Bellingham woman learns much in two hours in Port au Prince

Sarah Benn in Haiti.
Sarah Benn in Haiti. FOR THE HERALD

In September, Carol Clem and I did volunteer work in an earthquake resettlement camp in the Haitian countryside. We'd never seen Port au Prince, Haiti's capitol, so on our way home when we got to the airport, we asked our driver, Fritz, to give us a quick tour of the city.

Heading into the city it was hot, dusty and crowded. The streets were crammed with Mack trucks covered with artwork, cars, tap taps (brightly painted communal taxis, stuffed with people), pedestrians and motorcycles, all playing chicken.

We drove deeper and deeper into the smog, pain and aftershock. I was waiting to see a somewhat modern city center, but it never materialized. Just rubble, broken buildings, garbage, huge tent camps, very small businesses and people setting about their lives. Every building was damaged. We drove by the collapsed presidential palace, a wedding cake missing its bottom layer. Rubble was everywhere, people just living with it, around it, beside it. Occasionally we would see workers on what used to be a roof, slowly loading small piles of rubble into wheelbarrows and dumping them over the edge into larger piles of rubble. I felt like we were in a maze whose walls had no tops, just crumbling sides.

We saw white-and-blue emergency shelter tents in impossible numbers, scorching their residents. You couldn't start to photograph the seas of tents; I felt like if I climbed on the roof of the car I'd never see the end of them. In the downtown camps we'd occasionally see a statue poking its way up through the sea, evidence that the camp had once been a beautiful park.

I'd had about enough when a whirlwind of dust flew up, followed by raindrops, and then an absolute downpour, with wild wind throwing the palm trees sideways. The streets became torrents and trees filled the roads. Everyone was on the move, trying to get their wares under tarps or themselves somewhere else. One woman walked by with a rotisserie on her head; most people just got soaked. Some were trying to fish something they'd dropped out of ankle-deep water, sorting through submerged garbage as they did.

Fritz took a detour to avoid traffic and we entered the back alleys of Port au Prince. We saw four soaked people pushing a cart up the hill. We passed through slums, everything coated black, like a Third World Dickens. We drove by ladies dancing and singing in the rain, past the artist whose artwork was all out in the rain and the woman who couldn't quite get her tarp to cover her corner of the street economy. People didn't look angry or frustrated, just inconvenienced. Other than the drivers' horns, I never saw a cross word exchanged. People just went about their business.

It wasn't until we got home that we heard the news: 5,000 tents had been destroyed and five people killed in Port au Prince. We had been hoping that the storm had missed the camp we had been working in, but they lost 150 tents (in a community of 1,700 people) and their precious church tent had blown down. Once again, many people had lost their homes and all their belongings fit into a single bag.

The people of Haiti will work their way out of this, like they've worked their way out of all the trials leading up to this one. They don't take their pain out on each other; they don't have the time or energy. Sometimes there was joy and hope in our camp, as people pieced together the things that define a life: boys playing soccer, people wearing their Sunday best to church, an ad hoc fashion show, dancing to music coming from a cell phone, because that was all the music there was. Life goes on slowly and determinedly, housed in tents, waiting for the next storm.