PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI (WTOC) - Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would go to Haiti. But I did.
It started a few weeks back when longtime friend, Savannah businessman Brinson Clements, called and invited me to accompany him to Haiti along with Pastor Larry McDaniel of The Sanctuary on Waters Avenue.
He explained that members of The Sanctuary had donated some $30,000 to help rebuild churches in Port-au-Prince that had been destroyed by the earthquake in January.
The effort picked up momentum when Clements' company, Medical Infusion Technologies, donated 1,500 units of ProVector, which attracts and kills adult mosquitoes, to help fight the spread of malaria and dengue fever.
They called Chris Hafer of Savannah Toyota to see if he might be interested in helping. Hafer readily offered to share the cost of a flight to Haiti, one he arranged with a business associate and friend in Daytona Beach, Florida.
As plans were finalized, it became apparent there was capacity for more supplies on Hamlin and Associates' Beechcraft King Air twin engine aircraft.
Clements and Medical Infusion Technologies president Rocky Parker, donated more than 50 tents and antibiotic kits.
Hafer also contacted Jockey, which donated some 600 pounds of undergarments for men, women and children in a wide assortment of sizes.
Once the cargo was set, the greater challenge was to secure approval for flight plans that would allow us to spend a day in Port-au-Prince without the necessity to remain there overnight.
After numerous inquiries, that requisite was met and the flight set for Tuesday, February 23.
We headed down to Daytona Beach on Monday to load the plane. That too proved challenging.
While the weight was acceptable, the bulk was not. We ultimately had to take most of the undergarments out of boxes and load them in large plastic bags.
Even then, it was necessary to remove two of the plush leather seats from the executive aircraft for there to be sufficient space for cargo and people.
Literally packed in that plane, we took off for Haiti around 3am Tuesday and arrived there around 7am with US Air Force personnel providing ground control for the pilot to park the plane.
Two strong first impressions hit us just as soon at the door was opened. First, the smell which was acrid and strange.
Pastor McDaniel says it's an ever-present odor in Port-au-Prince, that of charcoal smoke. It's most certainly not the kind you'd buy for a weekend cookout, but a peculiar variety the Haitians make themselves.
It is, for most, the only way they have to cook their food.
Our attention was also immediately drawn to the large crowd of people sitting just outside the terminal building, some in chairs, others cross-legged on the ground.
We learned they were American health care volunteers, most of whom had been in Haiti for a week or more. They had come to the airport the night before in hopes of heading home, when a power outage killed the runway lights, requiring cancellation of their commercial flights and their return to nasty tents on the far end of the airport.
There was no guarantee of their departure today.
Pastor McDaniel cut a beeline for a Haitian official to request approval for a truck to come onto the tarmac to pick up the supplies we'd brought. That started a frenzied hour of confusion and uncertainty. It looked for a time like we'd never get out of that airport!
One side note - Larry McDaniel speaks fluent Haitian Creole. I watched the faces of those with whom he spoke. None showed any bewilderment or amusement with his dialect. The rapid exchanges made it clear that each understood the other – perfectly.
But for his ability to communicate and his awareness of Haitian customs, we quite probably would have been stranded.
Long story greatly shortened, Pastor McDaniel's longtime friend Pastor Joel Vibert (born and raised in Port-au-Prince), was finally allowed to bring the truck past security for loading.
The cost, a few bucks for Haitians on the tarmac who also assisted in loading and a couple of tents and tarps for the security officers at the gate.
This, again, part of frustrating and discouraging Haitian custom.
Our passports having been checked under a temporary canopy next to the terminal building, we were off onto the rough and crowded streets of Port-au-Prince. The truck driver set off to deliver the supplies for storage while we rode with Pastor Vibert in his dented, but, thankfully, air-conditioned Isuzu SUV.
It didn't take long to encounter the shocking scenes of abject devastation – concrete buildings crumbled, tent and tarp cities set up in seemingly every open space.
We had not expected the heavy traffic, in which everyone seemed to be in a flat-out rush. Forget about lanes, it was a string of near misses set to the steady staccato chorus of honking horns.
I became amazed Pastor Vibert's wagon was only dented on the left side!
We made our way through the madness and in mere minutes, encountered terribly disturbing images of human tragedy.
Collapsed buildings were everywhere and throngs of people found themselves pressed together, some hawking fruit or wares as others dodged the dirty cars in narrow caverns cut through the ubiquitous rubble.
We stopped at the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, also known as Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, which was totally destroyed, its Bishop perishing inside it.
As we walked around through clouds of concrete dust in a pungent mix with that awful charcoal smell, the setting seemed completely surreal. My attention was drawn to two old women, surrounded by dusty debris on all sides, vigorously sweeping a sun soaked street in 90 degree heat that had been, no doubt, shaded by a once majestic structure just six weeks earlier to the day.
One of the women saw me looking her way. Neither of us capable of verbal communication with the other, I didn't know what to say or do. It was clumsy and a little embarrassing. So I just put my hand over my heart as we continued to stare at one another. She gripped her crude broom in her left hand and place her right hand over her heart, her eyes immediately glistening in the sun. It was a spontaneous exchange I feel sure I will never forget.
In retrospect, it seems this former house of worship and prayer was a fitting first stop on the brief and awful journey that would follow.
To see more images from Haiti, visit my image gallery.