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“It’s like this here every day,” Dayani Baldelomar Bustos tells me as her dark eyes scan the packed alley for an opening. People carrying baskets of produce on their heads press against our backs.
It’s seven a.m., and we’re stuck behind a cart hauled by a man named Carlos, whom Dayani has hired to bring fifty pounds of mangos, a crate of bananas, and several watermelons to her fruit and drink stand in Managua’s Mercado Oriental. Behind the cart’s metal tow bar, Carlos tugs and twists his body, but he can’t turn straight into the bottleneck of pedestrians because the alley is too tight with vendors on both sides. The cart blocks the entire alley. Impatient whistles pierce the heavy air.
Occasionally, an unseen force behind us ripples through the crowd and pushes us forward. I almost step on a silver-haired woman stooped by her basket, crying out, “Mango, mango, mango!”
Just when Carlos can finally inch the cart ahead, it catches on a vendor’s basket on the ground. He says nothing; he does this every morning. After a few minutes of fierce maneuvering, Carlos frees the cart, and Dayani and I rush ahead of him to set up her stand before he arrives with the fruit.
Having accompanied Dayani many times in the market over the past six years, I’ve learned that it’s impossible to talk while she’s leading me through the maze of stalls and carts. I struggle to keep up with her, despite the fact that she’s wearing high-heeled, open-toed sandals and I’m wearing sneakers.
As we sidestep puddles and potholes, we pass piles of cell-phone cases, stacks of bras and panties, hanging pig heads, and women waving red pompoms over slabs of raw meat to ward off swarming flies. A stew of smells hangs in the half-covered alleys: wood smoke, soapy graywater, frying pork skins, rotting cabbage. We pass a man wearing a surgical mask sorting through a small mountain of wood charcoal. Video game bleeps and the sound of fingers pounding plastic buttons emanate from an arcade.
You can buy everything in the Oriental, from a pound of rice to the service of a prostitute to a pet iguana. If it’s not for sale there, Nicaraguans say, then you can’t buy it anywhere. They say to leave your jewelry and phone at home, though. The market is supposedly Nicaragua’s most dangerous place.
It’s also the largest commercial center in Central America. Fifty-three Walmart Supercenters would fit inside its roughly 225 acres. Seventy-some streets wind and intersect through it with no apparent order. No signs help you navigate. In many alleys, you can’t see the sky. Nicaraguan newspapers regularly refer to the Oriental as a “labyrinth” and a “monster.” Every day, the market pulses with around eighty thousand customers and fifty thousand workers, many of them self-employed like Dayani and Carlos.
Dayani, thirty-three, has sold fruit and drinks from a wooden table by a bus stop for about eleven years. Before that, she worked as an ambulatory vendor, beginning at age six, when her mother sent her out to sell tortillas and cornbread door-to-door after school to help the family make a living. This was in the countryside, before she moved to Managua when she was nine and began selling fruit from a basket on her head, walking miles through the city every day.
Dayani has only held a wage-paying job once, as a twenty-one-year-old, when she cut fabric for nine months in a Korean-owned sweatshop. She worked twelve to fifteen hours a day and earned the equivalent of forty to seventy-five dollars a month, depending on how much overtime she worked. She never knew when the boss would let her go home. Her mother watched Dayani’s three young children six days a week. “The two youngest ones didn’t know me,” she told me. “When I wanted to hold them, they didn’t want me.”
So Dayani quit her job and started making plantain chips in her parents’ house to sell on the streets. About a year later, she borrowed sixty-five dollars from a microfinance nonprofit called Pro Mujer to start her fruit and drink stand. Now, she earns roughly twice as much as she did working on-the-books in the sweatshop. But her income still puts her and her sons—along with roughly 43 percent of Nicaraguans—below Nicaragua’s poverty line of two dollars a day.
Dayani’s stand occupies a prime spot in the Oriental, a place known as El Gancho de Caminos (The Roads’ Hook), where five Managua arteries meet in front of an entrance to the crammed inner market. “If chaos had a face, it would be el gancho de caminos,” writes Nicaraguan journalist Génesis Hernández Núñez. To an outsider, the seemingly unpredictable swirl of people, buses, taxis, and carts looks forbidding. But for Dayani and the hundreds of others who work there, El Gancho de Caminos embodies opportunity.
At Dayani’s vending spot, we meet a man she had hired to haul a cart full of her supplies and table. The cart is too heavy for her to pull the quarter mile from the lot where she pays ten córdobas a night—about forty cents—to store it. Dayani unties a tarp draped over the cart and sets up her rough-hewn wooden table. She erects a makeshift cloth and plastic umbrella above it for shade.
Dozens of other stands extend on both sides of Dayani’s, parallel to the busy bus stop. Behind the stands, garbage and rubble collect at the base of a high, concrete wall enclosing a police station. The words se prohibe orinarse (“urinating is prohibited”) are painted on the wall in large white letters. This doesn’t stop men from ambling up against the wall and unzipping their pants.
In the parking lot of a gas station across the road, the cell-phone company Movistar blasts promotions through a pair of giant speakers in the back of a minivan, interspersed with salsa hits, REM’s “Losing My Religion,” and 50 Cent’s “In da Club.” A red pickup truck loaded with flip-flops from Panama blares the refrain “Grab them! Grab them! Twenty-five for flip-flops! Twenty-five!” Buses roar past, belching black exhaust. When they stop to let passengers on and off, vendors with sacks on their shoulders full of half-liter plastic bags of water surround the buses, shouting, “Agua! Agua! Agua!”
After setting up her table, Dayani fills plastic Coleman coolers with ice, glass bottles of soda, beer cans, and plastic bags of juice and water. Carlos arrives with the fruit, and Dayani pays him about a dollar. She piles a mound of bananas in a basket perched on a tower of empty soda bottle crates. The case of two hundred bananas cost her $7.20; if she sells every banana, she will profit roughly $1.70.
By eight-thirty a.m., the stand is set up, and Dayani slips her pink-painted toes out of her heeled sandals into flip-flops, which she keeps in the cart with her supplies. She takes a white apron embroidered with a frilly, pink heart out of her purse and puts it on over her blue blouse and tight, flared jeans. Most of the female vendors in the market wear an apron with a deep pocket to keep bills and coins in. They also usually keep their hair pulled back in a tight bun to keep it out of their faces as they work.
As she slices a watermelon and puts halved plastic baggies dipped in water over the slices to keep flies off, Dayani asks me if I could do what she does every day.
“No. For one thing, I’m not as strong as you,” I say, thinking of her twelve-hour days on her feet in the tropical heat.
“This work is very hard,” Dayani says. “I don’t want my kids to have to do it. That’s why I tell them they need to study. You said I’m strong. Right now I am. But I’m not going to be this strong forever and won’t be able to do this work. I want my children to have something better.”
Dayani’s sons—Edwin, fourteen, and Gabriel, thirteen—help their mother with her business when they’re not in school. Her first son, Jader, died of leukemia in 2009 at age twelve. Both of her sons’ fathers have left her. Dayani supports her children on the roughly $4.50 a day she makes in the market.
“Enough for food,” she says. A pound of rice costs around forty cents, and a pound of red beans about fifty cents. The remainder of Dayani’s daily income typically goes for fruit and a few vegetables, cooking oil, sugar, soap, and, if she’s feeling flush, some cheese, which costs almost two dollars a pound. When the prices of these items and the fruit she sells rise, as they often do because of Nicaragua’s increasingly extreme weather, both Dayani’s income and her buying power shrink. She tries to adjust by charging more at her stand, but then sales inevitably decline.
A man stops to buy a slice of watermelon and comments on the price of it (about thirty cents). Dayani smiles—the gold rims around her front teeth gleaming—and explains that the price of watermelon has gone up recently, so she has to charge more. She removes the plastic for him and strews a pinch of salt over the melon. After he leaves, she tells me he’s a regular client so she knows what he wants without asking.
“My work requires creativity, organization, and good math skills,” she says. “I have to know which fruit is in season, how much each fruit is going to cost during different seasons, and how much I can charge for it.”
Though Dayani’s business may appear improvised, her skills and concerns are similar to any entrepreneur’s. Augusto Rivera, the general manager of the Mercado Oriental, told me in August 2012 that he sees unlicensed street vendors like Dayani as “small businesspeople” engaged in “a form of earning a living, and above all honorably.”
In the early 1970s, British anthropologist Keith Hart coined the term “informal economy” to describe the unregulated trade of street vendors in Accra, Ghana. Since then, sociologists and economists have debated definitions of the term and proposed others: shadow economy, extra-legal, illegal, underground economy, system D. Most agree, though, that participants in the informal economy share at least some of the following characteristics: they are unregistered, unregulated, untaxed, and/or unprotected by governments. They also comprise a rising percentage of the world’s workforce.
The vast majority of workers in the Mercado Oriental receive their salary under the table, pay no taxes, and get no government social security, and about a quarter of the vendors are unlicensed. They represent a small portion of the 70 percent of Nicaraguan workers who earn a living in the informal economy. These Nicaraguans make up an even smaller fraction of the almost 1.8 billion people laboring off-the-books worldwide. By 2020, two out of every three workers on the planet will be informally employed, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
At the same time, the world’s population is rapidly urbanizing. In the past decade, the number of people living in cities surpassed the number living in rural areas for the first time, and the count of city dwellers is forecast to nearly double by 2050, reaching 6.3 billion. Nicaragua’s demographics reflect this trend. Nearly a quarter of its growing population now crowds Managua, the capital, and migrants continue arriving there from the impoverished countryside. One of their first stops—to find work, a place to sleep, or cheap food—is often the Mercado Oriental.
* * *
At lunchtime, Dayani leaves a neighboring vendor in charge of her stand and leads me deeper into the market to her parents’ home. We wind through row after row of stalls and a covered hall where many of the estimated 100,000 meals purchased daily in the market are cooked and served.
“We’re almost there,” Dayani reassures me. Though I’ve been to her parents’ home many times, I’d be hard-pressed to find it on my own. We slip between metal walls over a cement channel brimming with graywater and turn down a damp alley into a warren of dark hovels. In a sheet-metal shack open on one side, Dayani’s father, César Baldelomar Mercado, stands shirtless over a cast-iron vat of boiling oil. A TV behind him flickers with cartoons, which two small boys watch from a bed supported by stacked soda bottle crates.
The oil burbles and pops. Sweat glosses César’s temples beneath a backward, khaki baseball cap half covering a mop of black hair. He’s waiting for the oil “to be silent,” which indicates the right temperature for frying thinly sliced plantains into platanitos.
Every day, César fries plantains and cassava with two or three of his sons and his daughter, Johana. They sell the chips, which they bag and carry on metal rings, in and around the Mercado Oriental every afternoon. One bag of chips sells for twenty-five cents. On a good day, each of them profits about five dollars. The good days are few and far between, and even five dollars spread among children and spouses amounts to just enough to eat well three times a day.
Smoke billows from a concrete wood stove below the vat and rises against one of the house’s sheet-metal walls, blackened with soot. Some of the smoke leaves through a crack between the wall and the ceiling. The rest spreads in a haze over the room and into the adjoining alley. The muddy alley, about four feet wide, is crowded with sacks of plantains and cassava and baskets lined with newspapers, ready to be filled with chips. A pile of brown cassava peels rises to the bare ankles of César’s wife, Carmen, who sits peeling the long tubers on a white plastic chair.
Carmen, sixty-two, and César, fifty-eight, are among the fifteen to twenty thousand people believed to be living in the market. Like many families from the mountains south of Managua, they moved there in stages. About twenty-five years ago, Carmen began selling firewood in the market that César, her two oldest sons, and Dayani gathered on the slopes of the Masaya volcano near their home. Carmen would leave her house in the dark with three bundles of firewood to catch a bus to Managua at two a.m. She would arrive in the market at four a.m. and sell the firewood in the notoriously dangerous Callejón de la Muerte (Alley of Death), a hidden passage teeming with thieves and prostitutes.
Not long after Carmen started selling firewood, a friend of hers gave her the idea to buy a large quantity of fruit in the middle of the market with the money she made selling firewood, then resell the fruit in an area where there were no vendors. After selling her firewood, Carmen would buy oranges, tangerines, and bananas and sell them in the afternoon in El Gancho de Caminos. Over time she saw that she made more money selling fruit than firewood and decided it wasn’t worth it to keep returning to the country every night. She, along with César and the couple’s oldest and youngest children, came to live in the market. Dayani remained at home and quit school, having finished third grade, to take care of four of her younger siblings. Her parents returned every weekend to bring the children food for the week. After a year, they brought the whole family of nine to live in the market.
There, the family slept on a sidewalk walled in with cardboard, plastic, and bed sheets under the eaves of a pool hall. The youngest, Johana, slept in a fruit basket. The family woke before dawn to prepare for the day because the pool hall owner arrived early to clean his business. By six in the morning, they were back out on the street. This lasted about two years, until officials from COMMEMA, Managua’s municipal market corporation, discovered the family’s living situation.
According to Dayani, “They told my mother that she couldn’t be there because it was the entrance of the pool hall. So they relocated her to where she now has her shack. But for her this was wonderful because she came to have a place to be, to sleep peacefully.”
COMMEMA granted Carmen and César a spot just outside of the market in an empty wasteland of rubble from the earthquake that destroyed central Managua in December 1972. They built a shack with scraps of metal and lived alone in the ruins, but for the young men who gathered there to do drugs behind a concrete wall. In time, other families arrived. The market continued to grow in every direction and eventually surrounded Carmen and César’s home.
“I won’t leave my market,” Carmen told me. “I feel happy, happy because, look, if I want to eat soup, I make it fast. I go out and buy corn meal, peppers, onion, tomato, and done.”
Carmen grew up eating rice and beans, foods that Nicaragua’s rural poor typically eat three times a day and often grow themselves. When she moved to the market as an adult, she was suddenly surrounded by all kinds of food and even had cash in her pocket. Now, like a growing number of Nicaraguan women in her generation who were raised in extreme poverty, Carmen has diabetes. After not seeing her for a year, I was struck by how difficult it was for her to rise from her chair to greet me.
Still, Carmen works every day, buying sacks of wholesale plantains and cassava trucked in from the countryside, peeling them, and bagging the chips for César and their sons to sell. She also babysits her daughter Teresa’s two sons while Teresa sells water and soft drinks from a shopping cart in the market. Virtually all of the family works in the market. As market manager Augusto Rivera told me, “There are generations here. So the mother came, the kids grew up, now the grandkids are here. The families grow, and they’ve stayed here, working.”
Whether César and Carmen’s children and grandchildren will stay remains to be seen. Their youngest son, Juan, twenty-seven, took private English classes on Sundays for more than two years, and he is always eager to practice when I see him. While he’s waiting with his father to fry plantains, he tells me that he has graduated from the English academy but needs to improve his accent, because he wants to work in a call center.
“To work in a call center, they have to believe you are an American,” he says.
When the oil reaches the right temperature for frying, Juan grabs a wooden grater in one hand and a peeled plantain in the other. He deftly slices each fruit lengthwise into the vat of oil, finishing half a dozen plantains faster than I can slice one. After a couple of minutes, when the slices are fried crisp, César pulls two wood-handled sieves fashioned from china bowls from the wall and scoops the chips from the oil. He gently shakes the oil from the chips, then flips them into the newspaper-lined baskets.
Watching this home business from my seat on a plank in the alley, I find myself thinking this family lives a world apart from the global economic network of factories, shipping containers, and stock markets. Yet the money that passes through their hands emanates from all over Central America. And the goods being sold around them come from all over the world: bales of secondhand t-shirts imported from the U.S., mounds of Nissan car parts from Japan, towers of Acros stoves made in Mexico, glass cases full of Finnish Nokia phones—not to mention all of the raw materials in each of these products and their far-flung origins.
According to Augusto Rivera, sales in the Mercado Oriental amount to at least $100 million a month, with every shopper spending, on average, between sixteen and twenty-eight dollars per visit. “It’s a market that supplies practically the whole country. People come here from all of the regions to buy. People come from Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador,” Rivera told me.
The Oriental is popular for the same reason Walmart is popular: you can buy everything cheaper there than anywhere else. But in the market, poverty and pollution aren’t concealed by pressed blue Walmart vests and sparkling floors. The Oriental provides a far more authentic picture of the inequality and ecological costs associated with international commerce.
* * *
After lunch, the overhead sun on Dayani’s umbrella makes her stand swelter. Sales ebb. Dust clouds roll over the rows of vendors, and a malinche tree loaded with scarlet blossoms shivers above the roof of the gas station across the road. Plastic bags rise from the gutter, swirling like Hitchcock’s birds around the heads of people waiting for buses.
Garbage cans are almost nonexistent in the market. Dayani puts all of her trash in a plastic crate under her table, then dumps it in the gutter at the end of the day. So do the other vendors. To carry away all of this garbage, the market corporation hires sixty street sweepers who walk the market early every morning and fill handcarts with the previous day’s trash. The sweepers then transfer the waste to the market’s three garbage trucks. In all, twenty-five to thirty garbage trucks full of trash are removed from the Oriental every day.
I met a street sweeper once when he stopped to talk with Carmen and Johana outside their shack. He wore a blue shirt that said COMMEMA above the left breast pocket, dirty blue jeans, and black rubber boots.
He works from six a.m. to noon six days a week and makes $165 a month. “It’s a hard job,” he said. “I clean up one area and come back in a little while, and it’s full of trash again.” He told me he has worked in the market more than twenty years. “The market was much smaller then. There were no stands at Gancho de Caminos. Over there, it was a normal barrio,” he said, pointing to the south.
The Oriental began on the outskirts of Managua after an earthquake leveled the city in 1931. By the 1940s, two covered vending halls were built, and by 1965—as the city engulfed the market—there were four. Thereafter, two catastrophes sparked the market’s massive expansion. The 1972 earthquake killed at least six thousand people, flattened Managua’s two other principal markets, and left as much as 50 percent of the city’s workforce unemployed. Scrambling to survive, many Managuans set up businesses in and around the Oriental. By 1976, the market had grown to almost seventy acres of stalls, shops, diners, salons, arcades, bars, and warehouses.
In the early 1990s, the market again experienced rapid growth, devouring adjoining neighborhoods. A series of neoliberal governments reduced and privatized public services under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank, causing unemployment and underemployment in the city to reach over 60 percent. Former engineers, nurses, accountants, and teachers turned to running small businesses in the Oriental.
“The market grew without planning, in a disorganized way,” explained Augusto Rivera. For this reason, only 60 percent of the stalls and stores have running water and only about 40 percent have legal, safe electric connections. Thousands can’t be reached by emergency vehicles. This poor infrastructure contributed to a major fire that destroyed twelve acres of the market in 2008. Several smaller fires have erupted since. To make the market less vulnerable to disasters, you would have to make it “disappear and make a new market,” Rivera said.
In his 2011 book Stealth of Nations, journalist Robert Neuwirth calls the informal economy “System D” in an effort to define it by what it is—a viable economic alternative—rather than what it’s not. He appropriates this term from Francophone Africa and the Caribbean, where unlicensed entrepreneurship is called l’economie de la débrouillardise, or Systeme D.
“The global economy may be contracting, but System D is providing jobs,” Neuwirth writes. “There’s no multinational, no Daddy Warbucks or Bill Gates, no government that can rival that level of job creation.”
Take the job of Orlando Ocampo. For nine years, this lanky thirty-four-year-old has worked at the bus stop in front of Dayani’s stand calling out the numbers of buses for passengers. Each time a bus stops, the driver gives Orlando twenty cents.
Managua’s bus stops are unmarked, and the buses only have a small sign with the route number in the front window. In the crowd of vendors, pedestrians, and people waiting for buses, it can be hard to find the route you want. Orlando makes it easier.
While stealing a moment’s rest on a concrete block in the shade, Orlando tells me that he makes about $10.50 a day, more than most Nicaraguan police officers and teachers. Few professionals would work his hours, though. “I work from six to six, six days a week. I rest on Sunday or sometimes take another job,” Orlando explains. “I’m a mason and electrician. But those jobs aren’t steady like this one. They come and they go.”
He makes a point of telling me that he doesn’t smoke or drink. “If you drink, your life goes down.” In the market, it’s common to see alcoholics passed out on the ground. Orlando points at my gray New Balance sneakers and asks me how much they cost. I tell him forty dollars, and he shakes his head. His own second-hand pair of gray New Balances, tearing in the seam between the upper and the sole, cost $10.50, a day’s earnings.
“They’re good shoes, but yours are even better,” he says, reaching out to rub the gray suede on my sneakers. Then he abruptly rises, shakes my hand, and returns to the street, shouting “La una, la una, la una!”
I ask Dayani if it’s true that Orlando doesn’t drink. She says it is, and that he’s trustworthy. In the market she’s surrounded by people she trusts: the neighboring vendors who watch her stand when she has to run an errand, the cart men who haul her belongings and purchases, the wholesale fruit sellers she buys from, and even the thieves who leave her alone.
What appears at first glance to be a chaotic, survival-of-the-fittest kind of place is really a multilayered, self-organizing community. People depend on personal relationships to get things done in the informal economy, services that would otherwise tend to be provided by the impersonal institutions and infrastructure of the formal economy. The social networks that arise in the market provide a sense of security.
At the same time, Dayani’s business is always insecure. Since she lacks a license, municipal authorities could force Dayani to move from her selling spot any day. The flip side of lacking tenure is that she can choose to move whenever she wants to. Because she is self-employed, she can show up to work or not. She can wander the streets selling through holiday crowds when there’s an opportunity to make more money that way. The informal economy allows individuals to adapt and evolve with the conditions around them. The downsides are that Dayani has no paid sick leave, no paid vacation, no health insurance, no social security benefits, and no worker’s compensation if she’s injured on the job.
When her son Jader was sick for five years with leukemia, Dayani’s income dwindled. She was only able to work in short stints, going back and forth between the market and the free public hospital where Jader received treatment. While Jader’s health deteriorated in a hospital with too few doctors and too little medicine, Dayani’s business fell apart.
Perhaps if Dayani had worked a wage-paying job with sick leave and private health insurance, Jader’s illness wouldn’t have pushed her family further into poverty. But few such jobs exist for a woman without a high school diploma. And since the 2008 financial crisis, even Nicaraguans employed in the formal economy have seen their buying power decrease, because wages haven’t kept up with the skyrocketing cost of living.
In the global North, too, the formal economy has recently proven to be much less secure than previously thought. Millions have lost their jobs in the U.S. and Europe, creating a growing underclass of long-term unemployed people seeking ways to get by. In a widely cited 2011 study, economists Richard Cebula and Edgar L. Feige found “strong evidence” that high unemployment is contributing to the expansion of untaxed economic activity in the U.S. The value of what Cebula and Feige call the underground economy—which includes both licit and criminal activities—has surged in recent years to an estimated $2 trillion.
Meanwhile, formal sector jobs are becoming more temporary and insecure, with fewer benefits and increasingly poor working conditions. One-fifth of all U.S. jobs added since the end of the recession in June 2009 have been temporary, leading to a record number of 2.7 million temporary workers. People in the global North are being forced to recognize what laborers like Dayani already know: security comes from relationships close to home, and few are immune to the fragility of global markets.
The Oriental’s vendors may have found ways to survive with limited resources in constantly changing conditions, but their struggles point to the need for an economic system that promotes social equity and ecological responsibility. As Robert Neuwirth writes in Stealth of Nations, “Given its size, it makes no sense to talk of development, growth, sustainability, or globalization without reckoning with System D.” In other words, making the labor and environmental practices of corporate monoliths such as Walmart more just and less harmful is not going to be enough to reverse the inequities and ecological devastation of the global economy. The Mercado Orientals of the world have to be considered, too.
Making public marketplaces more just and sustainable means reducing poverty, improving infrastructure, and providing self-employed workers with greater social protection, better working environments, and access to resources for small business owners. With such support, vendors like Dayani and her family could focus on making their businesses more profitable and less vulnerable to personal and community crises. Creating more economic security throughout poor countries like Nicaragua could also help slow the unmanageable growth of markets like the Oriental.
In Nicaragua, Augusto Rivera told me, the Sandinista government is “trying to provide development to the countryside in order to prevent emigration from the countryside to the city” through microloans for small businesses, agricultural programs, creating export markets, and attracting foreign investment. These efforts have helped reduce extreme poverty in rural areas, but six out of every ten rural Nicaraguans still live on less than two dollars a day. When agricultural commodity prices fall or a crop fails due to weather, they often have little choice but to join the tide of emigrants from places like the mountain village where Dayani grew up.
* * *
By four-thirty p.m., the market day is winding down. Dayani slices the last of her mangos to try to sell before heading home. Her son Gabriel, who came to the stand after he got out of school, puts unsold bottles of soda back in crates to store for the next day. His brother Edwin tips dark vinegar from a plastic bottle into a bag of sliced mangos, dashes them with salt, then hands the bag to a customer in exchange for a silver, five córdoba coin. As vendors dump their day’s garbage into the gutter, a faint rotting-fruit smell blends with diesel fumes. At dusk, two bare incandescent bulbs come on above the blue and white Comex paint ad on the metal shack next to Dayani’s stand.
Dayani tells Gabriel to go home to feed the family’s chickens, ducks, and dog and tells Edwin to help her clean up. I decide to catch a bus with Gabriel, which requires crossing rush hour traffic in El Gancho de Caminos with no stop sign or traffic light. We get halfway across the road and freeze between buses and taxis roaring by. Gabriel steps into oncoming traffic, holds out his hand, and a red taxi stops to let us through.
Across the road, we pass furniture salesmen shuttering their stalls. In an empty lot, homeless people lay down cardboard to sleep on. Whistles and car horns pierce the twilight. We slosh through puddles, doll heads, peels, and lost shoes, joining the throngs of shoppers and vendors leaving the market. At dawn, the crowds will come pouring back in.
* * *
Originally published in Orion, summer 2014.
* * *
Douglas Haynes’s essays have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Boston Review, North American Review, and many other publications. He is currently writing a book about rural to urban migration and the reinvention of Managua, one of the world’s most disaster-prone cities, and he teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
Illustration: Kjell Reigstad