If I were at home in Montana this winter, the sorrow that is Haiti would be nothing more than some occasional conversation over coffee. A footnote of well-meaning but mostly uneducated comments; an expression of sympathy in the form of a check to the Red Cross; and a good night’s sleep after a nice dinner with friends at La Provence or Showthyme.
But being less than 300 miles distant from the epicenter, with many of my co-workers still uncertain if the silent family member is dead or alive, or worse, slowly dying without food or water, the tragedy is immediate and the impact visceral.
My first reaction on hearing the news and seeing it in the faces of those in this small community of St. John, was to hi-jack the first boat heading west and offer my assistance … a lone, English-only speaking white woman would save the day or at least try. A romantic, if absolutely insane idea, but there it was. Luckily there was no such boat in the harbor and common sense returned, along with a much more focused idea for offering what assistance I could.
What follows is an account of events that have happened over the past week, are occurring now, and which the outcome is yet unknown…a journal as such, chronicling my attempt to assist a Dutch foundation, Heart for Haiti, secure food for their 400 children and staff in the Port au Prince suburb of Bon Repos.
Through a series of people I have met in my travels, I was introduced via email to Johan Smoorenberg, founder of Heart for Haiti, an orphanage whose fortunate children live in –what is by Haitian standards, the ‘lap of luxury’ - groups of 10 in apartments with running water, an operating sewer system and electricity. The staff at the Children’s Village provide a safe, nurturing and nourishing environment along with a solid education – a rarity in the country that is considered the poorest and most illiterate in the western hemisphere. But all of that ended a few days ago when the walls tumbled down and the water stopped flowing.
My first post-earthquake contact with Heart for Haiti was an email offering to come down and work in their kitchen allowing their staff to take what I thought would be a much needed respite. I offered up my skills as cook, carpenter, electrician and all around handyman – having been through several large quakes in California and working fire kitchens in Montana, I thought my offer to be reasonable. The immediate reply was ‘Yes, we need help, what food can you bring?.’
Food? It’s only been a few days since the quake, how can they be out of food already?
Here I am working at a 5 star resort making artisan cheese platters for folks dropping $700 or more a night for the enjoyment of sleeping on a white sand beach and just two islands away, the food has already run out and the relief efforts have yet to begin. It was at that moment that the real meaning of subsistence living hit home. There was no five day ‘food in the pantry’ cushion for these people, no $89 Emergency Earthquake Survival kits from Costco in the basement…every day in Haiti is an ‘emergency’ by our standards. For over 40% of the population – mostly children, every day is about surviving one more day. [When socio-biologists get serious about discovering the evolutionary gene-culture connections that define us as human beings, they need to look at places like Haiti and Somalia, where each day millions of people ‘choose’ to not only survive, but to raise a family, to believe in a loving Creator, to have a life when the political, religious and environmental worlds are pitted totally against them – reduced down to its essence – to have hope.]
Upon receiving that short, hope-filled email, I went back into my save-the-world mode and started emailing and calling everyone I could think of, my naive questions being shot off into the ether as fast as I could type:
Where can I get a container and get it filled with food stuffs? Should I get it out of Florida or here, closer in the islands? Once I’ve got it, how will I get it shipped to Haiti and delivered when the roads are nearly impassable and the only harbor is blocked? Can I go in through the Dominican Republic? What are the safety issues? Once in country, how do I get a truck and secure it until it can get to Bon Repos? How am I going to pay for this? Would it be better to just write a check and call it good?
There were a thousand questions being sent off to shipping companies, old acquaintances in the islands, food purveyors, Haitian ex pats, charity agencies and others. And as I wasn’t the only person attempting to get help into the country, the lines of communication were bogged down and the responses, if received at all, were…stay out of the way and just send money to a charity.
Good advice in general, but telling a child, a parent, a village, that ‘ the check is in the mail ‘ (even a $65 million dollar check) when they haven’t eaten in 9 days, and what they were eating before barely got them through the day…well, that isn’t something I can do. Once in communication with the folks at Heart for Haiti Foundation, I could no longer claim distance – emotional or physical…I was committed to some form of action, I just didn’t know the details.
I decided on two plans of attack, well, actually three, (although the initial Plan A – Wonder Bread Woman to the Rescue –didn’t have a snowball’s chance). So on to Plan B, and an even larger Plan C.
I scaled down my quest from a container to several pallets and sent out an email to the island yachting community asking for passage for the goods. This is the season for the mega-yachts to ply the Caribbean, many times empty of passengers who only come aboard when the ship is in port. My request was simple….I know you’re just sitting there in St. Thomas on your multi-million dollar yacht, bored out of your mind and would just jump at the chance to ferry dried milk and cornmeal to an island nation that even on its best day is considered extremely dangerous.
With idealism firmly in hand, I walked the marinas talking with bartenders and ship captains, all of whom were polite, caring even, but the latter unwilling, and actually unable to take their boats into Haitian waters due to extremely prohibitive insurance riders that would pinch even a multi-millionaire’s wallet. The suggestion here too was “send a check”.
Back home on St. John, sun burnt and frustrated from the docks, Plan C began to coalesce …a more expensive plan, and as I was to quickly learn, much more dangerous.
Meeting quietly with a friend I had made on the island who’s family is from Puerto Rico, we agreed that I would meet up with an ‘uncle’ in San Juan who would assist me in acquiring a container, getting it filled at a ‘reasonable price’ and getting it onto a ship headed for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Ok, easy enough. But then his next words were, “you’ll need to secure it and yourself”….excuse me Hermanno? It was then I learned ‘quel surprise’ that the Dominican Republic we all see on the Travel Channel is a fiction, and that the DR is as corrupt and as dangerous as Haiti only with a better Department of Tourism.
Safe on the barge, the cargo, once in port, would be fair game for ‘harbor masters’, police, gangs, and anyone else with a gun, stick or machete, and that even before getting out of the yards. Once outside, Hermanno insisted that a minimum of two ‘trusted’ and hopefully armed men would be required to get the truck on the road to Bon Repos, along with a great deal of cash to pay off every ‘official’ along the way. The cash I could find, the ‘two trusted, armed men’, now how does one acquire this? www.mynameisjuangarciaandyoucantrustme.com ? This was sounding more like an Indiana Jones sequel than an aid delivery and the idea of writing that check started to look good.
A few days passed, details being worked out, estimates being obtained as the emails from Heart for Haiti were getting shorter and less hopeful. And hope is what it all boils down to…whether it is a check written or a box of whey milk delivered, it is about the hope of people that are in a hopeless situation.
So where are we today, Tuesday, January 26, 2010, 14 days after the quake and 10 days into this journey of learning? Thankfully, Plan B was revived two days ago when a brief email was returned to me from Crew Connection regarding a yacht in Ft. Lauderdale loading medical supplies. A few static filled phone calls on Skype and a few emails to the captain, ascertained that there was indeed a motor yacht with an owner who even if concerned with the cost of the insurance, was loading his pleasure craft with medical supplies and heading for Haiti. And yes, the deck was mine if I wanted it. And, best of all, the boat would be met by a representative of the International Red Cross to avoid any need for bribes or customs. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
And now with millions of dollars committed in fundraisers around the world, and food aid finally trickling into Port au Prince, this woman’s small contribution will be loaded on to a boat and delivered to people she will never know, giving them sustenance for a few days and hope, hopefully, for much longer.
Oh, and did I mention that Plan A wasn’t a total bust? This woman will be on the boat…