It's 3AM on Thursday and I am back at the Jesuit novitiate in Port-au-Prince. I arrived here after a short drive from Petion-Ville, down Avenue John Brown, and across Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The only living things I saw afoot in the city were wild dogs, and there are plenty of them, looking sleek and well-fed. I also saw a fire burning in a dumpster, three enormous arc lights illuminating rows of dump trucks and earthmovers parked at three intersections, and occasional PNH vehicles. Other than that, nothing is moving. It's like being in a ghost town. Frankly, unsettling.
My trip from Virginia to Petion-Ville was more hectic, but no less surreal. At three o'clock Tuesday afternoon, when Delta cancelled my Wednesday morning flight into Port-au-Prince, things went into full chaos mode. Cheryl was kind enough to cover my Tuesday night work shift so that I could get on the road, but the question of where to go wasn't entirely clear. I'd been asked to safeguard a shipment of medications via private jet out of south Florida, but the meds got stuck in Ohio in the same storm that cancelled my flight. So, I bought tickets on JetBlue, flying from Richmond to Santo Domingo by way of Fort Lauderdale. The only problem was, the same snow that shut down Reagan and grounded the meds in Cleveland was between me and Richmond. My wife and I asked for the Lord's blessing, and I drove off into the snow.
The hour-long drive to the Richmond airport took three hours. More troubling was the fact that JetBlue had cancelled their 7:30 flight on the exact same route as my 9:30 tickets. When I pulled in to the airport parking garage, the snow was so heavy that I couldn't see across the roadway to the terminal building. But, my lovely bride confirmed that the flight was still scheduled to go. Furthermore, she was able to confirm that my travel insurance policy didn't cover me if I got cold feet and decided to drive south for another shot at a private jet ride out of Florida, no matter how much snow was falling on my departure airport. So I took a deep breath and got in line with my bags, steeling myself for a two-day ordeal of flight delays, excess weight fees, and generally NOT getting to Haiti.
The baggage was the very first problem. I had packed two Wal-Mart suitcases with medications and school supplies that I knew were needed in Port-au-Prince. Brother Jim is starting a network of schools in the refugee camps, and he has plenty of students, but no supplies. I was able to put together a good first batch of materials, thanks to an all-night Wal-Mart, a template for school kits from providentliving.org, and a very generous donation from my dad. The problem, as I realized while standing in line reading the baggage policy, was that only one fifty-pound bag is authorized as check baggage when you fly JetBlue to the Dominican Republic. Even my smaller bag (full of pencils, erasers, rulers, colored pencils, sharpeners and so forth) weighed more than fifty pounds. The other bag was closer to 100 pounds. I prayed. The customer service representative, a lovely young lady named Becky, waved me forward. I smiled as brightly as I could and put my smaller bag on the scale. 57 pounds. Becky looked closely at me, at my MEP scrub top, at the caduceus on my hat and my generally shopworn appearance. Where are you going, she asked. Back to Haiti, said I. Are you a doctor, she asked. Physician assistant, I corrected, compelled by uncharacteristic honesty. Close enough, said Becky, let me see if I can waive all of your baggage fees and let you take both bags. She stepped away, spoke briefly to a manager, gave me a thumbs-up.
I drove in to the city to deliver passengers (one doctor, three paramedics, and a professional ballroom dancer) to the 82nd Airborne.