Haiti: What I Remember From Being There

haiti-beach.jpgLike you I’ve been watching the coverage of the Haitian earthquake. Each detail makes this sad story sadder. It’s difficult to imagine a spot less able to cope with this kind of adversity.

I have been to Haiti. Strange as it seems I vacationed there with my friend Neal sometime in the late 70s. We spent a week at the Club Med “Magic Isle.”

Even then Club Med never mentioned the country’s name in its promotional material. The club is long since closed, a victim of Haiti’s reputation as the basket case of the Western Hemisphere.

A few weeks before the trip we got paperwork from Club Med. We’d need to take medication before our departure. Malaria was the concern. In most of the country modern sanitation just didn’t exist. Judging by what’s coming out tonight that hasn’t changed.

We flew from JFK non-stop. Back then the airport bore the name of former Haitian president Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. His son, “Baby Doc,” was in charge of the country. This was an iron willed dictatorship which produced riches for a few on the backs of many.

Our bus trip through the countryside passed many streams. All were marked with health warning signs. Still there were people in each of them, mostly washing clothes. We didn’t slow down. My glimpses were brief.

Club Med “Magic Isle” itself was an armed camp. A guard station turned away locals who wanted in. Once a week local craftsmen were allowed to approach on the beach. It was obvious this part of Haiti was not for Haitians!

During our week there Neal and I never left the property.

The club itself was as beautiful as it was underused. About half the rooms were empty–this after being priced well below any other Club Med facility.

The view from my room was of stark mountains. They had been clear cut for charcoal–a cash crop. Haiti’s sister country on Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic, had similar rough hills. Theirs were covered in green!

The club was reasonably new when Neal and I arrived. Staff who’d been there for the construction told us the property was totally built by hand. There were no bulldozers or excavators. Hiring locals was much cheaper!

I was conflicted vacationing in this incredibly poor nation. I didn’t think of it before the trip, but it was tough to get off my mind while we were there. I had never been… still have never been… anywhere else with this much poverty. It was everyone. I was unavoidable… except inside the club.

It’s impossible for us to fathom what Haitian life must be like tonight. People who never had anything now have less.

The earthquake is just the first disaster. The next will diseases as dead and decaying bodies rot in place.

It is monumentally sad.

7 Responses to “Haiti: What I Remember From Being There”

  1. Lou says:

    We can only hope that aid will come pouring in and not get bottlenecked – there is a lot to do to save those still alive and take of those killed.

  2. Wudz says:

    Geoff, you know me well enough to know that I spent time a few years ago volunteering in Haiti. Maybe not well enough to know that Sandy and I cried ourselves to sleep the first several nights we were there. Even on a good day then electricity could not be taken for granted, and every single day children died of malnutrition, never mind disease. Haiti is our hemisphere’s poor stepchild, and it is on the graves of these newest countless thousands of dead that Haiti reenters our conciousness and crys out for us to live our self image as the moral leaders of the world.

  3. meredith says:

    A close friend of my parents (and a former boyfriend of my mom’s from high school :) has spent most of his adult life as a missionary priest in Haiti. Father Joe would come by our house once a year or so to visit and tell stories about his life there. As you said, the scope of the poverty there is mind-boggling. I could tell that Father Joe was only telling us the most sanitized stories, and I’m sure he saw things he never wanted to discuss with anyone.

    Father Joe has long since reached retirement age, but as far as I know he still spends time in Haiti. Of course my mom hasn’t been able to find out any news, but we’re all hoping he’s ok. I’m positive he lost people he knows and has worked with yesterday, regardless.

  4. Fred says:

    Thanks for the insight into what Haiti was like. Most of us have never been there.

    Just wanted to give you a heads up on something that caught my attention yesterday. Dead and decaying bodies (victims of natural disasters) do not contribute to the rapid spread of disease.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_risks_from_dead_bodies

    I know Wikipedia isn’t always the best source of factual information, but I’ve read enough about this in the past day to know that it is correct.

  5. Wendie says:

    I have some memories of Haiti as well, having been there twice to cover news when I was working for the ABC affiliate in Miami. I’ve been in the National Palace.. twice.. the government building that is now just wreckage.. Spent time at the Villa Creole Hotel, which is now a triage zone.. and time in Cite du Soleil..

    A reporter I worked with was caught in an exchange of gunfire there while covering a story and needed plastic surgery to repair the damage to her face..

    It is a place author Herbert Gold called the “best nightmare on Earth” and he is SO right. Haiti has everything going against it.. geography (techtonic plates.. hurricane zone..) environmental degredation.. lack of building standards.. grinding, horrible poverty.. and just plain bad luck I swore when I left for the second time that I would never go back. Now I wish I could go to help. I was in tears in my newsroom as I watched the video feeds come in..

  6. Debra Yarger says:

    I understand your anguish. I worked for Club Med the winter season before it closed. Baby Doc was in power and Haiti was a dangerous place. Baby Doc was a dangerous man who would patrol the beach on Sundays in his Boston Whaler and shoot at beach goers for sport. No one was allowed on the beach on Sundays. Your life was in danger. Even as a SCUBA GO (Gentle Organizer) we never left the compound except by ship when we went diving.

    The poverty outisde the compound was gut wrenching. NO running water, people bathing in the same roadside water stream (really a ditch running through the country) that others were defecating in, washing dishes and clothes….. unimaginable to Americans.

    The Club closed at the end of my tour….. and the country became more violent. I see the images of the devastation and it looks like it did to me in Nov 85 through March 86. I see no change and this is now after the earthquake. Very sad.

  7. JW Hammontree says:

    I was in Haiti with the US Army as part of Operation Uphold Democracy in late 1994. The task force used the Club Med resort for unit R&R. The former resort property was in relatively good shape (compared to the rest of the country) and many Haitians were hired to make it great day-trip for the Soldiers. The locals selling art and trinkets here were charging about 3-4 times as much as we could get elsewhere.

    As for the damage caused by the earthquake, the hardest hit area was Petionville. From all the post-earthquake pics and videos I’ve seen of that area, it still looks better after the earthquake than it did back in 1994.

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