Try This, Enough Of That: 4 Non-Expat Ways to Enjoy Haiti

Living in Haiti as an expatriate, it’s easy to get yourself into a routine. Hundreds upon hundreds of foreigners from all over the world, and everyone seems to know everybody else. What does that mean? It means get-togethers at the same restaurants. It means trivia nights at the same bars. It means celebrating ubiquitous holidays at the latest expat-focused restaurant/bar/lounge. In short, it means a very limited exposure to all that Haiti has to offer. Of course, there are always common sense factors to consider as an expat. For example, it’s not the best idea to wander into Croix des Bouquets on the back of a moto simply because you heard of a house party and wanted to get the “real” Haitian experience. As it turns out, you can get the “real” (and we always have to put this in quotes, because after all, the Haitian experience is as varied as that of the American) Haitian experience in places that are usually just down the street from the usual expat hangouts. Depending on how much time you have left in Haiti, you might want to try a few of them out.

Enough of That: The View
Try This: Munchees
Port-au-Prince is known for numerous restaurants that boast a wide variety of fare. Thai, Chinese, Peruvian fusion, Lebanese, and many more are all found along the capital’s winding roads. While the décor is inviting, the food is delicious, and the ambiance soothing, the truth is you don’t always eat out at fancy restaurants back home. Sometimes you just want something good. No frills. Just delicious. Welcome to Munchees. $5 rum sours. Saucy bbq wings. Burgers topped with saturated fat. Philly cheesesteaks. Pizzas dripping with toppings and flavor. If you’ve been looking for the perfect place to cheat on your on-again/off-again diet, or “reward” yourself for that morning jog, it’s right here at Munchees. Spend enough time here and you’ll think you’ve reached a delicious nexus of NY, DC, and Philly storefronts. Take a sip of your rum sour and you’re right back in Haiti, enjoying the grainy tv on mute in the background, glancing at amateur pool players inside the restaurant, and wondering why you never came here earlier.

Enough of That:
Try This: Mango Lounge
Nightlife in Port-au-Prince is tricky, given that many expats have a curfew. Jetset and Barack are popular venues with decent music. At the same time, they lack a deep, Haitian heartbeat. To truly find this rhythm, you need to do a bit of research. This task requires properly observing the ad-hoc billboards strewn about Port-au-Prince advertising concerts and performances sometimes weeks in advance. Mango Lounge is heavily featured as a venue, and with good reason. The dance floor is huge, but with enough bar space that you don’t feel obligated to vie for space in the middle of the crowd. The best nights to go are concert nights advertised on said billboards. Monitor the performance schedule long enough and you’re sure to see some of your favorites performing live: J. Perry. Celia Rose. Mika Ben. T-Vice. Even during concert nights, the program is a good mix of solid DJ playlists and audience-rousing performances. The crowd is young, middle of the road Haitians looking for good music and a chance to catch their favorite artists at a reasonable price. Expect to see some of your Haitian colleagues in the crowd.


Enough of That: Indigo
Try This: Day-Trip to Jacmel
The most egregious expat error is to not visit the beaches in Haiti. After all, you wouldn’t trek all the way to Barbados to stay inland. Being in the Caribbean is about enjoying warm coral blue waters and white sandy beaches shaded under palm trees (in 18 months in Haiti i’ve proudly placed myself in this scenario dozens of times… maybe I’ll do a calendar?). While Club Indigo, the former Club Med, is relatively close to Port-au-Prince and does boast a pleasant beachfront, it’s a destination in the wrong geographic location; Indigo takes you up north. Haiti’s best beaches are in the south. For an hour longer of a drive you can venture to Jacmel for a day-trip. There, you’ll have multiple beach options, all unattached to resorts or hotels. Enjoy yourself in the water while your lambi (conch) roasts on the oil-drum grill. When you’re done, stop by the historic Hotel Florita for a rum punch and maybe view some of the artwork. Not really confident in your driving? Talk to Voyages Lumiere and arrange a day-trip. You’ll pay roughly $200 for the day (split this among your four closest friends and the cost is akin to gas money) and enjoy greater flexibility in activities and feel less time crunch.

Enough of That: Everything else
Try This: Sidestreet chicken Haitian cuisine boasts a few exquisite gems in its repertoire. Soup joumou (pumpkin soup) ranks at the top, with its historic value and hearty flavor securing its position as perhaps the most robust of Haitian dishes. Its one downside is that it’s not an everyday repas; it’s traditionally prepared and consumed on Sundays and New Year’s Day/Haitian Independence Day. I’ve even drawn a few sideways glances from affluent Haitians when I asked if they ate soup joumou on a Thursday. The audacity! A more everyday fare, I’ve learned, would be street food, specifically, sidestreet chicken. That’s not the official term of course. Most Haitians refer to it as poul bouknier (bbq chicken). For expats to truly grasp the cuisine, though, only sidestreet chicken can suffice. In short, it’s chicken quarters that have been seasoned, boiled in vinegar, seasoned again, then grilled to a juicy perfection. Top them with some picklies (spicy coleslaw) and serve with banane peses (pressed and fried plantains), and you are set for the night. The million dollar gastro-intestinal question for all expats is where do I get quality sidestreet chicken? Two answers. If you live in Vivy Mitchell, there’s a wonderful woman near the Gold Market grocery store who sells fantastic sidestreet chicken. For everyone else, I advise you head to Munchees and look out across the road; you’ll be staring right at the Shangri-La of sidestreet chicken: Chicken Row. Dozens of oil-drum grills line either side of the road, resting under faded red Digicel umbrellas and next to large freezers crammed with beers and soads. Pay careful attention: head for the 4th vendor on your right (under the 2nd umbrella) and ask for Carole. I’m very serious. Carole is THE go-to person for sidestreet chicken. If you really want to impress people at your next backyard bbq, hire Carole to come out and cater the event.

These are just my suggestions. If you have others, please add them in the comments. Would love to hear other expat views on enjoying Haiti.

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Restaurant Review – Quartier Latin (Sunday Brunch)

Contrary to most opinions on Haiti, in particular Port-au-Prince, it is not a land of contrasts. Instead, Haiti’s capital is a mélange (mixture). It’s a city of overcrowded storefronts and industrious people. The streets are often filthy, and the churches grandiose and immaculate. While priceless artwork spills out of galleries for want of adequate space to display its value, countless vendors occupy the streets selling everything you never needed. None of these are actually opposites or contrasts, but they do represent the mixture of elements that one finds in the capital, defining the particular flavor of Port-au-Prince.

Quartier Latin is set within that Port-au-Prince mélange style. It’s a moderately high-end restaurant that once sat squarely across from a sprawling tent city. It’s a Dutch-owned Latin-infused establishment that serves the best Bloody Marys in the country. Most importantly, it is the place to go to for Sunday brunch.

While Quartier Latin is an ideal restaurant any day and for any meal (I also recommend stopping by for their Indonesian dinner buffets), Sunday brunch is a favorite. Perhaps this is cheating a bit, as that Sunday brunch anywhere is always pursued with fond memory. It is perhaps the most relaxing way to begin the end of the weekend. In truth, one does not ask for much during brunch. Good service, a few staple menu items such as hearty omelettes, and an excess amount of natural lighting. Quartier Latin delivers all that and more. The outdoor portion of the restaurant is shaded beautifully by trees tall and inconspicuous enough that they seem to be part of the walls, allowing ample sunlight to splash amongst the tables. The service is as friendly as you’ll find in Haiti, with waiters and waitresses patient enough to sit through your stumbling Kreyol or French, or who will simply smile and read you the day’s specials in English. All of these facets are mere bonuses compared to the food on offer.

Brunch at Quartier Latin is not just what you’d expect, it’s what you’d want. The daily menu offers a variety of egg dishes (benedict seems to be the kitchen favorite, but any style is available) along with a refreshing selection of crepes, bagels, fruits, and smoked salmon. Of course, this being brunch, the menu also offers heavier fare, including burgers and sandwiches (salads for the vegetarians), all plated with enough substance to satiate any appetite. If these options are not enough, brunch includes a a set of daily specials, invitingly written on a chalkboard, carried from table to table. My suggestion? Try the soupe de giraumon (pumpkin soup).

As for drinks, the most necessary of accompaniments to any brunch endeavor, the Bloody Mary has no peers. I, myself, go for the more subtle rum sour, though a traditional mimosa is also available.

Truthfully, it doesn’t matter what you order for brunch. Quartier Latin centers itself on being a gathering place for good friends, and it is with good friends I suggest you enjoy the meal.

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Reconstruction Reconsidered: Is It Excellence?

A while ago, I posted about an apartment building under construction across from my house. The post emphasized the quickness with which something can take place in Haiti with the proper dedication. Several viewers of the video included with the post have pointed out that it is the very quickness that should be alarming.

The majority of the reason the earthquake devastated Haiti so thoroughly was not just the severity (indeed, a much larger earthquake hit Chile one month later with significantly less destruction in its wake), but the lack of a national building code. More precisely, it is the lack of an enforced building code that brought down so many domiciles. In the ensuing months, as billions of dollars and thousands of aid workers poured into Haiti, the country found itself faced with another problem: disbursement. Never before had the country seen so much financial resources, and never before had she seen so much red tape. Effectively disbursing money and resources of this magnitude came in tandem with all the accompanying bureaucracy one might imagine. While, undeniably, progress has been made in building new homes for those affected by the earthquake, it clearly has not been progress enough for the Haitians who still exist sans abri (homeless). Essentially, what’s a building code to someone with no building? The answer is: a waste of time.

For some, taking on construction projects that call for seismic modifications is an excellent source of revenue, if you can afford the job. These types of projects are expensive by nature, and can typically only be completed by the larger construction companies in Haiti. Panexus, for example, is the company behind the reconstruction of the Port-au-Prince airport, a project that has taken so long specifically due to the seismic retrofitting necessary to bring the airport up to a higher standard. Companies of such magnitude are few and far in between, and only able to take on a few jobs at a time (the airport renovation comprises the majority of Panexus’ time and resources at the moment). For the rest of the work to be done in Haiti, small-scale business owners and equally small construction outfits have continued par usual. The apartment complex down the street from me and the house quickly going up across the street are two prime examples. Both are being completed in record time and entirely via manual labor. At the same time, the methods used to construct these buildings are the same ones used to build many of the houses that withstood the earthquake, one of in which I currently reside. This quandary leaves landlords, small-time construction firms, and waiting tenants in an awkward position. Following a higher standard, while ensuring greater stability, is costly and time-consuming, and also begs the question of “if I have to build everything to a newer standard, why do we still have the buildings I put together under the old standard?” The counter to this, then, is to build status quo, at a price one is familiar with and a speed that moves faster than reconstruction aid.

(across the street… same building style)

None of these reasons justify shoddy building practices, but they do help to explain why they persist. To correct the industry, one would have to start at the top and actually enforce strict building practices nationwide. In doing so, however, one has to recognize that Haitians need housing now, construction firms need jobs now, and landlords need tenants now. Additionally, one must contend with the fact that a enforcing a costly code drives up the prices, a factor not every tenant is able to pay for. Preventing small-time Haitian companies from providing affordable housing now in the name of a higher standard that not everyone sees as necessary (despite the fact that it is) would likely lead to mass demonstrations against the imposing of red tape on working-class Haitians. Another earthquake (or series of hurricanes or even a terrible rainy season) could lead to more destruction and deaths, all seen as preventable with the proper red tape (assuming houses could have been completed in time given the new bureaucracy).

There is no easy answer, yet clearly one must be had. In the meantime, though, houses and apartment buildings will continue to go up as the builder sees fit.

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Why Haiti Needs a Victoria’s Secret


Do you know where Haitian women go to get fancy lingerie? Usually street vendors, though sometimes it’s brought back in suitcases after trips to the United States and Europe (which is, oddly enough, where the street vendors purchase it). Women who want nice underwear wade through stacks of bras and panties on stands on the side of the road, next to the guy selling car batteries or the kid selling chewing gum. Or they stuff suitcases en route from Miami with enough options to fill a boutique shop. Perhaps the inconveniences of Haitian women who want to dress nice ranks towards the bottom of most people’s purviews, somewhere next to Yoga Mats for Haiti. At the same time, addressing the underserved market for women’s lingerie in Haiti is as important as any development efforts currently taking place in the country.

Last week the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) hosted its second post-earthquake Invest in Haiti Forum, with the tagline “Haiti: Cleared to Invest.” The two-day conference drew over 1200 attendants, with many more who had registered but were unable to attend the fully-packed space. Dozens of high-profile personalities came to the event, most notably Bill Clinton and Donna Karen. While it’s difficult to gauge the immediate effects of such a conference or what concrete plans have been laid for the future, the message of a way forward made itself clear: investment.

Everyone there had an idea, and everyone was looking for investors. Really, there was very little room for handouts, which was a good thing. Haitians are weary of aid, but immediately acknowledge the perk of having hundreds of NGOs swimming within the country: jobs. That alone should indicate that investment opportunities are more welcome than anything free.

Therein lies a bit of a conundrum. It’s difficult to imagine most investment opportunities as something available to the poorest of Haitians. For example, Marriott hotels announced days before the Forum it would construct a $45 million hotel in Port-au-Prince, providing hundreds of jobs. Yet, given that this hotel is to be built in the country’s already overcrowded capital, it’s safe to bet that it will at least be within throwing distance if not smack in the middle of squalor, a tent city, or any other indication of low-income livelihoods. A casual observer would shake his or her head and come up with this (valid) question:

why spend $45 million on a hotel where most Haitians cant afford to stay and the money from which could eradicate any number of pre-existing problems in Haiti?

Indeed this is a poignant question, one fraught with a 2-dimensional perspective of Haiti and the complexities therein. The simple answer as to why Haiti needs a Marriot is because why wouldn’t it?

Often times we forget Haiti is smack in the middle of the Caribbean, giving it the same resources and benefits as any other island: tropical weather, exotic food, relaxing beaches, and unlimited coconuts and sugar cane available everywhere you go. The fact is, Haiti can be and used to be a popular tourist destination. Long before the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana became one of the Caribbean’s top vacation destinations, tourists flocked to Haiti by the hundreds.

The other problem with this question (fictitious though it is in execution, yet real in the ideologies of many) is that it presumes that Haitians are poor by and large. While visible poverty in the country cannot be ignored, Haitians are also as rich and extravagant as any other nationality you may come across. In my time in Haiti I’ve seen the country’s wealthiest host a yacht party with a barge decked out as a VIP lounge, I’ve seen a resort off the mainland accessible only by speedboat, and i’ve seen art for sale that tops most people’s salaries. Perhaps more tellingly, I’ve seen how widespread the middle class is. Organic sharp cheddar cheese sells just as well in Port-au-Prince as it does in northwest Washington, D.C. So, indeed I imagine there are a good number of Haitians who wouldn’t mind staying at a Marriott to get away from the hustle and bustle of the day.

The overall issue with the question, though, is that it sits in front a backdrop of “aid vs. investment” with aid edging out on top as the more needed factor. Rather than $45 million for a hotel, the money should be, needs to be, spent on providing clean water, disseminating vaccines, purchasing school supplies, and so forth. These are all worthwhile and absolutely necessary endeavors, and represent core areas (health and education) that are prerequisites for a society to move forward. Yet, if the more than 3,000 NGOs already in Haiti cannot successfully address these concerns, then another $45 million won’t.

Haitians want jobs and opportunities. This much is clear. Investing in underserved areas is one way to provide these jobs. While trickle down economics has its limits, the basic math of more jobs = stronger economy remains constant. What remains just as clear, as you drive along the streets of Port-au-Prince, is that women’s lingerie is another underserved market in Haiti. And while it may seem frivolous to those of us on the outside who focus on the immediacey of Haiti’s needs, the Haitians who can afford it are willing to pay premium prices, as is any middle-class. What good, then, does it do for development to NOT address that market? Build a Marriott today, a Victoria’s Secret tomorrow, and watch what Haitians will build next for themselves.

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Common’s Bittersweet Haiti

Haiti, if anything, is but two things: featured regularly in the news as a country in dire need, and a 90 minute flight from Miami. The combination results in a regular stream of volunteers, missionaries, entrepreneurs, innovators, and of course the occasional celebrity, all eager to help. For those looking for a meaningful volunteer experience, Haiti boasts the “exotic” appeal of Africa but with a fraction of the cost and flying time. This is not to say that those coming to Haiti are simply looking to earn their hardship stripes, so to speak, but it’s often-showcased poverty and its nearness to the United States makes it an easy target for those who wish to do so.

The last 12 months alone saw visits from Miley Cyrus, Sarah Palin and Franklin Graham, Busta Rhymes, Donna Karen, Martha Stewart, Arcade Fire, members of Linkin Park, and many others, each of whom came for their own varied reason. Busta Rhymes, for example, made little personal fanfare of his visit but instead came to assist Wyclef in campaigning for now-president Michel Martelly. Donna Karen comes regularly to pick out Haitian crafts to stock in Macy’s.

Recent on the celebrity guestlist, Haiti saw rapper/actor Common, who shot the music video for his latest single “Sweet” while in country. Those familiar with Common’s musical repertoire would label him as something of a “conscious” rapper. Basically he’s in the same category as Talib Kweli, Mos Def, The Roots, Little Brother, and countless others. Still, the music video “Sweet” strikes as more of a “battle cry” rather than a call to social action. As one blogger puts it, Common “used Haiti to make himself seem tough.” I think this is a valid perspective in one regard. Given all that Haiti has endured, and specifically I mean the fact that celebrities et al come to Haiti constantly to show the world how much they care, there’s not much differentiating Common’s use of Haiti as the backdrop of his music video from the visits of other celebrities.

At the same time, one can view Common’s visit from a more nuanced perspective. While in Haiti, Common teamed up with CNN to do a one-hour documentary entitled Common Dreams. The documentary follows Common as he learns about the restavek (child slavery) phenomenon in Haiti, not unlike Jay-Z’s documentary with MTV, Water for Life. Common spends a good chunk of the time learning about the Restavek Freedom Foundation, a local organization founded by a Haitian-American that tackles the restavek issue head on.

In this context, Common steps back a little from the limelight and let’s the issue take focus. Granted, celebrity-driven causes are always a bit of a conundrum, especially when celebrities appear as experts on issues when in fact they are not. Common avoids that by letting the Restavek Freedom Foundation do most of the work. Common is there simply to keep the star presence, and thus our attention.

So what does this have to do with “Sweet?” Quite simply, I’m not convinced Common came to Haiti to make a beef song with the toughness of Haiti as his credentials. There’s a fascinating Vibe interview with Common where he explains why he chose Haiti to shoot the music video. In short, Haiti is inspirational, a fact that no one who has visited will debate. For Common, expressing that inspiration, that raw emotion, meant a rap song expressing himself as the greatest; one could argue he sees Haiti in the same light. Take the opening lines and replace any reference to himself with references to Haiti (a fair trade, given Common’s personal excitement at being in Haiti). The lyrics would then sound something like:

you know they ask about Haiti, about what Haiti’s doing now… I tell them Haiti’s doing what it does…. how can I say this? Haiti is the greatest/Haiti is the A-list for all these great debaters

Maybe I’m taking extensive creative liberties with this one. Still, this is the core nature of art, that it is open for interpretation. While I don’t disagree with the dissection of Common’s music video in Pale Avém, I believe the video, as well as Common’s trip to Haiti, can also be viewed in a more positive light, one where Common himself feels inspired by Haiti and uses that energy to fuel his music. After all, have you ever listened to Wyclef’s first solo album Carnival? The first track Apocalypse is gritty (especially for the time), yet the entire album is laced with Haitian influence. If Wyclef can take this same rawness from Haiti and infuse it into his albums, then I believe there is room for other artists, particularly ones such as Common who visit the country first to shed light on underlying social issues, to apply that same grit to their own music.

Still, I invite you to forge your own analysis:

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