Amidst the unfamiliar countries and uneasiness of travel the markets are where I find a connection to the people, to the landscape. Although I have a deep and passionate relationship with food this is not why I seek out these places. It is the everyday-ness of the market that I crave.
Disconnected from family, country, home and all that is familiar the markets are a constant in our travels. The world over people grow food and make goods and sell them in a common space. The produce sold, the faces smiling back at me and the colour of the money changes but the routine is always the same. People coming together to sell food, buy supplies and socialize. Unlike the tourist I am not looking for the exotic, I am searching for the familiar.
On the remote island of Nuku Hiva in French Polynesia I would wake at 5am, before the dawn, and dinghy across the harbour to go to the Wednesday morning market. You had to get up that early, at 9 degrees south business is done before the wilting heat of the sun brings island life to a halt. After weeks of long passages and limited fresh vegetables I was excited by what might be there to buy.
I found zucchini, eggplant, mangos, pineapple, tomatoes, passion fruit and bok choy. I bought it all and a small delicate, crisp lettuce that was so wildly expensive I barely want to touch it let alone take it home to eat. It had literally been months since we’d had something as fragile as lettuce in our little fridge and it was a thrill to see it each time I lifted the lid. That night we ate it as salad drizzled in good olive oil and some vinegar; the loud crunch of the leaves between our teeth the sweet soundtrack to our simple dinner.
During the early morning the island general store doubled as the town bakery, its ice cream coolers and counter tops covered with pain au chocolate, perfectly buttery croissants, irregular hand formed doughnuts crusted in sugar, and piles and piles of baguettes. The air inside was flowered with smells of my childhood; my Mother’s weekly loaves of bread cooling on the counter, an occasional batch of doughnuts fried in hot oil in her red electric wok. As I walked barefoot back down the street I ripped off a hunk of bread and shoved it, whole, into my mouth. I grinned at everyone through chipmunk cheeks, satisfied by this small slice of life.
The community Market Day on the small island of Niue was a celebration of harvest. Instead of bushels of apples and potatoes in baskets there were collections of taro and yams swaddled in hand-tied palm bassinets. The stalls were decorated with tropical plants instead of hay, but there was a display of quilts and woven goods. Rather than prancing the Clydesdales around the ring they paraded out the kings of the hermit crab world, plate sized delicacies known as Coconut Crabs. It was an island version of every Fall Fair I had been to back home.
In Fiji I sometimes I braved a Saturday morning, when the market was at its busiest. On those mornings it was shoulder to shoulder, negotiating the confined isles and impromptu stalls. People spread blankets out on the ground outside and lace tarps to the surrounding buildings and fences for shade. It almost doubles the number vendors inside the official market building. You had to tip toe around the elaborate piles of chilies and beans, the neat pyramids of oranges and plantains, the tightly bundled stalks of taro, the plates of passion fruit and hands of bananas. There is a cacophony of bartering and exchanges, calls across and over the crowd, a constant blur of sound.
I often buy homemade jam and preserves, keeping a keen eye out for table with an assortment of mismatched bottles with hand written labels. The mango flower honey we bought in Mexico flavoured our lives with our adventures there for months. One taste of its delicate sweetness brought us back to the street in Ensenada where I bought it from an old winkle faced man during Carnival. The moli marmalade given to us in Tonga was made from a local tangerine that is always sold tied into intricate garlands and its bitter sweetness mirrored our feeling when we sailed out of the harbour. A jam tinged with the perfume of the South Pacific gardenia was our romantic tropical island in a jar.
Markets are often also the bus station; the after school hang out, the meeting place and the hub of the cities activities. They are the heart of the community, a meeting point, a collective. More often than not I go to the market alone but I am never lonely. Sitting on the bench waiting for my bus home I am one in a long line of ladies, arm to arm, bags of vegetables lying at our feet. Here we are the same; Mothers, wives, sisters. Women doing the weekly chore of collecting food, of feeding our families. I get wide smiles and nods of agreement as I heft my bag onto my shoulder, mop my glistening brow with a handkerchief and fan my face with a palm frond fan. We understand each other; we are part of the same struggle. I belong.
For those few moments at the market, picking through vegetables, negotiating prices, maneuvering through the crowds, the difference between me and my surroundings melts away and I can see through the veil of foreigner; if only briefly I feel like a local again. With each early morning journey, each encounter with a stranger, each new taste bring home I am reminded about where I come from. At the market I find my roots, and I plant myself deeper in the soil of humanity.