Friday, January 27, 2012

Remembering Haiti

I never imagined that my evacuation from Haiti, after the earth quake, would be with a glass of prosecco in hand, alone on a private luxury jet, being served ham and cheese by a beautiful stewardess, as we flew through the sky leaving the chaos and madness below. 


I had spent the day before waiting in the US embassy with no passport, little money, and had been wandering for 2 days in the haze of confusion that surrounded Port-au-Prince.  I had lost everything; my house and my office, everything in rubble, with many friends and colleagues dead, and my own health deteriorating, I needed to get out. 


The earthquake was the ultimate leveler and brought me directly in touch with people I had lived amongst and helped as an Aid worker.  The first night I made it to the main park in Petionville, where people gathered the dead and wounded.  Dead children strewn out like toy dolls, ritualistic dancing and people singing mournful songs collectively.  The entire night illuminated by the vibrations of these sounds and scenes.  I huddled in a corner with some other expats, in front of a hotel lobby not understanding anything, and able to be moved but unable to share and touch, their suffering.  I was an outsider.


I won't go into much more detail, because it's not easy to describe it.  But I will say something comes over you, in such situations, which makes you move with a sense of purpose.  Having been in New York on 9/11 and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, my purpose was clear:  to get back home, be with loved ones, regroup and figure out how to contribute meaningfully. 


I thought about my mother, the Empire State building, former lovers.  Anything to help me focus, a goal in mind, to reach it, to help me move forward, to not get caught up in the confusion, anarchy and helplessness engulfing me.      


I was not alone in this sentiment, never knowing that there are 45,000 Americans in Haiti, most of whom would be dual citizens if Haiti allowed it, and that many of them would be out in full force at the US embassy, also demanding evacuation.  People slept on lawns overnight, overcrowding was an issue, with people slowly transferred to the airport where food and water became scarce.  Logistically things were breaking down and made no easier by someone's bright idea to tell people to just show up at the airport in the morning. 


In the morning there was a surge of what looked like Haitians, though on closer view with blue passports clutched in raised fists in the air, were Americans just like me trying to get into the airport being pushed back, as there were too many people and the planes and embassy staff were nowhere in site.  Complete chaos, and a sinking feeling came over me.  Word and panic was spreading about violence, and I was fatigued and sick after 4 days. 


I did what any hustler would do, and looked for white people.  I asked them how they were getting in, I saw some with cameras, media people, and followed them, tagging along to get inside, pretending to be one of them.  I made it in to see more white faces, young 20 something Foreign Service officers with their jaw's to the ground.  They didn't know what to do, nobody did, and I knew I had to fend for myself. 


I had to hitchhike on the tarmac, after sneaking into the airport without a passport and then, like out of some 80s B film, I saw some Dominicans in crisp white uniforms wearing aviator sunglasses smoking at the tail side of a pristine plane (which I mistook for a US plane).  They told me to hop on after they saw me desperately trying to make my way through the circus-like panoply of Aid planes, Marines and the media, not to mention the wounded and stranded, a kaleidoscope under the Caribbean Sun with no water and provisions in sight.  I had no idea what this plane was doing there, and when I asked, received only nebulous answers. 


It felt strange, I was both awkward and grateful, alone in an empty plane, flying to safety and leaving behind people in need of desperate help.  I was not only fortunate enough to survive, but was leaving in style!  Quite a contrast to everything I experienced in the days following the earthquake.               


I got out, probably because I don't look Haitian and can work the angle of being an international aid worker.  But is there some grander metaphor for inefficiency and privilege in being evacuated alone on a luxury jet?  I don't know, but I am surprised that this surprises some, enrages others.  When did we ever collectively engrain this notion that the world is fair?    


If anything, my sense of entitlement, as an American and an Aid worker, was severely challenged that day.  None of it meant anything amidst catastrophe and many people far privileged than me died.  The earthquake hit everybody equally, rich and poor, but the aftermath with its survivors will be a different story.  A story many people will not want to hear.