We recently learned—via Facebook—that an intrepid friend of Travel + Leisure’s is trapped in Haiti. Never having been, Ruth Bender, who works for the Tides Foundation in San Francisco, decided to stop in Haiti en route to a wedding at the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda. She, nor anyone else, could have imagined what disaster awaited. Below is Ruth’s first-person, on-the-ground report from 40 miles outside the capital city. She tells a different, slightly more hopeful story than those coming out of earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince. Read on. And watch Ruth on CNN here.
JACMEL, HAITI—Mid-way through our third bottle of wine, I pull out my camera and we look through the photos I took of downtown Jacmel. I have an obsession with photographing architecture; doors in particular. My friends know about this, and often skim my photos when I post them. This time, they may take note.
These may be the last photos taken of many of these buildings. Between early yesterday when I took those photos, and today as I write this, Haiti experienced the largest earthquake they have recorded here in 200 years. The town of Jacmel has been decimated. Lovely, historic structures are piles of rubble. The paper-mache creatures the men had spent days and weeks carefully building and painting for the upcoming Carnevale are crushed. But more devastating is the loss of life, and livelihood, and the lack of emergency services available to the region. While Port au Prince has been decimated, they are also receiving all of the news coverage and are able to receive international aid.
Jacmel has up to 10,000 people without homes. Telephones are not working and there is no electricity. The road from Port au Prince to Jacmel is not passable. The airport in Jacmel is being used as a refugee camp for the townspeople, rendering the landing strip useless. No supplies, no aid has come to Jacmel. The townspeople are dependent on the limited supplies at the UN station here. Schools have fallen. The hospital is badly damaged and of limited use.
We, meanwhile, sit at Hotel Cyvadier, feeling useless, and incredibly blessed. Our host, the owner Christophe, has taken a horrific situation, a disaster in his country following just one short year on the heels of the last disaster, the hurricanes that ripped the country apart, and made it bearable for all of us. We have supplies of bottled water, food, a generator for power day and night (as needed) and internet access (the only thing which has kept my family sane these last 24 hours). We are very lucky to be in Christophe's capable hands and that our hotel sustained limited damage—though enough to potentially ruin his business—as one entire builiding, the new one housing a conference room, crumbled. Incredibly, nobody was inside the collapsed building. Being mid-week, there were few hotel guests and only a few staff on duty.
I was lying on my bed, just digging into my next book (Motorcycle Diaries), when I felt a shake. Why I didn't react more quickly, I don't know. After 13+ years in San Francisco, you would think at the first sign of a building shaking I would be out the door. It took me a minute before realizing it was likely an earthquake I was experiencing. I went to stand in my doorway. Then saw the open lawn just steps in front of me and went there. The few of us on the property gathered there. All shaken. And shaking. While we watched the building behind us crumble, Christophe watched his business crumble. Then came the aftershock. OK, make that aftershocks. We ran out to the parking lot, three guests and the staff. And the aftershocks followed us there. Once things seemed to settle down, we moved back to the lawn. Christophe locked the gate down to the beach, and made his neighbors leave the boat on the beach and get to safety. Their lives were more important. A boat could be rebuilt. Then, as we were sipping some Caribbean Rum to calm our frazzled nerves, the thought of a tsunami came to mind. Back to the parking lot we went, and that is where we have stayed: Camp Cyvadier.
After the staff went home, we went about trying to make a plan. Everybody was accounted for. We were all unharmed. And we were all shaking. As darkness set in, the generator kicked to life. Amazing. We had light. People in town had nothing but chaos, terror, uncertainty and death. And we had lights. And internet. And bottled water. We disasgreed on whether this would make the news. I said YES. Others said NO. Why would the news cover an earthquake in Haiti, they asked? But I knew my mom would be in a panic. We logged on, and there in our faces was the number—7.0. You'd better believe my mom knew about it by then. And was, as any mother would be, panicking. I emailed immediately to say that we were safe, and had food and water and would connect when we could.
Our ranks have swelled as others from the area stop by to check on Christophe; to give and receive news on family and friends. There is joy as Christophe's mother arrives, having left her car and walked a long way to get here. And there are the unaccounted friends and family members, phone lines too busy to get through to anybody. We have spent the last two days on the plastic chairs we moved to the parking lot (my legs were shaking, I needed to sit!). A State Department employee with a home down here stopped in, then came back later with cots for us. We set up one of the hammocks. We made a cozy group bedroom in a parking lot. And we tried to sleep. But we were all on edge. Dogs bark and we jump. The earth moves and we jump. We all doze off at some point. Daylight will hopefully bring answers.
Daylight brings more aftershocks. And some answers. But still more questions. Friends and relatives have still not been heard from. We are all online constantly, trying to let our families know we are safe, and how/when we might get out of here. We try to get news of the conditions away from where we are. Mostly we get the same news that everybody else is reading. But then some folks go down into town. And they return with long faces. The town is a mess. Hundreds, maybe thousands, are homeless. Structures are destroyed or uninhabitable. And there is nothing we can do for them. And so we pass the day. We take a drive away from the downtown and see the calm beaches to the east, fishing boats pulled from the water, hearing stories of local fisherman as they watched the ocean pull out further than they had ever seen it do before. There is some damage, but mostly, life is as normal.
The market is happening in Caye-Jacmel. The streetside vendors are selling their wares. The only business I notice is not open for business today are the little lottery shacks. Perhaps they think that nobody will buy a lottery try, as this is clearly not a lucky day for any of the people of Haiti.
Guest blogger Ruth Bender is based in San Francisco and works for the Tides Foundation.