Byen Venu Hyaiti… Almost

These blogs are reconstructed from bits and pieces of journals I wrote while doing medical work in Haiti. The spaces are filled in by memory, and commentary. I’ll try to finish them in a timely manner and present them chronologically. Hopefully they give some sort of glimpse into life in Haiti, and the profound experience of traveling and working there.

Most trips don’t usually start out this way. I pack light. I travel fast. I ditch anything that slows me down or proves unnecessary. But when traveling to a devastated country where you hope to make a small dent in the healthcare needs of a few rural villages and a few thousand people, it behooves one to take more than a multi-tool, one set of clothes, and a camera. My mind was racked with the normal excitement and apprehension that precedes any travel outside of the country, or to anywhere unfamiliar, really. But 2 hours before our flight, I found myself (along with two compatriots) squatting on the floor in terminal four at Phoenix Sky Harbor, trying to make 130 lbs. of pills fit into two bags. It wasn’t really the fitting that was the problem, space was ‘a plenty, it was tricking the scale at the checkin counter into thinking that the bags only weighed 49.5 lbs each. Even for humanitarian causes, airports still enforce their arbitrary, Third Reichesque baggage policy. Anything over 50 lbs. is gonna cost you. I was a prisoner of the law of conservation of mass (and my own cheapness). We had taken the necessary precautions. We had weighed the pills a few weeks earlier on a scale that had been “appropriated” from a FedEx delivery man for our causes. It was supposed to be 86 lbs. of pills to allow for the weight of the luggage and any extra sundries I might need to take. It used to be 86 lbs. I guess in the two weeks the pills sat in boxes in my closet, they gained 40 lbs in water weight, figured out how to reproduce themselves, or a combination of the two. Whatever the case, the meds had to get to Haiti, and the $50 in my pocket needed to stay there, having been earmarked for other purposes. Do you have any idea what they charge for a beer in the airport?

130 lbs of pharmaceutical glory, and one Hail-Mary-Carryon.

I did have my carry-on, an inconspicuous and durable backpack generously given to me by my friend Tori. But it was packed to the gills with whatever randomness I thought I might need for a 12 day trip to Haiti. 3 sets of scrubs. 1 pair of shorts. 14 lbs. of beanie babies. 2 shirts. 2 underwear. Flashlights. A space blanket and a sleeping pad. A laptop. 3 gigapets. A journal and some pens. A camera. A spice rack and my favorite spatula. Some soap and a toothbrush. An MRI machine. And then all the things that a mom thinks you need when you go anywhere outside of her radius of contact, a whole bunch of jellybeans, cookies, beef jerky, seasoned tuna in a can packaged neatly with crackers and tiny plastic spoon, a mess of chocolate, nuts, and other randomness. I think the moment that mom becomes a mother, some genetic switch buried deep within their psychology is flipped on. This switch forces them to delight at seeing their children obese and full of food. Anything even resembling the prospect of a hunger pang is a distress they can’t abide. Anyway, on top of all of that I had a bit of survival gear (in case any individual part of Haiti’s rich history of catastrophe decided to repeat itself) , a book on anarchist philosophy, and a tripod for the camera. It was already questionable whether this 52L pack would fit in the overhead bin of a commuter plane. And now I had to figure out how to cram an extra 30 lbs of ziploc bags full of pills into it. That wouldn’t look weird going through the X-ray machine at all. To make matters worse and to satisfy U.S. and Haitian customs, all of the pills in each bag had to be catalogued on special letterhead with name, amount, and expiration dates. I had done this before I came to the airport, confident in the accuracy of the Fed/Ex guy’s scale. But this would need to be done again if I shuffled the inventory around. So I had two choices, defy the laws of physics or fit a bunch of stuff into a packed-to-near-capacity bag. My money was on defying physics. But I tried to fit the excess in my carryon just to humor mother nature.

The gods smiled upon me and somehow, someway, we managed to get everything packed so that I could afford beer. The ticketing agent was even nice enough to make photocopies of my new inventory sheets so that I could keep one on my person in case there was any “misplacing” of documents by concerned officials. With that, we were on our way… to the bar. But first, the Orwellian process of getting on that side of the airport. We actually passed through security without incident. TSA seemed strangely unconcerned about all the rope and drugs I had in my carryon. But I wasn’t about to voice my concerns regarding their oversight right then. I figured I would write a letter at a later date to someone important, congress, Santa, or Miley Cyrus perhaps (It was accidental, but I just realized that I listed those in increasing order of importance, according to what they’ve contributed to society in the last decade). I never did. So we were on our way… to the bar. And shortly after that, we were on the plane.

On every leg of the flight, I felt like I was smuggling slow lorises in my pants as I tried to walk past all the flight attendants with my mega-bag. Each one looked at me with searching, judging eyes. I felt as if they had some computer chip in their brains that allowed them to calculate bag sizes compared to available overhead bin space like they were the robots from Terminator 2. I would walk in an unnatural way, angling my backpack away from them thinking it would have the same effect that chubby people attribute to vertical stripes. Somehow I made it through the gauntlet. Not once. Not twice. But thrice. I am the John Connor of airline travel.

The offending parcel.

If anyone, especially the airlines themselves wonder why they are failing, it may have something to do with the following logic. For the end consumer, the least expensive flight to Haiti on that particular day involved flying from PHX to LA (wrong direction) and then eventually heading toward Miami then Port au Prince. I understand passing through major hubs to get to a given destination. But PHX is a major hub. Guess they needed us to double hub. I just came up with that phrase, double hub. Coined it. Tell your friends. The flights were uneventful. The airport bars were predictable. And the Mexican food at the On the Border in LA failed to impress. I only forgot my laptop on one flight. I’m typing on it now, though. So I got it back. And no matter what I said earlier, the jellybeans my mom insisted I pack came quite in handy on the red-eye from LA to Miami.

At around 6am we got to our final boarding gate in Miami and took a seat near some electrical outlets. Electrical outlets in the airport are the modern equivalent of a Serengeti watering hole. Everyone flocks to them, and there is fierce competition for their resources. And same as in Africa, if you’re not paying careful attention, a crocodile is gonna snap your leg off, drag you under, and take you to your struggling, watery grave. But I digress. As I looked around I noticed the seats were filled almost entirely with Haitians. And as the language of the check-in staff giving us our boarding instructions turned from English to French to Creole, it finally started to feel real. Sitting there at 7am, bereft of sleep, looking at faces with distinctly different topography than what I was used to seeing, and hearing the low din of chatter in a language I had never heard spoken in real life, it occurred to me that this was the beginning of something. 18 months after an earthquake devastated a small island nation, which still had not come close to recovery, we were headed there to see if there was anything we could do…

2 comments for “Byen Venu Hyaiti… Almost

  1. Janet Bauman
    09.13.11 at 00:04

    Hi Colten…I think you are amazing! I loved reading your blogs. May your journey be successful and your heart full of happiness. Enjoy what lies ahead.
    :-) Janet Bauman

  2. steve nelson
    09.14.11 at 12:00

    when you get to that obese state we can share clothes, hope you like black, sleeveless harley shirts!

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