Because in Haiti, so many people are poor, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. And there’s always a way to degaje, to get by, even when you have nothing.
~ Laura Rose Wagner
I loved shopping for food in open-air markets in Haiti. Poking ripe red tomatoes, prodding tiny maliciously hot chile peppers, breaking off hunks of fragrant golden ginger, or deliberately bruising cilantro leaves to get a whiff of that peculiar perfume, nothing save food shopping (or buying perfume) can be beat for sensory, if not odoriferous, experiences.
And shopping for food in so-called Third-World countries offered perhaps the most intense immersion in all things olfactory. Rotting vegetation, open sewers, burning charcoal, pungent-smelling dried shrimp with sightless beady black eyes, smoked fish chasing their own tails, the list of “smellable” experiences grows and grows beyond the pleasant pungency of ginger and garlic.
It is best to think of the odor of the market as being symbolic of life itself.
Yes, in Haiti, food shopping can often be particularly sensory and odoriferous. And with the social unrest popping up from time to time, Haiti hardly seemed the place where shopping of any sort could be a consuming joy.
But it was.
True, huge piles of putrefying garbage shared space beside Petionville’s grand Cathedral Square with the market ladies, “Madame Sarahs,” as they were called for some mysterious reason, after the black crows that caw incessantly from their perches on electric wires and tree branches. Flies crawled thickly over decomposing pineapples, and yellow skeletal dogs fought each other ruthlessly for the odd bony tidbit.
On market days, each “Madame Sarah” laid out her wares in small, symmetrical piles, atop a torn square of stained cloth, the original color hard to determine. Color ruled elsewhere, however, in the brightly colored headscarves worn by each “Madame Sarah,” in the symmetrically arranged tropical fruits and tomatoes and leafy greens and cut flowers. And especially in the bougainvillea and flamboyant trees flowering amid the cracked asphalt.
Successful shopping depended upon building a relationship with individual market women. While not friendship, this certainly imbued a sense of something deeper than a mere business deal. The best approach was to shop always with the same “Madame Sarahs.”
Thanks to a memorable Haitian woman in a white spaghetti-strap tank top, one particular day of food shopping stood out for me.
Weeks after dictator, Baby Doc Duvalier fled to France with the help of an American military jet, the markets flourished and the streets thronged with people moving to a new rhythm―light, confident, proud.
Petionville, high above the crowded Haitian capital city of Port-au-Prince and my last stop of a long day, glimmered on that gloriously sunny afternoon, an eggshell-blue sky overhead. A soft warm breeze rustled the dusty leaves of the skinny flamboyant trees nearby. With no demonstrations or new curfews announced by the U.S. Embassy, I felt my neck muscles relaxing as I swung my beige Isuzu Trooper into a parking space across from the cathedral where the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier married Michele “Dragon Lady” Bennett amid wall-to-wall gardenias.
One more errand and I could go home to my house in Laboule, high above Petionville. And far away from the docks in Port-au-Prince.
Returning from my weekly hoarding trip to the Embassy commissary, I needed to pick up a few fresh ingredients: vegetables, carrots, and some lettuce. Stuff that could feed an average Haitian family of ten for a month jam-packed the back of my Trooper. As I climbed out of the Trooper, about twenty “Madame Sarahs” besieged me, shouting in Creole to buy this papaya or that leek, this onion or that mango. It was not my usual market, for that one closed at around 1 p.m. My watch showed 2:30 p.m.
I walked over to the nearest “Madame Sarah” selling carrots and asked her in my perfunctory Creole how much she wanted for them. By this time, quite a crowd had collected around me. Imagine the scene: me, the “rich” new foreigner driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle, ready to buy something from somebody. It was like La Borlette (the lottery)―who would “win” my money that day? Warm bodies began pressing on me, craning over my shoulder to see what I bought, how much I paid for it, maybe even glimpsing how much money lingered in my wallet and could perhaps be wheedled out of me. As bodies pressed closer, I smelled charcoal and sweat, warm sour breath and hair pomade.
I also sniffed my own fear. I was the only foreigner there. A privileged outsider. Although Duvalier’s thuggish Tontons Macoutes thankfully no longer ruled the streets, daily civil unrest kept everyone on edge. And a crowd of determined and increasingly belligerent market women surrounded me at that moment, gesticulating angrily and yelling at me in Creole when I shook my head at proffered oranges and blackened plantains, wrinkled squashes, and bunches of wilted parsley.
Paying for the carrots, smiling at everyone, I turned and attempted a fast get-away. Alas, I wasn’t fast enough.
As I darted toward my Trooper parked about five yards away, a tall woman who could have been football player William “The Refrigerator” Perry’s doppelganger approached me with two pineapples that clearly should have been sold two or even three days before. The dark fermenting spots around the “eyes” told me that.
“Madame, 8 gourdes for these pineapples! Madame!”
I tried to put her off by saying “Merci, Madame, I don’t need any pineapples today. Maybe tomorrow. Merci,” as I flung open the back of the Trooper to throw in the carrots and get the hell out of there. Big mistake.
Once the pineapple woman spied the food and supplies piled up in the back of my truck, envy and resentment and anger seemed to overtake her reason. She lunged between the door and me. I could not shut the back door and escape. Crowds of onlookers pressed me from behind, and this enraged woman stood solidly in front of me. Yes, I should have bought the pineapples and have done with it. But I didn’t.
For a moment I froze in place like a cornered animal.
Thinking fast despite my paralyzing panic, asking myself in a very detached way, as in a slow-moving scene in a film, “What am I going to say before something bad happens?” I managed to squeeze out a few words in my fractured Creole, babbling like a child learning to talk, but nonetheless getting my point across.
“Listen, I will come back tomorrow and buy something from you then. I promise. Just now I need to get home and cook for my son.” I gripped the door handle as she shoved the door at me, the hard metal banging into my right hip bone.
With the mention of my son, she screamed that she had a baby and needed to buy milk for him, and for her, so that she could nurse him. She had to sell those pineapples so she could do that. And then she did something that stunned me, and probably all the onlookers, too: she pulled down her white spaghetti-strap tank top over her bulging breasts, grabbed the right one with both hands, and squirted breast milk all over the food in the back of my Trooper.
Trembling like a frightened kitten, in my smallness I had the presence of mind to try to appear calm. I placed my hand on her shoulder, and looked her square in the eye and said, “I WILL be back tomorrow, but please let me go now.” With that I subtly maneuvered her away from the back door of the Trooper, slammed the door, my key at the ready, walking determinedly with my hand still on her shoulder and assuring her of my sincerity. With shaking knees, I clambered into the 4WD, smiled one more time at the crowd, and took off like a shot, cold sweat trickling from my armpits.
The last thing I needed was bad blood between me and a Madame Sarah.
With trepidation, I went back to the market the next day, sought out the breast-milk lady, and bought from her the lettuce I had forgotten the day before, plus more. I told her my name, and she told me hers. Chante. I bought devil-red tomatoes, misshapen carrots, juicy yellowish-orange mangoes, tiny French haricot beans, plump purple eggplants, hot bonnet peppers, and other things from Chante many more times before street violence overtook civil law and we fled Haiti, back to the United States.
Because we could flee, unlike most of the people in Haiti.
Just as Marcel Proust recalled whole memories with bites of madeleines dipped in tea, for me memory became the smell of sour milk that stubbornly clung to the Trooper, calling up flashing images of that day for quite some time to come.
But the most enduring memento of that moment lay in the realization that no matter how long I stayed in developing countries, no matter that I’d lived in a shack in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer, no matter that I worked as a nutritionist on a malnutrition ward in Honduras, I still would never, ever, really know what life was like for most of the world’s people.
Viscerally, no. Never.
Otherwise, I would have bought those pineapples gladly, wouldn’t I have?
2 cups pineapple, cut into bite-size chunks
½ red onion, diced
1 jalapeño, seeded and deveined, finely chopped
Juice of two limes
Fine sea salt, to taste
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 bunch fresh cilantro, finely chopped
Mix all ingredients together in non-reactive bowl (glass, stainless steel). Chill before serving. Serve with grilled chicken and pork. Good with black beans and rice as well.