a weblog by Schuyler D. Erle

Fri, 12 Feb 2010

[02:20] Stuck Inside of Santo Domingo (With the Haiti Blues Again)

Wednesday was a comedy of errors. Not a tragedy, a comedy; but one of errors, all the same.

The night before, just as I was arriving at the lovely Hotel Barceló Lina in Santo Domingo, I got an email from my mission partner, Tom Buckley, who was supposed to be leaving around then from DC. The email said, simply, "I'm waiting on a flight from Pittsburgh to Miami." Wait, Pittsburgh?

I fell asleep and woke up to an email from Tom, sent at around 10pm, saying "I don't think I'm going to make it tonight...." and, then, finally, one last email, sent at 1am, saying "I'm here at the hotel, see you in the morning." *blink*

I let Tom sleep until about 9:30am, and then called his room to rouse him, so that we could head down to the World Bank office and find out how the heck we were supposed to get to Haiti, exactly. We met in the lobby. Tom had evidently packed very carefully, because he only had a single, smallish backpack. I was impressed.

"The airlines lost my luggage," he said simply. What had happened was this: As yet another massive snowstorm was bearing down on Washington on Tuesday night, and DCA was on point of closing, Tom had plead with the American Airlines staff to put him on any damn flight where they could find him a seat, anything, just to give him the proverbial snowball's chance to making it to Santo Domingo by dawn. Pittsburgh was evidently the best they could manage, so Tom flew from Washington to Pittsburgh, changed airlines for a flight to Miami, and arrived 15 minutes too late to make his connection to the DR -- except that, for whatever reason, the Miami-Santo Domingo flight was delayed by exactly that much. Tom ran for the flight, and made it to the DR by the skin of his teeth. His luggage, however, was another story.

One bright spot was that Tom had fetched us from Washington two shiny new Blackberry Storm 9700s, complete with SIMs and tethered data plans, courtesy of the World Bank. When Tom handed me the Blackberry, it felt like Arthur and the Lady of the Lake, or maybe more like Super Mario and the mushroom. By the power of Greyskull! (sound of trumpets)

We skipped breakfast and went straight to the World Bank office, where we arrived basically unannounced. We had neglected to get a specific contact there, so when we turned up, there was a bit of confusion on the part of the staff over who exactly were these hippie backpackers cluttering up their office entrance. Fortunately, we finally thought to recite the magic words "We're here on a mission" -- not wholly unlike the Blues Brothers' mantra -- and the receptionist, who was unfailingly sweet and helpful, directed us to Cairo Arevalo Arias, a Guatemalan Nicaraguan saint (sorry, Cairo), and also the Bank's logistics specialist in SD. I can fairly say that, without Cairo, we probably would never have made it to Haiti.

"We have you booked on the UN flight to Port-au-Prince at 10am tomorrow morning," Cairo said, which was a mixed blessing. Up until that point, we'd had no idea if we'd have to take an eight hour bus, or walk, or what. I was impatient to get there and get to work -- but Tom wasn't going to fare very well without his equally meticulously packed luggage, and, what's more, he still hadn't gotten any immunization shots, because of the weather in DC.

"We don't provide immunizations in Santo Domingo," Cairo said, and then added, "But we can call some clinics and see if they can help you today."

"If we're leaving tomorrow, where can we stay tonight?" I asked.

"Don't you have a hotel room?" he replied.

"Uh, no. We were only booked into the Barceló Lina for one night. We were told we'd be leaving for Port-au-Prince today."

"And all the hotels in Santo Domingo are booked," Cairo said. I could just imagine him reciting special Guatemalan Nicaraguan profanities in his head. "Never mind," he said, "We will work something out." Tom started phoning up American Airlines to harangue them about his missing luggage, a chore he embarked upon at regular intervals during the day. Truth be told, I was grateful for a day spent in a clean, air-conditioned office with power and a perfectly good network.

Around mid-day, Cairo informed us that he was headed out to lunch. I asked if he minded if we might join him, partly for the company, and partly to pump him for information about the situation on the ground in Haiti, because Tom and I still knew basically nothing. Cairo replied that he was having lunch with a friend. Oh? We didn't want to impose. No, no, he didn't mind.

It turned out that his lunch date destination was that bastion of traditional Dominican cuisine, Taco Bell. This was actually fine by us, because it represented some notional last shred of predictability, before we flung ourselves into the slavering jaws of an unknown fate. It also turned out that the lunch date itself was with a very soft-spoken young woman who smiled a lot and spoke absolutely no English, and she was very very nice about us hijacking her lunch date to talk about the situation in Port-au-Prince.

God bless him, Cairo did manage to find us rooms at the Hotel Embajador, and even escorted us to the clinic, where the brash New York Dominican doctor refused to give either of us more than two shots that day, for reasons of safety, which was funny to me, because the doctor I saw in New York didn't seem nearly as conscientious. The doctor's assistant gave Tom vaccinations for Hepatitis B and for seasonal influenza. She made me watch, because, given that there'd be no time to return the following morning, I was going to have to be the one to administer his Hep A shot. Worse yet, the vaccine had to be kept refrigerated somehow. The doctor also promised us antibiotics for traveller's diarrhea, which we almost left the clinic without, and malaria meds for Tom, which we did leave the clinic without.

Blessedly, Tom's luggage turned up, and was delivered to the office just before we left for the hotel. Of course, when we did leave the office for the hotel, we also left the Hep A vaccine in the fridge.

Mind you, I've left out about half of the petty dramas we encountered over the course of the day, and I mostly relate this inane narrative to give the flavor of what we were experiencing. Please don't get me wrong, if I could fill out a customer service card for the World Bank staff in Santo Domingo (and Cairo, in particular) I would rate them 5 stars in every category. Still, given all the chaos, I'd had the distinct and unerring feeling that no one had ever before tried to do what we were attempting, as if aid workers hadn't been streaming through Santo Domingo all month.

I guess Tom had been sort of thinking along similar lines. Earlier, on the way back from the clinic, he'd asked Cairo very pointedly, "What were the logistics like here in Santo Domingo immediately after the earthquake in Haiti?"

"Very confusing," said Cairo, "Very confusing."

"I can well imagine," I said absentmindedly, and then immediately regretted it.

"No," Cairo said flatly, "You can't."

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Previously

Before That
[2010] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2009] Jan Feb Mar Apr
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Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2006] Jan Feb Mar Apr
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Sep Oct Nov Dec
[2005] Jan Feb Mar Apr
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[2004] Jan Feb Mar Apr
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[2003] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
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[2002] Jan Feb Mar Apr
May Jun Jul Aug
Sep Oct Nov Dec

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