"We fly out at 12:15 tomorrow."
"Oh wow, I wish I could go, I'd be there in a heartbeat," I type back on G-chat.
"Give me your passport info, I'll see if there are still seats on the plane."
Pause. This is my friend Eleanor, who called last Friday to cancel our dinner plans because she all the sudden had to pack for a flight to the Dominican Republic the next day. Through a friend's connection, she secured a seat on a Jet Blue plane flying into Santiago with a UN volunteer trip, and once people at our school heard this, four other people got on board. She didn't know what they would be doing, just that the UN was partnering with Airline Ambassadors to get people into the Dominican Republic and help out.
So when she offered me the possibility of going, I had to think fast, and I had to consult Tim, my boyfriend, who was sitting feet away from me on the couch.
I wanted to be the person who says, immediately, "Yes, I'm there!" and mean it. But as soon as it became a real possibility, I was scared. Tim, not being able to know for sure where I would be and that I would be safe, didn't want me to go. I went back and forth. I said to Tim that he should just come with me, but we couldn't find his passport. In the end, it was too late by the time I called Eleanor back. But if I wanted to, she said, I could try to get on the next trip. I didn't sign up.
Eleanor assured me that it was okay to not go, which I know is true. The next day I drove her out to the airport, and when I dropped her off and watched her walk into the terminal with her suitcase full of clothes, malaria pills, peanut butter crackers and 3 oz. toiletries, I felt a pang of jealousy. As I drove back home, taking an ill-advised "short cut" through East New York, I tried to ignore the abandoned cars and warehouses and empty streets, thinking that if I get nervous at stoplights while driving through sketchy Brooklyn neighborhoods, I certainly would be a wreck in Haiti. I also thought about what, exactly, I was jealous of.
Eleanor is now in Port-Au-Prince. She stayed with a family that has lost a daughter but has still opened its home to foreign volunteers. She is translating French for doctors and dressing wounds. All I know is from a few text messages and what she updates on Twitter, but it seems like she's in the thick of it, helping people. I know that she went for the right reasons.
Online and among my fellow journalism school students, there is a debate about how much good or harm journalists on the ground in Haiti are doing. If you want to black-and-white the issue, the two camps boil down to: a) Journalists are just additional resource-consuming bodies, gawkers profiting from intense suffering and stealing supplies from Haitians, contributing to logistical nightmares, etc. and b) We need journalists to cover events like this, this is the fabric of democracy, Anderson Cooper saves little boys!, a media pool would be a disaster of its own kind, if it weren't for the media we wouldn't be getting so many donations, etc.
(The above photo, of a man showing a picture of his missing child, was taken by another friend also in Haiti on the same trip, Aash Jethra. Read his updates and see more of his photos.)
Then there is the measured, realistic opinion: journalists should neither stand by and watch dispassionately, nor should they abandon their duties to report the news. It's possible to recover and record. David Hinckley at the NY Daily News sums it up nicely, pointing out that while networks may benefit from their coverage of Haiti, making us all a little squeamish, we can't deny the value of the news they're providing nor that they are, in many ways, helping people. If you're pulling a person out of a pile of rubble, it doesn't matter that a camera is rolling.
Before she left, Eleanor wondered aloud if it would be ethical to do reporting while on her trip. I told her that she'd better be reporting, and that journalists can't just "turn it off." We have a duty to tell the untold stories, to let the rest of the world see what we see. I'm glad that she is reporting back on what she sees as she helps people. If not for her, I would not know about the group of Haitians singing together at nightfall, or how friendly the children are, even in the wake of such a disaster, or fathom how people who have been through the earthquake could open their homes to shelter foreign strangers.
Eleanor is trying to finagle a way home in the coming days, and I can't wait to hear about her experience. I'm sure that she was humbled but also enlightened, and maybe I'm just a little bit jealous of her bravery. Will it also help her career as a journalist? Probably, yes, since she plans to do international reporting. Does that make her service any less meaningful? No. (Those of us who grew up in the U.S. during the '90s may recall Phoebe Buffay trying in vain to find a selfless good deed in "The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS.")
What I realized, as I waffled between wishing I had gone and being grateful for my hot shower, is that catastrophes like this always bring on the requisite wave of guilt and donations and attention, but aside from the fact that we've been needing to pay more attention to Haiti for years, we also need to turn our attention to the world immediately around us. I might not be able to get on a flight to Haiti and do the heroic thing, but I can volunteer in Brooklyn. There are hundreds of worthy charities based in New York City, but I don't regularly donate time or money to any of them, and that's ridiculous. No one will want to get status updates from an NYC shelter, but that doesn't make it less important.
So while I certainly don't want to diminish the urgent and continuous need for aid in Haiti, I would just like to remind anyone feeling helpless that there are people in need everywhere. If we took that worldview to begin with, it's possible that the damage in Haiti would not be as horrific as it is now.
[On a separate note, while I am no authority on the subject whatsoever, I would personally encourage people to donate to Doctors Without Borders or the Haitian Emergency Relief Fund, both of which have proven track records and no drama in the press.]
Guinness is good for you, say medical experts