The outward journey over Miami and the travel coordination worked out perfectly. When we checked in for Haiti in Miami, Spencer recognised us straight away from our medi T-shirts and our travel team was thus complete – Christin from Germany, Spencer from the USA and myself. After an approximately 2 hour flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince, you are brought to the airport terminal by bus. The subtropical air doesn’t really help matters when you’re struggling along with your luggage. Our bodies will first have to acclimatise to the temperature and the high air humidity.
There’s a lot of coming and going at the airport terminal of Port-au-Prince and it doesn’t feel like anyone will ever find their luggage – but not to worry, we are apparently the only ones who perceive this as chaos. The suitcases are collected together in a part of the hall that is cordoned off with warning tape. The conveyor belt regularly sends out new pieces of luggage that might possibly belong to our team. It takes some time before the three of us had got all of our belongings together.
Our first steps on the way out took us through passport control. Here, we immediately tried to have my German passport approved for a 4-month stay – at this point in time, I still don’t know whether I have a valid visa or not. The Haitian official was very pleasant and had clearly already forgiven my lack of knowledge of Creole. Unfortunately, this also meant that I couldn’t understand his response when I repeatedly tried to explain to him that I wanted to stay for 4 months and would be working at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital. Oh well, never mind. He was glad to put a stamp in my passport and gave a friendly wave to the outside.
I would once again like to advise everyone that, after leaving passport control, you should stay together as a group and really watch out for each other. The “bustle” of the porters makes it very difficult to keep track of everything. And this is precisely the situation exploited by any pick-pockets who might be around. I recommend that travellers discuss and set up a plan of action together, for example, decide who is going to do what. I put myself forward here as the one who would jump into action if any one of the travellers in our group were to be seriously harassed in any way.
Our luggage is being pushed along on a kind of shopping trolley by an elderly Haitian man. Interestingly, they are already talking about 10 USD. Unfortunately, we have made a mistake: the younger one, who actually hasn’t done anything and has been walking along beside us and has been blabbering random phrases that he has learned by heart in my ear from the side, suddenly also wants to have money, basically for doing nothing. He was even so barefaced that he let the old man do the hard work while he begged for money.
Ok, fine. We find space for our suitcases on the open platform of a double-cabin pick-up. After an inexplicably difficult manoeuvre to get out of the parking space, requiring several pairs of waving hands, the driver somehow couldn’t remember how to drive a 4-wheel drive vehicle. The rather hectic discussions with those standing around outside were periodically interspersed with the word “Dollars”. Unfortunately, our team guide was weak and gave in to this passive resistance, so, in addition to the 10 dollars we had already given, he handed out some more cash or rather got someone to hand it over to those waiting outside.
We make very slow progress under the exceedingly interesting road conditions. Even the smaller craters in the asphalt were already capable of causing minor damage to the vehicle. We continue on to a nameless place “in the middle of nowhere”.
We are brought to a meeting point where we are due to meet up with an American camera team. This team is accompanied by Ian Rawson (the son on the hospital’s founder) and the cameraman is already busy working hard for his metres of film. We now leave the cordoned off compound and continue with two vehicles on our way somehow or other out of Port-au-Prince. At times, our driver had difficulty keeping up with the camera team ahead of us.
There are very simple traffic rules here, which should be obeyed at all costs: try not to come into contact with any other vehicle. Following this motto, the traffic almost takes care of itself. I can’t really remember having seen any kind of road signs or traffic lights. Drivers and riders of small motorcycles pay as little attention to pedestrians as they do to the cement pipes that lie across the road, jutting almost 20 cm out of the asphalt or gravel.
After several stops for the camera team, we then arrive in Deschapelles around 3 ½ hours later. The journey gave us excellent views of the extremely rugged mountainous landscape. I did not catch sight of any wooded areas of note. Only in the valley, the most important element on Earth – water – runs alongside the road from time to time. This water is good for everything here, whether it be humans, animals or plants. This water nourishes everything, and much more besides. It is used just as much for personal hygiene as it is for washing a motorcycle or clothing or even food such as vegetables and fruit.
I remember one interesting stop in particular. Immediately next to the county road, a large rubbish tip smoulders and glows and smokes. Here you stumble over all kinds of things that the fire hasn’t completely destroyed and were still recognisable. Computer circuit boards and metal cans, all kinds of plastics and metals and who knows what else has gone up in smoke here. Right through the middle of this black and charred ‘moonscape’ runs a dirt track. I am 100% sure that this dirt track is still the transport route for garbage and scrap and waste material of all sorts even today.
The camera team is accommodated in Ian Rawson’s building and I very quickly determine that this elderly man has a very good command of the German language – shaped by history as well as by his parents, he has had a decisive and positive influence on the living conditions.
Around the corner, a gate is opened for our vehicle and for the first time we see our future living quarters, complete with swimming pool. The “Greetings and Hellos” and the usual welcoming ceremonies hold us back briefly before we make our way to our rooms.
Spencer and I are sharing a room, and I have the opportunity here to actually gain an understanding of the ideas and philosophies behind the history of the Hanger Clinic in Deschapelles. From the outset, the plan here was to help people to help themselves and NOT to act as a dictator or company, and this plan has been implemented.
I see my first week of work as a time for getting to know people and become acquainted with the job. The workshop is much larger than I had expected. The rooms are large and constructed in such a way as to make maximum use of the shade, which means that air conditioning is not necessary. Ventilators and extractor fans are used, so that even the German factory inspectors would only have the usual minor deficiencies to complain about. Rosaline, in collaboration of Yvener, has a perfect command of the admission of patients, so that my role in patient documentation was only a monitoring one. There’s a lively exchange of words between the technicians, which I take to be a good sign, even though I do not understand what is being said. Everyone seems to know what they’re supposed to be doing and wants to build the best possible aids for their patients. The production processes are very strongly adapted to the country-specific needs and enable the waiting times for the patients entrusted to us from the surrounding communities to be kept as short as possible. Christin Rabe and I very quickly latch onto the productive thinking and do not see ourselves as “power-producing manufacturers of mass products”, but rather try to get across the notion of comfort and user-friendliness to the technicians. After this first week at work, I am thrilled by the friendly and inquisitive welcome we have received.
I would like to add a last thought to this report:
When I consider aspects such as stock-keeping, the problems with the language and the somewhat different mentality of the patients and technicians, I have no idea how it is possible to turn out 60 functional walking prostheses from such a workshop in one week. For this achievement, I would like to pay my greatest respect to the technicians who were here before me.
The severe earthquake is indeed the topic of daily conversation even today and will probably remain so for many decades. It fills me with pride to be able to make a small contribution to the well-being of the people here.