Our first full day began bright and early – a 6 a.m. wake-up call for morning yoga on the roof of the community center. I’m not much of a morning person – even after a couple years of early morning marathon training for 10, 15, 20 mile runs. But, it is always nice when you’re able to get up and get moving, especially at sunrise. And, especially in Haiti – when the dust and diesel isn’t quite as thick yet and there’s a little dampness in the air. The morning yoga sessions were very important to me – to get centered, balanced and find a moment of peace each day to prepare for what would always be very heavy, intensive days.
After a quick egg sandwich (food was not quite a culinary treat throughout our trip – but I always looked forward to a simple egg sandwich), we immediately headed downtown to the national penitentiary in Port-au-Prince. The drive wasn’t too long, but the sights were a lot to take in. Tent cities, piles and piles of trash along the sides of the road, armed military … We drove through Cité Soleil – dubbed the poorest place in the Western Hemisphere. There are anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 residents, all in a massive tent city, riddled with gang violence. En route through the area, we passed a crime scene – I couldn’t quite make out what was going on but there were UN soldiers, Haitian officers, crowds of people … and what I would make out in my photo later, a body, a man, laying dead on the ground.
You might be wondering WHY we were prison-bound. Well, there’s a man there we were trying to visit. Tito. Tito has been in prison since he was maybe 16. He was arrested because his friend was caught stealing – and, in Haiti, when someone commits a crime, everyone around that person and the crime committed is arrested. So, Tito stayed in jail for 3 years – waiting to see a judge. But to this day, has yet to see one. The prison conditions which I’m sure you can imagine are horrific – there are maybe 50 people in a cell. And, 25 have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, while the other 25 lay down and sleep. And they alternate like that every day. The prisoners also only eat when visitors bring them food. When the earthquake hit, all the prisoners escaped. Tito left Port-au-Prince and went into hiding. He came back to town in the past year for a quick visit only to get picked up by authorities and returned to jail. Mission Results is fighting to get him before a judge and released.
We came bearing gifts for the guards – but the lines of loved ones were long and we were too many “blahs” (Kreyol for “white people”) to be inconspicuous, I suppose. For whatever reason, we couldn’t get in. So we headed off to tour the most devastated areas of the city – which honestly, is most of it.
Our first stop was the Presidential Palace. We were 3 days out from the 2-year anniversary of the quake – and the palace is still totally demolished. It was such a powerful image for me – I live 1.5 miles from the White House. I see it every week – in fact, I can go out onto my street (16th Street) and look directly down the hill and see it. What a powerful message it must send to the people of Haiti – to see their seat of power, flattened. TWO YEARS later. The message it resonated to me, a total foreigner: “No one can help you – not even the government. The country is broken.”
When we first entered the demolished cathedral, it seemed pretty deserted. But, like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic movie, poor, hungry, desperate souls came teeming out of dark corners, begging for help. One man began playing his guitar which really set the mood. The tower in the corner of the cathedral was still intact – and, apparently you could still climb to the top for a sweeping view of the city. One volunteer was considering the hike; until we were told the tower is used by many as a bathroom and intensely wreaks of feces. A previous volunteer had tried it and couldn’t get the stench out of his head for days. Here are more detailed photos of the cathedral in my Picasa album. >>
We hit the road for our next stop, to visit an old neighborhood of one of our Haitian guides. As we crested the hill of a road, you could actually see all the way to the water. For a brief moment, I was reminded of my former, glorious days living by the beach in La Jolla, Calif. … If there’s an extreme opposite land of La Jolla, Port-au-Prince just might be it. … But, I caught a glimpse of what a beautiful country, Haiti really is – underneath all the devastation.
The daydream was quickly snuffed out by burning trash.
After a long morning, we headed back to the community center to get ready for a visit from the children. They were coming over for swimming lessons and some love. When we got back, I was also happy to see that James had found one of my favorite Discovery donation shirts:
Spending the afternoon with the children was a nice relief to how much devastation we saw that morning. The children are amazing – they are so sweet, loving and so joyful to see you. They have so much love to give – but it broke my heart because it was only indicative of how much love they need right back. I spent much of my time when I saw them just playing, hugging, holding and showing them love and affection.
Our night wrapped with a trip back to Grass Roots United for a family dinner. Compared to what we’d been eating so far – it was the best meal yet! Fresh (safe) veggies in a bean burrito. Food in Haiti is a lot of simple carbs, processed foods and high fructose corn syrup. My body was NOT happy. But whatever, I’m no diva – I’ve never drank so much 7up in my life.
I spent most of the night chatting with fascinating people staying at the Grass Roots compound. There are so many just solo, contributing whatever they can. And, I got to know one of our new Haitian friends who told me his story of losing his family in the earthquake. I’ve never heard anyone express so much love and passion for their country and to have so much hope for the future. Life is so hard and chaotic in Haiti right now – but the people are more resilient and beautiful than you can imagine.