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: Jetset
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.