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It’s a dank, misty morning as we drive down through Port-au-Prince on our way to the domestic airport terminal to catch an early flight to the town of Jacmel.
Our route takes us past countless crushed buildings; sombre, grey heaps of rubble, some with undiscovered bodies still buried deep beneath. A simple white sheet hanging from two improvised poles says plantively ‘SOS’.
I had seen the scale of the destruction yesterday but in the quiet of the early morning it seems even worse, as if we are driving through a ghost town.
The heaps of concrete are vividly contrasted by the brilliantly coloured ‘taptaps’ that are already plying their trade at this early hour. Essentially a communal taxi (and cheaper than a bus), a taptap is usually a converted pick-up truck or wagon but can take some marvellously eccentric alternative forms. According to the Lonely Planet Guide, the answer to how many people you can fit in a taptap is invariably “one more”.
All are adorned with brilliant mural-like designs, often with a religious theme and wording. One passes by with big signage proclaiming ‘Tout a Jesus’. Another (I see this many times) simply says ‘Psalm 23’. The latter’s words seem hauntingly appropriate:
‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’
For we are indeed in the shadow of death here. And there will be more. As we pass one of the numerous ‘tented cities’ Alex, an amazing local businesswoman who has played a key role in putting our agenda together, says: “Rainy season is coming. There are going to be thousands of deaths. It could be catastrophe.”
She tells us of a United Nations worker who told her that no-one in that organization had seen anything like the Haiti tragedy, noting their reaction: “There is simply no government… nothing functioning at all.”
We arrive at the tiny domestic terminal eagerly awaiting our flight to Jacmel, an old coffee port with a reputedly beautiful bay and marvellous old architecture, often likened to another city hit by natural disaster – New Orleans. Jacmel is the handicrafts and artistic capital of Haiti but was hard hit by the earthquake. We will discover that with our own eyes soon.
We’re flying on a 16-seater Tortug’ Air flight but the mist and fog delays us for some time. Finally we get to board the flight but the captain’s words, meant to be reassuring, probably have the diametrically opposite effect – “There’s very poor visibility, so we will have to fly very, very low. But let me tell you as far as I am concerned it will be a safe flight – first for me and my co-pilot and also for you.”
He shakes hands with Ed Brennan of DFS who looks typically relaxed about the situation. My thoughts are more focused on whether my will is up to date but among our already close-knit group I’m not going to admit to any qualms over the flight.
Moments later we are airborne and what will become a great journey around Haiti has begun. Immediately we see the urban landscape below dotted with blue tents, the temporary housing for thousands upon thousands of people.
Moments later we fly over Cité Soleil (below), the infamous shanty town of Port-au-Prince where an estimated 250,000 residents live in squalor and chronic poverty. Some of our group have already visited the area the day before – we’re all heading back tomorrow morning to drop off some much needed aid.
But first there’s business to be done in the south of Haiti. We’re here to scout potential locations for the Hand in Hand for Haiti primary school and to talk to local authorities and other interested parties. You can’t just come into a country such as Haiti and build a school based only on generous funding and good intentions. There is much due diligence ahead to make sure we get this right and be part of a new Haiti.
We’re flying along the northern coast of the southern strip of Haiti and, I learn, towards the epicentre of the January 12 earthquake. The coastal city of Léogâne, some 30km outside Port-au-Prince, was almost totally destroyed by the quake with nearly 90% of buildings damaged. Then there were the deaths – an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people. Can anything be worse than the destruction I witnessed in Port-au-Prince? Apparently so.
I chat on the plane to Olivier Bottrie (President, The Estée Lauder Companies Travel Retail Worldwide) whose wife Alexandra is Haitian and who rightly feels a powerful sense of mission about our project. He briefs me on the day ahead, telling me that we are first headed to an acclaimed Jacmel school called Collège Alcibiade Pommeyrac.
With its high-quality curriculum, facilities and teaching standards, it’s considered a role model for the future of Haitian education. “If we do what they do we will be successful,” says Olivier.
As if by magic his upbeat words coincide with us clearing the mist and suddenly there is blue sea below and in the distance the coastline. The whole world it seems bases its perception of Haiti on (pre-earthquake) horror stories about Port-au-Prince’s violence and overcrowding. There is so much more to the country, artistically, culturally, physically and spiritually, and our own private affirmation of that fact is just beginning.
As we swoop in low over the town there are plenty of tents – a bad sign – but also exquisitely lush tropical greenery. In any other circumstances we would be landing in a Caribbean paradise. The events of 12 January changed all that.
9.13 and we’re down, our plane coming to a fast-braking halt about 50 metres from where the runway runs out. As we taxi towards the terminal the pilot steers around a giant pothole in the ground, either caused by the earthquake or simple disrepair.
As we drive into the centre of Jacmel there are military trucks everywhere – and it’s quickly apparent that the most historic part of the town has been devastated.
So has part of the primary school (above) at Collège Alcibiade Pommeyrac, built by a different team than the impressive secondary school that stands untouched alongside.
Developed in an exquisite, four-hectare garden setting this is a beautiful place where the educational focus is on excellence – a key parameter of the Hand in Hand for Haiti project.
The private owners have already established temporary facilities for the primary school children, fashioned out of timber and leaves but this part of the school remains closed in line with others in the region. Hopefully it will open in coming days.
As we enter one of the intact classrooms the blackboard remains poignantly untouched from the last day of lessons – 12th January 2010.
We tour the splendid secondary school, chatting with some of the senior staff. The facilities are outstanding, the ambience of a quality centre of learning. There’s an excellent cafetaria – a crucial consideration in building a school in a country where malnutrition is a serious issue. We have much to learn from this fine place and our spirits are lifted.
But there are other sites to visit and people to meet so we race back to Jacmel Airport ready for our next flight to Les Cayes, Haiti’s fourth-largest city.
None of us is underestimating the scale of the task ahead. We need all the help we can get. And it is about to appear in the most unexpected form… almost like divine intervention…