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Naylor: 360 degrees of desperation in drive through Haiti

Dave Naylor
1/10/2011 12:17:58 AM
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It was a ride that almost defied description.

For nearly two hours our van rumbled through the broken streets of Port-au-Prince, surrounded by 360 degrees of desperation.

Tent cities on both sides of the road, thousands packed into dense space without the benefit of plumbing or electricity.

Raw sewage flowed onto the streets, piles of garbage stacked on top of curbs, all adjacent to where vendors were selling their wares.

"It was the worst thing I've ever seen in my life," said Winnipeg Blue Bomber Chris Cvetkovic, one of seven CFL players on this trip to mark the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake. "It was a two-hour car ride that didn't feel like two hours. I was just in awe. It made you feel guilty for everything you have."

"I'd see something that was so bad and then the next block it was worse. Then the next block was worse than that."

When the Huddle for Haiti vans passed that first tent city - just minutes does the road from where we had stayed the night before with family of Winnipeg's Yvenson Bernard - the odor hit hard.

It was simply the most foul smell I've ever experienced and I wasn't alone at feeling my gag reflex begin to trigger.

"Here," said Cvetkovic, handing me a bottle of Vick's VapoRub. "Stick it on the inside of your nostrils and it will block the smell."

I did and it did.

But the sights and the sounds of Port-au-Prince did not relent.

Nor did the visible earthquake damage everywhere. The government palace appeared flattened as if someone had dropped an airplane on it. Big buildings where the ceilings sat on top of the floors made you wonder how many might still be buried underneath it all.

For much of the ride, not a word was spoken by anyone.

"I tried to prepare myself to see the worst but this was worse than I expected," said Edmonton Eskimo Graeme Bell. "I don't know how you can have any optimism when you see that."

Bernard pointed out areas where he'd been when visiting his Haitian family from his home in Florida as a kid. And I wondered how hard this must be for him to take in.

A few miles later the streets turned wet and the tires of our van caused a splash towards the open windows of the vehicles.

Suddenly, in a country battling cholera, we faced the real possibility of filthy and disease-carrying water hitting us in the face.

"Close the window," someone yelled from the back to Edmonton's Kelly Bates who did as he was asked.

What was impossible to ignore was the density of the filth and horrid living conditions. And yet we would see men and women dressed in nicely ironed professional attire and wonder where they'd come from because there didn't appear to be a decent dwelling anywhere.

People stared back at us. Not many smiled and more than a few shouted at us with anger, the byproduct of frustration because of what is not getting done in Haiti. 

Bernard said he didn't want to tell us some of the things being shouted at us in Creole. Some were nice like "please help us," he said. Some like "f*** off" were not.

Val Dupre, a flight attendant for WestJet, is on this trip with us. She was four years old when she left Haiti for Montreal and these days Calgary is her home.

She flew on aid missions for WestJet immediately after the quake. This was her first time back. I asked her if she was optimistic about the future of her former homeland.

"When I did the rescue flight last January I was," she said to me, tears dripping down her face. "Now I just don't know."

Eventually, our road took us from the scene of urban hell and to the countryside. Had we started our journey there it might have looked bad -- rough roads, destroyed buildings and a bridge so badly damaged that our driver opted to drive across a flowing river. But after the horror of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian countryside seemed almost pleasant.

We arrived at a place called Haiti Arise, a community rebuilding project being run by a Haitian Pastor named Marc Honorat, who had studied in Calgary.

Pastor Mark was a child slave from ages 5 to 12, was almost a teenager when he started kindergarten and graduated from high school at age 25.

Today, he runs a complex that includes a school for children in grades 1-4 and has plans for a medical centre and a children's village.

But in Haiti the first thing one must do to accomplish anything is build a wall to keep the lawless land at bay.

"You have to do it because you have lots of building supplies and equipment and in order for us to use them we have to have a wall," he said. "If we don't they will have feet and walk away."

Pastor Mark took us on a tour of the property and for the first time since we arrived we could see progress. Building were being planned or constructed, walls were going up. This was a place on a mission to improve things, at least within the gates of the walls that are being built.

But beyond those walls, where the millions live each day in squalor, there are no easy answers.



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