Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rubble Unseen/Seen.

Flying back to Haiti, flight delayed,

ended up just making my connection in

Vegas. Thankfully my bags arrive, I get a room in a sleazy airport hotel. Miami sucks. Laying on the bed watching 60 minutes about Haiti, on TV a pregnant 13 year old girl walks into our hospital, you can see me in the background, feels like a world away, but its only an hour flight from my dirty hotel room.

Cargo flight over to Port Au Prince at 6am filled with fat American doctors and nurses. I put some peanuts in my pocket for later. The airport's a mess; but this time around PaP feels familiar I hop a cab and head back to the hospital. I first came to Haiti after the earthquake and all I saw was rubble, this time I don’t notice it anymore, what once shocked me has now become just a landmark “take a left at the crashed house” I tell my driver. Funny how fast we accept our reality.

Back at St Damien’s I meet a guy who builds shelters that convert into homes. He wants to meet Father Rick but I’m supposed to vet him. He’s a fraud, big talk and in way over his head, he’s desperate for money. We talk under the sun; he’s frail. I try to prepare him for Father Rick and I’m so happy to be back that I’m bouncing off the walls. I keep saying that Father Rick is a busy man and speak with him quickly and then leave. I feel like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now - the guardian of Kurtz. I tell this to him, he hasn’t seen the movie – fate sealed. I show him the door.

I tour our APJ schools with a Haitian architect, we see the three of the schools that APJ supports. Two are knocked down one still stands. The one still standing is sponsored by LionsGate it is my first time inside. It’s got 80 kids inside with some really great teachers. The architect is appalled at the condition of the school even pre earthquake this is not a safe learning environment.

We work with what we have here. I tell him.

Is it better to have kids learning in an unsafe building or not learning at all and the building stands empty? I don’t know.

Every school that is now abandoned has one thing in common, as you climb into the broken classrooms and step over fallen chairs and crayon drawing

s you notice that on every blackboard written in cursive reads the date January 12. It’s haunting.


Father Rick and I went to buy 20 foot long pieces of metal pipe, we rode on the

back of motorcycles - bought the pipe then realized we had no way to bring them back. Father Rick thought that we should carry them

on the bikes, he rides in front 20 feet and I follow below, we each hold an end, we have to keep that distance perfect the whole way or one of us will be thrown from the bike. They are really heavy and dirty; it's hot. We make it 5 feet and both fall off. Bad idea but good for some laughs from the crowd gathered to watch. We end up each holding a pipe above our heads for the whole ride, they are unruly, we arrive safely and retell the story many times over ice-cold Prestige beers. I like this place.

Food distributions all week long.

Load up helicopters to take rice to a town cut off by floods, the priest of the local mission meets the chopper in a field. Villagers watch as overhead the helicopter

approaches with its net full of food swinging lazily below. It touches down and a crowd descends upon the rice. Within minutes the food and net are gone. The next day we send the Italian military to do it, they succeed and fight off the crowd.

On Wednesday I head to a mission in LaKai to deliver rice. Three hours away it’s the first time I’ve left PaP. I’ve gotten to know PaP well, I’m now familiar with its streets and its tragedy, I’m immune to the rubble; I think. This changes as I drive on the back of a truck loaded with two tons of rice through the next town over. Leogone is destroyed.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Every house, every store, every school - crushed. I can’t help but weep. I think everyone is waving at me so I try to smile back and wave, but people aren’t waving they are trying to flag the car down and are begging for help, they are crying out for us to drop off just one bag. People are hungry

and people are desperate. We reach LaKai and a crowd forms immediately, it’s hot. We close a steel gate and prepare the rice; the next four hours are hellish. Mobs fight for supplies, a gun is pulled; old women fight over a cup of beans. I have to carry a big stick to hit off people trying to steal or cut the line. Everyone needs a slip of paper to get food; I have to turn people away. An old crippled lady cries for some rice, she has no slip. I fill a bag for her and pass it over the fence, others see, beg to me. We have to fight our way out as the food runs out.

OnPalm Sunday Father Rick and I drive into the mountains to his orphanage in Kescoff. It’s a beautiful collection of buildings and playgrounds perched on a misty cliff high above pine trees. Most of the 350 kids are mentally disabled. We have mass in Creole with singing and dancing, it’s really something.

Sat next to a kid that folded his palm leaf into a cross necklace and gave it to me. I’m touched, I give him a gold turtle pin I find in my bag, he smiles wide, digs in his pocket and gives me the only thing he has, a dirty piece of soap. I try to refuse it but it’s impossible, he is proud to give me his prize.

We play basketball and take pictures.


Been spending time at the UN camp, 500 young, mostly American volunteers living all together in tents. Debaucheries as you can imagine, I’ve heard stories that would make your head spin; these are best told over a few cold beers.

My days look like:

5am 7am – Unload containers of rice, hard work but a fun bunch of guys singing and telling dirty jokes.

7am – 8am – Mass with Father Rick in our little earthquake damaged church; I sit under the broken stained glass window of St. Francis

8am- 9am – Creole lesson

9am – Food distribution or meetings at the UN. Play with the kids at school and the hospital.

Dusk – More loading of rice and medical supplies

Night – Cold beers and grilled chicken on the roof of the hospital.

The days are hot and the nights are muggy, I have lost weight and gained muscle. I am improving in my Creole at a surprising rate. I'm sunburned and happy in this city of dust.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Kites Above.

Began the trip behind the eight ball. Packed medical supplies in LA, iodine spilled in the checked bag. Pulled off the plane by homeland security, interrogated and released at 2am, as I scrambled to book new passage my phone gets stolen, police reports until the sun starts to peak out. Very little sleep, got new ticket and new phone and spent the night sleeping on the floor of Miami International Airport.

Arrive in Port Au Prince (PAP), Madeleine is waiting. PAP airport is a mess, was a mess before the earthquake and is messier now. Push through the touts into a waiting silver SUV, the A/C blasts cold and wakes me up. PAP is bustling; traffic jammed and congested. 10,000 nonprofit orgs on the ground all trying to get somewhere. UN Tanks - US Army Hummers – helicopters everywhere – machine guns – street vendors – old men – kids – tents camps and rubble. We listen to the radio loud, Michael Jackson’s “They don’t care about us” plays on repeat. An ominous and dangerous word to send out, reminds me of secret messages I would hear on the radio in Zimbabwe as a kid after the revolution. PAP looks the same at first but then as you leave the airport you see a city in ruins; as if leveled by a bomb. You notice the smell, it’s familiar but there is something different; diesel, roasted meats, petrol and that sickly sweet smell of sweat and burning trash but there is another overwhelming smell in the air, dust. Piercing trough the air is the grey chalky smell of concrete dust, its everywhere and here, a month after the earthquake, the acrid particles still float. I inhale deeply this city of dust. Tent camps dot the side of the road. Kites fly above them and I smile watching kids running through the camps flying kites and laughing. Hope above despair.

We arrive at St Damien’s hospital, the beautiful gardens I used to sit in are covered in tents, no one wants to sleep inside, aftershocks still hit weekly. I meet Dr. Reza who walks me through the hospital, its always a slow walk, kids come running out of their rooms, many of them amputees wanting to hug you and play. Makes me cry to see how much hope and joy these kids have; most have no home anymore, all lost many of their family but yet they are still smiling. I meet a 13-year-old pregnant girl, waiting to give birth at any second. I hear the wails of another woman who is in labor and screaming to the unborn baby to stay inside and not come out, to stay safe and protected inside. I’m told she lost her whole family, husband and home. She is calmed down and gives birth to a healthy baby girl. The next morning I watch her leave with her baby, walking out of the gates into an unknown future.

I walk into St Damien’s temporary schools. Its hot outside and 150 kids sit under tents learning French and English and studying math and playing soccer. One kid comes up to me and digs in his pocket; he fishes out a piece of strawberry candy and hands it to me. I’ve passed out loads of candy to kids but no kid has ever given me some. A 5-year old girl walks up to Dr Reza and hands him some of their nutrition bar to share. I’ve never seen such generosity before. A un-intentioned lesson learned in a post disaster country where food and necessities are passed out liberally to those who need it. I’m moved beyond words.

At dusk the sun sets red through the dust. Dr. Reza and I drink wine and wipe the sweat from our eyes.

In the morning we drive our convoy of five trucks to the food depot to buy rice. We are caught in a small stampede of people, I hear gunshots, the US Army sets up a blockade. I am carrying $20,000 in cash in a trash bag at my feet. This was a mistake to ride along for this one. We swerve through the masses and get to the depot. We load 800 bags of rice, probably most of it stolen, into the trucks. We drive the rice back home keeping an eye out for gangsters looking to take our rice. People are hungry here.

We get back safe. In the driveway of the hospital sit a group of Chinese volunteers from a Buddest organization who have showed up to donate some rice and 20 tents. They want to perform a short ceremony with singing and dancing and speeches, Conan the hospital administrator passes off to me the responsibilities. I'm good at these thank you speeches anyway, made lots in Africa. Very cheesy ceremony they film it and take pictures, I make a quick speech and take the tents and rice which then gets quickly spread out amongst the different parts of the hospital. I learn very fast to make sure supplies go to the right place since everyone needs everything and will grab right under your eyes.

So much work to be done.

So many people trying to help, best of intentions but without directions. I meet a Hollywood celebrity who is building an Eco City and will talk with the government next week to convince them change their rebuilding plans, she tells me she has a better plan. I’m a bit baffled. Lots of egos here, lots of well intentioned but misplaced ideas. Everyone I meet thinks they know better then Haitians on how to proceed and rebuild.

First thing in the morning someone throws two dead bodies of children over the fence because they know Father Rick will bury them. Dr Reza puts them in bags, he vomits.

All before 8am. Good morning Port Au Prince.

At night, dinner in Pettionville, lobster grills above an open flame, cold beer, a bar full of expats, peanuts. Night motorcycle ride down the hill back to the hospital, the cold air feels good against my face. No electricity in the streets so many people are outside, grilled meats and yams by candle light. We pass a few discos, people are dancing, I smile. The motorcycle breaks down in the middle of the slum, it gets fixed. Back to the hospital, collapse on my air mattress on the floor of the pharmacy closet, I sleep deeply stirred only by my methloquine dreams. I pack for home for a week and then will return to the city of dust.

In the morning it’s hard to leave. At the airport we hop on a chartered 747 full of doctors from the University of Miami, when the plane leaves the tarmac they applaud, happy to be going home. The clapping disgusts me; there is nothing to applaud.

I’m a zombie back in Venice, need to return.