I’m sweating through the back of my shirt, hairs standing on end as I aim the flashlight onto the face of the patient in front of me. The woman has a gaping hole in the side of her face where the surgeon is digging around in the muscle tissue with a pair of forceps, trying to remove a troublesome piece of rebar metal that has been lodged in her cheek for the last two months. It’s 11 a.m. and the Hospital St.-Croix in Léogâne, Haiti, is experiencing a temporary power outage. The man who runs the generator powering the giant inflatable tent is late again, and the heat is suffocating. As the surgeon removes the rod, he makes a wisecrack about braces, and under the circumstances, it’s hard not to snort a laugh.
While planning a spring break destination back in January, I had a few basic criteria in mind. Warm, sunny, not too far away, preferably by a beach. Never did I imagine that this would turn out to be Haiti, a place that I had heard about only in the context of military coups, stark poverty and, now, a massive earthquake that had demolished the capital and its surrounding areas. Why I chose to go there, take a leap of faith and volunteer with an organization I knew almost nothing about, and why I am so glad that I did, are all things that are only now becoming clear to me since my return last week.
On Jan. 12, seven hours after the earthquake, I did an extensive internet investigation of organizations that would be sending volunteers to assist in the relief effort. Around two in the morning I stumbled upon the website for Hands On Disaster Response (HODR), a non-profit organization that sends volunteers to participate in cleanup and rebuilding in communities affected by natural disasters. I signed up to receive news about the earthquake response project as it developed. Two weeks later, I receive an application for Project Léogâne, an operation in a coastal town about 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince.
Being accepted to the project, buying my plane ticket, asking for donations to help cover the expenses, packing, getting vaccinations – everything from February to March is a blur. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the airport in San Juan, waiting for the connecting flight to Port-au-Prince, that the reality of what I was doing hit me in full: I was a woman, traveling solo to a country already riddled with corruption and violence before it recently experienced a crippling natural disaster. I was spending two weeks volunteering with an organization that I had only communicated with through e-mail and telephone. The extent of my Creole was a few key inquiries and phrases: Koman ou ye? How are you? Ki sa ka fe ou mal? Where are you hurt? Mwen grangou. I’m hungry.
I was fighting back panic as I walked out of the arrival gate into the bright sun, when I saw the driver waving around a sign with my name. We pushed through the massive crowd congregated outside the gates to the shuttle that would take us to Léogâne. The “shuttle” was a rusting ’92 Toyota Corolla with leopard print-lined seat covers and an array of air fresheners flapping wildly in the glassless windows. Welcome to Haiti.
Léogâne is a town of approximately 180,000 that was the epicenter of the earthquake. About 30,000 people lost their lives there, and the conditions are apocalyptic. Cryptic scrawls cover the broken walls, signaling loss and political instability among other things. Adieu Mackinson Kendo. Vote. Liberty Hip-Hop, Respekte. HODR’s base is a large concrete building located in the middle of town and constructed partially from the remains of what used to be a nightclub. It is equipped with running water and stalls for bucket showers, bunk beds (although most people bring tents to sleep in) and a kitchen, as well as an “office” with two computers for contact with the outside world. Worlds away but right next door is a tent city, where homeless Léogâne residents live in temporary structures made of sticks, tarps and bed sheets.
Despite all this, friendly faces and smiles are in abundance; my “Bonswa, ça va!” was always returned with one 10 times as enthusiastic, and the children laugh and cling to your hands as you pass by. Communication is limited by the language barrier, but things like smiles and inflection speak for themselves.
I was impressed by HODR’s strong presence in the community. The transparency of the organization makes it respected both by the volunteers and the surrounding community. Every night after dinner the whole base would meet for a couple of hours about the day’s work, new strategies and development, and the current situation in Léogâne. Copies of the annual report were always sitting around, waiting to be read. The founder and CEO was also at the base between press conferences and meetings with donors in the States, mingling and taking his meal of rice and beans along with the rest of us after a hard day of rubble, and answering any questions that came his way.
I was constantly surrounded by some of the hardest workers I’ve ever met. Often a whole site would get pulled down in less than two full work days under the guidance of experienced group leaders, and it was amazing to witness what a crew of dedicated people could accomplish. Clearing rubble all day in 95-degree weather is no joke, and at times it was trying. But often the owner of the destroyed property would pick up a tool and get to work next to you, and the sight of someone piling the remains of his home into a wheelbarrow would provide a burst of fresh energy and determination surpassing the power that any Clif bar could provide. I learned that I could shovel and sledgehammer (and unfortunately, sweat) as much as any of the men on the crew.
Every once in a while, to take a break from manual labor, I worked as a runner at the local field hospital, running medicine, IV tubes and surgical supplies to the doctors and nurses from the central supply and occasionally lending a hand in stabilizing patients. It was an eye-opening experience and a glimpse into healthcare in a developing country. Even after two weeks, the sight of a goat or turkey roaming free through the clinic grounds and weaving through the lines of patients waiting to be seen in the triage tent was unsettling.
It will take more than shovels and wheelbarrows to clean up the wreckage, more than sledgehammers to break through the corruption in the government, but if the last two weeks have taught me anything, it is to put faith in the resilience of the Haitian people. They are doing what they can to put their lives back into some semblance of order, and they continue to endure despite circumstances that would make most blanch and run for cover. The earthquake has been a chance to get recognition from the world community and start fresh with new initiatives, but they cannot do it alone. The project has taken hold of me and refuses to let go, just like the smell of Haiti: a mixture of burning plastic, diesel fuel, sweetly rotting fruit and sweat which still permeates my nostrils.