PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A piece of plywood leaning against a building on a busy thoroughfare catches Rebecca Maesato's eye.
She asks her Haitian assistant to pull over to see if it's for sale and how much it costs. Patrick Noel, 26, pulls the Mitsubishi four-door pickup to the curb.
"Plywood is like gold," Maesato says as Noel bargains on the sidewalk with the owner of the coveted building material.
"Six hundred gourdes," he says after taking his seat behind the steering wheel. Maesato does not want to pay $100, and they drive on.
The pickup, affectionately nicknamed "Chouchou," or Darling in English, is already loaded with some scrounged mattresses; empty wooden crates, which are to be dismantled for flooring; and a couple of boxes of Nestle crackers. Also on board — on top of all the stuff, actually — are Maesato's "street boys," young men she has befriended over many years living and visiting Haiti. They tie necklaces and bracelets that she sells back home in St. George to earn the boys a few dollars.
Jimmy Pierre, 18, Michelet Joseph, 19, and Bony Alfred, 23, will be her moving crew and security detail for the excursion into a tent city in Delmas 33, an area severely damaged in the Jan. 12 earthquake. All three are fairly proficient in English.
Maesato, or "mom" to the boys, huddled with them before heading out. The plan was for them to carry the items in first, while she and relief worker Ryan Haldeman and a couple of visitors lag behind.
"I don't want a lot of people swarming us," she said. "Bring some friends back for security. I want these guys protected."
The drive to Delmas 33 isn't far, but it is long on the jammed streets of Port-au-Prince. Cars, trucks, motorbikes and even pedestrians accelerate for any opening. The sidewalks, too, are teeming with people and street vendors offering everything from sugar cane to motor oil. The streets are alive, but in Joseph's view, the country is not.
"There is no Haiti," he laments at one point. "There is no Haiti anymore."
As Noel, who retrieved his father's body after the quake and buried it himself, steers the truck deeper into the neighborhood, collapsed and broken buildings become more frequent. Ones still standing could topple with a sneeze. The bumpy path he drives is more like a rocky mountain trail strewn with crumbled cement blocks and pockets of stagnant water.
Noel stops at what will be the staging area.
Everyone piles out for the caravan to the tent city. Maesato's boys pack the mattresses, crates and crackers, and everyone else walks wherever they want — behind, in between, even up front. Though the walk doesn't go exactly as planned, the swarm she worried about doesn't materialize and safety is not a concern.
Tent city is misnomer. What it is where these people now live is a gray piece of ground surrounded by shells of what were houses and shops. The "tents" are an array of dingy sheets — the only hint of color in the drabness — held up with sticks anchored in cinder blocks. Crude shelters, at best.
A small crowd does gather when the caravan arrives at its destination in a far corner of the acre-size commune. This is where Maesato's boys now live. So do their friends Junior Jean-Louis and Daniel Jean. And so do seven little boys Jimmy found wandering the street after the earthquake.
"I'm trying to get people to send help, but I don't have any help," says Jimmy, the youngest but the natural leader of the group, and now a dad of sorts, too.
The crowd of mostly children expands but is not unruly as Jimmy and the others pass out the crackers to everyone, while making sure his little charges get a handful.
Once everything is doled out, it is time to go.
As the group makes its way back to where Noel is waiting, Maesato, a registered nurse, notices a dirty bandage on a thin, gray-haired man's heel. He is seated on a metal folding chair with twine for a seat. A walking stick rests between his legs. Maesato digs into her Army green medical bag for a clean dressing and rewraps the wound, with Jimmy serving as her aide.
The street boys have a soft and generous side. While driving through some of the hardest-hit streets of Port-au-Prince, where people are literally living in the street, Junior tosses a couple of gourdes to a forlorn older woman from the back of the pickup. Later, in heavy traffic, he hands his facial mask to a passing motorcyclist.
But the streets, even two weeks after the earth heaved, are still mean.
On the sidewalk of a busy road, the boys in the pickup bed point to an object wrapped in a cloth tarp. Passersby pay it no heed. It is, they say, a body.