When you catch your first glimpse of Haiti from the air it appears in the distance as a benign emerald island crowned with clouds and surrounded by a deep blue sea. You think for a moment that maybe everything you’ve heard about Haiti has been nothing more than an over-exaggeration.
The first hint you get that maybe all is not well is when you fly over the land and see a big brown river of dirt running from the mountains into the sea.
That brown dirt river is a result of the massive soil erosion caused from extensive deforestation. It is estimated that once upon a time the mountainous Haiti (Haiti literally means “Mountains”) was 60-75% covered by forest. That forest is now nearly all gone. The loss of the forest has resulted in episodic drought, and when the rains do come they wash the dust into the sea.
The brown you see at the water’s edge is the once rich topsoil of Haiti.
As with all the myriad of problems in Haiti, deforestation isn’t easy to solve. If you’re slightly curious to learn more about Haiti’s fascinating history you can check out this short and over-simplified history of Haiti. If you’re really curious to learn more about the complexities of Haiti’s dire economic and environmental situation then I highly recommend The Rainy Season by Amy Wilentz.
As the plane descends, the reality of Port-au-Prince comes into plain view.
Arrival at Port-au-Prince International Airport
Of all the things that worried me about going to Haiti, arriving alone at the airport in Port-au-Prince with 140lbs of luggage filled with medical supplies and DEET insect repellent was my biggest concern. I’d read that it could be chaotic in the terminal, and that there might be many would-be baggage handlers inside all vying for the opportunity to carry my bags for me, or maybe make off with them altogether. How was I going to control three pieces of luggage that weighed more than me, and keep them safely in my possession?
Turns out I didn’t need to worry at all. The entrepreneurial baggage handlers were not allowed inside the terminal, and the airport baggage security men inside were out in full-force checking baggage against claim tickets. Whew!
After collecting my bags, the next step was getting through immigration and finding the Midwives for Haiti’s famous pink jeep.
Immigration was a breeze. After asking me what my purpose for being in Haiti was, and inquiring about my baggage contents, my passport was stamped, and I headed out of the terminal. Outside is where I encountered the mass of eager baggage handlers. Thankfully, my Samsonite 360 Spinner bags were very maneuverable, and there was more or less even pavement. I never lost control of my bags, and was able to make my way to the pink jeep.
That’s where I met Renee Sicignano, LM, CPM, LC, and Deborah Van Dyke, NP, NPH, two other women who had come to Haiti. Renee is a midwife who runs a birth center in Santa Clarita, California, and Deb is the Founder and Director of Global Health Media Project. For an example of Deb’s important work, check out her entertaining and informative animated film, The Story of Cholera,
We had to wait in the Port-au-Prince airport parking lot for a couple of hours for another volunteer, Cheryl Heitkamp, APRN, CNM, CCD, to arrive. I didn’t get a picture of Cheryl at the airport, but we’ll see her later in upcoming posts.
Renee and Deb had been to Haiti before, but this was Cheryl’s and my first time.
While waiting, I took a couple of shots of the Port-au-Prince airport where you can see the remaining damage from the massive earthquake three years ago that killed 300,000 people. (By the way, it is NOT necessarily illegal to take casual pictures at an airport.)
As you’ll later learn, this next picture turns out to be rather prophetic as me and Coca-Cola were intimately reacquainted in Haiti where the recipe for Coke still contains real sugar and not high fructose corn syrup. YUM!
After everyone and everything was loaded up in the jeep, we placed our lives in the capable hands of MFH’s official jeep driver, Ronel,
Little did I know that I was about to spend a lot of my time in Haiti seeing the back of Ronel’s head.
We set off for Hinche, a two and half hour trek up the mountains of Haiti. But first we had to drive through Port-au-Prince sealed in the back of the jeep in this cage.
Now I want you to imagine for a moment what it might have felt like for four white women who were being slowly, and not so slowly, conveyed through the streets of Port-au-Prince in a bright pink jeep in this cage. We felt like a bit of a spectacle.
I was cautious about taking pictures as I didn’t think random people would appreciate very much me gawking at them and snapping their pictures without their permission. Therefore, I only have a few shots of the drive through Port-au-Prince.
One of the major forms of transportation in Port-au-Prince are the tap-taps, colorfully decorated pick-ups and vans with names like LIBERATED and JESUS LOVES YOU crammed full of people..
Honestly, you cannot imagine how they can possibly get so many people in them.
Rubble from the earthquake still litters the streets everywhere you look, along with piles and piles of trash. Haiti has no trash removal system.
The worst sight to behold were the sad dogs.
I wish I could say that this sad little thing was the only dog like this that I saw while I was in Haiti, but that would be a lie. I saw many of these same scrawny little beige dogs all over Haiti. As far as I can tell nobody cares whether these dogs live or die. But in a country that doesn’t have enough food to feed human babies, you can understand why.
Before long we made our way out of the city of Port-au-Prince and into the countryside towards the city of Hinche.