When he landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Clovis Baptiste was aware there was a small possibility some of his family members could be waiting for him. But it wasn't until he lifted his mother off the ground and held her tight that he experienced the joy that comes with confirming that loved ones are alive and well.
The ever-present stench of rotting flesh that filled his nostrils and lungs as he embraced them, though, served as a reminder that not everyone had such a reunion.
Baptiste, the manager at the Big Kmart on Cherokee Lane, left for Haiti in mid-February to find out what happened to the 10 siblings and mother and father he hadn't heard from since the massive January earthquake that leveled the impoverished nation's capital.
Although his siblings and parents are accounted for and healthy, he still hasn't found one cousin. He estimates 60 percent of the buildings in the city have yet to be searched. Five of his siblings also spent five days trapped under earthquake rubble in the earthquake's initial aftermath. Others escaped the disaster by being away from the home or in remote areas not affected by the quake.
His family caught wind of media reports that he was traveling to find them, and his mother, father and one brother were waiting to greet him at the airport in Port-au-Prince.
"It's amazing how fast news flows," he said.
A family man
One step into his living room will show you how important family is to Baptiste and why he risked everything to find the ones he loves. Framed photographs of his family adorn the walls, line shelves and rest upon a table that is immediately noticeable upon entering the house.
Initially, Baptiste had planned to travel to the Dominican Republic and take a taxi into Haiti, but flights recently started landing in the nation's capital. It was before he departed for his native homeland that he received a phone call from his wife, Jeannite. Although the reception was terrible, he was able to make out that someone had contacted her and said some family members would be waiting for him at the airport.
"I remember saying, 'Are you kidding me?'" he said.
While he was able to cherish the moment with his family, Baptiste said, he could feel eyes on him. Government officials monitored the reunion to ensure no one was attacked or hurt, he said.
Journey through the ruined capital
After a brief but emotional meeting with his family, they rushed out of the airport into the anarchy-filled streets of Port-au-Prince.
The city, just 15 miles from the epicenter of the 7.0 earthquake, is a place so ravaged by poverty and desperation that Baptiste had trouble attaching words to it. Vendors sell bags or bottles of water on the street for $3 to $5, a hefty price for many Haitians. The dust and smog choke you and streets are still filled with the sound of people crying.
"The whole city is full of trash," Baptiste said, staring through his Cherrywood dining room table.
The trip not only reconnected him with his family, but reaffirmed his belief of how much better off he is in this country.
"People living under bridges or on welfare in America are so much better off than those in Haiti," he said.
Being clean-shaven and having spotless fingernails, Baptiste knew better than to walk the streets carrying the $1,000 he brought from the United States to purchase food and supplies.
Instead, he remained in the car and had his brother take the money into a building where it could be exchanged for Haitian currency.
"He looks like he lives there, because he does," Baptiste said.
With the money, the family purchased the necessary staples of water, rice, juice and oil. They also purchased food on the street. He unwrapped the cellophane from a thick cookie made from sugar, flour and water he brought home. This morsel — largely devoid of nutritional value — is a blessing for thousands of Haitians lucky enough to be able to afford it.
As the car ventured through the dusty streets, he filmed with a Sony Handycam the calamity the citizens endure on a daily basis. He captured the piles of rubble still being combed through, the angry looks on the people's faces as they endured a virtual hell on a daily basis, and the overwhelming depression of the city.
Knowing holding an expensive camcorder on the streets of Port-au-Prince could be an automatic death sentence due to the high rate of violent crime, he kept a safe distance and only filmed from inside the car.
"Holding a camcorder shows I'm not from here and basically a tourist," he said.
The people in Haiti aren't all criminals, he said, just desperate, hungry and scared. Haiti was already a third-world country before the earthquake, he said — it just became more unstable and unsafe afterwards.
"People have four or five kids and they can't provide for them," he said.
After loading up with supplies, he returned to Cayemite, where he grew up. It is an island not seriously affected by the quake. His parents were still living there when it struck. His siblings lived in a home in another remote area of the country which was damaged in the earthquake, and their home was ruined. Fortunately, they were not there when it occurred. They have returned to Cayemite, where it is somewhat safer.
Unsanitary conditions compromise his health
Although the journey was overwhelmingly successful, Baptiste was sick for several days before being hospitalized for a day.
The home he was staying at was about a football field away from the source of drinking water, and people and animals from the village use the bathroom between the two and tropical rains wash the waste into the drinking water, he said.
Baptiste was vomiting and had diarrhea, symptoms commonly associated with dysentery, for several days before receiving treatment.
"The doctor said I was about to collapse," he said.
His temperature soared, but he received medication that enabled him to regain his health.
Surviving and moving forward
One thing that helped him stay strong during his 15-day exodus to Haiti was the communication he kept with his wife. Baptiste said it was easier for her to call him because she had better service. Hearing her voice and being able to talk to his children helped calm him.
He joked about the size of next month's phone bill.
"I'm not looking forward to it," he said. "It should arrive soon."
While Baptiste has knowledge of his family's safety, he is working to get them out of Haiti. "Anywhere in America is better than Haiti," he said.
He is also in the process of setting up a foundation to send money over to Haiti to help others who want to start a better life for themselves. During the two weeks he was there, Baptiste said he saw few signs of the donations America and other countries have sent to aid the nation.
Without the assistance, he said, Haiti is doomed.
"It will take 30 to 40 years to rebuild the country with money. It will never rebuild without it," he said. "Never."