Two days ago I promised and am here today to deliver a post about the Port-au-Prince airport—so here we go.
First a bit of background—
Just before my first trip to Haiti during the last week of March 2010, 8 months ago, Toussant Louverture International Airport had only recently begun operating in any remotely routine way since the January 12th earthquake. Before March the only real way to get to Port-au-Prince from outside the country, if you weren’t a plane carrying emergency relief supplies, was to fly into the Dominican Republic and endure an 8 hour drive across the island of Hispaniola to the Haitian capital—a route Sara took a few too many times.
So—in March when my plane landed in Port-au-Prince, things were, shall we say—chaotic. Though a band played Caribbean steel drums for the passengers deplaning, what I discovered inside the warehouse-like building that was then, and is still, being used for immigration and baggage claim was more akin to an episode of Survivor than anything remotely resembling an airport in any nation’s capital in the entire Western Hemisphere.
The passing glance immigration “officials” gave my passport and travel documents, moving me on with a stamp and a wave, though disconcerting, was nothing compared to the pandemonium I discovered beyond immigration—utter and complete pandemonium in a cavernous space mountained with luggage we were meant to ultimately “claim,” without any apparent procedure, without any remotely organized way for passengers to examine and sort out which suitcases belonged to them.
This masqueraded as “Baggage Claim.”
However—there was what initially seemed one saving grace—namely an assortment of limp-along luggage carts—costing a mere arm or leg—though they may have settled for a finger or toe had we gotten down to the anatomical nitty-gritty. Initially this seemed a hopeful development—hopeful until I realized there was no way—literally no way in hell—one could wheel a luggage cart anywhere in that room so strewn with bags it looked like the contents of a small Samsonite store room had been turned upside down and emptied on the spot.
Then it hit me—the only conceivable escape—meant asking for help. I considered tears but decided in the interest of minimizing the look of vulnerability that is the American way in the face of Haiti’s seeming systemlessness—a more proactive assault of an airport employee was in order. I didn’t care what it cost, I was willing to pay any and all “special fees” in the ultimate interest of baggage possession.
And thanks to one heroic airport employee, I ended up not having to assault after all—I got my bags. For apparently, underneath the mountains of seeming disorder, there existed a system, invisible to me, but some protocol for baggage retrieval that worked for my new Haitian friend. Because, I promise, in not more than 5 Port-au-Prince minutes he returned with my VERY over-weight bags— 88 and 89 pounds respectively. The suitcases were full of household items, including an entire set of butcher knives—since Sara, when purchasing her first kitchen tool in Port-au-Prince (a manual can opener that would have cost less than 2 dollars in the US) had paid a grand total of 22 dollars and 66 cents! Inevitably fearing that the most basic of kitchen utensils were going to cost at least a month’s salary, if not a small life-savings, I hauled nearly half the inventory of William Sonoma in with me.
Ultimately, I exited the airport that day into a desperate crowd of newly-homeless Haitians, needing nearly everything, from dinner to a warm bed and a roof over their heads. But I found Sara—I survived!
Survived, only to return to the scene of the crime a week later—the first of anyone remotely associated with Sara’s NGO to leave the country through the newly-opened airport.
Since no one knew what to expect, I arrived an optimistic 2 ½ hours before departure—seemingly plenty of time. Until 2 ½ hours later, I still hadn’t made it into the terminal itself, crowds of needy people were thronging the facility so intensely.
I called Sara a number of times from outside the airport that morning, convinced I would miss my flight. She assumed I was over-reacting—until— I called after finally making it inside—terrified.
“Listen, this is not a workable way to leave the country—someone needs to come get me—I’ll get out of the country some other day, some other way—any other way. I swear, Baby, this is not an option.”
“But what line are you in?”
“Line!” I screeched. “You assume there’s anything remotely resembling a ‘LINE!’ This is more swarm than line, more stampede than queue!”
Quickly gathering her wits, recognizing my psychotic break was imminent, Sara, disaster response specialist that she is, yelled at me over the cacophony and clamor, “Listen! Remember! You always do best when things are really, really bad. You do bad really well!”
“Yeah. Okay. You’re right. I’ll call you when I get to the gate.” Click.
And though it may have been foolish to assume I would EVER get to ANYTHING remotely resembling a “gate”—I knew—I knew in that moment that I would be fine—that I would survive.
I knew in that moment that I could do Haiti.
Yeah—I DO do bad really well!
And though Haiti IS really bad—it’s getting better.
Though it’s still the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, the airport in Port-au-Prince has improved since March.
Though it’s still chaotic and dangerous because of that chaos, though “baggage claim” still doesn’t resemble that of Miami or Houston, we now know it helps enormously to have Samuel’s escort through the chaos (see post from several days ago).
Though, since March, Haiti has suffered a hurricane, cholera, and a fraudulent presidential election, the Haitian people carry on.
They are resilient.
Tiny lights twinkling from the darkest corner of the Caribbean!
So remember, like the Haitian people, to shine this Christmas—shine!