We arrived on March 29th sometime around noon on an American Airlines flight. It wasn't until we were boarded and awaiting takeoff, I realized there was this little thing called a customs declaration form, all passengers must fill out (something I've done many times). If we had been traveling under "normal" circumstances this would not be a pesky issue and there is nothing close to normal about a trip to Haiti. On this particular trip I have been given a gift of life saving HIV/TB medications, which will treat thousands of patients for six months or longer. There are three very large suitcases packed with thousands of pills from an amazing physician friend, who works with AIDS/TB patients in the United States. (and yes, everyone can call me a dumb a** for not thinking things through---I deserve it). The sick feeling in my stomach began and clock started ticking...
After filling out the customs form I wondered if I'd even get a chance to explain before being hauled off to some small, windowless room at some makeshift jail. We landed in Haiti and Brett was more nervous than I was at this point (thankfully I'd given him D.Jerry's phone number in case we were separated at customs/immigration). It was difficult to know if the sweat pouring off my body was from the excruciating heat, anxiety or both.
There was one moment, after we'd deplaned and searched over an hour for our luggage, a young man came and told us our bags had unfortunately been lost. Then it happened -- the unthinkable, this would be the first time in airline history, there would be no screeching passenger wanting to know where the hell her bags had been taken or where, pray tell, they'd been lost. I felt excited that maybe, just maybe they'd fallen off the plane, never made it on the plane or simply disappeared after being taken off the plane. However, my exhilaration was quickly replaced with horror when the same young man yelled across the hangar, in a voice that reminded me of an animated Disney character on crack, "Ah Stefanie! - look I found your bags!!!"
Our hearts sank, we begrudgingly took ownership of the bags and headed toward the woman at Customs Booth Number One. Brett and I looked at each other, hoping there would be no swooping in of some Tactical Haitian Swat Team (yes, we really thought it could happen) to interrogate us about our unusual items for declaration. We stood and held our breath, waiting for the order to follow some police officer to explain ourselves.
It was quite an interesting experience and a completely uneventful one. The Customs Agent simply asked me if I was certain the medications had no value and I nodded my head affirmatively. She then asked if they were for me personally and I somewhat slowly nodded negatively. Then she asked if they were for Haiti and finally, I found my voice and proudly said, "Yes Ma'am, they are for the TB clinic in Port Au Prince." She looked down at us, from her tall Custom Agent chair and smiled, then simply waved us through customs without any further inquiry or hesitation.
The airport, now functioning at about 50-60% was deceiving at first glance because it looks so much better than just three weeks ago. I was a bit excited to see that so much had been done and thought maybe my criticism of the U.N., Red Cross and a few other relief agencies had been too harsh. The thought was quickly ripped from my mind the minute we stepped outside the gates of Toussaint Louverture International Airport. It became painfully obvious how little had been done to ease the devastated conditions for the Haitian people. There were at least a thousand people outside the gates; a thousand faces that represent a thousand failures of the disorganized, chaotic and ineffective relief aid plans in Haiti.
Would someone please ask the Red Cross what they've done with all the money donated to Haiti? Then, would someone remind them that we were not donating to their debt relief plan -- we were donating to the people of Haiti!