I’ve written a report for Christianity Today Magazine on the Haiti situation, and when that’s online I’ll post it here. But before I quit the subject entirely, I want to describe what it was like getting in and out of Haiti. People ask me about the chaos in Port-au-Prince, and I have to say it was pretty calm. The worst chaos I saw was at the airport.
On Tuesday January 19, one week after the earthquake, my editor called and asked me to go. It took a while to figure out how I was going to get into Haiti, because there are no commercial flights open, but I left on Thursday for the Dominican Republic. World Vision had arranged for me to fly in to Port-au-Prince (PAP) on a missionary airline Saturday morning.
I got to the airport about 6:00. I was supposed to hang out in the main lobby of this small, local airport and meet the pilot at 6:40. Well, at 6:40 nobody showed. By 7:00 I was really nervous. I’m a nervous traveler anyway, and I didn’t want to have come all this way and spend all this money just to get stuck. I was praying a lot.
Nobody spoke English, but in my very weak Spanish I managed to convey to an airport employee that I was looking for Air Serv. He led me outside and over to an adjacent building, which was filled with international aid people, helicopter pilots, UN folks and so on. A very nice older Dominican man welcomed me, assured me that I had found the right place, offered a cup of coffee and told me to take a seat–my pilot would come for me. But he didn’t. And it didn’t seem right. Nobody seemed to have heard of Air Serv. I started asking more people, and one man asked whether I had the pilot’s phone number. I did. He very kindly called him on his phone. (My international phone was broken, I discovered just as I was ready to fly.) The pilot answered and said he was at the plane, but his co-pilot would come by and pick me up at the information desk in the main lobby. Whew! I went back there and waited. Nobody came. At the flying hour–7:40–I began to panic again. A young woman at the information desk did speak English, and she offered to call the pilot but she had no minutes on her cell phone. I went to a cash machine and got some pesos. She called a nearby grocery story and got some minutes. And then she called for me…. and got a message. Try again, no dice. Five minutes later, the same message. They had left without me.
How was I going to get there? The young woman ushered me over to some people who said they were leaving right now. I filled out an emigration form and thrust it at them, along with $250 in cash. We hustled to a prop plane–five or six passengers with 20 or more empty seats. I never saw a ticket or any paperwork for the flight. We flew into PAP.
Then the problem was to find my contact, Jean Dorlus. I walked right out of the little Haitian airport–no papers, no passports, no nothing. But there was nothing but taxi drivers and soldiers outside. Thankfully, another kind stranger–a taxi driver, no less–called Jean. He was at another airport (using the same tarmac) where my original flight had come in. Somebody told him I was there–though I wasn’t. If I hadn’t been able to call….
Okay, so it was great to be there. Jean took good care of me, and set up all my meetings. He had rented a car at exorbitant prices and took me around. Pretty soon, though, I figured out that getting out of Haiti was a lot harder than getting in, because so many Haitians were trying desperately to leave. Those empty seats on the flight in? They weren’t empty on the flight out.
I was there almost a week, and every day I tried to figure out an escape route. Air Serv? World Vision wasn’t scheduling it yet. Compassion International offered to help–to go with their convoy overland, or else to fly on the World Food Program flights. That seemed like a sure thing, until it fell through. Then I met a pastor who was driving to Santo Domingo the next day. He had plenty of room. Bingo! The next morning he called to say he had cancelled his plan.
I was running low on money, and there’s no way to get more in Haiti. Credit cards are worthless pieces of plastic. I was done with my reporting, and just a bother for Haitians who were graciously feeding me and helping me. Time to go! Jean took me down to the bus station. All buses full, though the young woman sold me a ticket for the next day. It seemed pretty shaky, but that was all I had.
We went to the World Vision office, to see if we could get a briefing on what they were doing. I mentioned to Laura Blank, the media coordinator, that I needed to get out. She cheerfully said she thought she could get me on a flight. However, she couldn’t confirm it. After the other disappointments, I wasn’t too confident. We left and went to see if we could get Jean’s car repaired. Fortunately, the repair place was near the airport. (Traffic was bad, very bad, and it took a good hour to get across town.) While there Jean got a text message from Laura: go to the airport. Jean fought traffic and got me there about 12:15. Plans were supposed to be confirmed at 12:30. Jean dropped me off.
But the airport was madness–jammed with aid volunteers trying to get out on any flight. Nobody had even heard of Air Serv. A Missionary Aviation guy told me to just watch out the window and see if I could spot the plane.
I did that for a while and then decided to try what is very unnatural for me. I circulated through the crowded room, yelling out the question whether anybody was going with Air Serv. I went all around the room drawing nothing but blank stares. Finally a guy asked me if I was going to Santo Domingo. He took me over to an older man who he thought was also going to Santo Domingo. The gentleman didn’t speak any English and had never heard of Air Serv. But standing right next to him were two World Vision employees who had just that moment arrived on the Air Serv flight. The pilot would be coming to give them back their passports.
I stuck to them like glue. The pilot came. He told me to wait. Eventually he told me to go out to the plane–a six-passenger number. I got in. We took off. It was very, very sweet to leave Haiti on my way home.