Published: March 8th 2010February 15th 2010
After three days notice before departure it was finally time to go. I found out on a Wednesday that I’d be heading to Haiti, and my original ticket was set for Saturday at 6AM. The plan was for me to be in Santo Domingo for a day before SueLin arrived so that I could try to line up a flight to Port-Au-Prince through UNHAS (United Nations Humanitarian Air Service). A commercial flight could cost a grand for the both of us and a bus ride would cost us a day of time plus the fee for a hotel. I was hoping to score a free flight off the UN but I knew I’d need time to set that up.
Plans changed and I had to leave a day later. This was good because it allowed me more time for prep/research in St. Louis, but it would also mean that I’d only have a few hours in Santo Domingo before SueLin landed. I’d have to see what I could do with the time I had available.
My new flight was set to leave St. Louis on Sunday morning, I’d have a layover in Dallas and another in Puerto Rico before making Santo Domingo, DR. I didn’t sleep Saturday night for all my preparations. Come Sunday morning I was weary from the work, but I wasn’t sleepy-tired just yet. The pre-departure nerves did the job of a caffeine IV drip.
The trip started off great. The wonderful lady who checked my two oversized, overweight military duffle-bags apparently ‘forgot’ to charge me when she found out that they were loaded with medical supplies and I was headed to Haiti. That was a couple hundred dollars that I was glad not to spend.
When I landed in Dallas there was a bit of a hiccup. SueLin’s evening flight from St. Louis was cancelled due to snow, and my connecting flight was delayed because someone was violently ill in the airplane latrine. SueLin raced to the airport in hopes of catching an earlier flight that might be allowed off the runway, and I sat in Dallas for a few hours while paramedics boarded the plane. After sitting in the terminal for a great long while, my airline said that irreparable damage had been done to the latrine and the plane would have to be grounded for maintenance. Since my layover in Puerto Rico was supposed to be 10 hours, I wasn’t concerned about missing my next connection. I figured I’d either wait in Texas or wait in Puerto Rico. It didn’t matter to me.
Before I left Dallas on a new plane, SueLin called to say that she’d made it on an earlier flight and would still be able to make her connection to Santo Domingo. The sun was setting and things were looking good. Hurdle One: Overcome.
That Sunday night I stayed in a Puerto Rico Airport constantly on the move so as to avoid the local police. I met a NYC-Haitian guy who was headed back to help his family. Together we psuedo-slept in shifts and moved gates often to avoid being spotted by local security guards that would have kicked us out. Moving around every now and again was definitely better than spending a night on the curb.
When I landed in Santo Domingo I knew that I had to act fast. Aid for Haiti (AFH) had a man on the ground for volunteer assistance, but he was busy for the morning and didn’t have time to help till the afternoon. I met up with a local salesman/wise guy/shady individual. I knew the guy was a schiester, and given an alternative I would have told him to buzz-off. He did have connections though, and I knew he could work fast. Given my time crunch and lack of options I signed on with the guy, but I knew I’d have to watch my back.
Moments later I was in a rental car from the dirtiest car dealer in town. They wanted to rent me the car for whole day but after some strong-arm negotiations they agreed to rent it for half a day at a lowered rate. I knew I was getting ripped off, but the price was still way better than if I’d gone with a well known rental agency….and a well known agency would never have rented me a car by the hour.
My first stop was the UN Logistics base by the airport. I wanted to hook up with the Handicap International/Atlas Logistics team. They were the biggest game in Haiti that was moving goods. I needed to make some contacts.
When I finally made it inside the base I was cursing my lack of ID tags from an big name organization. Making tags was on my list of things to do before I left the states, but I just couldn’t get around to it. I knew it would be a problem (any stagehand knows that without tags you just don’t walk into anyone’s backstage). Every ten feet I walked I’d have to flash my passport and I knew that nobody would take me seriously. All the UNICEF gear and Save the Children donations were being loaded when I showed up. Every big organization was sending goods through this set of warehousing operations. The logisticians here were not fooling around.
I met up with some fellas that had been shopped out by UPS to aid the relief efforts. After making nice with the locals I managed to pick up a wealth of knowledge. First off, it looked like there was only one chance that I’d be able to jump on an UNHAS flight with SueLin. And that window of opportunity was fast closing. The rest of the info is too long to list but I knew I’d landed a big one by stopping by here.
My scheistery contact man had to get back to the airport to scam some more unsuspecting punters, so he lined me up with a driver that could get me through Santo Domingo’s city proper. The driver’s English wasn’t so great, and my Spanish is broken at best, but we seemed to have things worked out well enough.
First stop in the big city was the UNICEF office. It was supposed to be where all the UN offices were, but when we arrived, that was not the case. I was really glad to have the local driver though, he saved our lives on more than one occasion. There was no way that I could have done that drive on my own.
After getting re-directed by UNICEF to the UN main offices we were back on the road. The driver got a little lost due to closed roads. The detours we were forced to take twisted us around something fierce. But on the plus side we got to drive by Sammy Sosa’s house.
Once we made it to the UN offices I had to make it through security and reception before getting onto the compound proper. Once again, I wish I’d had tags. Getting a walk-in meeting with OCHA when you’re in a hurry is quite a feat, especially when you don’t have tags. Luck was with me however and I got in.
The OCHA folks in Santo Domingo were extraordinarily nice. But there was no chance that they’d get me (plus one) on an UNHAS flight that same day. None of the organizations we were working with had registered with the UN and Project MARC isn’t yet accredited with them either. I felt good about the meeting though. There were a few things that happened while on the UN compound that would definitely be useful later. Sometimes it’s handy to have a lighter in your pocket while standing in the right place at the right time.
SueLin’s landing time was coming near so I had to race back to the International Airport. Getting into the city in the morning is much easier than getting out at rush hour. I was worried I wouldn’t make it in time, but the flight was late so everything worked out.
After picking up SueLin at the international terminal there was a bit of a ruffle with the police. My shady contact man apparently had a reputation, and his driver didn’t have ID. There was also some sort of situation involving a ‘missing’ laptop computer…but that was none of my business. We left the airport in a rush and drove to return the car.
SueLin was filled in to the situation on the drive and it looked like the bus was going to be our safest option. We’d have to get a hotel for the night and pay for a taxi to the bus station the next morning, but the greatest cost was going to be time. We’d lose a day, and although money was tight…time was tighter.
Then all of a sudden another option presented itself. There was a van driver that said he could take us to Haiti that very night. He told us that for the past few days the border guards would allow medical staff to cross at night after curfew. I was under the impression that the gates closed around sundown and weren’t open again till morning. Through our shifty local go-to man we brokered a deal. For five hundred bucks we could both cross the border that night, and the driver would take us all the way to Petit-Goave instead of just to Port-Au-Prince. It was pricey, but it would buy us a whole day of time.
The van needed gas and the driver’s English wasn’t so good. At the gas station our driver picked up a friend with better English while SueLin and I stocked up on supplies. As we left Santo Domingo our translator was brought up to speed on the deal and the timeframe.
We drove into the sunset and after a few hours of darkness the fun really started. We’d reached the border with the gates closed down. Well-armed men roamed the staging area and it didn’t look like anyone was getting through. Apparently what our driver said was true. The gate had occasionally opened after curfew for medical staff, and for the past four nights all medical teams were allowed to pass. This night, however, was going to be different. Someone thought that there had been some unrest on the Haitian side of the border road and no people were going to be let through.
We met up with a pair of US Peace Corps workers that were trying to get some doctors back to the Dominican side of the line, but they were as stalled out as we were. In the time we spent trying to negotiate a pass we did get to see some rather interesting things. One lady was allowed to cross from Dominican Republic into Haiti. The gates were not opened for her (due to the crowd on the Haitian side) so she had to crawl under the gate through a very tiny hole.
When some MSF trucks (Doctors Without Borders) showed up at the gate all the crowds were dispersed by the guards. The trucks rolled through without question and one of them had a stow-away. The guards laughed at his effort to cross and he was led back to the Haiti side of the gate. You’ve got to give the guy props for trying. It was a pretty goofy stunt. Everyone had a good laugh at his effort.
The next thing for SueLin and me was the attempted re-negotiation of our transport deal. The driver and translator wanted to leave us at the border so they could head home. It didn’t look like a very good idea and things got a little tense. I wanted to stay in the van with our goods, and the Dominicans wanted to get a hotel or leave us.
I was worried for our luggage and ready to spend another sleepless night waiting in the van. The driver insisted that we go back into the Dominican border town to try and find a hotel. We told him that we didn’t want to spend anymore money but he was the one driving so we were obligated to go where he drove us.
Once back in the little town we pulled over at one of the local watering holes to re-assess the situation. I bought the fellas some drinks and made friends with them all over again. They agreed to spend the night, but I was still wary that they’d dump us and try to take our luggage. All the power was in their hands and the only thing that I had going for me was that I hadn’t paid them yet. If they decided to get rough, it wasn’t likely that I’d be able to take them both. Some practical insurance was needed for sure…man, I sure could have used a Frank Zolnai at that moment.
After a few drinks and some food, I bought our drivers a few more drinks and they became quite a bit friendlier. Thankfully the Irish-Mexican liver is more powerful than Domincan ones. Everything was going to be fine for at least 6 hours.
With the threat of getting dumped well passed, we agreed to stay the night in a ramshackle motel that the driver had found. Luckily it was stumbling distance from the bar. When I insisted that we take the baggage into the room with us, our driver and friend were insistent that we keep it in the truck. I’m guessing that they were worried we’d pull a runner and leave them hanging. They wanted their insurance too.
A few hours later my alarm went off. I’d made sure to wake up before them and had arranged a makeshift device to alert me if they opened their door in the middle of the night. When SueLin and I were ready to leave I banged on the driver’s hotel door. Both he and the translator were fast asleep.
The sun wasn’t up, but the border opened at 5. I wasn’t about to be late.
When we reached the border again there was a line of trucks a mile long that had assembled in the wee hours of the morning. With the gridlock forming it was quite a hassle to get anyone moving. For a few hours that morning, things got tense once again.
Our drivers wanted us out of the van. They said that they would arrange for another truck on the Haitian side to finish the job, but I was more than a little skeptical. At one point, we even got out of the van and picked up our bags to start walking. The whole time waiting was one attempted re-negotiation after another.
As things were coming to a head, the line started to move and our van passed through the border gates. Once across the border our driver pulled over to complete his re-negotiation of the deal. I said what I needed to say in order to get the van moving but I made sure to make no promises. He agreed to take us to the Airport in Port-Au-Prince and then we’d check out the situation to see if he’s take us further in.
During the negotiation I learned that the driver would frequently take volunteers to the border for over 800 dollars a trip. This guy was making a killing on Haiti’s disaster, so after what happened next I didn’t feel too bad.
Once we arrived at the Port-Au-Price airport, the tables were turned 180 degrees. Back at the border, our driver had been in complete control. Yet here at the airport with fully armed soldiers and police at my back, the situation was a bit different. I agreed to pay the man 300 dollars for a job half-done. He demanded the whole 500 and tried to hang onto our bags as collateral. This didn’t go over well.
There was shouting, there was crying, there were threats and appeals to God. The police weren’t fooling around though. I told all involved that the $500 was for a delivery to Petit-Goave the previous night. We’d agreed to pay the exorbitant rate only because we were buying a day of time. Since we were only taken a part of the way, and the driver’s word (which had convinced us to enter the deal) turned out to be wrong, I was not going to pay the full price.
It didn’t take long before a crowd had gathered for the show, and portions of the crowd took sides as to which party they would argue for. The Spanish speakers yelled for the Dominican side, upset that a white man was taking advantage of an Islander. The Creole contingent pushed and shouted for the Dominican to leave, upset that the ‘Vultures’ from the other side of the border were getting rich by fleecing aid workers only here to help Haiti’s pain. From a third person’s point of view the whole affair was rather laughable. The two parties directly involved were practically removed from the event. The crowd took the sides and the burden of the argument. I felt as though the driver and I could have disappeared completely and nobody would have noticed. In the end, I did just that. I left the money with the Police Chief to give to the driver and I walked away.
It was nine in the morning and the day had just started. Yet here we were, safely arrived in the disaster zone that was Port-Au-Prince, surrounded by an angry mob and a batch of gun-toting militants.
It was going to be a good day.