Aerial view of the southern coast of Hispaniola.
Copyright: WFP/Jonathan Thompson
When you leave the runway in Santo Domingo, the earth falls away - quickly replaced by verdant green jungle cloaking the rolling hills to the west of the city. Tropical haze soon separates you from the ground and you can only make out soft forms passing far below. Off to the east smoke-stacks punctuate the grey cityscape and the gentle curve of the jagged coast cuts to the horizon.
Eventually, the coastline emerges from the mist and a ribbon of sand runs between the azure blue sea and the hardscrabble foliage. Salt ponds add geometry to the flatlands and wisps of sand spin off peninsulas like wet smoke.
The drone of the Caravan's turbo prop starts to numb you and you slowly drift off in a daze. The anticipation of arriving has doped you with adrenaline and the chemical's ebb has given way to a trembling fatigue. There is no longer chatter in the plane's cabin as each individual tries to reconcile the stark beauty of the landscape below against the images of crushed souls that are embedded in one's head courtesy of headline news.
I’m grateful that the flight path has let me see another side of Haiti. Unfortunately, few others will ever have this opportunity. They are stuck with devastation and images of tragedy. They'll lie awake thinking about those who were trapped, those with amputated limbs and pray that the same never happens to them. Myrta Kaulard, WFP Country Director for Haiti, told us a few days ago that what happened was "..far beyond a disaster." I am fairly certain that the human body was not built to cope with whatever that is.
I could write about the psyche of the aid worker, and how we spend our lives balancing that 'beyond' with memories of the people we helped save - but emergencies are not about us. No, we're just a footnote to the tragedy. We have the good fortune of showing up after the earthquake, unlike some of our associates who lived through it. As aid workers we are often spared the first few hours and days of crisis but perhaps that is the problem. We see the middle and not the start nor the finish. Our lives are swathes of disasters which are stitched together with home, family, and sometimes drink.
Port-au-Prince emerges from behind the prop and it is impossible to see the collapsed homes of the Haitian people. Blue tarps are visible clumped together in open lots and in front of the Presidential Palace. A flotilla of ships is anchored in the bay and the wakes of their tenders show you that help is on its way. The orderly rows of military tents occupy strips of beachfront real estate and a child's collection of model planes, helicopters, etc lines the runway. The density of buildings, roads and people is staggering, and you begin to realize why the logistics have been so difficult.
I am landing now in a new country, one time zone behind the last one and light years behind the rest of the world in terms of condition. I'll stay for only a few hours and feel guilty for not staying longer. However, I have no choice as the outpouring of goodwill leaves me without a bed for the night. Sadly, and for one brief moment, I can only fractionally comprehend the fate of nine million Haitians. I want to give them the shirt off my back but I know from years of experience that it will do them little good.
The massive engines of the aid machine have blown smoke and are winding up to a fever pitch. I can no longer hear the plane's motor as my senses are completely overwhelmed by what lies below. My contribution is but a murmur yet, by virtue of my occupation, I get to know that it matters. Today the distribution is in full swing and while some will say it is not enough I know that tonight a boy my son's age will be able to eat.
I want to go home. I want to hug my kid, my wife and lie in bed and pray that if the earth shakes under my home I will never have to experience the same fate as the Haitian people.