First Person

Moving forward, one street at a time

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Oxfam's Yolette Etienne talks with quake survivors in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Liz Lucas / Oxfam America
Oxfam's Yolette Etienne talks with quake survivors in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Liz Lucas / Oxfam America

Oxfam America’s Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based colleagues in Haiti to help with the relief effort, where they join 200 Oxfam staff already on the ground. Here’s her latest update, dated January 22.

Each day since we’ve been here in the collapsed Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, the traffic has grown worse–a reality that is both good and bad. Life is slowly coming back in this battered city after a massive earthquake 10 days ago.

People are on the move in any vehicle that still rolls and isn’t buried under a heap of rubble. And that’s a good thing: there’s a vibrancy here that is irrepressible.

But for aid workers, the surge in traffic presents some challenges. Trips that once might have been carried out with a measure of efficiency–like a visit to a warehouse–now seem interminable. Added together, they can eat up several valuable hours a day.

“Yesterday, we were stuck for two hours not able to do anything,” said an anguished Arthur Dario, an Oxfam staffer who lives in Port-au-Prince. “Not even call anyone because your phone isn’t working.”

Here, to drive is to dodge. Chunks of concrete still litter some of the streets. Cars and trucks swerve to avoid them and swerve again to avoid each other. Roads are narrow, turns are sharp, grinding the pace of traffic in some places to a creep–and often a stop. A long stop.

Adding to all of this is the clean-up. Not earthquake clean-up, says Arthur, but the day-to-day efforts the municipality makes to rid the city of trash. Why can’t they do it at night instead of clogging the already crowded streets during the day? he asks from the front seat where he stares out at the bumper of the truck, stopped dead, in front of us.

We’re on our way to an Oxfam warehouse in the Sartre neighborhood to load a transport truck with hundreds of boxes of kitchen kits, hygiene kits, and sacks of rice to deliver to people now camped out in Delmas, another neighborhood of Port-au-Prince.

We get there eventually, fill the truck, and head back into the heart of the capital. We hear that the traffic downtown is almost impossible to negotiate so we decide to avoid the main drags and try the side streets–along with a stream of other vehicles, it turns out.

But after the earthquake, the side streets now serve a new purpose: Some are home for families who have nowhere else to live.

We pass one family going about their lives under a square plastic canopy on metal poles. They have set up this temporary home–with bedding stacked up, and a smattering of chairs–to one side of a narrow street. As we inch past, I watch a mother hoist a small child–girl or boy I can’t tell–onto her lap, snuggle for a fleeting moment, and then help the child wriggle into a pair of pants. It’s a gesture so familiar, so private–and now so fully on display on this unwanted stage, as is every other household intimacy. Losing your home is hard enough. Living without privacy turns hardship into suffering.

But here, now, all of life has spilled out of doors.

I see a woman propped on the curb giving herself a pedicure. Another woman has found a puddle in which to bathe her ankles and calves, splashing the water up around them. And here’s a man, sitting on the ground hunched against a wall, pecking away at his dusty laptop. On our trips through the city we go slow enough so I can briefly study all of them, and, inevitably, take in great gulps of the destruction, too. You can’t help it. It’s everywhere.

And it occurs to me now that perhaps that explains some of the fury of the honking when the traffic stops. It’s a honking that says don’t make me stay here and look. Don’t remind me of this any more.

“My God,” I hear Arthur mutter as he glances out at another pancaked building. “My God.”

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