My First Trip to Haiti: Day 4

4 02 2010

[Tues. Jan. 19, 2010]

[If you are new to this journal you might want to read Days 1-3 first.]

The morning screams had been replaced by the sound of heavy equipment. The smell of death had diminished and I assumed the piles of dead bodies had finally been buried.

The long line outside of our tent had shortened to a few dozen and none of them with serious injuries. The crew was well on top of everything and I was amazed at how much progress had been made in four days..

By now there were many other hospitals and first aid stations in full operation, most of them much bigger and better equipped than us. Rumor was that the US had stationed a giant floating hospital off shore that had 500 beds. That seemed unimaginable to me but I was so glad to know that so much was being done.

I fixed breakfast for everyone before loading up another backpack full of water. The question came up about me taking the water. I think there was a tinge of resentment among the new arrivals. I reminded everyone that I paid for the water, as well as most of the supplies, and I will do with it as I please. I was a bit curt in my approach but I wasn’t going to have this conversation.

My contention was, and still is, that everyone has their own role to fulfill and it is usually what they do best. Doctors and nurses do doctor and nurse things, Pammy does hiking. I have always done a lot of hiking, climbing, and even ran a marathon or two. I had also been caught in the middle of the Mojave Desert and had to go without water for more than two days. It almost killed me. It had now been a whole week since the initial earthquake. Many of these people had been without water, or at least clean water, this whole time.

I knew how easily dysentery could break out if it hadn’t already. I also knew what the pain of dehydration felt like and it was every bit as crippling as the broken bones and lacerated bodies that were in our tent. If there was anything I could do to prevent or alleviate that suffering, that was what I wanted to accomplish.

Some of the locals drew up a map of the places they thought needed water the most and would be the most isolated to reach. I started out on my journey as quickly as I could. I wanted to get as far up the mountain as I could before the heat intensified. I grabbed a handful of candles to drop off at the “church-among-the-rubble” as I called it.

The air looked distinctly clear that morning as if the dust from the earthquake had finally settled or been blown away. But now there was new dust. As the heavy equipment opened up the roads there was more traffic, more activity, more people moving from one place to another.

I went pass the main body dump that I started earlier and saw that it was completely cleared. So were the other piles of bodies that were scattered about. I started to make a mental calculation of how many dead bodies I had seen and how many I had actually held in my arms. How many severed limbs I had disposed of and how many gallons of blood I had cleaned up. All the unpleasantries began racing through my head and I had to take control of my thoughts.

The list of positive images were just as abundant as the negative, so I tried to focus my attention on them instead. Among the grey there were little flowers of life budding up everywhere. As I walked along I could see mothers being reunited with their children. Food and water being distributed. Roads being opened and walking paths being cleared. Small shopping areas were forming where people sold, bartered and traded whatever they could for whatever they needed. People helping people. People giving tirelessly of themselves.

As I worked my way up the hillside I came across the Belgian rescue team again. There was seven of them now. They informed me of what I already knew: The couple in the small engine repair shop didn’t make it.

There were many other crews in the area. They tried to get me to leave and go back down the mountain. But the place I wanted to go was on the other side in the ravine over the crest of the ridge.

Everyone kept telling me how unstable it was, how unsafe it would be if another tremor hit. They were right but that wasn’t going to stop me. I just traversed to the side and went around them.

When I got to the ridge and looked back I could see everyone staring at me. They probably thought I was crazy. I waved backed at them and headed down the backside.

The other side of the mountain was mostly homes. I say “was” because like everything else they were now just piles of debris. It was a small pocket community that been cut off from everything. The sick and injured had all been taken out, but nothing had been brought in.

They had made a tent city on the only piece of flat ground that could be found. I’m assuming it was once a park and I’m guessing there were 40 families. Some had tent tents but most had make shift constructions of debris and salvage material.

As soon as I showed them I had water people came from every direction. I kept saying “one bottle each, one bottle each” as I handed them out. Everyone was nice and polite. No one pushed or shoved or got out of line.

But they did ask for food and I didn’t have any to offer and I didn’t have access to any. Small amounts of water was something I could handle. The amount of food they would need was beyond my capability to pack in.

They explained that they had seen rescue teams and had medics help with evacuating the wounded, but they had not seen anyone with relief supplies. I was the first person who brought anything. Most of it was due to the remoteness and inaccessibility. The streets were narrow to begin with and now they were covered with so much destruction you couldn’t tell where they once were.

If finally occurred to me that these people were trapped. Most of them were elderly, disabled or very young. They were surrounded by a sea of insurmountable wreckage. Anyone who was physically capable of getting out already fled. The people who were left behind were people too frail to navigate the boulder field of broken concrete.

I hadn’t even packed a lunch for myself and the little bit of hunger I felt was nothing in comparison to what they must be going through. I made the decision right there that I would get them food. I didn’t know where I was going to get it from and I didn’t know how I was going to get it to them, but I made the commitment and was determined to follow through before nightfall.

I thought of taking a new route down the mountain but I had no idea where I would end up and how long it would take. So I went back over the mountain and dodged all the rescue workers who just rolled their eyes and called me crazy.

When I got back to base camp I asked around about where I could get some rations. After a couple false leads I finally found a good source for food. I had to do some arm twisting but I was finally able to make arrangements for a team of people to bring up the heavier canned food items. The promised to get it there by later afternoon or early evening. I gave them my map. I explained to them that it would be very difficult to get in there and that it would have to be carried in by hand. They assured me they had all the manpower needed and that they were fully equipped to handle the job. I took them at their word.

Meanwhile the people needed food now so I bargained for a 25 lb bag of rice that I could put in my backpack. I topped the rest of the pack up with bottled water and headed back up the mountain.

I dropped off the rice and extra water then headed back down the mountain. There was more people on the mountain that I hadn’t seen before. They tried to stop me as well but I was able to dodge them. I had gotten to know the mountain well and could out flank the best of them. I think I set a new record by being called crazy in 17 different languages all in one day.

I made another trip with more water and a small box of assorted first aid supplies. When I came back down from the third climb I inquired about how the food delivery was progressing.

This is where I have to pause because normally I’m very patient and very understanding. I know everyone is well meaning and has the best intentions at heart. But I also know when common sense needs to override pre-written policies and red tape. And if you give me your word and then break it, an apology isn’t good enough.

“People are starving and you made a promise to me, which is a promise to them!” It was the first time I shouted but I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I could understand that they overestimated their ability to get the food delivered, but they didn’t even try.

After a half hour of renegotiating our original agreement I got them to deliver the food to our tent. From there I divided the food up into 70 lb allotments. That was all I could carry in my backpack at one time. It took me four more trips to get everything up the mountain.

The last trip was in complete darkness. On the way back I was tired and feeling rushed to get home. A piece of steel rebar was sticking out of the concrete debris that I didn’t see. I fell about six feet and tumbled over the jagged rocks and broken pieces of cement.

The first thing I did was to look around and make sure no one saw me. The last thing I wanted to do was be rescued (or laughed at) by the same crews that I had been eluding.

When all was done I was exhausted. My muscles ached, my back hurt, I bruised my shoulder which had turned black and blue, I was scratched from head to toe, I pulled a leg muscle, scraped the hell out of both knees and twisted my ankle. All in all it was the most rewarding pain I had ever felt.

[I want to say thank you to everyone who has written me. I appreciate your comments and encouragement. If all goes right I will be back in Haiti in a couple days. I will try to keep posting more as time permits.]

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My First Trip to Haiti: Day 3

1 02 2010

[Mon. Jan. 18, 2010]

I don’t think anyone on our crew slept for more than an hour at time. Besides all of the activity inside the tent the noise level outside the tent had increased substantially. There was a long line of injured people who had camped out in front of our tent. Many screaming over the constant roar of moans. Sometimes I would focus on a particular person’s screams. One of the nurses told me not to get fixated on the individual sounds but I couldn’t help myself. The only thing worse than listening to the screaming was to hear the screaming stop.

The morning air was filled with the smell of death. There were piles of decaying bodies in every direction. I decided to take a small walk just to survey the area. I came across a priest giving blessing to the pile of bodies that I had first started. The pile was now 10 times the size from when I last visited. I’m guessing 300 -350 bodies in the one pile alone.

I heard someone say that mass burials were going on all over the place and equipment would be here soon to take the bodies away. The sound of bulldozers and back hoes brought comfort. It was the sound of civilization coming back. It meant progress.

The little signs of life returning to normalcy was encouraging. I heard someone say “the marines have landed.” which I interpreted to mean there were US Army personnel in the area. It gave me a feeling of safety even though I didn’t actually see any of them. Mostly I felt proud knowing my country was there in Haiti’s time of need.

Later I saw the same priest performing mass and thought it was Sunday morning only to find he had been performing mass every day, three times a day, since the quake. He had made an alter among the rocks and debris. A couple crosses had been fashioned out of scrap lumber. People had arranged rows of seating and some had pillows to cushion them while they knelt in prayer. I gathered up some candles that we had among our supplies and added them to their alter. I wasn’t going to stay but someone said it would mean a lot to them if I did.

The last time I had been to mass it was performed in Latin. This might as well have been as I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. But I did recognize the warmth of human compassion and the renewal of hope. It’s something universal that manifest itself without words.

When I got back to the tent there was a “MASH 4077″ signed propped up near the entry way. I had no idea where it came from and no one on our crew knew anything about it either. One of the male doctors called me “Hotlips ” Hoolihan. I replied that it was better to be “Hotlips” than to be Frank Burns and the whole crew broke out in laughter.

It was the first time any of us had laughed and that set the mood a bit more positive. I made it my mission to bring more humor into the situation and tried to think of non-political interjections to help ease the tensions of the day. I didn’t want to offend anyone.

Anyone who knows my humor knows that if I’m not making snarky remarks about teabaggers, Palin and the GOP, I don’t have a lot to say. But I did remember some Sophie Tucker jokes that I was good at imitating in college (usually after a couple Margaritas). And I did some bits I remembered from old Bill Cosby and George Carlin albums. They say laughter is the best medicine and it certainly seemed to prove itself to be true that day.

Things went fairly smooth through the morning and early afternoon. We were also encouraged by knowing that the rest of our crew would be arriving and that we would have more supplies. I was reminded that my “replacements” would be arriving and that I was welcome to take the return flight home.

Six people were coming to join the medical staff and three people to do administration work. I got a lot of milage out of making fun of the fact that they needed three people to replace me.

I was more then willing to turn my duties over to people more experience and capable, but there was no way I was going to leave at this point. Haiti was part of me and there was so much more that I could give.

The new arrivals brought pallets of bottled water, which was like a gift from heaven. Normally I’m one of those treehugger types who snubs her nose at the sight of a mountain of non-biodegradable plastic bottles, but not in this situation. Nothing looked so refreshing and the first thing I did was fill my backpack with as many bottles as I could cram in.

As soon as the new team was situated and able to take over operations I was on my way. I knew there were lots of people in places without water and no access by road. I didn’t know where they were exactly but I knew I could go where cars and trucks couldn’t.

My backpack was bright red and I stood out in sharp contrast to the vast mountains of grey crumbled concrete. I grew up hiking and rock climbing so maneuvering among the rubble was second nature to me. I tried to get as many miles behind me as quickly as possible. I knew that the people who needed water the most were the people trapped the farthest away. I was also aware that it would be getting dark soon and there was a curfew.

My first stop was with a European rescue crew. I think they were from Belgium but it was hard to know for sure. There was four of them. They had water but not immediately at hand. There was a couple pinned inside of a small engine repair shop. I think they were husband and wife. They had been trapped in what looked to me like a coffin made for two. The woman was in very bad shape and barely look alive. The man was in better condition and his hands were free. The rescue workers handed down a bottle. He looked at them and then at me. His eyes said thank you and there was a soft smile. My heart went out to him and his wife.

He was able to maneuver the water bottle to his wife’s lips. She was so weak she could barely drink. Most of the water trickled down the side of her face but it seemed to bring her comfort.

It looked like getting them out wouldn’t be that difficult if, and it was a big if, the building on the hillside above them didn’t come down in the attempt. The upper building seemed to be balanced on a membrane. It looked as if a gust of wind could blow it over.

The rescue team said I needed to get out of the way so I left them some extra bottles of water and headed off to find others in need. I had hiked about 200 yards away when a small tremor went off. I heard crashing behind me and knew. I just knew. I froze for a second too stunned to look back.

When I did turn around it was just as I had expected. The upper building had collapsed on top of them and all that remained was a plume of dust. I could see all four of the rescue workers. They had escaped injury. It didn’t appear the couple had any chance. I never found out for sure. Another rescue team was clearing everyone out of the area.

I had to hike down the other side of the hill so there was no way for me to make it back before nightfall. The uncertainty of not knowing what happened was gnawing at me. I promised myself that I would make it back the next morning.

I still had a backpack full of water and not enough time left to distribute it as planned. But I did find a tent city that had sprung up in basketball court. They had access to water but it looked disgusting. They were hauling it in by hand in big rusty pails. I had no idea where they got it from and didn’t think I wanted to find out.

I took off my pack and found an old paint bucket to sit down on. I started passing out bottles to everyone who came by. Word got around and people began lining up.

A couple guys came by carrying a sofa. I asked them if they wanted some water. They asked if I wanted the sofa. I chuckled and said “thanks, but no thanks.” They parked the sofa next to me and said, “Sit. Sit.” So I sat and everyone laughed. It felt good to relax. One of the guys sat next to me. I’m guessing he was 65 – 70. His name was Zek. He had no teeth, a giant grin and a t-shirt with U2’s Joshua Tree photo on it. I asked if he listened to U2 and he started singing “Mothers of the Disappeared.”

“Midnight our sons and daughters
Were cut down and taken from us
Hear their heartbeat
In the wind
We hear their laughter
In the rain
We see their tears
We hear their heartbeat

Night hangs like a prisoner
Stretched over black and blue
Hear their heartbeat
In the trees
Our sons stand naked
Through the walls
Our daughters cry
See their tears in the rainfall.”

His voice was so beautiful and sang with such conviction that I couldn’t help but cry. The song took on a whole new meaning and the lyrics rose to a new level of profundity given the situation.

A crowd had gathered around. Zek said “White girl don’t cry” and gave me a hug. Then he said, “Tell me your favorite song. I sing it. I sing happy.”

“With or Without You” was the first thing out of my mouth. Not necessarily the happiest song, but certainly one of the most beautiful.

Someone had turned the paint bucket into a drum. Another guy started beating out the base line on a cardboard box. Zek seemed to come in right on cue, “See the stone set in your eyes, See the thorn twist in your side, I wait for you…” His voice was every bit as beautiful as Bono’s and it pierced me to the soul. No one ever looked at me like that and again I was in tears. But this time it was tears of joy.

The crowd had grown and people were bringing out hand drums and percussion instruments of all kinds. Bongos, congas, djembes, ashikos. Someone asked if I could play and I nodded yes. Someone handed me a djembe and we had a little drumming circle going.

In between I kept offering people water. People would take a drink and pass it to the next person and the next and the next. It reminded me of people passing a joint around and I realized I felt the same kind of high just being with these people.

Everyone there was living at desperation level. Many had lost everything including all living relatives. Many were injured. But for a brief while they were happy. They say music is the universal language and it certainly proved to be that night. It seemed to have a definite healing effect and gave people a reprieve from the devastation around them.

I wasn’t sure when curfew was or how strictly it was enforced but I didn’t want to test my luck. I tried to leave a couple times but people kept saying, “One more song. One more song.”

Eventually I forced myself up and returned the djembe with my thanks. I dumped the rest of the water bottles out on the sofa and promised I would come back when I could.

On my walk home all I could think of was Zek’s toothless grin saying, “I sing it. I sing happy.”

[My return to Haiti has been delayed as I need to finish up some things here. So, if time permits I hope to post Day 4 & 5 for those who are interested. Thanks for following.]