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Day 1

October 28, 2010

My trip to Haiti started in JFK airport. You can easily spot the aid workers amongst all the Haitians. We were the ones in t-shirts and jeans. They were dressed like they were going to church. We arrived to a small band playing music, welcoming us, but were swept past them to the waiting shuttle bus. We waited to clear customs in a baking hot airport hangar. We were cleared quickly and burst out into a sea of red-capped man offering to take your bags, to drive you to your hotel, to use their phone.
Like a good city girl, I declined their offers. Allowed one guy dressed in Sean Jean to lead me toward an area just outside the gates. I scanned the crowd for a sign with my name, but it wasn’t there. I waited. Men would occasionally approach me, ask if I had a ride. I’d shake them off. Another man would approach asking if my name matched the one he had written. It didn’t. I watched another American girl, standing coolly off to the side. I admired her confidence. I finally allowed an older man to convince me that I should use his cellphone to call the people who were picking me up. We connected, but I couldn’t hear them. The phone hung up and I had some hope that they were nearby. The confident redhead approached and I saw my concerns mirrored in her eyes. She asked to use my phone. I explained that it wasn’t mine. It belonged to a man who had disappeared. We hovered together as my ride arrived just as the man returned. I saw him instructing her with the phone. As I got into the car, I saw her being led off to the parking lot. I hoped for the best.

In the car, I was introduced to Waner, my guide for the week, Pastor Moise, my driver and Eric. A boy who said he was 14, but I would have guessed 10. Eric seemed to be in charge of opening my door which only opened from the outside. They kept the windows closed and the a/c blasting. This must have been a welcoming gesture. It didn’t get turned on again for the rest of my stay. I got a little tour of Port-au-Prince, winding up the hills, past the destroyed buildings, past the tents. We picked our way through pot holes and piles of rubble. We paused briefly in front of the crumbled capital building, protected by fences where 19 posters were carefully hung, depicting the candidates running for president. But I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the other side of the road, where women washed children in their maze of tents. A half a block later, we were at my hotel, behind the security gates, where hotel staff were armed with rifles. The pool looked clean and beautiful. Parakeets chirped in a cage. It was paradise.

I checked in and was led to my room. A standard room, the type you would expect from a former Holiday Inn. Two beds, two bottles of water, four channels on the TV, the widow a/c and the mini fridge hummed. I made my way to the business center and was able to use their computers and internet for free to get word to my family that I had arrived safe. A girl working next to me stood up and hissed in pain. She was Angela, a New Zealander who had been working with Hands On in Leogane, Haiti when she began to show the symptoms of appendicitis. She had come to Port-au-Prince for the operation a week earlier and was now recovering at the hotel. Not surprisingly, she was advised against roughing it at her volunteer camp for a few weeks.

I made arrangements with my hosts to be picked up at 9am the next day and ordered a hamburger. They didn’t ask me how I wanted it cooked. I suppose I would have said well done in those circumstances. It was a quick lesson for my snobby foodie-self that I should never order a burger if I can’t get it medium rare. But I was starving, so I ate it and every last one of the over-crispy fries. Then I retreated to my room to shower and catch up on the day’s news on CNN.

In the evening, I made my way to bar. I was sitting alone reading for a bit when I noticed Angela and joined for a bit. I successfully navigated the menu with the French-speaking staff and ordered akra – fried taro root fritters. They were delicious, topped with the pikliz, a vinegar-based colw slaw studded with jalepenos. Angela, still in pain, decided to call it a night fairly early and headed off to bed. I noticed a tall man looking for a seat an invited him to join me.

This was Guillaume. He had left his wife and one-month-old daughter in France, to work in Haiti for the week. His company had been sending him monthly since December to help the Haiti government with flood planning. It was mostly advising on how to get people to shelters during hurricanes. After the earthquake, the focus shifted to rebuilding.

I felt secure here. A part of me wanted to stay safely in the hotel for the remainder of the week, but that wasn’t really the point of the trip. I went up to my room and set the alarm so I could have breakfast before my ride arrived in the morning.

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