We live in a simple flat in a middle to upper class neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. It’s not Petionville, where all the aid workers and rich Haitians live. It’s Delmas 65, in the middle of the city, where dust makes a thin crust on allour belongings and it’s blazing hot in the summer. These days there a little coolness to the air when we wake up, usually pretty early.
One reason for that is the early morning ruckus. People always say Haitians get up early, but the reality is the sun rises early in Haiti. We’re on central time, for some odd reason, despite being east of Florida. Our street is a lively one, with an open market where we buy our vegetables, eggs, and non-perishables like tomato paste and spaghetti noodles. People sell on foot, too, carrying their goods on their heads and calling out what they’re selling in a loud, weird voice. I have to think it’s a way of marketing, that each seller has their own distinctive megaphone, so that we residents of the houses grow used to their promotions and are ready to buy when our favorite merchant comes by. A lot of what they’re selling we still haven’t figured out. We’re pretty sure there are lots of folks selling lottery tickets, but I couldn’t tell you what they yell in Creole. Charcoal, or “chabon” is a popular one, so much so that we can’t say the word “chabon” without wanting to yell it out in the style of the women selling it.
There’s a man who comes by our house around 6 a.m. with a particularly booming call. We can hear him getting close, and then we get a full blast right by our window, and then he fades away. It sounds like he yells “fe bagey” in Creole. Because his voice is so clear, we’ve been wondering for weeks what he’s selling. We’ve been thinking of asking a Haitian, but were a little afraid they would think we were saying “fe bagay,” which means, “do it.” This weekend, we even asked our friend Ira, an anthropologist who’s been in Haiti since 1972 and hasn’t not known an answer to our questions yet. Even he was stumped. He said something like, “I’ve been here for forty years, I’m a ph.D. trained anthropologist, and I still don’t know all of what they’re selling. You’ve got to just ask somebody in the neighborhood.”
So yesterday we heard the voice again. We were up super early. David ran to the window and looked out.
“It’s pen (bread) baguette! Pen baguette!” he repeated, in the robotic monotone of the merchant. I couldn’t believe it. We’d heard it so many times and repeated it so many times as “fe bagey” that I couldn’t imagine it as pen baguette, especially because I was so astounded and delighted that there would be a man selling baguette on our street every morning. As we were stuck in two hours of traffic last night, the thought was still with me. “I can’t believe it’s been baguette this whole time. We could have been eating baguette every morning.”
This morning I was in bed, pretending like I had a chance of going back to sleep after Mittens woke us up with her naughty head stuck in a plastic grocery bag, when I heard the voice. I ran to the window and over our front wall saw just the top of a man with a stuffed rice sack on his head. I hollered “Misye, n ap prann yon pen!” (mister, we’ll take a bread!). He didn’t hear me. I was so disheartened. Then about five minutes later, we heard it again. He was coming back down the street! I ran again to the top of our stairwell and yelled out the same thing through the bars. This time he heard me.
“Où es-tu?” That’s French for “Where are you?” I don’t know if he spoke French because he could tell by my voice I was a foreigner, and I assumed I’m a French speaker as many people do, or if that would be his response to anyone.
“Ou ka tann nou?” I responded. Wait for us?
I grabbed money from David and hustled down the stairs. There he was, standing outside our gate. “Ou gen pen, pa vre?” I said. (You have bread, right?) It was true. He said, “wi, pen baguette, 25 gourdes.” That’s how we bought a fresh baguette for about 50 cents this morning. And solved a mystery.