Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Merchants

Mornings start early here.  The sun rises at 5:30 am or so these days, and by then the streets are already busting with vendors getting ready to sell their wares.  Walking around, it seems that you can buy just about anything you can think of off of the sidewalk.  Radios, chilled cokes (made with real sugar), used clothes, cute sandals, cell phones, DVDs, mops, lunch, you name it.  If you don’t see what you’re looking for, you can let someone know of your need and they will surely return with the item in hand in no time at all.

In the early morning light, the food merchants, almost exclusively women, carry their basket of fruits and vegetables on their head, to their usual spot on the side of the road.  They move with surprising grace under the weight of their loads, experts in their field.  Their produce, one of them told me, comes from up in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, near a town called Kenscoff.  Agriculture seems to be thriving there, perhaps driven by the insatiable demand of this teeming city.  Trucks bring the produce down the mountain to a central distribution area, where the merchants buy their days’ worth of goods, which are efficiently disseminated on every street corner.

Each merchant stakes out her area of the sidewalk.  Of course, the spots are unmarked, but everyone knows who sits where.  She lays out a cloth and carefully arranges the items by type, with some extra ones in the basket, ready to restock the display.  She spends the whole day there in her spot, squatting behind her produce or sitting next to it, calling out a sing-song sales pitch to entice passersby.  

Each woman has her specialty.  One sells huge mangoes out of the back of a truck (4 for the equivalent of a dollar).  Others have avocados and key limes.  Some have an assortment of vegetables, and others a variety of fruits.  I must confess that I don’t recognize many of the local fruits and vegetables yet—I still have much to learn.

The faces of the merchants on our street are starting to become familiar to me, and I think that my face is starting to be familiar to them too.  A few days ago I bought some vegetables from one woman, usually stationed just outside a little open-air market area between buildings.  While I was looking at her offerings we stated to talk about how good Haitian food is, and how good she is at cooking it.  The next time I saw her, a few days later, she picked up right where we had left off, smiling while she sang her own praises, and the praises of her country’s cuisine.

Another merchant always has a nice assortment of vegetables to choose from.  She is happily plump, wears colorful dresses, and waves to me from across the street.  Today I spent some time asking her about some of the vegetables she was selling – I didn’t recognize a root vegetable with rough brown skin, which was shaped with the same irregularity as sweet potatoes.  It is a yam, she told me, and launched into an explanation of how you can use it along with several other vegetables to make bouyon, a thick stew of vegetables and a little beef.  “You have to peel it,” she said in Creole, pulling out a knife to give me a demonstration.  She cut off a small piece of the rough bark-like skin, and revealed a bit of the white-colored flesh underneath.  “Be sure to peel it,” she reiterated.  By the time I was done talking with her, she had set me up with all of the ingredients necessary for the stew, and instructions about what to do.  We’ll see how it turns out.

Looking both ways and cautiously crossing the street, I headed towards the little market that I had passed by a few times before.  Just to be clear, there is a big difference between a grocery store (like Giant) and an open air market.  This one is the latter.  I had bought some vegetables from the vendor at the entrance of it, where it spills out onto the sidewalk, but had not yet ventured inside.  I politely turned down some offers of carrots and potatoes, which I had already bought, and made my way under the quilt of tarps and tin which make up the roof.  “Inside,” both sides of the narrow aisle were lined with merchants, packed in even closer together than they were on the sidewalk.  In addition to vegetables, they had tables of cleaning products and dry goods, like spaghetti, canned fish, and 2-oz plastic tubes of tomato paste.  The same brand of Argentinian spaghetti which goes for 90 gouds (a little over $2) in the grocery store, is sold for 25 gouds (about 60 cents) here in the market.  A little further, there is a plywood counter set up with huge chunks of beef, which the butcher is ready to cut up on demand.  (Without visible refrigeration and flies circling around, this is one thing I probably won’t be buying here.)

Instead of pre-packaged cardboard boxes or plastic bags of rice and other grains, one area is arranged with large burlap sacks of these items, rolled down from the top to reveal the contents.  I didn’t recognize one of the grains, and asked what it was.  Pitimi,” the vendor answered—millet.  “How do you prepare it?” I asked.  She started to laugh as she explained that this is something that you feed to chickens, not humans.  She picked up a handful from another sack, which looked like coarsely ground white grits.  “This is what humans eat.  This one is for people.  This one is for animals,” she said, emphasizing the difference between the two.  I asked her for some, which she scooped out with a tin can, and poured into a little baggie.  Like the other merchant, she gave me some suggestions about how to cook it.  I thanked her and started to head out.

I didn’t get very far before being stopped for some conversation by another merchant.  She didn’t seem to want to sell me anything, but started inquiring about my family.  “Do you have children?  Are you married?”  Of course, she was shocked and disappointed that I don’t have children [yet, I emphasized], and told me that she hopes I can have children soon.  She told me about her four girls, almost adults now.  We chatted for a few minutes, her every sentence punctuated with gras a Dyè, by the grace of God.

Walking up the street back to our place, I had such a feeling of satisfaction.  It seems kind of silly, really—since when is a grocery trip a fulfilling experience?  But this one was.  It was about connecting, and learning, and finding out a little more about the way of life in this place.  It felt right to put the crumpled-up gouds into the hands of these women, who spend most of their lives sitting in just this spot, piecing together a livelihood to support themselves and their kids.  The purchases seemed so direct – straight to the merchants, and just one extra step (or perhaps two) away from the farmers themselves.  Not to mention, I appreciated their recipe suggestions, and their willingness to answer the questions that must sound so silly to them.  Even with their smiles and puzzled laughter, the interaction was kind and personal.  N’a wè pi ta,” I told them as I left.  I’ll see you later.  And I hope I will—I’m looking forward to it.

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