A Trip to Haiti Proves Memorable Beyond Measure

U.S. aid workers survey earthquake damage in Haiti.
U.S. aid workers survey earthquake damage in Haiti. Photo by Karin Crompton

There are times in life when you really, really wonder why you decided to do something and whether this is the cock-eyed idea that finally gets you killed ... and perhaps in a blaze of headlines along the way.

You hurtle forward anyway, a freeze-frame moment here and there in which you analyze the seeming absurdity of the situation before shoving such thoughts aside.

That's kind of how it felt when I volunteered to go to Haiti and the bosses took me up on it.

We have a large Haitian community in southeastern Connecticut and when the earthquake hit on Jan. 12, reporters from The Day immediately fanned out to describe how those families were affected. It was heart-wrenching to see people who were desperate for news they might never receive and who were helpless to do anything about it.

Many of them looked to us, the local reporters, as if we had some pipeline to information out of Port-au-Prince. They were grasping at anything. It is difficult to describe the feeling, when someone searches your face with a mixture of expectancy and hope and asks whether you know anything, whether you have any news, and you have to shake your head no.

We asked all of the local groups with ties to Haiti whether we could accompany them when they traveled down, always with an eye toward making sure we wouldn't add to the chaos down there or put ourselves in (an unreasonable amount of) danger.

A couple of weeks after the earthquake, the Haitian Ministries of the Norwich Diocese, Inc. agreed to let us travel with them. The ministries helps support Haitians in their local efforts. During the trip, I came to learn more about the group and to appreciate their approach: they help prop up Haitians who have already started charitable missions. This is not a group of Americans who swoop in and profess to know better than the locals.

There were several tidbits of information I "forgot" to share with my nervous husband in the days leading to the trip.

First: that the trip was put on hold on a Friday because the bosses were concerned it might be too dangerous - in particular, the drive from the Dominican Republic into Haiti, during which we'd be on some lonely roads in a vehicle packed with cash, food and medical supplies.

Second: that the concern was gone by Monday morning.

Third: that the bosses held a sort of disclaimer meeting with me and with photographer Tim Martin to let us know that no insurance companies were underwriting "SOS insurance" for trips to Haiti - meaning, if we got into trouble, we were on our own and there were no assurances the newspaper could get us out.

These were worst-case scenarios, we all agreed, unpleasant yet necessary conversations about things that would never really happen.

(Cue the nervous laughter and fake smiles all around.)

The husband did know, and was already freaked out by, the know-ledge that we had no knowledge of where we would sleep. I packed with the assumption that we'd have to carry everything with us everywhere.

A week earlier, a reporter at the newspaper told me she heard that one of the reasons I was being considered for the trip is because I've camped. I burst out laughing. I've car camped - you know, park the car in its spot, pop up your tent, then go find the nearest package store. For this I was deemed qualified to rough it in the equivalent of a war zone?

I bought a new backpack from EMS and pretended I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail - but with a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, laptop computer, satellite receiver the size of a laptop, satellite phone, video camera, notebooks, pens, digital recorder and batteries. Plus baby wipes, toilet paper, Power Bars, trail mix, anti-diarrhea pills, sunblock, bug spray, toothpaste and toothbrush, soap, water purifier tablets and breath mints.

It didn't all fit in the backpack; I grabbed a canvas bag we use to grocery shop and shoved some items in there. Rationale: anything I could live with being stolen went in the canvas bag; items to put up a fight over, in the backpack on my person.

Fast forward past the flight into Puerto Rico and then to the Dominican Republic; past the night in a hotel with showers and Wi-Fi; past the fairly uneventful drive from the Dominican Republic into Haiti.

We arrived in Port-au-Prince on Friday, Jan. 29, and spent the next five days in and around there. I'm thankful I got to go.

We spent most of our time on the outskirts of the city and in small neighborhoods around Port-au-Prince. We lucked out, too: the ministries tracked down a house, so we slept indoors and had a home base for the week. The house didn't have any power or running water, but those were minor inconveniences. We had a rain barrel of water from which to freshen up, and we had bought bottled water in the Dominican Republic to drink and to brush our teeth.

People have asked me what the biggest surprise was down there, what it looked and smelled like, what the people were like and whether I'd go back. It's difficult to answer most of those questions. There's too much happening in Haiti, too many sights and sounds ... and above all, it's too far removed from anything in Connecticut. There are no comparisons to draw upon.

Mostly, I was struck by the extent of the damage. It was everywhere you looked, extending for miles and around every corner. It was a pile of rubble two stories high in one place; it was turning onto a side road and finding it blocked by rubble in another; it was a hillside wiped clean of many of its houses in yet another.

And then there were the people.

There is nothing with which to compare this tragedy. After Sept. 11, everyone here seemed to know someone who knew someone who was killed. In Haiti, it is all first person, and it is all overwhelming.

Every person we spoke to lost multiple relatives and friends. Each one.

Stop and think about that.

What if you and everyone you knew, in one minute on one afternoon, lost a handful of relatives and friends apiece?

Would you talk to me, the reporter, when I approached you to ask about it? Would you get up in the morning and sweep the street in front of your crumbled house, wash your clothes, look for work? Would your children play on merry-go-rounds and laugh? Would you still attend church on Sunday?

That's what they were doing in Haiti when we were there.

Sunday morning, just after dawn, I awoke to music in the distance. An organ was playing, calling out across the city, and people were up and out of their homes already. The music was lively, joyful, a surreal soundtrack as the sun rose over a collapsed city.

A day earlier, as we walked around a neighborhood surrounding the ministries' destroyed Mission House, I met a man who described where he was when the earthquake hit, what it had felt like and what he had done. Loiseau Roberson had lost six relatives in the earthquake.

When I was finished with the interview, I asked our translator to thank Roberson and the two women I was speaking with for talking to me. I asked the translator to tell them I was sorry for their pain and what they were going through.

Roberson responded in Creole. He was thanking me.

He said thank you, the interpreter said, for telling their story and letting the world know what was going on.

That's the moment I remember most: There, in the midst of unspeakable loss, a man in Haiti was glad to have someone tell his story.

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