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The morning screams had been replaced by the sound of heavy equipment.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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