I noticed the rivers first. From the airplane window I watched them pour, brown and silty, into the blue ocean. Smaller streams converged, carrying the island’s sediment to the sea. I didn’t have to fall back on my boy scout training in soil and water conservation to know that something was out of balance. It seemed little wonder that the rivers were so dirty—hardly any vegetation stood out on the brown hills.
We began descending, and the land flew by as the plane grew closer. Open land, scattered with villages, came into view, then individual shacks, structures amounting to little more than scraps of tin, cardboard, and spare lumber. It was difficult to get a good look at them from the sky, but soon people were visible, black specks laboring in dirt yards. Thousands of feet overhead, their suffering and sadness was thick around me.
Then, out of the distance, a cluster of cement and rust and walls: Port-au-Prince. It looked bad from the air—the place emanated poverty—but once inside, it was more a hellhole of humanity.
Buildings rushed by faster now, and although they were not far below, they grew more difficult to distinguish. The airport came into view, our runway straight ahead. We landed for the third time that day. When the plane came to a stop on the airstrip, we strained to see the airport building through the windows, catching glimpses of turquoise walls and black men pressed to the railing that lined the rooftop.
Finally, the aisles cleared enough that the fifteen of us from a church of sixty in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, could make our way past the cockpit to the door. I came squinting into the bright sun at the top of a set of stairs, and my senses sprung to life, soaking up as much of the scene as my spirit would contain. The air was hot, but less humid than at home; the sky was bluer; clouds wisped by. Directly before me, only a few hundred yards away, stood men, flesh and blood humans, black skin shining in the sunlight on the airport rooftop. I had tried, but never had I imagined them to be so real.
A member of my group who was ahead of me, already on the airstrip below, waved and yelled “Marcel!” One of the Haitians crowded onto the rooftop broke into a broad smile and waved. I waved back as I began descending the stairs. He would be our guide and primary translator for the next nine days. On the gray cement runway, littered with long, zigzagging cracks, our group collected, then walked toward the glass doors of the airport.
Inside we waited in line on pale red tiles with white speckles. A white sign on the wall read, “We apologize for the poor conditions at the airport, but we are doing everything we can to repair it.” At the customs counter, which looked more like a ticket booth, two men muttered a thickly accented “Hi,” before checking, stamping, and signing our passports.
We walked down a hallway to a large room where luggage conveyor belts wove amongst the crowd. We watched for our suitcases and we looked around at the chaos. Two murals brought life to the room, celebrating some event in Haitian history. Bored army officers stood with machine guns.
We piled our gear onto carts, then took them to a waiting room where Marcel met us. He quickly briefed us on what to do when we entered the courtyard outside, but I only caught a little of what he said.
“If someone touches the suitcase you are carrying, even just lays a hand on it, tell them, ‘no.’ They’ll expect payment for even appearing to help you carry it.”
Reentering the Haitian heat, we were immediately approached by lines of men in dirty polo shirts, and we kept our heads down and told them “no.” We piled our gear in the middle of a macadam courtyard surrounded by a chain-link fence and circled around it to keep anyone from trying to carry it for us. Marcel and two of the adult leaders went to bring the trucks sent to carry us to St. Marc, where we were spending the week at a missions compound.
They were stalled by men arguing that they should have a chance at carrying our gear. Once they were in the parking lot, the gate shut behind them. Black men lined the outside of the fence, holding onto the links like prisoners clinging to the bars of their jail cells.
It was a stirring portrait of the country’s plight, so for the first time I grabbed my camera and focused a shot, until a man to my right hollered at me in Creole to put it away. I didn’t get the shot on film, but it stands in my memory: desperate, impoverished men, clinging to a fence, believing with all their might that if only they were to get past the fence and place a hand on our bags that they could eat for a few days.