Amidst the Rubble
A man last week at the passport office told her, "You haven't experienced Haiti until you've smelled Haiti."
Hilary remembered this as she was assaulted by the acrid stench she later came to discern as the smell of burning refuse. As the van full of volunteers rattled through Port-au-Prince, away from the airport, it bobbed in and out of ruts on a barely navigable road. They all gaped at the way entire buildings stacked up on themselves – sometimes in neat piles; other times in mountains of debris.
Hilary thought of the bodies still trapped inside.
And yet traffic went about its business: Haitians – many barefoot in filthy, tattered clothes – coming and going as they could; cars and motorbikes weaving in and out of each other's way; the sound of honking horns overlapping with radio broadcasts from inside various peacekeeping vehicles. A UN armored tank was parked in the middle of an intersection, a mound of trash smoldering nearby. Soldiers in riot gear maintained order, firearms pointed at the sky.
Hilary would be here for one week, to unpack her own misery and set it aside while she allowed the suffering of another nation – a people who had known far greater hardship than she – to take center-stage.
The opportunity to take this trip had presented itself just in time to commemorate her fiftieth birthday, an occasion that happened to coincide with her divorce. Both felt like utter failures. The birthday she didn't have much control over – although she blamed herself anyway, as if aging were a flaw in her moral character – but the collapse of the marriage, that was another story. That had been, undeniably, her fault. She had been the one to have the affair – and with her own stepson, a thing that was unforgivable. If only she hadn't been drinking. Adam had just been working all those late nights. And it wasn't like Jeremy was a child; he was twenty-five. He knew what he was doing. She hadn't seduced him. If anything, it was the other way around.
Anyway, this focus on service -- offering herself as another link in a much larger chain of human aid -- would hopefully rocket her back into existence, out of the pit of self-pity she had been wallowing in for over a year now.
When the van got to the hotel gate – more like a barricade – located at the end of a narrow lane so pot-holed, it was painful to traverse, she was both scared by what she had seen and knew she was in the right place; finally she had found an external landscape that mirrored how she felt inside.