Friday, September 30, 2005
Last Sunday the sisters and I left Fondwa for a week-long retreat in Port-au-Prince. We rented our own tap-tap, not for the comfort but because we just had that much stuff. We stocked up the truck with enough food and clothing for the week, and on our way to the city we did the rest of our shopping in Haiti’s drive-through market.
In Haiti, 90% of people survive by selling something. There are two great challenges associated with this way of making a living: no one has the money to buy anything, and there is no place to sell either. What results is the Haitian open-air market, where most economic activity takes place. Almost everything is sold in very small quantities, because most Haitians live literally day-to-day. Water is sold in small plastic bags for 2 Gourdes (US$1=43 HT Gourdes); Magi, cubes of seasoning used to make chicken broth, come in packs of 5, but are sold individually for 1 Gourde; you can buy one piece of chalk from a pack, or even half. Day by day.
The marketplace is also mobile. As we drove through Port-au-Prince, we did our shopping during the hour-long traffic jam we found ourselves in. A call to the side of the road brought a selection of buttons to the back of the tap-tap for our perusal. When stopping for gas, we picked up some friend plantains and fried pig fat (well, the others did). A larger purchase was a bag of “America’s finest super-fancy long grain rice,” which dominates the rice market here because Haitian production is so low and uncompetitive. Some sugarcane helped pass the time. Some new headphones replaced a broken pair. A newspaper filled me in on the country’s latest political developments. All without stepping foot in the market.
Our final purchase was a bag to put all of our other purchases in, naturally. Sr. Simone saw an older woman selling bags by the side of the road and called out “Pssssst,” the Haitian version of ‘hey you!’ Belying her advanced age, the woman took off on a sprint, avoiding other cars and the garbage in the street in her bare feet, and nimbly hopped aboard our truck. Sr. Simone referred to her as “my aunt” as they began to barter, the preferred means of exchange for most all transactions. As the bartering heated up, Sr. Simone changed to calling her “dear,” until finally she arrived at her final price and said “take it or leave it lady.” The sisters may be gentle souls, but they’re not about to get taken in Haiti’s drive-through market.