Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Haiti: Arrival

Even from the air, the earthquake's devastation is evident. As my plane curved low from over the sea toward Toussaint Louverture International Airport in North-Central Port-Au-Prince, I noticed collections of structures that were clearly neighborhoods but just looked wrong: their coloring, that bleached warm taupe of dusty concrete, was too uniform; the lines of both buildings and streets too random and soft. There were few crisp rooflines topped with rust-colored tin or corrugated iron, and too few trees.

My sense of discomfiture grew as we landed, and I sank into a city shaped and stamped by confusingly intermixed influences of earthquake devastation and endemic poverty. I saw the cracked edges and faded paint on the runways. A few containers and trailers lie seemingly at random on the grassy stretches between the runways: are they homes? Offices? The Air-Traffic-Control tower? No way to know. Off to the side, on an overgrown field close to the wall that encloses the airport, a scattering of 757s squat at odd angles, abandoned and dark, their parent companies presumably defunct. Depressing at best, disconcerting the more I thought about it.

We deplaned into the old airport terminal, which is no longer in use. My companions, a pair of teenagers coming home for the holidays, assured me that the other terminal was better, but I’d yet to see it and it was eerie to walk down dark hallways past dark and empty offices whose windows (some splintered or reinforced with utility tape) showed faded logos for American Airlines, Air Canada, and other companies. If I believed in omens, which of course I don’t, then wandering through a cracked ghost-airport of commercial failure would have filled me with a sense of foreboding, which of course it didn’t.

Helpfully, all signage in the new airport building is trilingual, as had been the airline safety videos and cabin announcements on the flight over: French, English, and Creole/Kreyol. As soon as I had stepped onto the plane in Florida, I had been immersed in a wash of these three languages, often spoken intertwined. Obviously the English stood out for me, but my years of language study finally paid off in my ability to navigate the French language environment with equal ease. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could also glean a lot meaning from the Creole using my French. I felt on strong linguistic ground.

My boss Shonta, who I had met in the US, greeted me at the other side of customs and immigration. I realized immediately that Shonta knows by first name everybody at the airport, from the officer who stamped my passport to the security guards who let her in to meet me in the first place to the porter whom she indicated I should let carry my bag. She moves through the airport scattering smiles, greetings, and jokes. This how she gets things done. If you know me, you’ll know why we get along: I have the same style, using charm to navigate pesky institutional structures. Very effective outside the US. When I am home, I occasionally miss being able to wield this power, so it was nice to be back in my element again.

We left the terminal, dodging and weaving through a throng of porters, touts, and chauffeurs to reach Shonta’s truck, a rare rugged, dented, much-loved workhorse of a four-wheel drive. The interior of the door can no longer remember a time when it was upholstered, there are no signs of seatbelts, and we’ll leave the rest unsaid. The thing about unsafe vehicles is that they get exponentially less safe the faster they go. Despite its quirks, the truck is mechanically sound and very sturdy: ideal for narrow, uneven, pothole- and rubble-ridden roads on which you can rarely break 15 miles per hour. We wove sluggishly through the dusty streets, arriving after 40 minutes or so at the house of Ysmaille, Shonta’s fiancĂ©, where I stayed for the first week and a half.

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