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.

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