Port au Prince’s main street, Gran Rue, though marked Boulevard JJ Dessalines, for Haiti’s first governor general, leads to the Iron Market. Fabricated in Paris for an Egyptian train station, the flat packed structure ended up in Port au Prince in 1891, no one knows why. Two massive ironwork buildings with cavernous thirty-foot doomed ceilings are joined by a wide corridor, itself a building. Above the corridor, inscribed in metal letters is the building’s original name Marche Hyppolite. Crowned with four minarets and a clock tower, the Moroccan style metalwork claims an entire city block. And the Marche en Fer comprises the island nation’s commerce center. One structure hung with handicrafts for tourists; the other packed with produce. In the middle section, bloodsuckers, in dirty Mason jars, for bruises and live turtles for dinner await.
Inside rotten vegetables and refuse cushion the concrete floor, while overhead trusses leer with bird nests and a century of cobwebs. Less than hip wide spaces separate rough tables displaying colorful produce. A seafood section black with flies, divides fish into neat piles while large fish, packed on ice blocks and covered in burlap, lay beneath the vendors’ table, available on request. Beef, goat and pig carcasses hang in a corner where men in bloody aprons hack with machetes.
Next to the butcher shop, matted steps lead down the Marche’s raised foundation to a back street, Rue Courbe, runs parallel with Gran Rue. Here the odor of sewage mingles with Caribbean sunlight and humanity’s hum, as merchants, unable to secure a place inside, sell at umbrella-shaded tables. Again snugly arranged, the eggs and dry goods are fringed with brown hens against the wall of an Arab cloth merchant’s building. Sometimes the beady eyes and beaks ride, like a prized Derby hat, in a basket on a raggedly clad woman’s head.
Perpendicular to Rue Courbe, adjacent to the Marche, another garbage compressed street runs under foot of merchants balancing baskets while gracefully dodging traffic. These women with no spot for their wares walk the streets selling. On Rue des Front Fort, French doors, hung on ancient hinges open to dark stores stuffed with fabric. The roof-covered sidewalk, walled on the street by more merchants, with a narrow passage between them and the Arab cloth stores. They sell extension cords, radios, underwear, and hair accessories, arranged on rough shelves and wooden trunks that double as a bed for the night guard. He curls up before the city clatters to bedlam again, indistinguishable from the gray box.
While Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, and Haitian bourgeoisie import Sea Land containers, common women, dominate the distribution channel. In yelling mobs at open containers, they purchase their goods for resale in the street. Called marchands, merchants. Whether she possesses a stall inside the Marche, the plumpest a sign of prosperity, or a fought for piece of pavement nearby, or she paces the streets, hawking for the lowest price, she is a half step from financial ruin and death.
Her day begins the night before, a thirty-mile hike with eighty pounds on her head. She rides down mountains, through rivers, in unsafe trucks, driven by unqualified drivers. In the capital, she sleeps in the open on her cargo with other women, to protect it and herself. Only the ruthless, the disease resistant and the math literate survive. She must calculate a mark up and reinvest in inventory. She carries change in her bra; her reinvestment cash in a rag, under her dress, tied to her waist. She fights for the purchase price, barters the selling price, fends off thieves and gives to beggar children and demoniacs wandering the streets. She is the backbone of Haitian economy.
Port au Prince sways with the rhythmic hips of merchant women, necessities for sale balanced on their heads. With the effusion of milk boiling over, merchants and merchandise, spill out of the Iron Market, off the sidewalks and into the streets slowing traffic to a sticky crawl. They only withdraw when the mayor orders police to clear the streets. Then cowering under bully club blows, screaming vendors, arms flailing, clutch their investments to their bosoms and flee. For a day or two, the gray streets are empty, traffic moves smoothly, parking spaces abound until the merchants creep back, like the black flies blanketing the fish. They cover the streets to survive.