Monday, August 20, 2007

Travel log, Day 1: Getting to Haiti

My trip to Haiti is officially behind me, which means that I was finally able to meet Noah. He's an amazing little boy and all of my worries about whether or not I would feel a connection to him have vanished. A lot of people have been asking for the details about my trip, so here they are:

Since I was traveling by myself I was sufficiently nervous about making the trip. I had been told that it would be an experience that I would never forget. That's an understatement. Haiti is not your typical Caribbean destination and it is not for the faint of heart. I left Salt Lake City at 9:30 on Saturday night and after a brief stop in Las Vegas I was (un)comfortably seated on a plane between two guys feeling nervous that my head may land on one of their shoulders if I drifted off during the overnight flight. Needless to say, I realized quickly that I wouldn't be getting much sleep en route to my next stop which was Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. When we landed in Florida almost five hours later, I was already feeling very sleep deprived and, as a result, less equipped to handle the rest of the journey. Because it was an international flight, I had to check in at the American Airlines counter and show my passport in order to get my final boarding pass. I stood in one line for about 15 minutes just to be told that I needed to get in another line for Haiti. So I moved lines and then looked around. It only took a moment for me to realize that I was definitely the most under dressed, frazzled looking person in the line. I was also the only white woman, a detail that wasn't lost on others around me. Three different people (two of whom seemed to be Haitians heading home) approached me to ask if I was in the right line "because this is the line for Haiti". Each time my affirmative response was met with puzzled looks and one slight shaking of the head. There was a group of about half a dozen American men and teenage boys further back in the line and they were also asked where they were going. Apparently their response that they were headed for a vacation in the Bahamas was more expected because they didn't get any puzzled looks or head shaking at all. They were swiftly shifted to a different line and all was well at American Airlines once again, with the exception of this white woman who clearly was about to board the wrong plane. Needless to say, my nerves weren't calmed by anything that was happening while I was in that line, and even though they gave me a boarding pass I think more than one of those people are probably still wondering where I actually ended up.

Once I made it onto the plane I was eager to find the seat that I would occupy until I landed in Port au Prince. I had high hopes of getting a brief nap so that I would actually be coherent when I finally met my new son. As I staggered with my bag down the center aisle of the plane it only took a triple take to realize that somebody was sitting in 22F which just happened to be the seat number that was stamped on my ticket. I stood there with my ticket in hand hoping that somebody who spoke my language would come to my assistance. Nobody came. The elderly man who was sitting in 22F was already settled in and well on his way to the nap that I wanted to be enjoying. The elderly woman who I assumed was his wife sat at his side in 22E and she was oblivious to this dishevelled American who was standing in the aisle staring at them blankly. The woman in 22D, however, did notice me. The look on her face told me that she would be happy to help me if she could, but she really had no clue why I was staring either. I finally pulled out my ticket and showed it to her. She started to get up and I immediately reassured her that it wasn't her seat that was in question. I don't think my reassurance did either of us any good because she didn't understand my English. She sat back down, and we were once again at a stale mate. The only gentleman on the plane who had skin tones that were even close to mine was sitting across the aisle in 22B. He spoke some English and offered the still empty seat next to him for my use. The problem is, I didn't want to take 22A if somebody else was going to come along and give me the same blank stare that I was giving because I was in their seat. At this point, the elderly woman had realized that something was going on and kind of nudged her husband. He lifted his head and I showed them both my ticket. They just looked at me and I pointed to the numbers on the seats that they were in and then to my ticket again. Still nothing. Several other passengers tried to intervene at this point and a French/Creole discussion erupted around me. (Why, oh why, didn't I pay more attention during all those hours in French class??) Several other people finally understood my dilemma, but the one guy who needed to get it, simply didn't. I ultimately decided that he was probably supposed to be across the aisle so I just smiled at him, told him to stay there (even though he had no clue what I was saying), and took a seat in 22A. There is no way that I could have known it at that point, but the seat mix-up was a huge blessing.

The flight was rather uneventful. After takeoff I turned on my MP3 player and closed my eyes hoping for a nap. The guy next to me was very nice, but it wasn't until we were over land once again and I was anxiously trying to get my first view of Haiti that he struck up a conversation. Like everybody else on board, I'm sure, he wanted to know what was taking me to Haiti. I told him that I was going to visit an orphanage. He asked if I was a doctor. Nope. He asked if I was working with an NGO. Not that either. I'm simply a mom going to visit her new little boy. A broad smile erupted on his face. That's wonderful, he said. As we continued to talk I found out that he was a doctor from Brazil. He was working in Haiti with the United Nations and was just returning from a brief trip home. I found out that there are currently approximately 1500 Brazilian peacekeeping troops in Haiti. His voice revealed his concern as he told me that the Haitians really don't like them, but that they are so needed down there. He asked where I would be staying and he wanted to know if somebody was going to be picking me up at the airport. He told me to be sure to avoid Cite Soleil, the biggest slum in all of Port au Prince. He also told me about the gangs and the dangers that exist in a virtually lawless society such as Haiti. I assured him that I would be escorted around PAP and that I was staying at the orphanage outside the city. Our conversation trailed off while I continued to try to catch glimpses of the ground as we seemed to be flying in circles over the island. I pulled out my camera and got a couple of pictures to show to Adam when I got back home.

Slowly we descended closer and closer to the ground until we touched down and I let out a breath that I think I had been holding for most of the flight. Before we stood up, my Brazilian friend handed me a note. He told me that he was concerned about me in Haiti and that if I needed anything at all that I should find a phone and call him. He told me that he would send troops if I needed them. Although I sincerely appreciated his deep concern, his words did little to console my already uneasy nerves. As we stepped off of the plane he allowed me to walk with him across the tarmac and into the airport that reminded me somewhat of the bus terminal in downtown SLC. So far, so good, I thought. I had been told that the people meeting me would be right inside to escort me the rest of the way. After I managed to get through the line at customs, I slowed down with the excuse of wanting to thank the Brazilian doctor. In reality I didn't want to head into baggage claim by myself. He knew exactly what I was doing and didn't seem to mind. After he came through the customs line he stepped in front of me and we entered the baggage claim area together. It was a complete zoo. A tall Haitian guy wearing an ID tag around his neck immediately approached us and asked for our baggage claim tickets. The doctor handed his over while I scrambled to find mine. I finally pulled the right paper out of my bag and the Haitian guy grabbed it and pulled off the claim tickets for my two bags. He then instructed us to get a baggage cart. I was a little confused but didn't really know how else to respond, other than to just go and get a cart. After we got our carts and came back to the baggage carousel, the claim ticket guy was nowhere to be found. Huh. The doctor immediately realized his mistake and told me that he was a complete idiot. He asked me if I remembered what the guy looked like. Um . . . he was tall . . . and Haitian . . . and had on a white shirt. The doctor reassured me and told me not to worry - he would find him, then he ran off. I was left standing there with our luggage carts and what I'm sure was a very anxious look on my face. After about two minutes that seemed more like an hour, the doctor came back smiling and said that he had found the guy as he pointed him out across the room. It was then that I realized that I would be a terrible witness if a crime ever occurred in front of me. He was wearing a pink shirt, and he really wasn't all that tall. I did get the Haitian part right though so that was good. Anyway, after just a couple of more minutes the doctor had his bag off of the carousel but mine were nowhere to be found. The doctor wasn't going to let the claim ticket guy out of his sight, so he brought his bag over to me and then went back to wait for mine. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, and still no bags. The doctor wasn't going anywhere though, and I was relieved that I wasn't alone. Thirty minutes passed, and the doctor was pointing out other bags that he thought might be mine, but still nothing. It was at some point during that wait that I realized that the guy in the pink shirt was basically just trying to con us out of some money. He had an ID tag on though, so we were both fooled by it and once he had our claim tickets there wasn't a whole lot that we could do. I don't know about any of you, but pulling a suitcase off of a carousel is typically something I can take care of all by myself. Finally, one of my bags fell onto the carousel and the pink shirt guy grabbed it. The doctor stayed right with him to make sure that he brought it to me. Another ten minutes or so passed before my other bag finally appeared - the last one off of the plane. The pink shirt guy grabbed it and carried it about ten feet and dropped it in front of my cart. Then he stood there with his hand out. The doctor pulled out his wallet, obviously frustrated with himself for allowing this to happen, and the smallest bill he had was a $20. The guy took it, with a big smile on his face, and then proceeded to grab a couple more dollars out of my hand. The doctor then put a smile back on his face and loaded my bags onto my cart for me. We got into another line to go through immigration and the doctor stayed with me through that scramble too. It was chaos, but it was amazing how secure I felt with this South American who I had met just hours before. We made our way closer to the exit of the airport and there was still nobody there to meet me, but the doctor assured me that he wouldn't leave me alone. There appeared to be just one exit door out of the airport and all of these people were cramming together to get out that door. Just as I stepped outside, I saw a girl holding a sign with my name on it. Stephanie! I told her I was the person she was looking for and then a guy who I thought was with her grabbed the luggage cart from me and started to go. In the crush of people moving out the door, the doctor had been held up. I told Stephanie that I needed to thank him and give him at least part of his $20 back. I turned around and told him that he was an angel and that I was so grateful for him. He told me that I was an angel for going to get this little boy and that he would pray for me. He refused the money that I tried to give him, and what was going to be a handshake turned into a big hug as he kissed me on the cheek. The mass of people wouldn't allow a longer exchange and then I was off again to catch up to my luggage cart. I quickly learned that the guy with my luggage cart was also some random guy who simply wanted money. After handing him a couple of bucks and spilling change all over the ground once we made it to the car, I climbed inside and did my best to not be rattled by all of the hands holding onto the door and the voices pleading for money as we pulled away. Needless to say, my first hour in Haiti was something that nobody ever could have prepared me for. I don't for one second believe that the mix-up with the plane seats was an accident, and I know for certain that guardians angels do exist.

This is the first thing I remember seeing as we left the airport. The Brazilian troops with the machine guns and the UN helmets reminded me of the doctor. It wasn't until that moment that I realized that didn't even know his name. When I got settled at the orphanage and pulled some of my things out, I found the note that he had given to me. His name is Major Parra. He is the chief medical officer with the UN in Haiti. I'm going to see if there's anyway that I can track him down because I would love to thank him again.