HAITI: STEPPING OFF THE PLANE

It felt like the 25 of us had been traveling for days. We took a bus from Medford, Oregon at 7am and flew out of San Francisco, making our way to Miami and then catching our flight to Haiti. Our noses pressed to the cabin windows, staring at the city of Port Au Prince sprawled out beneath us. We caught glimpses of dusty, stacked cement buildings as we began our descent to the airport. The morning sun was burning brightly as we landed, the runway lined with old vehicles, weeds and tall grass. My heart pounded as the plane taxied past the airport. It looked old and dirty but fairly modern, until I noticed the big cracks in the walls, reminders of the devastation that occurred in this country 18 months ago. We stepped off the plane and walked down a long white hallway, lined with wall air conditioning units that were humming quietly. We took an escalator downstairs and were met with lively music echoing off of the walls; a little band of locals hoping for tips from the tourists. I remember thinking that it felt different but kind of normal; it wasn't as strange as I expected. But then we were crowded onto trams, and when we jerked to a stop we were staring into an old airplane hangar. Customs. We stepped out into the wet, stifling heat and joined the crowds of people in line. Tangled lines snaked through the hot crowded warehouse, and I caught a glimpse of a few UN Soldiers standing in front of a tiny immigration office in the corner. It seemed to take forever, all of us sweating and hoping our paperwork was in order. Once we were through customs, it was a free-for-all as we began sorting through mountains of luggage that had come through on a conveyor belt and been dumped onto the dirty concrete floor. Each one of us had checked a personal suitcase and a large trunk packed with food or construction supplies.  We met Frantz, our guide and construction coordinator for the week. He stood patiently as we sorted. I liked him immediately. Men with stern faces kept approaching us and offered to help if we would pay them. One of our team leaders picked someone to help and we loaded our luggage on big creaky carts, hoping we had everything. In a long line, we headed out the doorways into to a sea of dark yelling faces. An important looking guy with a patch on his sleeve shouted at us to keep moving. We were walking quickly in a long, awkward line, trying to focus on keeping our bags from tipping over. People were crowding to see the white Americans; we were clumsily pushing our luggage around potholes and sweating like crazy. The parking lot was more crowded than the fairgrounds after Fourth of July. Horns were blaring and I stared as we pushed pass a towering UN tank. UN soldiers were dotted throughout the parking lot, and I stared at their full heavy gear and loaded machine guns. A man was shouting "God bless you! at us from behind a fence. He had one leg and stretched a long skinny arm through a hole, grabbing at the air. Diesel and smoke mixed with dust, hot pavement burned up through our shoes. We began to load our luggage onto an old yellow school bus. Would it all fit? We were desperately thirsty, with no chance of a bathroom break or a drink of cool water. Mass chaos.
I smiled. We weren't in Oregon anymore.

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