Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Saturday Quest

Saturday’s adventure was a trip up to Petyonvil to see if we could find the fruit and flower market.  The last time we drove past a couple of weeks ago, someone had pointed out one particular market from the car, claiming that it was “the finest fruit and flower market in all of Haiti.”  My imagination was captured by the idea of this lovely market, and I was ready to explore.  We shared our plans with a couple of other teachers, and they were also up for the adventure.

As we assembled the group and got ready to set off, Robbie’s eyes twinkled like they do when he teases me.  “You think she knows where she’s going?” he rhetorically asked our friends.  He playfully answered his own question.  “She doesn’t know.  Listen to her language.  ‘I think we just take the tap tap up to Petyonvil. I’m pretty sure it’s not far off the main road. I kind of know how to get there.’”  

Busted.  To be honest, it didn’t even occur to me until that moment that other people were trusting me to lead them, and I didn’t exactly know the way. I mean, I had seen it from the next road over.  Sort of.  In passing.  Vaguely.  I didn’t know the road name, nor did I know my way around Petyonvil enough to really have my bearings, or to be able to say it’s next to such-and-such, or across from so-and-so.  But I knew the general direction and had my imaginings, and that was enough for me.  And apparently, it was also enough for our compatriots, who did not seem at all deterred.

We crossed the busy Route Delmas, the road on which we live, so that we could catch a tap tap from the other side of the street.  Walking across the road is a little like a game of Frogger.  You have to be vigilant and hyper-aware of your surroundings—not my strengths.  I joke with Robbie that there is plenty of danger here in Haiti, but it’s not what you hear about on the news—my mom worries that we will get kidnapped; I worry that I’ll be hit by a motorcycle speeding around a car while I’m making my way across the street.  Thankfully, we made it across the street safely and without incident.  

A number of tap taps heading to Petyonvil passed by, but they were all filled to the brim.  Most of them had the last few people standing up on the open end of the truck bed, not at all alarmed by the fact that they were being jostled back and forth as the driver hit potholes and swerved around pedestrians.  One of them stopped for us, but didn’t have all five of the seats that we needed.  After a few minutes, a big white bus pulled to the curb to let some of the passengers off.  “Petion-Ville,” declared a clearly marked sign on the side.  And, since some of the passengers had just gotten off, there was plenty of room for our motley crew.  We gave our 10 goud each (25¢ US) to the driver’s helper, and off we went.

Now the question was where to stop—one potential difficulty in my “plan.”  Thankfully, the question was answered for me when we pulled into the final stop and the driver instructed everyone to get off the bus.  Just as we climbed down, there was a man by the side of the road selling Bibles from under a bright green beach umbrella.  One of our friends was looking for a Bible in Kreyòl, so we stopped to make the purchase.  Next to the stack of Bibles, I noticed another stack of books.  I didn’t see the title from my vantage point, but I knew just what they were based on the exposed edge of the pages which showed a number of sections, each with a different color paper.  Chants D’Esperance, the Haitian hymn book.  Just what I was looking for.  We bought our books and thanked the vendor.  I asked him if he knew where the big market was.  He looked puzzled for a moment, and then pointed us back down the hill on another main artery of the city, Route Freres.  Hm.  That didn’t seem like the same direction I had thought we were heading, but off we went.

As we walked, we passed all sorts of fruit, vegetable and used clothes vendors.  We even went by a long row of live chickens, tied together in pairs by their feet.  They lay feebly on the sidewalk, waiting for doomsday.  When we stopped for a moment so another one of our friends could buy some flip-flops, one of the chicken vendors came up to us with a pair of chickens in each of her hands.  “These are country chickens,” she explained with enthusiasm.  “They are much better than what you can buy in the makèt (supermarket).  They are fresh.  They have a good taste.  You can buy them.”  Prompted by my questions and curiosity, she offered a bit of explanation of how to kill and prepare these chickens, but not with enough detail that I could follow her instructions.  I guess I could have filled in the gaps with the help of my friend and teacher, Google, but I wasn’t feeling that adventurous yet.  Maybe later, I told her.  Instead, I bought a wooden mortar and pestle and a plantain smasher from the guy next to her. 

We kept walking toward the market, still not knowing how far down the road it was or exactly what we were looking for.  After a bit, it seemed that there were more merchants than usual on the other side of the street.  “Let’s cross here,” I suggested.  Sure enough, we found ourselves peering down a steep alley, lined on both sides and sometimes down the middle with vendors of all varieties of goods.  There were necklaces, perfumes, clothes, diapers, baggies of coffee, toothpaste, vats of rice and beans, fruits and vegetables.  At a glance, the whole market seemed to be alive, in movement, pulsing with color and sound.  

As white foreigners, blan, our presence was inciting some interest from the vendors, the machann.  The ladies called out to each other, “Look at the blan, here in the market!”  It was drizzling rain as we walked down the narrow path, now slick with wet dust.  When one of us fell on the slippery cobbled pavement, the whole place irrupted with laughter.  “The blan fell!  The blan fell!” Our friend, “the blan,” stood right back up and laughed along.  Unscathed, she kept right on going.  

I was surprised by how big this market was—a couple of city blocks all together.  We kept heading downhill, now passing vendors of fish and meat.  The path turned, and we continued around the big block.  I wasn’t intending to buy vegetables since there are so many closer to home, but I couldn’t resist when I saw such pretty cucumbers, peppers, and huge sweet onions.  I loaded Robbie’s backpack down with the purchases, and we headed up some stairs, sort of back up to the street we had come from.  

The area at the top of the stairs was still open air, but covered with a permanent tin roof.  Here, there was a whole aisle of used clothes sellers.  Some of the clothes were kind of ridiculous—1980s jackets with shoulder pads and loud polyester prints.  But some were really cute—nice skirts and tops.  I smiled when I saw one of my favorite brown summer dresses displayed, which I had picked up at Old Navy a few seasons ago.  I wonder how it made its way down here.

We continued up to a more open warehouse-type area, where the dry goods venders seemed to be concentrated.  Most of them had spices, oil, pasta, and big open bags of flour, cornmeal and beans.  The fresh ginger at one stand caught my eye—I hadn’t seen any at the small market by our house.  I chatted with the machann, the vendor, while I bought a small baggie of the ginger.  She was selling something else that I didn’t recognize—a dark brown ball about the size of a golf ball.  “What’s that?” I asked.  “Country chocolate,” she said.  Chocolate?  Say no more.  I’m in.  She explained that you don’t eat it, you use it to make a hot chocolate drink.  She didn’t have to try too hard to get me to buy some, along with a bunch of other spices (nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon stick, and some little dry leaves with a bit of a licorice flavor) that you boil together to make the sweet treat.  “Now you can experience real Haitian culture!” she declared with a pat on my shoulder.  

We gathered our group and headed back up to the street to make our way home.  I smiled to myself as we walked towards Delmas to catch the bus again, because the trip had worked out so well.  I had found everything on my list (mortar and pestle, song book, plantain smasher), and then some.  My friends seemed to enjoy themselves and find what they were looking for, too.  But, the thing that was making me giggle was that the market we had found wasn’t at all the one for which we had been looking.  It wasn’t “the finest flower and fruit market in all of Haiti.”  I didn’t see a single flower there.  I think the flower market is all the way on the other side of Petyonvil.  This one was just a big market.  Much like every other big market all across Haiti. 

So, was this trip a success?  I mean, we didn’t actually get to our intended destination.  We never saw the fruit and flower market of my imaginings.  But we did have a little adventure.  We found everything we needed and wanted along the way.  We had some funny chats.  We felt enriched and satisfied.  And even though we never saw the flower market, the idea of seeing it was enough to capture my interest and start us off on the journey.  So yes, it was a wonderful success.

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