbers of people carrying tents and sleeping bags just as I was. The first person I met was a man in the jetway in LA, who remarked upon my REI bundle of tent and sleeping bag. He was traveling with his two young daughters to volunteer in Leogane. On the plane to Haiti I sat next to a Spirit Airlines stewardess named Marie, and we talked about the beaches in Jacmel, which used to be the best resort town in the country.
Flying into P-au-P, I saw several blue-tarped tent cities and many buildings with standing walls and no roofs, looking like D&D maps I drew as a kid. After landing and getting thru immigration, I started walking toward town, and hopped on a moto-taxi, one of hundreds of motorcycles that zip around every town. Holding my pack in my lap behind the driver, my thighs ached during the ride to the tap-tap “station”. Wildly decorated covered pickups, they get their name from what one does to signal the desire to get off. I took one heading west towards Leogane, the biggest town closest to the epicenter of the quake. The devastation was indescribable – very few buildings were standing, the smells and smoke of bonfires filled the air.
A kind young man named Junior helped me find a ride to Jacmel, through the mountainous region between the coasts. The road twisted through wrinkled hills, dirt and debris piled high on both sides, and we passed by a truck that had taken a turn too quickly and fell over blocking part of the road. We came through the pass as night fell, and could see the lights of Jacmel in the distance. Once in town, we stopped to ask directions to ‘minustah’, the local encampment of the military division of the U.N., next to where Shelters International has their ragtag camp, conveniently under the watchful gunsight of a manned guard tower. I set up my tent that would be my home for the next two weeks.
Today I got a tour of the market, bustling with people selling everything from meat and vegetables to toiletries and shoes. Then we walked around town, as Laura and Bill pointed out sites that their team had removed rubble from. The most recent was the collapsed second story of a two-room school. The ground floor was not much better, with cracks in the walls and the foundation, recently painted over. They want to reopen the school, but it really should be demolished because it’s not safe. This is unfortunately the case throughout the town as cracks are covered up and called ‘good as new’. These buildings will be the first to crumble in the next quake or aftershock.
Tonight I’m sitting by a roaring bonfire in camp, with broken desks burning away, sending embers up into the night sky.