Images and text by Will Sterns.
I went to Haiti two days after the earthquake with Regine Zamor, a writer friend who—like most Haitian-Americans—couldn’t get in touch with her relatives in Port au Prince. After flying into Santo Domingo, we took a cab to the border and spent the night in a hotel, crossing into Haiti the following morning after Regine negotiated a “tap tap,” (pickup truck/taxi) to take us to the city.
The first hour of the drive was almost beautiful. The sun was overhead and bright white. We passed mountains, lakes, farms and villages, all seemingly unaffected by the earthquake. But as we reached the outskirts of the city, everything began to change. The roads started to fill with people, and before long we were in the middle of a traffic jam. Anyone who was able to walk was headed in the opposite direction, wearing or carrying valuables, suitcases and mattresses. It wasn’t until 30 minutes later, when we reached the city center, that the destruction and chaos suddenly and exponentially exploded.
Death was everywhere. Telephone poles blocked the road, and outside the destroyed presidential palace the public square had transformed into a refugee camp (sans aid workers) housing about 300,000 bruised and battered Haitians. Some of the inhabitants were naked and dirty, others angry and restless. Some lay passively, resigned to their fate. The car stopped as we approached the central square known as Champs Mars. The scene was so anarchic and smell of decomposition so overpowering that our drivers were scared to continue. Regine pleaded with them in Creole to take us to the hotel. Reluctantly they agreed to press on. For a few more minutes, we drove slowly until, once again, the truck stopped. We were still ten blocks or so from Hotel Oloffson, but the roads were impassible and we were told to get out. As we slowly stepped out of the truck with our gear, a crowd began to gather around us.
Regine said her family’s house was only a few blocks away. So laden with bags and followed by half a dozen Haitian strangers, I began to stagger up the street behind her. We made it to Regine’s house about 20 minutes later and collapsed on the front steps. Thank God her family was okay. Our next stop, Hotel Oloffson, looked like something out of a Márquez novel. It was a large white French colonial house with balconies on each floor and spires on top. In front were lush gardens, a pool and a gazebo. Guards manned the imposing front gates at all times. If it hadn’t been for the guests sleeping on lawn chairs, I might have forgotten we weren’t on vacation. Like everywhere else in Port au Prince, there was no electricity at the Olofsson. Hotel staff and guests relied on one generator to provide adequate light and the power to cook. To their great credit, the staff somehow operated the restaurant throughout this entire ordeal, though mealtime was more like school lunch than dining out.
After dropping our bags, Regine and I wanted to get a feel for the streets. For this, we would need a guide, or “fixer.” Henry spoke perfect English, knew everybody and seemed eager to show us the neighborhood. It was only day one.
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