Ironically, the following day I had to leave to attend a funeral stateside. But I knew I wasn’t done with the story—and with the Port-au-Prince airport still closed, and hitchhiking on a military chopper no longer an option, I would have to make my way into Haiti on my own.
Ten days later I found myself in the Miami International Airport, waiting to board a commercial flight to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic; from there, I rode on a packed bus to Port-au-Prince. For several hours people argued animatedly about the difference between God and the Spirit. A Haitian-American on his way to retrieve his younger brother snapped photos on his BlackBerry, sending me an e-mail as a “memento” of our trip. We crossed the border the as the sun went down. A short distance away, I began to notice the constant stream of people on the road, huddled around candlelight.
As the bus pulled into Petionville, on the hills north of Port-au-Prince, some Texas evangelists I had met on the ride invited me to stay with them at the home of a Haitian pastor. We piled into the pastor’s white Montero, driving carefully past people sleeping on the streets, too terrified of aftershocks to spend the night in their homes. That night Jose, a freelance photographer I had met on the bus, and I camped in the pastor’s large garden.
Getting more than one thing done a day in Haiti required an act of violence, the pastor’s wife said. Our drive the following day to retrieve food from Dominican mobile kitchens in an industrial park near the airport was complicated by military vehicles parked perpendicular in the street as soldiers distributed food; by markets that seemed to appear spontaneously; by potholes the size of swimming pools and by a general lack of traffic lights. At night, the city emptied out, the streets open and calm, but drivers were still reluctant to go far with electricity down, gasoline scarce, and a generalized fear of mayhem. With long lines of cars and pedestrians snaking into the streets, gas stations charged whatever they wanted. The pastor’s brother-in-law complained the $40 we had paid him to drive us barely purchased a quarter-tank of gas.
One night, after dinner at a colleague’s near Champs de Mars plaza, I decided I needed to hook up with the military again—this time, with the 82nd Airborne, which had units camped at the Universite Aristide in Tabarre neighborhood. The pastor’s brother-in-law refused to drive us, even for $100, but one of his neighbors, who was fluent in English and had been working as NBC’s chaffeur, graciously agreed to take us. Even with little traffic, the streets were made nearly impassable by neat rows of concrete rubble and the occasional rusted car chassis. As we turned onto Rue 15 February and into Tabarre, we passed a cemetery whose gate seemed to be aflame. Small fires leapt beyond the concrete wall. People were burning the dead, our driver told us.
The following morning, we accompanied the unit to a World Food Programme distribution site, where a thousand people, mostly women, gathered in an empty field to receive their rations of two weeks’ worth of rice. Watching the women drag the heavy sacks to the roadside, where motorbike taxis waited, I thought about the enormous challenge travel had presented for me an able-bodied American with some cash to spend. I thought, too, about the legions of new amputees I had seen at the hospital, and the loved ones who didn’t know how they would get them back to what was left of their homes, and about something Tyler Marshall, a communications director for International Medical Corps, had told me over a meal ready-to-eat at his makeshift office. “Mobility in a third world country is everything,” Marshall had said. “Without it, you’re screwed.”
Transportation into and around Port-au-Prince had become the central narrative of my two reporting trips to Haiti. Getting out proved far easier. I had learned from a colleague that the UN was running two flights a day from its peacekeeping compound in Port-au-Prince to Santo Domingo. On Feb. 3, I miraculously secured the last seat on a morning flight. “You are lucky. The last is always lucky,” someone from the Korean armed forces said to me as I boarded. I spent a day in a Santo Domingo hotel, sleeping and watching American TV. The next day in Mexico City, as I rode from the airport in a taxi to my apartment on the north side of the city, the streets never seemed finer, the city never cleaner, normalcy and health and life prevailing.