Reincarnated As A Mother

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Poor Haiti

My heart has ached as I've watched the news reports about the horrific earthquake in Haiti. I have a special affinity for that country-- it's where I picked up the parasites that made me sick for years! So I affectionately look back at Haiti as the country that continues to give after a one week visit!
You see these catastrophic events taking place in these third world countries and you can't help but wonder why they must continuously live such cruel lives-- never getting a break.
Haiti was just finally getting on her feet after being battered by several severe hurricanes in the past few years. When I visited back in 1998, it was and continues to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere You can't even begin to wrap your head around the poverty there. One half of the population lives on less than 1 dollar a day.
We saw dead bodies in the gutters.
Children living in lean-tos, shanties and squalor.
I remember leaving the airport and making the long drive on the dirt highway into Port Au Prince.
This is what we saw-- communities living on the side of the roads with dirty blankets and fabric stretched over four sticks slammed into the ground for cover-- a pig or goat would be staked next to where they lived.

We saw countless children playing in the rubble and garbage with nothing covering their bodies but filthy t-shirts. Yes, just t-shirts, nothing else.
Over the years, I've had people ask me if the reason I went to Haiti was for a vacation-- inside I was always like-- are you kidding me????? I figured they knew nothing about Haiti.
As background, I was working for CBS in L.A. and we had gone to Haiti to do a story on how easy it is to fake a death down there.
Each year insurance companies pay out billions of dollars in fraudulent claims. One of the biggest scams is where a family member will take out a life insurance policy on his (or her) self, then go to a third world country and fake his death. His family will then make a claim and collect the money.
Haiti has a huge, black market business of fake funerals. The first full day we were in Port Au Prince, we paid off corrupt government officials to legally record that I had died in a car accident. A few hours later, we paid a crooked funeral home director to agree to stage an entire funeral (coffin full of rocks, flowers, a hearse, a band playing Amazing Grace to lead the procession through the streets and approximately 300 of my "closest" Haitian friends who dressed up in their Sunday best for a buck and spent the afternoon mourning me)!
That's Alix Toyo (our interpreter who I can't stop wondering if he's survived the Quake and my producer, Myra).
The whole trip was crazy. We saw things that curled my toes. But that's another story for another day.
Suffice it to say, there were loads of colorful characters we crossed paths with.
And some of them made me feel pretty darn edgy.
Just imagine letting our homeless population here in America walk around with AK-47's.
That's how it was there.
We spent quite a bit of time video taping in the Port Au Prince Cemetery-- the main public cemetery in the capital and had to pay off a homeless guy with an AK-47 to just go inside.
My expense report for that trip was interesting to say the least!
The cemetery was one of the freakiest places I've ever been.
98 percent of the population practices Voodoo. And as part of that belief, they don't bury the bodies in the ground. Instead, they are placed in cement-type boxes-- usually two coffins at a time.
It is so poor down there that before a body really has a chance to "cool", grave robbers have gone in and dumped the bodies out and either stolen the coffins to re-sell, stolen the coffin's hinges and fasteners or the valuables from the corpse.
So imagine a cemetery with bodies in various degrees of decay almost everywhere you look. I won't give you the gory details of the one I stepped on (or in-- I sunk). This is Larry Greene, my cameraman on the trip looking at a pile of bones. Larry died a few years back in a helicopter accident while covering the war in Iraq.
One of the most scary and shocking moments (and there were oh, so many) took place outside the cemetery. We were conducting an interview with an investigator who worked for State Farm Insurance. Throughout the interview, just off camera, a little girl (probably around 8 years old) kept pulling at my sleeve, begging for food or money.
There was a large group of kids who lived in the cemetery (talk about a scary place) and most of them walked around with these little plastic juice bottles full of something they were constantly huffing on to get high.
I kept putting off the little girl until we finished the interview. Then I handed her some money-- a couple of dollars.
Her eyes grew wide with excitement.
We quickly picked up and left to head to our next location.
I remember as we drove away, glancing back and seeing a group of children swarming in on her, beating her-- to take away the money we had just given her.
It was heartbreaking.
We went back the next day, armed with bags of chocolate.
We had gone to one of the dingy markets and bought up their bags of Hershey's Miniature candy bars.
Oh, naive us!
We had thought we'd go back and give all the children chocolate so they would not fight over the money. We went back and started passing out the candy.
I remember getting rushed, mobbed.
My cameraman, Larry yelled for us to get back in the Isuzu Trooper-- a small part of his camera was ripped away.
I remember my clothes being grabbed at-- and wondering if they would tear.
We all somehow got into the SUV and even more miraculously, got the doors closed.
Some of the older children (teens) started climbing onto the vehicle, banging at the doors and on the windows. Through barely cracked windows, we shoved what was left of the candy.
Alix, our interpreter, took off and started driving-- but some of the older kids held on. It was terrifying and overwhelming all at the same time.
I clearly remember this sick feeling-- the realization that no matter how much help was given to this country it would never be enough. It was so far gone-- so corrupt and there just didn't seem to be any foundation to start building upon.
Now keep in mind, I was only there a week and the story we were doing focused on a black market, illegal but booming business-- the underbelly of a country.
On our last full day in the country, Alix, our guide wanted to take us and show us something about his country that made him proud.
So we drove out, what seemed like to the outskirts of town, to a clearing.
In that clearing was a beautiful, white, plantation-style mansion.
There was no signage but it was their National Museum for Art.
We went inside and walked from room to room. There were a few paintings hanging on the walls-- unframed. But most of the artwork was stacked in piles against the walls.
Keep in mind, these were paintings done by the top artists in their country.
Each of us bought paintings that day -- all from some of the most famous Haitian artists. I think the most any of us paid for our artwork was either $75 or $150 (it's been 11 years, sorry!).
I don't think any of us could first of all, buy a painting at the MET or the National Gallery, let alone afford one! Mine is hanging in my upstairs hallway.
And if that's not enough insight into the state of a country, my lovely "parasites" had kicked in by then and I had to go to the bathroom.
So picture, here I am at one of the places they are most proud of and yet the "bathroom" in the corner of a room, consisted of a toilet behind an accordion, white wooden screen. The toilet looked as if it had not been used (or flushed) in oh, about 6 months. I won't begin to mention the bugs...
And that's how I remember Haiti. A country derailed.
Alix our interpreter was the biggest bright spot. He was wonderful-- intelligent, kind, hopefull and still pround of his country -- warts and all.
The only silver lining I can see in the shadow of this huge, devastating earthquake is that with all of the donations, good will and attention of the world-- maybe when things are re-built, they will be re-built right. When I was there, everything was helter skelter-- there were no traffic lights, no building codes, no rules, regulations or apparent laws. Not only were there homeless men walking around armed with machine guns, I remember seeing truck loads of young men armed with guns just driving around the city.
This is a chance for Haiti to start over and become a safer, more sanitary, more livable place for it's people.
For a country that had nothing to begin with-- they now have even less.
However, let's hope the survivors embrace the good will and service down there and we see a better life emerge for every one.

8 comments:

Shellee said...

I was watching Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton and their speech on Haiti this morning and they were talking about rebuilding Haiti from it's past and now I understand. Thank you for sharing your story.

Anita said...

I've been wondering what's been going through your head about Haiti. I'm glad you posted this.

Dawn Bushman said...

Wow. I wish I could share your story and pictures with the kids, but blogspot is blocked at my school.

Tricia said...

Thanks Lonnie. Awesome post.

Mama of 2 Hapas said...

After reading this http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1953379_1953494_1954327,00.html, I don't have much hope they will turn this disaster into a positive.

Tink said...

While I was reading I was thinking-"What if we sent men and women to Haiti to help re-establish them instead of staying in Iraq and supposedly helping them get things figured out?" Anyway, it sounds a lot like parts of Africa that Brandon served in. He has said before that they will never change (in Africa) and that they are a cursed people. Maybe the same can be said for Haiti. It's really too bad that places like that even exist.

Dani said...

Wow! Thanks for sharing all of that. I had no idea but glad to hear it from a trusted source.

Diane said...

This is a great post Lonni. I remember very well the Haiti stories and your recovery. Did you uncover these pictures during your photo project?