Term is in full swing here at Hope House. The classes are filling up, my teaching timetable is starting to get quite busy, and exciting devlopments are taking place; a new tree is putting down roots in the Director’s office, stars came out to shine in the middle of a Friday morning assembly, and, via the magic of the Internet, we were able to speak with a class of children half a world away.
More of that another day. Because as well as throwing myself into school life, I’m eager to explore and experience as much of what life in Haiti has to offer as a whole. With this in mind, it was with enthusiasm that I eschewed a well earned lie-in and agreed to accompany Yvrose’s husband, Pierre Richard, to the market last Saturday morning.
We set off at 7 o’clock, the Sun barely over the horizon, the air warm and still. Skirting along the edge of the lake, we take the main East-West road which links Port-au-Prince with the Dominican Republic. Our route takes us west head towards the capital and then swings north towards the town of La Harcailie in order to pick up corn for the chickens that Pierre-Richard farms.
The road is fairly quiet, with little traffic at this time, although passing through the local town of Fond Parisien it is evident that the local market is already well underway with many little stalls open for business. We make good time, with the roads being relatively well surfaced, although occasional sections are still rough and rocky, not to mention the occasionally speed hump that is completely unmarked and ready to wreck the suspension of an unsuspecting motorist. Nonetheless, the route has apparently been upgraded substantially in the last 12 months.
With the lake behind us, we gradually dip towards sea level. The mountain ridges recede slightly and the valley widens into a wide plain that stretches all the way to Port au Prince and the bay. The landscape becomes steadily greener although the soil is still thin and rocks are to be seen everywhere.
Since all roads in this country seem to go via Port au Prince, we need to pass through the city outskirts in order to get to our destination but this does give us the opportunity to stop for breakfast. Pierre Richard pulls up on a busy street and jumps out. I watch tap-taps motor by, colourful trucks and vans that have been modified into minibuses ferrying people across the city and further afield. A few moments later PR returns with thick wedges of creamy avocado and freshly baked pasties. The later are thin and crisp with a think filling of fish, oinion and chilli. We wolf them down and then PR winds down the window to stops a woman passing by.
A red plastic bowl is balanced on her head and it appears she is selling bananas. Swiftly setting about her work, first she picks out two from the small bunch in her bucket and sets them out on a metal tin. Knife in hand, she tops and tails them, then loosening the cap on a bottle of water and drizzling it over the skins, presumably to clean off any dirt. Pierre Richard hands over a note through the window and we get the bananas, but the woman does not appear to have any change. This is not the first time I have seen this happen and PR is having none of it; a few more forceful words are exchanged and the correct change is produced from a purse.
The skin is blackened and slightly bruised, the shape is imperfect, yet it tastes great. Soft, ripe and sweet. I think of how uniform the bananas look on the supermarket shelves back home and make a silent pledge there and then to shop around for more authentic produce when I get home.
We head north, skirting the bay and the crystal blue water. On our right, the hillside rears up and we see shanty towns built on the foothills. These are the dispossessed who moved out of Port au Prince when the earthquake struck. There are homes are made from concrete blocks and tin rooves, little more than shacks in many cases. Life looks incredibly hard here but I am told that it is nonetheless progress when compared to the cities of tents that were set up in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
We press on past a tall tower proudly displaying the Olympic rings. Behind the fences are a sports centre, running track and football pitch; a team seem to be going through their morning training session. The road snakes northward past an inlet that smells of sulphur, and around the mountains that line the northern border of the Ouest province. The land starts to become much greener. We pass through a town with the evocatively named town of Cabaret. The road is wide, straight and lined with tall palm trees. Above us, hundreds of plastic bottles are suspended from cables that span the road, giving a sense of carnivals past and future.
We pass through a marketin full swing at a busy intersection. Motorbikes are parked haphazardly and taps taps are busy loading and unloading passengers. The pavement is lined with tall planks of wood, iron gates and railings, racks of brightly coloured women’s clothing, leather workboots, shampoo and toothpaste. Brooms and mops sprout from plastic laundry baskets like followers in a vase, wooden cases house a sekection of mobile phones and one stall is given over entirely to a flat screen Samsung TV.
Our destination, La Harcailie is only a few miles further on. We take a turn off the main road and pass through woodland and lush fields of tall grass. There are banana plantations here and mango trees. For the first time since my arrival I feel like I am in a land that resembles the images of the Caribbean in my head.
As we enter town, a huge barn like structure comes into view. All around, there is traffic and people coming and going. Pierre-Richard takes us in slowly, the crowd parting for us, stall holders hastily moving their makeshift stands or dragging their tarpaulins of fruit to one side so the 4×4 can get through. We make our way right to the quayside and park in between a stall selling fish from shallow wicker dishes and a line of motorbikes up propped and their owners chatting casually alongside.
The market is alive with activity. Everywhere I look there are people selling from stalls, carts, sacks and mats, with no apparent system or organisation. But it seems to function well enough and soon Pierre Richard is tracking down a corn seller he knows. I take the opportunity for a few photos, spying a woman with a chicken under her arm, a young guy with a sack of black beans and another shopper walking off having just bought two machetes. At a stall, seemingly unattended, there is a shopping bag emblazoned with the Argentine football team, a picture of Messi with his arms aloft. A man comes past pushing a wheel barrow of academic textbooks and is passed by a similar entrepreneur coming the other way with school rucksacks, strapped to his front and back. But mostly this market is about food. It feels as if you can buy almost anything here from packs of spaghetti to ripe and juicy mangos. There are avocados, aubergines, onions, melons, squash and sugar cane. There are cold bottles of soda, huge sacks of rice and cornflakes, even crackers and cream cheeses with French looking brand names.
Then of course there is the corn and Pierre Richard has employed a couple of young lads to port three sacks, each weighing 120kg into the boot of the 4×4. He tips them for their efforts and we get back in and I feel relieved to feel the air conditioning once more. We edge out slowly once again, passing a man with pushing a wheelbarrow cow’s head in it and soon we are off again past fields of bananas and mangos. Pierre Richard stops by a road side seller to grab some snacks. He passes me a paper bag of what I think we would call peanut cracknell; peanuts coated in sugar and fried with cinnamon and ginger. Whatever they are called, they taste amazing.
What strikes me most coming away from the market is that everyone here feels like they have a stake in what’s going on and that their hardwork is going to make a difference. It’s not like so many towns in England where the local high street has become hollowed out because Sainsbury or Tesco’s has blown out the competition. Working for these organizations might provide security in terms of hours and pay but it can’t give the sense of ownership and self determination that these people have.
On our way back, we have one more task to fulfil. We stop off at a modest building made of concrete blocks and a tin roof where a family await us to mill the corn. We heave the bags inside and a young lad, probably around 18 years old, starts up a motor which is attached by a belt to some kind of machine that will grind the corn down into a finer powder that the chickens can eat. First the corn is sifted by the grandmother and then brought in batches by the son to his mother who gradually funnels it into the top of the grinder. All the while, the motor rumbles along and a fine dust of corn hangs in the air, but little by little a small pile of fine orange-yellow powder grows into a huge dune that covers half the floor of this cottage industry.
We finally get home at around 3pm with enough feed to last Pierre Richard’s 400 chickens the six weeks it will take for them to grow to a size where they can be slaughtered and sold for a profit. A meal has been cooked and is waiting for us, while three little toddlers, Jabetta, J-P and Lorena, are waiting on the front step to welcome home their Daddy.
For more info… Deforestation in Haiti