PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Amid the ruins of Port-au-Prince, a bare-chested young trombone player blasted a few short notes the other night, from atop a roof in the city’s slums. Playing a few strains of an unknown song, he lifted a dismal mood in the city’s hills, where the earthquake ravaged homes and lives.

On assignment in Haiti, I took in the scene before me: Nearby, barefoot children begged for food and water. Trash lined the streets and attracted flies. Smoldering buildings emitted ghostly gray smoke that clogged my lungs and burned my eyes.

Though the tarmac at Haiti’s international airport is filled with supplies, aid is slow getting to the people of Port-au-Prince. Their homes demolished, adults and children line the streets, sleeping on blankets and on the hoods of cars. Most of the bodies are gone, but a few remain stranded on sidewalks and covered with sheets. Search teams looking for survivors hope against the odds of finding one more, nearly a week after a 7.0 earthquake struck the impoverished Caribbean island.

Driving around town, I’ve seen banks squashed like tin cans. Concrete walls are shattered and bricks lie in broken pieces. In many places, mounds of rubble are the only remnant of a building. People walk and walk through town, many hoping to leave and others with nowhere else to go.

Desperation has many faces: a woman bathing with dirty water in the street; an elderly man riding in a wheelbarrow pushed by his daughters; sweating people pushing urgently into buses heading for the border. People crowd into parks, living in squalor in vast tent cities. People digging through the rubble now are not only looking for bodies, they are looking for things they can sell. Gas costs $10 a gallon and the other day, a man tried to sell a bottle of juice for $7.

With hospitals decimated by the quake, health care needs are stark. The other day, a doctor sutured a patient’s gash on an improvised operating table set up on the sidewalk. In the border town of Jimani, patients lay on dirty mattresses in the hospital’s corridors, which reeked of infection and sweat.

Sick of the city’s stench, people are setting bonfires in the streets and lighting trash on fire. Over the weekend, a group of protestors in Port-au-Prince set a fire that sent thick gray plumes into the air. In a separate incident, others torched a church. No building is considered safe after the earthquake, and during a recent mission with soldiers trying to rescue a possible survivor, locals warned not to lean on fragile walls.

Haitians are hungry — for food and fuel. They offer themselves for simple errands, tasks and jobs. With astronomical gas prices, anyone who can afford to drive to the Dominican Republic does so to refuel and pick up supplies. One man, too poor to do so, stopped beside our car the other day and, inserting a tube into the gas tank, tried to suck out gas and then spit it into a discarded bottle.

I watch as people’s animal instinct takes over. On Monday, a throng of people tore the doors off a truck that had traveled from Santo Domingo with fruits and vegetables. In front of the Palace National, a water truck dropped packets of clean water, and kids standing nearby dove to the ground. Several managed to grab a few, ensuring they wouldn’t’ go thirsty — at least for the night.

Related on MNN:

Photos: ZUMA Press.