There are two ways to fly from Boston to Haiti, American through Miami or Fort Lauderdale, or Delta through New York. Most flights leave early in the day so the planes can deposit folks in Port Au Prince and then hightail back to the States. Planes do not lay overnight in Haiti. On the surface, the Florida connections are preferable; the legs are balanced, the airports bright, the on-time stats positive. But flying through JFK is often less expensive and/or has more availability. This morning, in the wake of the Christmas travel rush, it was my only option. Truth be told, I prefer the weathered grit of JFK to its smooth and sanitized Florida counterparts. My challenge in flying from Point A to Point B is that the plane moves faster than my psyche’s ability to process change, and the cultural shift from stoic Boston to chaotic Port Au Prince needs time. Routing through New York puts me in a Haiti state of mind.
At the big New Year, back in 2000 Donald Trump announced his resolution to help the Big Apple get a truly worthy airport. Paris, Hong Kong, Osaka, even Detroit have created terrific airports in the past decade, while JFK muddles along with an upgrade here and a new terminal there but no sense that the whole is anything more than a cacophony of disparate parts. JFK is a disorganized mash-up were the world’s travelers wear blinders to their surroundings as they motor from gate to gate.
The gate for PAP throbs in disorder. People huddle around the check-in counter more than an hour before take-off, they have a wheelie, a bulging shoulder bag and two gigantic shopping bags that appear to be stuffed with king size down comforters, but when a clerk suggests they check one, they look away in bland detachment. The people flying to PAP are not average Haitians; average Haitians cannot afford to fly. We know the tacit rules of flying, but we chose to ignore them. The airport is the place where we shed American norms and beta test the behavior that will engulf us once we land in Port Au Prince.
It takes about twice as long to board a flight to Haiti as anywhere else I go. Besides the swaggering guys with embroidered fedoras and too many carry-ons scanning the space is if they are alone on a mountain, there are the frail old ladies barely five feet tall who fumble through their purse checking every scrap for a boarding pass, and the elegant men in their shiny, shiny three piece suits with neon acrylic ties and distinctive grey goatees who approach the gate as if processing to a coronation. When the first boarding announcement goes out people mob the desk, boarding zones be damned. That is when I head out of the lounge to the men’s room, which will be quiet just now, and I have a solid fifteen minutes to wash up without any fear of being left at the gate. Upon return the crowd is still huge, moving in fits and starts, a dense cloud funneling randomly towards the hollow tube that will take us to Hispaniola.
My flight leaves on time, almost. Inside the plane the attendant’s rasps over the mic to please take your seat, let others pass, we cannot leave the gate until everyone sits down. They repeat it in English, in French, in haste, in anger, in exasperation. No extra points for customer courtesy here – they are simply trying to get us to move! Attendants practically rip the ubiquitous wheelies out of the hands of struggling passengers, the end-of-the-line souls with a seat assignment but no space in the overhead bin. Eventually we settle in, more in spite of the attendants than in response to them.
The plane takes off and we are barely above the clouds when people pop out of their seats. I am in the exit row (hooray!) opposite a beautiful French flight attendant who becomes so exasperated asking people to sit down she finally tells a young woman, “It is dangerous to be up and walking around, but you’ll do whatever you do.”
I watch all of this, enthralled by the petty improprieties, the endless need to thumb order and authority, however trivially displayed. I love how Haitians pride of their place in the world as the first Black Republic supersedes their acknowledgement of the tragic battering the Republic has endured for the past 196 years. They are simultaneously victims on the world stage and survivors of the highest magnitude.
This is my sixth trip to Haiti since 2009. I have agreed to supervise construction of the Be Like Brit orphanage and Mission of Hope International school on a part-time basis through 2012, so more trips will follow. I will be leading a bifurcated life – two weeks in Haiti dealing with hand mixed concrete and steel reinforcing bent on home-made jigs followed by two weeks in the States designing iCT operating rooms with million dollar neurological equipment that weaves a fiber through a human brain. I look forward to appreciating each dichotomy as a way to participate in, and contribute to, the full range of human experience, and I am grateful for the hubbub of JFK to modulate my transitions.