PORT-AU-PRINCE -- No one can prepare you for what you are about to see, although I was told I would be walking straight into hell.
Then you get your first look at post-earthquake Haiti, and it makes you want to cry -- the corruption at the border crossing from the Dominican Republic, the unpredictable chaos in the streets of capital city Port-au-Prince, the bloated bellies of little children stricken with malnutrition and parasites.
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How could one society impoverished in nearly every way imaginable possibly survive such a disaster? Where do you start to bring aid to what is, according to the U.S. government, the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere?
Seeing it first hand, I ask myself, is there hope for Haiti?
Aid workers, including a strong contingent from the Chicago suburbs, work unceasingly to provide food, clean water, shelter, medical care, security.
Yet, to my newly arrived sensibilities, the poverty and need could hardly get worse. As a photographer, I push the shutter button on my camera more than 7,000 times and take countless hours of video while there on assignment in January, but even that doesn't do it justice.
The stench of rotting garbage, human waste and motorcycles belching out oil-filled exhaust assaults the senses. United Nations patrols roam the streets, displaying an assortment of weaponry.
One of the strangest spectacles is pigs in the streets rooting through sometimes-burning heaps of garbage or congregating on one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen just a few feet from the shantytown of Jacmel, south of Port-au-Prince. The beach would be million-dollar property on any other island, but it's meaningless to the Haitians because they can't eat or drink it.
A surfer, incongruous in this land, stands ready for the perfect wave next to a massive pile of trash. The wave breaks on shore, dragging some of the trash back into the sea.
A mass of humanity chokes the streets of Port-au-Prince, with people desperately trying to sell their possessions. Kids pound on our car windows, looking for handouts of money or food. Traffic slows to a crawl and compassion forces us to pass cans of tuna through barely open windows.
It's a mistake. The handouts bring a crowd, and nearly a riot. Someone hands out a box of cereal, and two kids no older than 8 latch on, punching each other in the face to try to get possession of the prize.
I've been in third-world countries and troubled spots before, but never have seen such desperation.
I'm traveling with Lisa Ballantine of Elk Grove Village and her 18-year-old son, Josiah. Director of FilterPure, Lisa Ballantine, who lives part time in the Dominican Republic, travels these roads at least once a month, sometimes alone. After the earthquake, she set up a Haitian-run factory in Jacmel to make simple ceramic water filters for distribution to families in Haiti and other developing countries where tainted water causes cholera, parasitic infections, chronic diarrhea and other illnesses.
The 120-mile trip from the home the Ballantines built in 2006 near Jarabacoa in the Dominican Republic to Jacmel, Haiti, takes us nearly 17 hours. The border crossing is the first indication of the near-anarchy of Haiti.
Men carrying guns seemingly make up rules, demanding passports, fees for insurance, fees for this, fees for that. We could be detained for days, as was one of Ballantine's drivers carrying supplies to the Jacmel factory.
It's market day, and the border area teems with people -- large trucks, small trucks, cars, people milling around carrying products on their heads.
We wait for hours, then are allowed to proceed through the small blue metal gate that marks the border.
This is Ballantine's 14th border crossing. At about $200, it's the most expensive, she comments.
Ballantine dismisses the danger, only expressing frustration at the amount of time spent at the border. "I don't honestly think of it as dangerous. They just want some money, and it's usually not a lot of money."
Yet, Haiti is dangerous. I am overwhelmed not only by the images I see before me, but by the stories I hear -- stories of 45 or more suspected voodoo priests killed by machete, lynching and other means after being blamed for the cholera outbreak in the quake's aftermath. Stories of armed gangs roaming makeshift streets in some neighborhoods, terrorizing residents and outsiders alike.
With all that in mind, I venture into the most dangerous part of Haiti with two cameras and a gun. The notorious Port-au-Prince shantytown Cite Soleil (City of the Sun) lacks sewers, electricity, schools and government, making it one of the poorest and biggest slums in the Americas.
Being a humanitarian worker or journalist doesn't offer any immunity. In January 2006, two United Nations peacekeepers from Jordan were killed in Cite Soleil.
Never have I carried a gun before on any assignment. A weapon is serious business and it reclassifies you into a category other than journalist, but it seems necessary for protection. I venture into the neighborhood, while the others I'm accompanying wait in the truck. I encounter looks of dislike and surprise. A stranger is not a very common sight.
People are doing laundry in wash buckets. A boy washes a younger brother whose swollen belly is evidence of malnutrition or parasites. I hear men's raised voices, clearly directed at me, though I don't understand what they're saying. Someone tosses a rock, hitting me and my camera. Time to leave.
We meet other Haitians who are friendly and gracious. One man collects his extended family in Jacmel to welcome us into their two-room concrete-block home as we deliver a donated $35 water filter. The family warmly thanks us and shows us the table the filter will occupy in their cooking area. Having clean water will ease one of the challenges of daily living, but there are many more.
The hurdles to recovery seem almost insurmountable. Yet, with so many people willing to walk the difficult road to try to right the wrongs in this country, perhaps the challenges can be met.