Thursday, February 4, 2010

First Day Scramble Dance

We found Sandro at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport. It wasn’t really as easy as all that, to be honest, but we did find him. When we got there, we had a name and a phone number. Not his full name, mind you, just Sandro. He had fixed for our first reporter on the ground in Port au Prince, and he was found to be reliable, so we figured it would be better to go with him than to root out someone new. Now, you’re probably thinking, “just a first name and a phone number to find one guy in an international airport in a country whose telecoms were all bunked? Doesn’t sound easy.” Well, maybe you weren’t thinking that. But I was thinking it, so now you are too. So we’re squared. Truth be told, Toussaint Louverture is a miniscule airport, as far as airports go, just one airstrip and one small terminal. We also knew he would likely be in or around the car-rental place, which turned out to be not much bigger than my bedroom in Washington Heights. All in all, in terms of square footage, it wasn’t like wandering the arctic looking for a white-furred seal.

The problem, as often ended up being the case in Haiti, was chaos. The outside of the airport teemed with people, a massive swell of Haitians who all wanted to be our interpreter. There’s one in particular. He called himself Peter Paul, but his real name was Antoine. He was slightly built, well dressed, with squared glasses that made him seem brainy and thus somehow trustworthy. I promised Peter Paul that if we didn’t find Sandro, we’d hire him. Then, when we found Sandro, I promised him I’d tell my friends to hire him. So, if any person reading this finds themselves in Port au Prince in need of a driver/interpreter, please consider hiring the slightly built, well dressed, brainy looking Peter Paul. Aside from Peter Paul, the airport was scrambled eggs. A crush of people all trying to get in, get on, get over, get out. And here we were, wading through the bog, trying to get to the used car center so we could find Sandro. It took us an hour and two smoke breaks before we finally did.

I guess I should take a minute here and define what I mean by ‘we’. I don’t know whether or not to bother using fake names for something no one is likely to read, so what I’m going to do is use real names, and then tell you that they’re fake. So, in order to protect their identities, some names in these stories have been changed. I’ll give you a rundown of the more important characters in this narrative here, so you can start to realize that this isn’t just about me, Sandro, destruction, and my brain. The first of these is Koh, my partner. At this point, we’d worked together for just over 6 months in our paper’s New York bureau, and we’d traveled in together. So at this point, ‘we’ means ‘me and Koh’. Later on, ‘we’ will mean ‘me and Ari’, another reporter sent in to relieve Koh. So that’s the mains. Sandro, Koh, and Ari. There’s a fourth character also. One that wasn’t ever there but always ever was, who knows who they are and what they did. I guess it’s odd that there’s another character there that isn’t there, but it’s important to know about it, because it was important. Oh. And it’s not Jesus. And then there’s me. I was there for pretty much everything I was there for.

In the end, Sandro found us, somehow, and we followed him out of the airport claptrap, trailing Peter Paul, who I promised to recommend to all my friends. From here, we spent the rest of the day tooling around Port au Prince looking for a place to sleep. Knowing already that some of the more famous hotels had journalists camping out on their lawns for lack of space, Koh and I bought sleeping bags in Santo Domingo, and after the first couple of hours I was sure we’d have to put them to use. We first drove up to Petionville to the Hotel Kinam. The Kinam was entirely intact, green as an arboretum, and completely booked. The Japanese embassy staff had moved there after their building collapsed, so we spent 15 minutes swapping business cards and basic info. Right across the road from the Kinam was one of Port au Prince’s newly formed refugee camps- tarps and makeshift tents spread out over poles and people milling about cooking whatever they’d been able to scrounge at hugely inflated prices. Inside the Kinam, the pool water continued to cycle, the restaurant and bar continued to serve guests, it still functioned as if the world hadn’t ceased to exist the week before. Sandro always said, “the world is upside down,” but somehow the Kinam landed right-side up.

It’s sort of tedious to describe the next few hours of Port au Prince, but, suffice it to say, we called every person we could think of who currently was, or had ever been, in Port au Prince, drove to every corner of the city, and poked our head in at every hotel, guesthouse, hostel that the city had on offer. I mean, it was tedious to experience it, but it was probably even more tedious to experience reading the preceding sentence. The one benefit of our city tour was that it gave me an early impression of what life was like in the undone capitol. Whatever pictures or videos you have seen don’t do it justice. And my petty words won’t do it either. But I’ll say this: on my 9th day in Port au Prince, a fellow named Lester introduced himself and explained that he had just come in that evening. “I hear the news reports about 100, 150 thousand killed,” says Lester, “but I just don’t understand how it could be that many.” I understood. I understood right away. This earthquake was thorough.

I’m not sure how many hotel leads we tried to follow up on, but for dramatic impact, let me just focus on the last two. After searching down every lead that Koh and I had between us, Sandro told us he would take us into Delmas, one of Port au Prince’s larger wards. He knew a guesthouse, he told us, and he’d take us there. Sandro assured us it was a decent enough place, that they had reasonable rates, clean rooms, that they were reliable people. Maybe at some point. Now it looked like a kicked-in sandcastle.

“Don’t worry,” says Sandro, “I know another place.”

As we drove off, I kept thinking about how the space between the first and second floors was hardly large enough to squeeze in a soup can. I was still juggling soup when we pulled inside a walled compound and secured a room on the first floor of the Coconut Villa Inn.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Sandro was our fixer in Haiti. And since everything I’ll ever talk about from this point forward involves Sandro, I’ll take some time here to tell you his story.

Sandro drove us, interpreted for our every interview, watched over us like bear cubs. Among his various business ventures, Sandro operated a rental car company that catered mostly to Haiti’s nascent tourism industry. He was expensive, as fixers in the aftermath go, but his knowledge, connections, and access to vehicles and fuel made him worth it. At least to me, but I wasn’t paying, so it’s hard for me to take a hard stance on the matter.

He was educated, had studied diplomacy in university before quitting his studies to make money. He was a businessman, as he liked to state during negotiations. He also taught me everything I know about Haiti that I didn’t see for myself or read about on twitter.

Sandro had a woman. Suzette. I don’t want to romanticize things beyond their usefulness, so I’ll state that Sandro appeared to have other vaginal avenues available. But Suzette was the one that was important. He called her his wife, even though they weren’t married. They had met while studying together, and, as he tells it, she and two of her friends all took to Sandro at the same time. But Suzette was the best among them, and he chose her.

Suzette was ambitious. Driven in a way that impressed Sandro. She didn’t need his money, had her own dreams and drives separate from him. This is why he loved her. She had already finished one degree and was working towards a Masters as well. She also worked her way up to a position as a human resources manager for the NGO, Plan. She had a future for herself, and unlike many educated Haitians, she wanted to spend it on Haiti. She doesn’t anymore, though, because she’s dead.

There was one trait of Suzette’s that Sandro had trouble grappling with, and this was her stubbornness. Like any man who loves strong women, this stubbornness was frustrating beyond words, and doubly so because his love for her was mainly a result of the qualities that created it. They had one persistent argument. Suzette wanted to work full time at Plan and continue studying towards her advanced degree. Sandro could see that it was wearing her thin, and urged her to take some time off from school while she settled into her new responsibilities at the NGO.

“You don’t even have the time to finish your schoolwork,” he’d tell her. But it didn’t matter to her. She knew it was all under her dominion, that she had power enough for both. She relented briefly. Took some months off from her studies. The dream, however, was in front of her, compelling her, and she gave into it and affirmed her return to her studies.

January 12th, 2010 was the first day of classes for the new term. They argued, Sandro insisting it was too much for her, Suzette reassuring. He drove her to the university in silence, dropped her off, and drove away. She sent him a text message before her class began, “I’m sorry. Don’t be upset with me.” He didn’t respond. It was the first time in their relationship that he didn’t respond right away. The weight of this old, stupid argument made his thumbs too heavy.

At four o’clock, she texted again, “Are you ok? Why haven’t you responded? I love you. I’ll see you soon.”

If she had listened to him, he says now, if she had taken the break…

The earthquake hit Haiti at 4:53, and he never wrote her back.

Jostle Over

This is the part where I connect what I’m saying now to what I already said before, so readers can smoothly transition between the different sections of what is essentially one long story. So. Not only was I not pulled apart and devoured by desperate Haitians, I’d like to say up front and early on that I never saw any act of violence or looting the entire 12 days I was in Haiti. Now, mind you, I didn’t go out looking for violence and chaos and looting, but that’s not my job. I’m not in TV. My job was to go to Haiti, talk to Haitians, and find out how they were confronting catastrophe. In the furtherance of this basic mission, I never personally witnessed any of the sensational brutality that the television has been feeding your brain. I’m sure it must have occurred, because it’s right there on video, but I saw none of it. I am not dead. And I was only ever assaulted by mosquitoes.

We left Santo Domingo at 5 in the morning on January 19th. An absolutely dreadful hour of the day to be aware of it. I was already mostly awake, though, on account of a vivid and disturbing dream that had shaken me awake and not allowed me the pleasures of a return to sleep. The dream was about earthquakes. You might stop and say to yourself, “Really? Earthquakes? The night before you go into a city ravished by quakes?” and then call into question the veracity of everything you’re reading here. I can’t say I’d blame you really. But it’s true. And even if it weren’t true, it would be more true for you to just accept its truth because it’s truer that way. So the truth is I dreamt about earthquakes. Or, rather, I dreamt of a quiet warmth interrupted violently. The quake was vicious. A rapid swaying like standing on a breaking wave. I’m not from anywhere where earthquakes are a fact of daily existence, so I’m impressed with the ability of my brain to cobble together the sense memory necessary to create this vision. Then there’s the urgency of escape, the open sky, solitude, and stupid darkened wakefulness. This is why a dreaded 5am departure turned out to not be such a big deal.

Our driver was a Dominican named Rafael. We were assured two things about Rafael. First, that he could speak English, and, second, that he had reliable transportation. These two assurances were only barely true enough not to be false entirely. His car was a 20 year old civic that ran, I think, on propane. It was a very long ride. The first phase, leaving Santo Domingo and traveling through the Dominican countryside, was almost all carried out in darkness. The road seemed like one long convoy. Red stretched out infinitely in front of us, white snaked back into Santo Domingo. Hundreds of trucks and cars carrying supplies, doctors, aid workers, soldiers, other journalists. It was like playing Oregon Trail again. We even had to stock supplies before setting off. And I’m pretty sure there’s dysentery also, just like in the game.

Just before getting to Dominica’s Lake Enriquillo, the road towards Port au Prince splits off into a northern and a southern shoot, with the lake in between, before joining together again at the border town of Jimani. We took the southern split, and I guess the convoy mostly took the northern, because we were soon the only car for miles. This, of course, is when we broke down. I feel like this is already getting sorta long winded so I’ll round it out with a list: bugs, dust, boredom, ‘I don’t know’, two nice young guys happen by and fix the nozzle to our propane tank using a plastic grocery bag and a hammer. That was easy.

I always figured that the crossover between Thailand and Cambodia would be the most bizarre border I’d ever encounter, in terms of two separate worlds existing side by side and divided by a fence. But the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti makes crossing from Thailand into Cambodia seem like driving from Dallas to Fort Worth. It was like night and day. Or, rather, it was like one country that functioned as countries are designed to, more or less, and one that looked like a dystopian future puked out by a science fiction writer of the pessimist tradition. Even though the earthquake didn’t actually touch this area, in a literal sense, it looked as though Earthquake, enraged and wrathful god, had made Haiti his home, had lived there from time immemorial, and would only ever suffer its destruction. Only the strong majiks woven into their reggaeton kept the Dominicans safe.

This sense of broken chaos stretched from the border into the capitol, and it wasn’t long before the earthquake, the actual one and not the ancient god I just made up, made its presence felt. Outside walls knocked over, broken windows, fractures spreading up from foundations like an upside-down river and its court of tributaries. And then there they were- the crumbled buildings. Though to be fair to the word ‘building’, these were not buildings any longer, they lacked those qualities that make the word make sense inside our brains. I was only aware that in some time before they had been buildings because I had foreknowledge of their previous state. They were in no way helpful in understanding their former condition. They were craters. Rock piles. Stacks of cement flapjacks lacking a butter pat. All in all, the word ‘building’ even with the attached modifier ‘collapsed’ does little to convey what they actually are.

My eyes could not process fast enough, like sleeping in a hole and being woken up by the sun sitting on your face. There was so much. The traffic was awful too. The convoy again, but this time on lousy narrow roads with Haitians fleeing in the other direction in gigantic painted busses. It was a long walk on a rocky hill with one leg dragging behind and spasming. It wasn’t forever, however, before we found ourselves at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, scrambling through a new kind of chaos and searching for Sandro.

Shit and Anderson Cooper: Binary Linkages

I didn’t shower or shit for the first two days in Port au Prince. I didn’t shave either. But then I didn’t shave for the entire 12 days. This was due, in part, to a lack of preparedness, but also, the thought of my micro-abrasions confronting a city full of swirling corpse dust voided what small pleasures might be gained from scraping off my face hair.

Showers and toilets were different. Shaving was a matter of hygiene. Skipping showers and poop was calculated hygienic avoidance. I’ll get into this more later, but, essentially, I had developed the opinion that the only thing worse than being crushed to death under a 3rd rate hotel was being crushed to death by a 3rd rate hotel while naked and/or taking a dump.

The day before we made the drive over from Santo Domingo to Haiti, CNN ran a special Anderson Cooper report from Port au Prince that made me believe with near surety that I would not only be murdered by desperate Haitians, but would likely be pulled apart and devoured before my organs had time to fail. For this, Anderson, I thank you.

His two minute footage consisted of a scuffle as a shop in downtown Port au Prince was looted by teenagers. I didn’t check the timecodes or anything like that, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that it was about two minutes. I think I might actually be giving the footage more than its fair credit, personally, but I would guess thatAnderson feels differently. At any rate, the point is that this two minute scuffle was broadcast on an infinite loop all day long while I was prepping to go into Haiti, with Wolf Blitzer introducing it with bizarre hyperboles like, “PORT au PRINCE IN CHAOS!” or “VIOLENCE GRIPS HAITI!” or “IF YOU ARE DRIVING INTO HAITI TOMORROW, YOU WILL BE PULLED APART AND DEVOURED BY DESPERATE HAITIANS!” These sorts of things. Again, I didn’t DVR any of this, but you’ll just have to trust that I watch enough CNN to be able to write their shitty copy for them. Cause I do.

It was in this mindset that my partner and I departed Santo Domingo early in the morning of January 19th and made the long, jostling journey overland and into Haiti. I guess at some point I should probably mention what it is I do and how it is I came to find myself in Haiti a week after the country was smashed by a wrathful earthquake. Since I’m fairly certain that only one person outside my immediate family will ever actually read any of these words I’m banging out right now, I’ll keep this real simple. I am a journalist working in the Japanese media, for one of Japan’s leading newspapers. “It’s not the biggest,” I explain to non-Js, “but it’s the best.” Other journalists often ask me, “Do you write?” and I say, “No.” “Well, do you take pictures?” and I say, “No.” Other journalists get confused by this, so I try to explain it thusly: “You know all the other shit you spend your waking life doing that doesn’t involve typing or taking pictures? THAT’s what I do.” That’s what I do.

And getting back to Anderson Cooper. Being a newspaperman, and especially as one working in the foreign press, I have a natural and simmering disgust for American television news. This already frothy aversion was only exacerbated by my numerous encounters with the CNNers and the FOXes in Haiti; their insipid questions about ‘feelings’, their staged shots, and their special propensity to make their very own correspondents into the HEROES of HAITI. It’s all enough to make a fella retch into his neck. You’ll be hearing more about them.

Needless to say, however, despite Anderson Cooper’s 2 minute expose on Port au Prince’s descent into savagery, I was never pulled apart and devoured by desperate Haitians.