Pioneer Press/Sun-Times Media Photographer, Ruthie Hauge Machacek and Reporter, John Huston at their campsite, in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, on Thursday, March 18, 2010.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Haiti - Day 5: Going Home

I thought it would be a good idea to attempt another cold shower out of respect for the people who had to sit next to me on the airplane.  I had my last Cliff Bar breakfast and got ready to leave.  We spent the morning hanging out with Dr. Bathla and his friends at our campsite.  They were volunteering at the Greek and Dominican medical clinics that morning.  It was nice to take a good break for the first time that week.  I had worn my cameras and camelback every waking hour of our trip, so I was content to relieve my back for a few hours that morning.

At noon, Joseph (the man who gave us the tour of downtown Port Au Prince) drove us to the airport.  He dropped us off at the arrivals terminal instead of departures, so we had to lug all of our gear down a dusty road in the hot sun for about 3/4 of a mile to departures.  People kept grabbing our bags, and we had to yell sternly at them, "NO"!  Once we got there it was complete chaos.  There was a small podium manned by a person who appeared to be checking passports.  There were 3 or 4 other people, who were also wearing official-looking outfits and lanyards around their necks who were grabbing at our bags and passports and trying to move us to the front of the line.  These people were not official airport employees, but they dressed exactly like them.  They were just people who were trying to make money off of the departing travelers.  There was no official order to the process whatsoever.  One man grabbed John's passport and walked towards the gate with it.  He was not an airport employee.  I told John to get it back, and I yelled to the people grabbing our stuff to stop and told them we will wait at the end of the line.

After going through three separate metal detectors and luggage scanners, we finally reached the air-conditioned waiting area.  We were so incredibly relieved.  Soon enough, we were arriving at the Miami airport for what would turn into a 4.5 hour delayed lay-over.  We were told I would have to pick up my checked luggage and re-check it, but we were not given instructions on where to go to re-check it.  John asked an airport employee and he lead us on a 5 minute walk to the correct area.  How nice it was to trust and airport employee and know he was official!

John and I had been talking about how excited we were to get real food and a drink at the airport since the day before we left!  I never eat at chain restaurants when I'm at home, but I can't even tell you how excited I was to see a Chili's.  I could have had 2 entrees by myself.

There was snow in Chicago, so our flight home was very turbulent.  I was scared out of my mind.  Even the anxiety medicine my doc gave me for flying wasn't working.  I was so happy when we arrived at our gate in Chicago.  It was 1:45am.  I got in a cab, passed out and arrived home at 3am to my wonderful husband, cats, shower and bed.  What an adventure.

Haiti - Day 4: Back at the Hospital

I never look at an airplane and think to myself, "I wish I was on that."  Haiti can change your mind about things.  I was ready to go home.  Dr. Bathla wanted us to come back to the Medishare/University of Miami Field Hospital for the day.  We were hoping to tour other areas of the city, but we came down to Haiti to report on Dr. Bathla, so that is what we did all day.  The rain decided to stick around for most of the day, so I was down to using one camera instead of two.  I only have one technical rain cover.  I always feel like I am missing a child when I only have one camera.

It had rained so hard overnight that the doctor/nurse's home tent flooded.  There were mud puddles surrounding all of the hospital tents.  The rain caused a lot of extra work for the hospital volunteers who had to spend much of the day moving gravel to fill-in puddles and carrying pallets to create paths over the water.  Doctors had traded in their regular shoes for galoshes.  This made me worry about what was soon to come.  Soon after our departure from Haiti, it will be the monsoon and hurricane seasons.  How will these people get by in those conditions?  The tent cities will be washed away or blown over by the wind.  The doctors will have to change the structure of the hospitals in order to keep every operating.  It is going to be a nightmare. 

This day dragged on like no other day of our trip so far.  John spent most of the day interviewing people in the break tent, and I wandered from the adult hospital tent to the children's tent over and over again.  The Chief Medical Officer and his assistant who originally gave us such a hard time on our first day were very unhappy to see that we were back for round two.  They shook their heads at me as I passed them and made me feel like I was the scum of the earth.

There was a patient in the adult tent whose cot was covered with tent rain flaps.  I asked why it was like this, and I was told that the patient was going to die of terminal meningitis that day.  His daughter and niece were by his side for the entire day.  When someone is slowly dying, they get a rattle in their throat appropriately called the death rattle.  In the United States, we have medication that will eliminate the noise for the sake of the patient's family members.  In Haiti, the supplies were so limited, and this medication was not available.  So, these poor young girls sat by their father/uncle's side listening to this all day.

As I was photographing this family, another doctor with a napoleon complex walked up to me and told me I was being extremely disrespectful to this family by photographing them, and he told me to stop.  That was what made me cross the line from being strong and tough to being emotional and offended.  I had done everything these doctors-in-charge had told me to do.  I stayed out of the way, I brought a translator over to the family members of the patients to ask if it was okay for me to photograph, I didn't interrupt procedures.  I was being as respectful as I possibly could while still performing the duties of my job.  Do these doctors not understand the benefit of getting free publicity in a large city newspaper?  Do they not know how many people could potentially be affected by these stories and donate money to their cause?!  I had enough at that point.  I left the hospital tent after that and photographed the grounds until later that night.

At 7:00pm each night, a church group visits the hospital to lead patients in bible readings and hymns.  This was by far the most powerful experience of my trip.  At all other times of the day, these patients have a lifelessness about them, and their facial expressions seem miserable.  When this church group came to visit, the tent just came alive.  People got up and started singing, dancing and clapping.  The nurses lined up to watch, crying and holding each other.  I got goosebumps and tears in my eyes watching this.

As we prepared to leave the hospital, I went around to say thanks and goodbye to a few people who had been kind and gracious to me.  My experience at the hospital had shown me that most people are amazing when they are pushed into challenging and uncomfortable experiences.  All anyone wants is a human connection; a smile, a hug, a sympathetic look.  It is an important thing for everyone to keep in mind no matter where they are in the world.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Haiti - Day 3: Tent Cities, An Orphanage & The Devastation Downtown

I thought I could use a shower.  It had been a few days, and I felt the weight of the sunblock, insect repellent, dirt and sweat I had been wearing.  We were not expecting to have a restroom with running water at our campsite, so it was a pleasant surprise.  The shower was cold, and there were creepy bugs all over the bathroom, but it was still better than nothing.  However, within 15 minutes of toweling off, I had to reapply my repellent and sunblock on a brand new layer of sweat.

Tent Cities
The Sikhs we were staying with, Jai Pal and Harry, were expecting a shipment of high-quality tents that they could distribute to those who needed them most.  They had been told of a few tent cities that were very poorly constructed, so we went to tour them first thing Thursday morning.  As soon as our truck pulled up to the tent city, the residents came running to greet us with joyous smiles.  They followed Jai Pal around as if he were leading a celebratory parade.  The children loved my camera and desperately wanted to be photographed.  They would look up and smile at me and say "Photographeeeee?".  I had to resist because I knew if I honored one request, I would have to honor all of them, and I would be unable to work.  Their tent city was built against the crumbling white brick walls of an old building.  The bricks absorbed the heat of the sun, which made it feel like we were walking through a pottery kiln.  I have never been so hot in my life. 

The houses were made of sticks, scrap lumber, garbage, tarps and the industrial plastic wrapped used to seal shipments on pallets.  There are goats and stray dogs wandering around the grounds.  There were garbage-filled puddles and streams of gray water running through ditches.   Everything was make-shift.  The people have seemingly elected leaders to represent their tent subdivisions.  Jai Pal told me they do this because they want to be well-represented if a humanitarian relief worker visits them.

In the end, Jai Pal and Harry decided that the tent city next door to this one was more in need of the new tents.  Their garbage and tarp-homes were less structurally sound than those of their neighbors.

The Orphanage
Back at the Sikh camp, an Orphanage Director was loading to-go containers full of beans and rice into his truck.  We decided to go back to the orphanage with him to report on the distribution of this food.  This orphanage was in a tent city surrounded on one side by the outer walls of the airport and on another side by a very busy road.  There were approximately 70 children living in these tents, many of whom are new to the orphanage since the earthquake.
As we walked up, they sang a song in English to welcome us and to thank the Sikhs for the food.  I had stayed strong and not let emotions get to me until this point.  These children seemed so happy despite their situations.  It was hard to see them, parentless, crammed under an easy-up tent with open cuts on their skin and so much hope in their eyes.
I just felt so hopeless for them because they just don't understand what is ahead of them in life.  Still, I smiled at them and played peek-a-boo with them from behind my camera.  As we were leaving, we noticed the door of their truck is pock-marked with bullet holes.

Downtown Port-Au-Prince
After a visit to the camp for another Cliff Bar lunch, we loaded up the truck for a tour of downtown Port-Au-Prince.  The man driving us had been hired by the Sikhs as a go-to man.  His name is Joseph, and we is an ex-Haitian soldier with gold teeth and a "don't ef with me" attitude.

Up until this point, we had not seen many structural signs of earthquake damage, and now we were surrounded by it in every direction.  Giant mounds of twisted metal and crumbled concrete were everywhere.  Joseph kept saying, "there is no way only 300,000 died.  Look at that rubble.  There are people under there.  Don't you think there are thousands of people still buried?  I know a million people died."  I believed him because, as we toured, he would point out what were once busy establishments like post offices, banks, restaurants, etc.  The earthquake happened at 4:59pm on a weekday.  Imagine how many people are circulating in and out of these types of buildings in any metropolitan area at that time on a weeknight.

The city haunted me.  There was an aura of bad ju-ju surrounding it that made my stomach feel ill.  It was difficult to photograph because people kept yelling at me or staring at my camera with disapproving looks.  The rubble stretches into the streets, and next to that are thousands of street vendors selling common goods off of blankets or out of wheelbarrows.  Some vendors had set up shop under teetering buildings that looked as though they could collapse at any time.  As we drove along, children would cling to the door of the car saying, "dollar, dollar, dollar" over and over again, as they moved alongside us.  They were relentless.

I had a hard time that night.  The sights I saw proved to be a lot to digest in such a short period of time.  I took to my shady spot back at camp (which was the only place I could go to stop sweating), and I wrote in the journal my mom asked me to keep.  I wrote page after page until John came to notify me that Harry had made the most amazing french fries and onion rings for us.  I had a few, and they were amazing.  Best fries I've ever had bar none.

Thunder started rumbling, and I retreated to the tent for the night.  There are three things I am very very afraid of; spiders, air travel and storms.  I had managed to avoid all but one on this trip up until this point.  I sat in the tent, listened to my headphones and thought about the Haitians living in make-shift tents as the rain came down heavily on the nylon walls of my home.

I barely slept that night, and when we awoke the next morning, there were puddles in the corners of our tent, and our campground had turned into mud.

Haiti - Day 2: The Hospital

Roosters ran amok, crowing and flapping their wings against our tent for the better part of the night.  Sweat pooled up on the old sleeping bags we slept on.  There is no hope trying to sleep past 6am at our camp in Haiti, so we left our tent to find the Sikhs and a few hired Haitians preparing large vats of rice and beans, which they will distribute to hungry people.  I took a few pictures and had a Cliff Bar for breakfast.  Little did I know at that point that Cliff Bars would be my main sustenance for the remainder our our trip.

Since our arrival, we had been trying to get in contact with Dr. Baljinder Bathla, who is the reason we came on this trip in the first place.  We decided to have our hosts drop us off at the Medishare/University of Miami Field Hospital where he was volunteering.  This hospital is currently the best in Haiti, and it consists of 3 large (think Wedding-sized) tents and a smaller triage tent, which are located on the airport grounds, parallel to the single runway.  We were not greeted pleasantly.  The chief medical officer was on a power trip, and gave us the utmost crap about being there.  We tried explaining over and over again that we were invited here by a volunteering doctor in conjunction with Project Medishare.  He wanted nothing to do with us, and made us feel like we were scum for wanting to be there.  His reasons?  Every time we interviewed or photographed someone we were getting in the way of patient care.  We finally worked something out, and he stormed off to get back on his high horse.

I had tried to prepare myself for the trauma I would see within the walls of the hospital tents.  I knew I could handle blood and guts, as I have photographed that type of thing before.  And frankly, my mother, aunt and grandmother are all nurses, and blood and guts were a common topic of conversation at many dinner tables.  I was able to stay tough and not let my emotions get the best of me that entire day.  I saw a woman with a cyst on her chin that was the size of a tennis ball, gunshot wounds, a hernia surgery, and incubators packed with tiny babies whose noses were the size of the tip of my pinkie finger.

The doctors and nurses rotate in and out of the hospital on a 1-2 week basis.  They travel to Haiti on their own dollar, often using unpaid time off from work to do so.  They work 12 hour shifts or more and then be on-call the remaining hours of the day.  In most cases, there is only one doctor of each specialty visiting at one time.  The doctors would try to get rest, but if a patient needed that specialty of doctor, the doctor would be summoned.

We had heard that there was a great bar and grill at the UN Base down the road.  Dr.  Bathla and some of his colleagues were going there for lunch via a United States military truck.  The military was under strict orders not to transport journalists, so John and I walked.  It was nearing 100 degrees outside around noon, but I was excited to walk because I though I could take some nice street pictures.  That didn't last long.  At the first raise of my long lens (200mm), a group of men stood up, coming at me with their arms raised and yelling in Creole.  That scared me enough to keeps my cameras down at my sides for the rest of our walk.

We were told by some nurses that the bar and grill would be easy to find.  They said we would see a gate amongst white walls with armed guards in front.  We found that, but we definitely were not at the right place.  We told the guard we were looking for the restaurant, and he pointed us into the base.  A military truck with Jordanian UN soldiers was driving in at the time, and they waved us into their truck.  The drove us to the back end of the base, turning back at us with huge grins on their faces the whole ride.  We got out and wandered around in the brutal sun looking for the restaurant for at least a half-hour.  We asked a number of soldiers where the restaurant was, but no one spoke English.  We finally gave up and decided we were probably at the wrong base and needed to walk further down the road.  We were right.  We arrived at the next UN base entrance and promptly found the restaurant.  By this point, my face was as red as a tomato, and every inch of me was sweating.  I sat next to a fan and chugged two bottles of ice cold water.  This was the first cold beverage I had since I left the United States.  It was AMAZING.  The restaurant also had real meals!  Hooray!  I had a chicken kabob and rice, and it was heavenly.

Back at the hospital, I was starting to get nervous about getting a ride back to our camp.  The sun was setting, and the streets get dangerous at night.  I was advised by photojournalist who have been to Haiti since the quake not to go out past dark.  I was also advised not to take the public transportation, which are basically privately owned pick-up trucks with benches in the back.  We had heard stories of the taxi drivers taking Americans out to the middle of no where, stealing all of their valuables/passports and leaving them there.  The reporter did not seem concerned about getting back, but I was very concerned.  I asked various people if they knew of anyone with a car, and I had no luck.  Then I saw a Mercedes SUV pull up, and a well-off looking family of 3 got out.  I watched them for a bit and realized it was a husband dropping off his wife, a nurse, for work at the hospital.  I approached him and asked if he would be willing to drive us back to camp.  He said it would be his honor.  He had been trying to do good things for the Americans to help them for all the things they have done for his country.  We got back to camp safely and were greeted by the smell of Indian food coming from the Sikh's cooking tent.  As much as I would love to eat Indian food here at home, I had to pass it up or eat it sparingly while in Haiti.  I have a sensitive stomach as it is, and I wasn't about to test it's strength while camping!

I went to rest in the tent (between 7:30-9pm every night).  There was a chance of rain that night, so I advised my co-worker to cover his gear and move his sleeping bag away from the sides of the tent.  I guess we got a bit of rain, but I didn't hear it at all.  After the first night's experience, I had learned to knock myself out with a sleeping pill this time!

Haiti - Planning & Day 1

On the evening of March 10, 2010, I received an email from my photo editor with the subject, "Possible Field Trip".  The body of the email said only this: "Give me a call as soon as you can to discuss a special project, involving travel.....geoff"

I called him back expecting for him to ask me to cover some state sporting event down in Peoria or Bloomington/Normal.  So you could imagine my shock when he said the word, "Haiti".  I would leave for the trip 5 days later with reporter, John Huston.  The very first thing I did was start researching travel to Haiti.  I looked up photojournalists from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Hartford Courant and The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (who have all traveled to Haiti), and I asked their advice on what to bring and what to be prepared for.  They all basically told me not to drink any water that isn't bottled or treated with iodine, to protect myself from the disease-carrying mosquitos, not to go out at night, to carry very little money and not to give any money away to people.  I scrambled to get last minute immunizations and medications, to update my passport to my new married name, to pack and to shop for the necessary technical and camera gear.  That weekend also included the annual Wisconsin News Photographers Association Convention in Milwaukee AND my grandmother's 90th birthday party.  So I essentially had 3 days to do all of these things.  I left at 5am on Tuesday, March 16, 2010.

Our Arrival in Haiti was an instant reality check.  The airport is not in full-working order because of earthquake damage, so there is no conveyor belt for baggage claim.  We were to pick-up our checked luggage in a large room, which was jam-packed with people struggling to see over one another in hopes of spotting his or her luggage.  The luggage was being thrown through a small opening in a wall into a large pile on the floor.  I might also mention it was more than 100 degrees inside of this room.  I finally found my backpack and proceeded to carry that and my heavy camera bag through the crowd and outside where there was a mass of Haitians trying to earn a dollar by offering car rides or help with luggage.  They yell and pull at your bags in every direction.

Somehow, within all of this chaos, John Huston spotted two men wearing turbins, and he asked them if they were members of the United Sikhs.  They knew we were arriving at that time, so they came to pick us up.  Thank God.  The Doctor we had be sent to cover is also a member of the United Sikhs, which is a humanitarian religious organization.  He had told his friends we would be coming and we may need a place to stay.

This began our adventure.  After traveling through the most unorganized traffic I have ever seen (far worse than Chicago; believe it or not), we arrived at what would be our home for the next 4 days.  It was essentially the parking lot of an industrial park, which housed sweatshops for big-name American brands such as Gap.  We shared this parking lot with a Greek and a Dominican medical clinic.  Our house was a cheap tent, resting on concrete, tied down to broken pieces of cynder block.  I would soon find out that this was luxury compared to the living conditions of the Haitians I would meet.