"Skip" . ink on paper . 9 inches by 12 inches . $125
Back in 1990, when I was finishing college, a group of students and I did an alternative Spring Break. We went to Haiti to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. The prior season Vanity Fair had published a Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous story on Jean Claude “Baby Doc” and Michelle Duvalier in exile, in the south of France. A seductive tale of a child who would be King, lead by his Queen who led them all down a rabbit hole of poverty that remains today. I wanted to see it myself, Haiti was geographically obtainable and opportunity presented itself.
The night before we left twelve Haitian nuns were stabbed as they slept in their convent. The University said, “We can no longer sponsor this trip as a University affiliated event.” The University agreed to provide funding for some of the students and since the State Department determined Haiti a dangerous place, they changed their financial support and association for liability purposes. I chose not to understand that then. A determined young adult, I was set on going. The University said that we could go as eleven individuals, who all happen to be students, yet, it was not a University sponsored trip.
The arrival in Port au Prince was a different experience, for me. It was one of the first times I remember getting off a plane where you walked down stairs and out onto the tarmac. April was humid and the sun unsympathetic. Of course Haiti is not Hawaii, you don’t smell the Plumeria flower in the air as you step into the day. It’s not the part of the Caribbean designed for tourism. It was Haiti post “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and pre Aristide, the priest who would become President. The government was in turmoil; it seemed there was a new president, weekly.
We resided in an orphanage run by an American priest who had moved to Haiti in the early 1980’s, down a side hill just below Radio Haiti. The Radio Haiti tower was a consistent late night target for drive by gunfire. During the day we built houses and volunteered at Mother Theresa’s Home for Children. I drank in the danger all around me with the invincible energy of youth. When it was time to leave, I planned to leave a day earlier. In those days, as a child of an airline employee, I flew standby.
I was booked in First Class, American Airlines 658, direct to to New York, the beginning of my transition back to the world I had left 10 days earlier. They boarded the five of us, before a man with and Uzi came aboard demanding passage to the Dominican Republic. I remember grenades strapped around his chest. A well heeled, dignified woman who expressed her social status in weight and in her tailored white pant suit sat next to me. My French skills then, achieved above average grades in an academic setting, yet in the world where I sat, my seat mates rapid fire of French Creole towards our uninvited guest left me re evaluating my studies.
She accused him of being part of Baby Doc’s secret police, the rumored American CIA trained Tonton Macoutes, the central nervous system of the former Duvalier Regime. If true, many of his comrades had left for the Dominican Republic, on the other side of the island. He demanded to be flown there on this plane.
The woman in the white pant suit had gone into “flight or fight mode” and she choose to fight. You could feel the tension as she took a stern, yet condescending tone with him, trying to shame him. The flight flight crew cautioned, “Everyone just remain calm” and this gave me a job: to help calm down my seat mate. So I reached over and grabbed this woman’s hand and I said, “C’est bon. Ils le resdront sur”(it’s okay, they will make it safe). By calming her, I was really calming myself. We were on the plane for forty-five to sixty minutes. Although, in my mind it seemed like forty-five days. The pilot negotiated our release and we disembarked in Port au Prince.
We were met on the tarmac by more armed men, and I lead the way towards the terminal. My thoughts raced but I came to the conclusion that since the plane had been fully refueled, if he blew it up I didn’t want to be in the zone of impact. Overdressed for the heat and humidity, I went hoofing it up the hill back to the orphanage. As I was leaving, I kept wondering how far I needed to be in order to be really safe. I was a salmon swimming up stream, as Haitians moved past me towards the airport excitement.
The gunman kept the plane for three days and nights, locking down the airport, and firing shots into the interior to assert the seriousness of his goal. The FBI and the CIA had come to negotiate as the plane just sat there, a lame duck on the tarmac. On the third day most of the students chartered a private plane out of a secondary airport commonly used by international relief workers. We all made it back to our classes the following school day.
This experience really gave me a taste of the world, far outside the one I was raised and lived in. I realized how resourceful and self-sufficient I had grown to be. I am a Pilgrim, travel energizes me, it puts me in a bigger world to look around and gives me a refreshing perspective. During that time on the plane, between the request for a pre-flight drink and my first view of an Uzi in three dimensions, I thought my life might come to an end, there. When the flight attendant gave me a focus from catastrophic thinking, I realized that although I couldn’t solve the incident, I could remain calm and by contributing compassion could connect to who I am at my core.
Debra Wuliger, figurative artist working with color, texture and pattern to celebrate life.
Image silhouetted with story. Ready for hanging.