Having travelled extensively, I’ve found that markets around the world are a great way to finding the heart and soul of a city? Heading to a nearby market to experience where locals gather, see what they like to buy and it will give you a glimpse of the food, art and culture of the region is a good start to any trip. Plus, it’s a good place to get your bearings or in my case, become distracted by the many interesting people and produce on offer.
Having explored dozens and dozens of markets around the world, some of the more interesting ones have captured my heart for difference reasons. So I thought I would write a number of posts about the fascinating markets I’ve visited around the globe from Cairo to Cusco.
Vanuatu is just over four flying hours from Melbourne, although often there is a stopover in Brisbane. On my first day on the island of Efate, I headed to the Port Vila market for some fresh fruit and orient myself to the town. There are two markets to visit. Both are located on the beach promenade of Port Vila.
The Arts & Craft Market is housed in a newly built building with a focus on providing authentic and traditional handicrafts for tourists such as shell jewellery, bright hand-dyed clothing, wooden carvings, woven baskets and more. However, the more interesting market is a mere 200m away and is where the locals shop for their fruit, vegetables, seafood, flowers and even have a meal.
Open seven days a week from early morning until late in the evening (except Sunday), I found the freshest and best range of produce was available before 10am. Each day I would visit to pick up some fresh fruit and on my third day of roaming the market, was invited to sit and chat with some women (often called ‘Mamas’) who run the stalls. Language was something of a barrier, but sign language and a smile go a long way.
Local mother, Kamea, whose spoke excellent English, told me she had been coming to the market with her bananas for eight years and brings her four year old daughter to live and sleep with her until all her produce is sold. With a beaming smile she said “she starts school next year”. Having travelled from a rural region, Kamea and her daughter share a stall with other ‘Mamas’ who they rely on each other while they take shifts looking after the small children, take naps and make sure their produce is sold.
I was surprised to learn from Kamea that there are 17 different types of bananas in Vanuatu of which she had three for sale, so tried all of them. With a cheeky smile, she led me to other stalls where she negotiated for me to try another six varieties including a savoury banana!
If you visit later in the day, I’d recommend not eating beforehand and experimenting with a meal at the market’s version of a ‘food court’ where Mama-run kitchens whip up a meal to your order abundant with fish, meat, vegetables and rice for a princely sum of around $5 AUS which includes fresh coconut water or a chilled beer.
Restaurant prices are similar to Australian, so eating at the market is the best value on the island. If you’d like some ‘take away’, there are plenty of options. Fresh roasted peanuts which are still in their shell wrapped together by their stalks or perhaps long skewers pierced with natapoa nuts (Vanuatu almonds), nangai nuts and cut nuts (navel nuts) all served on a palm leave which you can wrap and go. Or perhaps try some plantain bananas or sweet potato made into crispy fried chips. Another option is to try what I could only call ‘fish wraps’ that are precooked and ready-to-go.
Prices are much cheaper than a supermarket and they are fixed. If you try to haggle you’ll be promptly pointed to the small cardboard sign that displays the price. This is not Asia, so accept the price or move on with a smile. As only cash is accepted, bring along small notes and coins to make the transactions easier. This is the same for markets around the world.
Vanuatu has done an amazing job of phasing out ‘single use’ plastic items, so you rarely find plastic straws, water bottles and plastic bags. Within the market, the woman cleverly bundle together fruit and veggies into banana / palm leaves or make simple woven hand baskets which you get to keep. When no longer required, they simple decompose. I would still recommend you bring your own bag though.
The Mamas’ take pride in how they display their produce. What you see is how you buy it and therefore, asking to break up a bundle into a smaller size will be met with a ‘no’. I found at some markets around the world this is a similar stance.
On my last day in Vanuatu, I returned to pick up some mangos and say goodbye to Kamea. Alas, she had returned to her village. However, she’d left me with a beautiful gift – a bond between women that now extends across the Pacific.
As printed in the Warrandyte Diary June 2019
Now it’s your turn.
What is your experience of visiting markets around the world?
Leave a comment below.