Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Haiti Cafe

In 2011 I hardly recognize the Lima I saw forty years ago when my parents took me here for a break halfway through my Peace Corps service in neighboring Bolivia. The colonial city, then vibrant with commerce and living, now exists as a relic of the past, visited but not enjoyed. Formidable urban traffic makes travel in the city tedious and uncertain. And as Lima's population continues to grow, it further splays itself across what is a coastal desert further challenging an infrastructure already stretched beyond capacity.

One constant on this changing landscape is Haiti Cafe. Founded in the 1950s as "Haiti Coffee" beside the Government Palace in the city center, the original locale doubled as literary salon and smoke-filled room, a gathering place for poets and political plotters alike. That location closed soon after a drive-by bombing in 1962. Following its clientele, which was then abandoning downtown, Haiti reestablished itself in the Miraflores suburb beside what would become Parque Kennedy, during the hemisphere-wide mourning for JFK after his assassination.

My wife and I lived in Miraflores in 1975 and frequented Haiti while I researched in the National Archives. In those days, as in these, the layout defined two, distinct spaces. A sidewalk cafe--largely inhabited by tourists-- looks out on the park. It takes only one experience to realize that sitting there is asking for relentless solicitation from itinerant vendors hawking souvenirs, knockoff sunglasses and the Miami Herald. In the past, I have feigned both indifference and illiteracy to ward off their overtures. But I learned that the unwelcome swarm ceases only with a retreat to the second space, indoors. Here the clientele, the whole ambience, changes abruptly. The noise level increases markedly; the language of discourse becomes exclusively Spanish, and conversations deal with the myriad themes of daily life. Today to my left a father bids goodbye to his daughter. On my right, men from two generations discuss what sounds like a business proposal. And while the patrons hardly represent a cross section in a country where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, they reflect, accurately, Lima's middle class. Cell phone chatter hums in background as a well-dressed woman feeds her dog some pastry, and a man with a cane and a hearing aid works the daily crossword puzzle.

To date-stamp this post, I have just noticed that CNN is announcing Gadhafi's demise.

Haiti's menu offers typical Lima fare, arranged by meal time. At 10:30 I flipped to the breakfast section. Eggs predominate here, but in a nod to the tourists and the local sweet tooth, pancakes and waffles-- each served with manjar blanco-- appear as well. The lunch crowd is arriving as I write this, and the menu insert today reads "ENSALADAS HAITI, all the flavor made fresh and natural" (my translation). I hope that the phrasing reflects a transformation of middle class taste, but that's a stretch when so many local dishes are heavily buttered, creamed, and fried. Some things never change. I like that.