Wednesday, February 3, 2010

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.

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