January 20, 2014: The Great Binational Market

I really might have to invest in a stylish mosquito net and a tropical climate: once again, with the help of both of these, I slept soundly and deeply (which is usually not my forte). Elana and I sat on the side porch to take breakfast (cassava bread again, this time with peanut butter and honey, plus coffee), and watched the neighborhood fowl scurry about for cassava crumbs. There’s a breed of chicken here that are the most lovably ugly creatures: they all have bald necks and vulture-like heads, and often have a club foot. Several of these handsome devils showed up with their equally bald-necked chicks, and competed for crumbs with the awkward dandy roosters and wobble-faced guinea.

After breakfast, we walked to the main(ish) street of Clavellina to catch a bola into Dajabón. Bola is used to describe a free ride or hitchhike. In this area, you’ll most often get a bola on the back of a moto, but you might also be able to grab one with a car or truck, if you’re lucky. Elana spotted a local friend of hers who was heading to Dajabón, who agreed to give a bola. She gave him instructions on where they should drop me in Dajabón, and I jumped on the back of his moto alone (Elana would grab the next bola that came along).

My moto driver had been riding closely alongside a friend of his when they stopped for us. Initially, I’d thought that they were just going for a ride together, as pals. However, once we set out from Clavellina, I saw that my moto driver was pushing his friend’s moto by keeping his right foot on the back of the friend’s moto—and they did so all the way to Dajabón! His friend’s moto had just enough oomph to get it over speed bumps and holes, but my moto driver’s foot-push was firmly present the rest of the time; it was really an impressive feat of balance and coordination. (When we arrived, I asked them why, and Elana’s friend told me it was because the other moto was almost out of gasoline, and of course Clavellina is far too small for a gas station.)

The two men kindly stuck around and chatted with me until Elana arrived on her own bola a few minutes later. Then, she and I walked through the city to the Dajabón-Ouanaminthe binational market. Dajabón is located right on the Dominican side of the Haiti-RD* national border, and every Monday and Friday, there’s a huge market, with sections set up in both of the border cities.
(*RD = República Dominicana = Dominican Republic.)

The market on the Dominican side is a huge maze of outdoor stalls and vendor tables, arranged around a giant two-story building which contains hundreds of stall spaces. The mercado building houses largely secondhand clothing sellers, as well as people selling blankets, sunglasses, cosmetics, cutlery, and really most things you could think of. Many of these dry goods vendors have their wares piled up in huge masses, which you must root through to find what you need. The outdoor stalls, meanwhile, have a lot more brand-new clothing and shoes. This is also where most of the fresh food is sold: huge sacks of sugar, fruits and vegetables piled up on tarps on the ground, shrink-wrapped flats of sodas, boxes of breads and sweets, gaping-mouthed dried fish in small open stacks, and more. Significant swaths of the outdoor market reek of the dried fish (which is arenque, or herring), a salty, half-rotten, aggressively fishy aroma.

Once in the market, Elana and I went directly to a food stall operated by an acquaintance of hers (who used to live in Clavellina). Here, we each ate a very tasty plato del día for lunch, while the doña half-jokingly scolded Elana for not visiting her often enough. Here and everywhere in the market, it was oppressively stinking hot. Every part of me felt sticky—but after acquiring a half-frozen Gatorade to sip on, I felt a lot better.

Elana and I began our shopping attempts by sifting through the heaped piles and crammed racks of secondhand clothes inside the market building. Many of these clothes bore labels from well-known American brands, and many still had plastic tags from Goodwill etc. (with American prices) on them. Elana found a nice skirt amidst this maelstrom of objects, then we headed downstairs and outside to the outdoor vendors. Here, a lot of the clothes were more Dominican-style (instead of secondhand-American), and I nabbed a few things.

The market was fairly hectic, but it was much less hectic than its usual. A few people told us that this was because there was some fighting going on in Haiti, so a lot of the normal vendors and shoppers hadn’t crossed over. Once we’d finished with the market, we walked over to the RD-Haiti border crossing in this area, a gate on a bridge over the River Massacre (so-named for a massacre of buccaneers by settlers that occurred there in the 1700s). A steady stream of people ran in both directions on the bridge. Across the river, on the Ouanaminthe/Haiti side, we could see people bathing and washing things in the water.

Haiti, from the Dominican/Dajabón side. The official border crossing is the tall gate in the middle of the bridge.
Haiti, from the Dominican/Dajabón side. The official border crossing is the tall gate in the middle of the bridge.

Elana has mentioned Dominican racism toward Haitians a few times. Especially since Haiti is much poorer, it’s not uncommon to hear Dominicans make jokes/comments about Haitians being smelly, or about how you’ll get robbed or killed if you go to an area where a few Haitians live. There are a lot of race/class distinctions tied to nuances of skin color: most Dominicans are brown-skinned, but how dark or light they are determines—for example—whether they’ll be stopped and questioned at military checkpoints, suspected of being illegal Haitian immigrants. Elana told me that, during one of her projects, she had included a Haitian child (very dark-skinned) in a mural she did for a school in a mountain pueblo. The darker-skinned child in the mural was included among paintings of children of many different Dominican shades, since there were several Haitian migrant worker families in that campo. Yet there had still been some minor backlash from the community about that: not overt racism, just a sort of disdainful “But why?” (Please note: these are only scattered thoughts, not a deep analysis, as this is not a subject I am sufficiently informed enough about to discuss with any semblance of authority, both as a tourist-outsider and coming from a position of race privilege.)

After the border, we walked back through Dajabón to meet Elana’s best Peace Corps friend Yvette, at a little hotel restaurant. Yvette seemed energetic, funny, and caring, and the three of us sat and talked while also taking advantage of the hotel WiFi for a few Internet things. Elana and I also decided to eat dinner there, then bade Yvette goodbye and headed to a Dajabón street that’s on the way to Clavellina, to seek a bola home.

There were a good number of Clavellina townsfolk waiting there (at the unofficially designated bola pick-up spot) when we arrived, and not so many motos heading back to Clavellina, so it was a good half-hour before we got one. Elana had me take the first bola again, squeezing in as the third person on a moto. I didn’t really have a place to rest my feet, but I managed to cling on safely, feet lifted, for the entirety of the dusty, bumpy 20-minute ride back into Clavellina.

Usually, the electricity here is off in the morning and comes on in mid-afternoon, but today, it did not come on until well past dark. I sat on the front porch with a tiny headlamp of Elana’s, writing and listening to the crickets. When the luz (light) finally arrived, half the lights in our house and the neighbors’ houses came on all at once. A large clump of children, somewhere off in the village, started cheering and screaming happily. Soon thereafter, I began to hear dance music drifting over from the discoteca.


Later in the evening, Rubén came over again for a while. We sat on the porch, drinking ron y jugo de fruta (rum and fruit juice) and eating popcorn. We had pleasant and animated conversations: on siblings and half-siblings (Rubén used hermano padre, literally “brother father,” to mean “half-brother with a shared father,” which was an interesting and useful phrase); on insects and frogs and why many Dominicans are afraid of them; etc. Then, we said goodbye to him—this was the last time I’ll see him, at least on this trip—and Elana and I settled in to look at photos. My last night in tiny, convivial Clavellina.

3 thoughts on “January 20, 2014: The Great Binational Market

  1. More than ever, I am glad I am reading a retrospective — and can relax, knowing you are safely home. Those moto rides sound fun –but hazardous. Boop would be entertained by your descriptions of them –and of everything else. Fascinating G.

  2. What does Mom mean when she says “fascinating G.”?

    Don’t you ever, EVER call me “wobble-faced.”

    Your adventure sounds magnificent. I wish it was MY adventure. Hurry up and write the next installment. About me.

    1. She means both that the post is fascinating, that she is signing her comment as being from Granny (AKA G.), and that she herself is a fascinating individual. Or at least I’d assume so.

      I would only ever call you “majesty-faced.”

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