Le Thunderdome

More often than not, when you get off of a plane in the US, you exit into a temperature controlled hamster tunnel that leads directly into the airport where you have the opportunity to purchase the same little bags of candy that you can get at a grocery store, only for $7.99. This transition also gives you the opportunity to adjust to the new culture you’re about to enter without a tremendous amount of… hm… what’s a word to describe what happens when one is shocked by the process of being thrust into a new culture… there isn’t a good word. So I’ll invent one. Culture shock. Coined it. Tell your friends. Going through the airport gives a person a chance to mitigate “culture shock.” This is especially important when traveling between radically different cities, like Phoenix and Santa Fe, for example. Without this buffer, I can only imagine the chaos and wholesale psychological damage that would ensue after every commuter flight into LA.

In third world countries, this is not the case. As soon as the aircraft lands, the same carryon-luggage-shuffle that happens on any plane plays out (that’s universal, human nature). But shortly after, the passengers are immediately pushed into the open, natural world like babies flopped out of the cozy confines of the warm rhythmic uterus into the cold hostile world of egomaniacal OB/GYNs, cold surgical surroundings, and slap-happy healthcare providers. When I refer to the natural world in this case I mean the tarmac. They usually just put you on the runway. The moment the heated, humid air hits your face, you wish that you could instead be standing behind the plane engine because the jetwash is probably a bit more pleasant, a bit more temperate. It wasn’t so bad this time, though. Because, as expected, the moment I stepped outside I was greeted by an old friend who had been kind enough to greet me on every other airport tarmac of every other third world country to which I had been. The smell of diesel fuel and hot, burning garbage. I felt safe. I felt at home.

Making our way from building to runway to building we had to walk down some stairs and up some stairs and through some doors and around some corners and along some halls. I think there was a little party bus somewhere in there. It was all kind of a blur because by the time our flight arrived at 7am, I hadn’t slept in 24 hours, I was hopped up on Jelly Belly, and the smell of that gas and trash sent my brain into some kind of ecstatic euphoria where nothing really mattered, except getting more of that smell. I did notice that we were being herded like cattle though. It was a very controlled movement from one place to the next. It felt like a more tropical North Korea. At one point, though, I began to hear music. I knew it wasn’t North Korea because it was exactly the kind of music you would expect to hear in Haiti. Caribbean. It possessed more soul and more rhythm than my white ass could possibly make use of. As we got closer to the sound I saw that it was being played live by a group of men relegated off in a corner, but strategically just off the path that we all had to travel to get to customs. They were all wearing bright red shirts emblazoned with the Digicel logo. At the time, I thought it was pretty obnoxious, the way Digicel had bought their way into the airport where no one else seemed to be able to advertise. But I did admire the ingenuity of using the band. Later, I would find out that Digicel wasn’t just another megalomaniacal corporation bent on exploiting third world populations. It turns out that in spite of the billions of dollars that had been pumped into the restoration of Haiti by everyone and their mother since the earthquake, Digicel is one of the only entities, including NGO’s and domestic and foreign government projects, who had completed any of their planned restoration projects. It turns out that since the earthquake they provide more jobs to Haitians than anyone else (in spite of lofty promises by various companies to bring major manufacturing businesses to Haiti), put a ton of money (effectively, which is the difference between them and others) back into the country, and are generally bent on the exact opposite of exploitation, the elevation of the Haitian people. I wish I would have known all that back when I was walking through the airport, delirious, and cynical toward any corporate enterprise. My white ass would have danced.

After getting a taste of the tropical summer weather, we were eventually herded into a large, nondescript, dead air building where the outdoor weather coalesced sublimely with the thermal energy of a few hundred people waiting patiently to have their passports verified and to retrieve their checked luggage. I thought of the jetwash again and I shivered. Pam, the head of Peacework Medical was there to greet us and assist us should there be any hiccups gaining admission to the country. It was a pretty standard process to get passport stamps. There were orderly lines and unsmiling officials with heavy stamp hands and repetitive questions. But once you got past that point, once you got to the baggage claim part of the odyssey, there was no system. The previous order of passport stamping decayed into a mad-maxish anarchy of every man and woman for themselves. This, truly, was Thunderdome. There were people everywhere shouting in indistinct tones and alien languages. Children were ripped from parents’ arms, families separated forever by the pandemonium. And this was only the “line” to get a baggage cart. After paying a dollar to a couple of people who were suspiciously devoid of uniforms or any official documents or namebadges, I grabbed a cart and made my way to the sea of luggage that was haphazardly scattered on the floor. It was like walking through a disregarded cemetery, each item of baggage like a crumbling headstone, well weathered and beaten from the “careful handling” they had received on their journey from wherever to here. I located my bags and one of the women with whom I was traveling, Mary, located hers. But all 4 pieces of our luggage were locked in the center of a living, breathing, unsolvable maze. I searched my head for a solution. The only thing that popped into my panicked brain was Godzilla. And so without further contemplation, I let out my best impression of a Mezozoic roar and smashed my way to our 200 lbs of collective pills. No one seemed to notice. I guess they’ve reached a point in Haiti where they just expect white people to do weird things. Can’t blame ’em. I did see a lot of missionaries.

This is where things got exciting. I knew for sure that I had 130 lbs. of drugs distributed between my pieces of luggage. And I also knew that I didn’t want to declare them. My reasoning was twofold.

  1. It seemed like it would be inconvenient
  2. I just wanted to see if I could get away with it. I saw the movie Blow. I knew how the game worked.

Simply because I’m lazy, I wanted to get the 30 lbs. of pills out of my backpack and into the luggage with handles and wheels. But this was risky because the customs guys had a full view of the entire baggage claim. I ducked behind a sign that looked like it should have said “Piso Mojado” but it said something else that I couldn’t read and began to hastily make the transfer. It went down without incident and I looked around to see if anyone had noticed, but again it seemed like no one was paying any attention to me. It began to feel like I was in the Truman Show. I just chalked it up to good luck, stacked my bags on top of Mary’s and then made my way to the also unsmiling customs official.

As I was walking I realized that I hadn’t come up with any story. My brain thought the words “Oh shit” and I’m not sure if I said it out loud. I couldn’t turn around now and get my story straight. It would look suspicious. I wondered what Haitian jail was like. I used ninja focus to slow my heart rate and approached the customs guy. Remember, I had my 4 bags (2 mine, 2 Mary’s) on the cart and my backpack.  So this is how the conversation went. And I swear I’m not exaggerating one single bit:

  • Customs Dude (with heavy Kreyol accent): Do you have your claim tickets?
  • Me: Yeah, right here. (Handed him the claim tickets)
  • CD: Are these all your bags?
  • Me: No. (That’s it. I didn’t offer any further explanation.)
  • CD: Who do they belong to?
  • Me: Well, two of them are mine. And this backpack (and then I patted my backpack for emphasis, hoping he would be convinced and stop asking me questions.)
  • CD: What about the other two?
  • Me: They belong to this lady. She’s… er… she’s Mary. (Then I pointed at no one in the baggage claim area to add some credibility to the concept of “this lady.”)
  • CD: What’s in this luggage?
  • Me: (And this is the part I’m not kidding about. The brilliant response I came up with when directly questioned about the pharmacological contents of the luggage in my possession was:) Er… it’s just… there’s… it’s luggage.
  • CD: (Looks at me suspiciously) OK, go ahead.

Security in Haiti is tight as a drum. Also, I’m an idiot. If you ever travel to Haiti, make sure you battle with speed and ferocity in the Thunderdome to get to your luggage quick. Because if someone wanted to just walk in and grab your bags, it seems that they could. And once it gets past the Fife’s manning the customs stations, through the double doors and out into the dieselgarbageair, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see your belongings again. I was grateful for the lax security. Those antibiotics and multivitamins and vaginal infection creams had a higher purpose. And I had just cleared one more hurdle in the fulfillment of that purpose.

All I had to do was calmly walk these four bags and my backpack through those open doors and into Haiti. So I did, while doing my best version of a Godzilla walk. I looked back and roared as I stepped into the light of the warm sun and allowed the sweet, sweet aroma dieselgarbage air to fill my wanting nostrils. I was finally, actually, totally, for realsies, in Haiti.

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