Monday, August 30, 2010

Haiti: The Heartbreak

I thought I had prepared myself for the things I would see and feel in Haiti. But, as it turns out, no amount of preparation could have kept me from the shock and heartbreak of seeing the conditions there. The trip was amazing, but I want to share it in the same way I experienced it - and it started by breaking my heart.

The very first thing I experienced in Haiti was the heat - the thick, heavy, humid heat that threatens to swallow you whole. The kind of heat that causes sweat to jump out of your pores as if escaping a burning building the moment you step outside. Not what this California girl is used to. I made it through the cattle call better known as airport customs, which was located in what looked like a giant barn (except made out of cement) filled with people and bags, the aforementioned heat, and maybe two fans. Our team drove from the airport to our lodging location in a very small, brightly painted bus with hard wooden benches inside. I was lucky to have a window seat for ventilation and a better view. I will reiterate, though, that I was not prepared for the scenery that we were about to encounter on our ride.

The first sight that was incredible was the sheer number of people in the city. I have spent time in a number of large cities, but I've never seen so many people in one place. There are 3 million people in Port Au Prince, and you can sure feel that when you are there. Some are sitting, some walking to and fro, and there were many crowds just standing there, facing the street as cars went by, as if they were waiting for a bus, although I'm pretty sure they weren't. There were tent cities everywhere, crowded together and going on for miles, homes for the lucky ones who have any roof at all.

Everywhere I looked there was a pile of rubble, or a vacated builing with a giant crack across it, or a chunk missing from its walls. The horrific thought did cross my mind that there are undoubtedly bodies under many of those buildings, that the people have not had the time or resources to uncover.

Even the palace, where the president lived, looked like a set from a movie about the end of the world. I can't imagine seeing our White House in such a condition.

As we continued through the city, I saw people washing themselves in the street with a bottle of water and a bar of soap. There were skinny dogs running around everywhere, looking for scraps. There were also goats, chickens and pigs wandering about, that didn't appear to belong to anyone in particular.

In some areas, the stench of waste and sewage was overwhelming. In others, I smelled fires burning, which were not for warmth or cooking, but for getting rid of garbage. There were piles of trash and all forms of waste everywhere. In the center of the city there is a huge area filled with plastic bottles, where it is burned, regularly filling the air with fumes and toxins. The surprising truth is that, with the exception of the rubble and building damage, Haiti was like this before the earthquake. It is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

Other times, I would only smell the exhaust fumes from the many cars that seemed to all be in competition with each other on the broken road. In many places, the road was only one or two lanes, and getting through seemed to be a battle of wills among the drivers.

In contrast to all the devastating sights was the most beautiful tangerine sunset. A reminder of God's grace, and His beautiful creation, amidst the mess (figurative and literal mess) that man has made.

Once the sun had set though, dark clouds filled the sky and droplets began to fall. As the rain and the night descended, the enviornment appeared even more dire. Even though the rain was a welcome break from the intense heat, many would not have shelter from it, and most who did have shelter had only a tent.

Night is the time when we go safely to the warmth and security of our homes, but these people do not have that luxury. Many gathered under tarps and prepared food to share. Mothers did what they could to shield their babies from the storm. But it remained a scene of chaos. After only minutes of rain, some parts of the road began to flood. It left me wondering what on earth will happen when monsoon season hits. It's just around the corner.

Instead of names and gang signs tagged in graffiti on the walls, there were prayers and pleas; "Help Us."

We made it to our lodging location, a large school building where around 1,000 children used to study, until the earthquake. The building was unaffected by the disaster, but the children were not. They now study outside, because they are terrified to sit in a building all day, which as far as they know, could come toppling down at any moment. If over 200,000 people disappeared from my city in a day, I certainly wouldn't recover quickly.

We headed to bed that night in sober state. Still excited for what was to come, but with heavy hearts from what we had already seen. I will never forget that day as long as I live. Don't worry though, things got much more hopeful as the week progressed.

Here's the rest of the Haiti journey:

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Christopher said...

So glad to have shared this experience with you.

melaina said...

Thank you for sharing your story! i actually thought about you yesterday and wondered when you would be telling us all about Haiti on your blog. i look forward to hearing more about your time and work there.

Colleen said...

Thanks Chris! Ditto.

Melaina - I know, it's taken me a bit of time to process and get back in the swing of things. I will not neglect the story though. Thanks for thinking of me!