Soaked to the Soul

« Enfance, seul âge de la vie où le bonheur puisse être un état. »

– Paule Saint-Onge, extrait de ‘La saison de l’inconfort’

Nothing excites me more than being within close reach of piles and piles of candies and jelly beans and chocolates of every name, shape and shade; add fresh fruits and just-blended ice-cold fruit juice to the mix and I’m in the highest heaven of all sweet temptations.

Daily Post’s photo challenge this week takes me down memory lane to Barcelona’s unique Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, and also the various markets from my childhood. As a kid I used to accompany my mother to the fresh markets on weekends — with three growing boys in the family this was always a necessity. Despite the heat and the need to constantly haggle for good prices, I enjoyed grocery-shopping with my mother at Osu and Tema in Accra, the fresh market in Conakry whose name currently escapes me, and both Gulshan Markets in Dhaka tremendously.

I always made an effort to go to the markets with my mother — and in fact I rejoiced at every opportunity for this that came my way — mostly because I didn’t have the heart to make her go alone. Busy and non-touristic (not that anywhere in Conakry could actually be considered as ‘touristic’) places such as the local fresh markets are usually overcrowded, and pick-pocketing is without a doubt rife. As a foreigner you’re always a potential target for all sorts of crime, and we’ve heard loads of horror stories from other Malaysian housewives in Accra who experienced various misfortunes such as having their gold jewelry snatched from their very neck (but then again, why would you wear that openly to the market?) and other scary incidents.

Thankfully neither my mother nor I have ever had any disturbing experiences in the past, but shopping in these markets were always like an adventure — unsafe, unpredictable, but despite the risks much is to be gained. In way it is sort of like treasure-hunting; we leave the house empty-hand and come home from the markets with bags and bags of food, which in poverty-stricken and economically challenged countries such as Guinea are more valuable than gold and diamonds. (OK, maybe this is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the picture.)

Guinea is one of the most politically unstable countries in Africa, so going to the markets on weekends in Conakry was no walk in the park. One has to be quick and strict in negotiations, dress unostentatiously (no flashy watches and gadgets, and certainly no jewelry), and keep a low-profile. Because of our skin color — not that we’re white or anything — we tend to attract attention as soon as we walked out of the car, so we had to walk purposefully and not amble about too much, particularly if we were without a male escort (in most cases, this would be our driver). The plan was always to get out of the car, get the veggies, then get out. Simple enough, if you follow this three-step routine.

Having been to some of Africa’s exciting markets, shopping in the Subiaco Market on weekends and Woolworths or Coles when I was in Perth sadly pales in comparison. The constantly hiking AUD-MYR currency rate was always a major turn-off, and perhaps shopping within a meager student’s budget made it even less exciting. During the winter break of my first year which was spent in St Catherine’s College almost solo, I decided to spice up my grocery shopping routine by taking the bus to the city then taking the shuttle ferry on sunny days to South Perth, where there is an IGA on Mint Street. Once when I shopped there, I bought two packets of M&M’s and only found out that I was only charged with one when I got back to my room. A moment of rejoice followed, of course.

Even without my mother and despite the major turn-offs mentioned above, grocery-shopping is still something I find highly therapeutic — and not just because it is an activity which undoubtedly involved monetary transactions. In fact, I think it could be the fact that I felt a little adult-ish, as I was now doing all the food shopping myself rather than be the one tagging behind my mother. As I make mental lists of things to get at the IGA on my way there, I feel quite in control of my own domestic matters. And this was a great feeling.

At Mercat La Boqueria, I felt quite at home. Spotting a durian in the pile of fruits was a very pleasant surprise; I wonder about the Spaniards’ reception toward our very own King of Fruits, and whether they could survive a durian binge like we Malaysians love to do (disclaimer: though I love this fruit, I only enjoy durians in moderate amounts, thank you very much). It’s true what those travel hosts on TLC keep saying — if you want to feel at home in a certain country, check out their fresh markets and find out what the locals love to eat. It tells you a whole lot about their lifestyle, and maybe a thing or two about yourself too — what you like, and what you don’t.  What I discovered at Mercat La Boqueria was that it was not only saturated with sweet things, but also with sweet memories from my childhood.

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