That first afternoon in Haiti hit like a heat stroke. Heat stroke—Shock—shock—senses assailed and beaten senseless. I had never been in what many called a “Third World Country” and I had no idea what to expect. One friend told me later he had worried that I would spend the whole week in terror. I was not in terror. I was in shock. The airport itself was a disorienting experience. Let there be no mistake: I love adventure and I do not scare easily. It is a weakness of character but I thrive on pushing boundaries, exploring new possibilities—as long as extreme heights and small, enclosed spaces aren’t involved. So I was ready—kind of. The first anomaly of the journey happened in the air as the island came into view.
10/26 9:00 a.m. As the pilot of a flight approaches the destination, he usually comes on the speaker system and announces weather conditions at the arrival city. But, in this case, I think we’re in trouble. The pilot of our American Airlines flight bound for Haiti just relayed that “the weather in Port-au-Prince is unavailable.” Does this mean that Haiti has no weather or that it’s a military secret? From the vantage point of 33,000 feet, it appears that there is weather down there—so I suppose . . .
It was as good an indicator as any of what we could expect in the following week.
The runway in Port-au-Prince is short. Landing there never changes and it is always exciting, especially in an airbus crammed full of people and every imaginable kind of merchandise brought for resale by merchants and black marketeers on the island. When the large plane hits the runway, the pilot slams the powerful jets into reverse. Everything flies toward the front of the plane. People’s heads snap forward and almost pass and re-swallow the prayers that have filled the cabin since the plane began its descent. Rosaries swing in wild arcs but remain adhered to the fervent fingers that pincer the precious beads. Exclamations of “Mesi Bon Dieu” and particles of the Hail Mary sprinkle the air and enthusiastic clapping breaks the sound barrier. It’s a big plane and a short runway and everyone knows it.
Once we survived landing, we deplaned down portable stairs, which I hadn’t seen in use since the late nineteen fifties, onto steaming tarmac. As we approached the terminal, we were greeted by a three piece ensemble. The trio, in colorful and slightly worn costumes, was playing on steel drums and singing songs of welcome. It was all very jolly. It was also the last time I saw this group. In all the subsequent trips in all the years that followed, never once did such a welcome recur. Perhaps it was an omen or perhaps it was an archetypal welcome to the great adventure and love of a lifetime—whatever it was, it was a one-time-only occurrence.
Exiting the steaming heat of daylight, we entered the terminal and were immediately ushered into lines for passport checks. Each passport was opened, stamped, and ceremoniously signed. The Magna Carta was not signed with greater flourish. The attendant’s pen scrolled, looped, re-traced, and embellished in a great calligraphic show. The resultant was a piece of art worthy of an illuminated manuscript and completely illegible. I later found out that many of the checkers in the passport lines were illiterate. Their singular claims to fame were their individual signatures. They could write their names. As a consequence each signature became as unique and important as the individual person to whom it was attendant. My passport sports 24 of these rare works. I refuse to discard my expired passports because of these signatures—each one recalls an individual; each one reminds me of why I made these trips.
At the end of the passport line, just before I turned left to walk to baggage claim, hung a mirror. It wasn’t large but it caught my eye. At the top, the glass was frosted and a saying was painted in black lettering: “Tomorrow belongs to Haiti.” From that trip onward, each time I entered the country, I looked at that mirror and hoped against hope that its words would prove true. It was a small quiet wish, expressed humbly, but also a sad commentary on the state of the world where a small poor people is trampled and is hardly noticed in the process.