Saturday, November 18, 2006

Third-World Gas Stations

Buying gas in Haiti is an entirely frustrating/strange experience...especially out here in the "Provinces" where we live. Usually, I pull in at a station that looks very much like a gas station in rural America...only the windows of the building are often boarded up or smashed out, the walls are sometimes crumbling apart, and the underground tanks don't always have lids or covers over them. Oh, and the pumps look like leftovers from the Andy Griffith era.

If I'm lucky enough to have found a station that is actually open when I arrive, there are usually 7 or 8 people milling about the pumps, who usually greet me with a face that looks a lot like this:

Usually two of them are selling various unrecognizable fried food items that, even with my penchant for adventurous foods, I would never touch. Three or four of the others are merely socializing and pretending that they have an active account on their cell phones. (Showbusiness, as John McHoul calls it.)

A couple of them are usually searching for handouts, and eventually I find the actual gas station employee.

When I pull up to the pumps, I am often told "Pa gen gaz." - Don't have gas. I always reply "Eske'w gen diesel?" - Do you have diesel? At some stations, this is met with a great deal of indignation over how stupid I am...after already being told that they don't have gas. At others, however, the attendant will say "Wi, gen diesel". - Yes, have diesel. I still haven't figured out a better way to navigate this treacherous transaction.

If they indeed have diesel (whether there is gasoline or not), I then proceed to make a purchase. I tell the attendant how much I want to spend, while the other 7 people look on and watch me count the money. I am apparently not allowed to touch the actual pump at most stations...I assume that is analogous to stealing someone's job here...but I must get out and open the gas cap myself. The attendant starts and stops the pump on my behalf. Sometimes it is stopped a little short of the amount I requested...but they can't make change, so the amount paid is the same.

One time I "topped off" the tank to arrive at the proper dollar amount and almost started World War Three. Sometimes I just accept the loss of a few gourdes. (I was just going to throw them at chickens anyway :) Sometimes I excercise my Creole skills and play their game with them to get my change back. This usually includes them telling me that I don't need the change, which I can't necessarily argue with...but principle is a hard thing to explain in a foreign language.

Most attendants wear a purse or bag around their necks where the money is kept. Funny how there is never any change in there. I always ask for a receipt for my records, and then wait about an hour while painstakingly slow efforts are made to find a pen...find a receipt book or scrap of paper...write out the receipt...record my license plate number...and then put two or three rubber stamped symbols on it. During all this the crowd with nothing else to do follows my every move and sometimes ends up with a few extras standing around watching the show. I am always relieved to get back in the truck and on my way, and always say thank you...then I drive off dreaming of SuperAmerica and Holiday stations and trying not to cry.