The longer I live here the more I find that the things I thought to be true from our occasional visits over the last nine years are in fact far different from reality. I'm not sure if it's that the people we know are trusting us and starting to reveal more or if it's simply that after stringing so many days together we've just observed more.
For instance, I was told many years ago that one of the reasons traffic is so crazy here is that anyone can simply start to drive when they decide they'd like to. I'm sure there are people that do, in fact, do that. I observed the reality this week while waiting for someone in one of the busy blocks in Petion-ville. I saw three of the most decrepit, crashed up cars with students in the drivers seat and instructors in the passenger seat. I'm not sure how long they'd been at it, but after I'd noticed them they spent another 20 minutes driving maybe 5 mph in a somewhat straight line on one of the slower sides of the street. When they reached the end of the block they put the car in reverse and the instructor took the wheel to back them up to the starting point. Over and over again. Occasionally they would add a crazy dynamic, like passing one of the other student drivers. It was like watching in slow motion. After the aforementioned 20 minute period they all three lined up and went all the way around the block. Two attempts at that and they parked the cars, the students said goodbye and went their own way.
Another example has to do with Haitian dogs. They are strays and there are literally thousands of them. For the most part they are fairly healthy looking dogs and depending on which part of the city look somewhat well fed. Over the last year I've observed how that happens, and it doesn't involve garbage piles (those are left to the goats and pigs). When I'm working in neighborhoods we will occasionally break for lunch. Lunch with my Haitian staff is either A) Brought from home, B) Purchased from a street vendor (picture a tarp strapped to four poles under which is the two foot charcoal stove with giant cauldrons of rice, beans, meat, etc. or C) Eaten at a neighborhood "restaurant". This is where to dogs come in...The restaurants in neighborhoods are typically created by adding a tarp (again with the poles, but generally a much larger space is covered) and moving the entire kitchen stove under the tarp. Plastic tables and a variety of chairs are added for diners. It's somewhat like a greasy spoon in the U.S. with the women that are cooking and serving yelling orders back and forth. There is no menu - you eat what they are serving, and the concept of vegetarian is NOT understood. For anyone that knows me well, I am not a fan of meat unless it's a nicely grilled chicken breast or delicious cut of steak. I've had to let go of the surprise (shock) at finding random pieces and parts in things - like the crab claw and chicken knuckle I found in what they called their vegetable dish for the day. I was in a new neighborhood place last week and decided to try to place a vegetarian order again. Their interpretation to this is that I didn't want the chicken so they went into a cooler and created something that looked like a meatball. I, of course, was grateful to them for going over and above. I was then even more grateful to my co-worker that explained that this was the perfect reward for the dog that had been patiently sitting at my feet. I had always noticed all of the street dogs that make their way into these restaurants and had seen them begging but I now noticed the order of things. Each of the six dogs in the restaurant had staked out 2 of their own people. An extra dog wandered by, looked in from the street, noticed that everyone was spoken for and kept on walking. The thing that amazed me most was that while I was a little nervous that this dog might not understand what was meatball and what was fingers, he very gently took the food from my fingers. After a few minutes he put his little paw on my foot, probably just a reminder that he'd like more.
A non-dog random note, as I mentioned to Al last night. My entire ability to move beyond the fact that the woman that takes the dirtiest money you've ever seen (I'd eat off of American dollars at this point) then waves a few flies away and grabs my fried plantains out of the pan with the same hand no longer fazes me. Of course, we try to use just a few vendors that we "know" because of the whole Cholera thing, but overall it's tough to get by without indulging occasionally. A big benefit of this type of experience is that you can get an enormous plate of rice and beans, meat (generally a chicken leg, pork or goat), banan frit (fried plantains), piklez (very spice cabbage) and for extra carbs a scoop of cold pasta salad for just under $2.
On the other end of the spectrum, we've experienced some really good fine dining. Last night we went to a restaurant called Chicken Fiesta with some friends. The fact that it was Chinese American was a small surprise based on the name, but it was really good! It's run by a Haitian woman that lived in the Bronx until the recession hit and then couldn't make her restaurant go anymore. She moved here and opened near our apartment. We each had dinner and two beers and it was $50 for both of us. It's generally U.S. standards for cleanliness, but it's not affordable for the average person here. Expat / NGO workers and the Haitian upper class are the typical customers.