Friday, August 19, 2011

Leaving Haiti

Even our exit from Haiti proved to be a metaphor and a challenge. When we had arrived 2 weeks prior, I knew that one of our most challenging moments of the whole trip would be getting out of the airport with all of our baggage and wits intact. Last year, gratefully, Sister Mary from Matthew 25 House, met us at the immediate exit from baggage claim. Calm and seasoned, she greeted us and led us through the maze of porters to our van. Even with our “chosen” porters, there was still jostling and arguing as others tried to get a piece of the action. This year, Sister Mary was not there to greet us at the gate. Courtney, Susan, Dina and I were in our most unwieldy moments — Courtney had 3 large duffels plus her personal items, the rest of us had 2 plus carry ones. At least we had 2 carts to carry the mother load.
Since Sister Mary wasn’t there, I implored the group to stay together and to stay put. I went further down the exit way and looked for our ride there. No one with the Matthew House sign was about. I went back to where everyone was waiting and we decided to make our way down to a waiting area that was underneath an awning. Of course, the porters followed suit and wanted to help us every step of the way. I didn’t want to engage them just yet because our ride wasn’t even there yet. Of course, now everyone said they knew Sister Mary and Ricardo, the driver. Most of this was just a rouse to get us to pick them as our porters. Annoyed by the constant pestering, I finally gave in to one of the porters who insisted that he knew where Ricardo might be and that we could wait there. Again, I told my group to wait while I investigated. I was highly suspicious about this “VIP” parking lot that this man was talking about.
As suspected, the porter led me over to a secluded parking lot that did not contain the Matthew 25 house van. Instead, I recognized it as the place where, last year, a group of men surrounded one of our volunteers and stole her iPhone. There was no security here, so it is a perfect place for a heist to an unsuspecting visitor. I told the porter thanks, but no thanks and made my way back to the shaded waiting area. I would know our guy when he arrived.  Thirty minutes later, we were safely on our way to Matthew House.
Leaving Haiti proved to be an even greater challenge. Last year we went on American, simply waiting on line with the rest of the travelers to check in and go through customs. This year we were at the other gate.
Haiti’s airport is small by any standards. It does not have terminals. It simply has two entrance ways: one for American Airlines, and the other for all other international flights. An even smaller airport down the road services in-country flights on 6-seaters and small prop planes. The international airport, named after an ex-slave, army commander who led the country’s fight for independence, is frenetic at best during midday when most planes take off. We arrived with 4 and half hours to spare (little did we know that we would need every minute of that!). Porters again were vying for the few dollars they would earn by carrying our bags. This time, the tease was that they would take us to a special line, “just for us”, ahead of all the chaos. Somehow I felt that this was unjust and metaphoric. Don’t the rich always do that? With the power of money, we literally step over those at the bottom, those without means, and give ourselves the best ride. I was happy to patiently wait with the Haitians on line; we had 4 hours, after all.
But it wasn’t really a line. It was a cramming of people up against a door, that wasn’t open yet. No one was moving, just waiting. Even those on the “VIP line” were just waiting like the rest of us. It was hot. Dina and I had a lesser load than on arrival, but we still had our wheeled luggage, plus my jump bag, back pack, Dina’s Timbuktu bag and her heavy camera backpack that held thousands of dollars worth of video equipment. We had to keep an eye on it all, carefully holding onto our spot in the throng. It took an hour before they even opened the door and started to let people in. It was the worst of bottlenecks. 6 or 7 porters at a time, trying to make good on their promises to get people in first, the “secondary” line trying to cram it’s way in through at the same time. Literally around 300 people trying to make their way through one small doorway, and don’t forget their luggage. As you can imagine, we moved by inches. When we finally got to the ramp that led up to the door, we were boxed in by people. Tensions were high and shouting matches erupted more than once. I didn’t feel anxious, just curious to witness this glaring example of disorganization, a metaphor for life in Haiti. No one wanted to be last. Everyone was in a me-first, dog-eat-dog frenzy to get what was rightfully theirs. The line was moving, even at a snail’s pace. We still had 3 hours.
Once we were at the top of the ramp, I thought the pressure would ease as we entered the airport lobby. For a moment, we had breathing room as we all made our way down a ramp to the first x-ray security check. All of our bags had to go through and I am quite sure that they did not do a thorough job. I was only concerned about getting to the other side and collecting our bags before the masses enveloped us again. On the other side of the security check, the wall of people was immense and still. It seemed that no one was moving. It was unclear exactly what to do, but I figured that if we followed the crowd, we would get to where we needed to be. We were travelling to St. Maarten on an airline called Insel Air and we had met a few people on the line that were doing the same. I figured that if I kept one eye on these few markers, I would know where to go.
At one point we found ourselves waiting in the middle of the sea of people that now completely filled the airport lobby. Again we inched our way forward, trying to keep our spot in the “line.” Dried mango slices and one water bottle sustained us for the hours of waiting and inching. We were passed by a number of American Christian groups with slogans like, “Puttin’ Feet to Faith” and Rock Solid Church. They wore the tell-tale dusty sandals of mission work in Haiti. A college group from the University of Pittsburg had done the same. All were headed back home on the Delta flight. All had paid their way to the head of the line.
At this point, an airline agent said to everyone on the right, “Insel Air,” and pointed to the left. So now everyone on the right had to cram their way through to the other side.
It was almost 2 hours later before we reached the check-in counter. But an even more curious thing had happened. By the time, we reached the counter, Dina and I were almost exactly at the end of the line. How had all those people passed us? I had always seen us in the middle of the pack, jammed fore and aft with someone else’s suitcase. It was fascinating. I also realized that it had really been no big deal. We were going to get through with time to spare. Dina noticed that the man at the very end of the line was trying to cut in front of us. Would it really make a difference if he made it in front of us now? With great effort, he snuck his luggage up to the counter in front of us, causing an argument with the meager security guard. It was that important for him not to be last. I told the guard in Kreyol, “N’ap prale.” We are all leaving. “Pa gen pwoblem.” Leave it, it is not a problem.
After passing through Customs, there were roped queues and plenty of space. The fight was over. The same group of people who moments ago were clawing for position melted into a calm group of civilized travelers.
We had half an hour to spare.
The fight for the bottom is something that is demonstrated wherever human stratification exists. Who is first? Who is last? Who is the richest? Who is the poorest? No one wants to be the bottom. It is demonstrated with midwifery politics: CNMs versus CPMs versus “lay midwives;” gang fighting: Asian vs. Black vs. Latino; abusive households where the man beats the woman, the woman abuses the child, the child kicks the dog. In Haiti, there is a desperation to not be at the bottom of every heap, already having claimed that spot in the Western hemisphere for such inglorious attributes as maternal mortality, infant mortality, literacy rates and poverty.
We all got on the plane. We all made it out of there. Most Haitians fly to St. Maarten for employment. We were perhaps 2 of only 5 white people on the plane, headed to an inconceivable resort island, too close to justify the disparity, too far to share the wealth. When Dina and I arrived at our timeshare on the island of St. Maarten, we were astounded by the beauty and opulence. We had dinner and went back to our room, cold, by the way, from air-conditioning and a ceiling fan. After two weeks of sleeping on the porch in a mosquito tent, Dina’s only comment was, “This pillow is ridiculous.” We settled underneath the down comforter, and didn’t wake up until 12 hours later. 

No comments: