A Store at Your Door
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Dominican Republic
“ZAFACÓN!” “What was that?” I asked my wife as I sat straight up in bed. “Zafacón!” “There it is again!” I noticed the clock—5:30 a.m. Still dazed from sleep, I climbed out of bed and peered out the window. To my astonishment, I saw a short, thin man walking down the sidewalk with about four galvanized metal garbage cans tied by a cord around his shoulders. When he repeated “zafacón” (Spanish word used in Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico for garbage container), I realized that he was hawking his wares.
That was my first, but not my last, experience with the traveling merchants of Santo Domingo. We had just arrived here the evening before.
In certain Western lands people customarily buy at the local supermarket or shopping center. But here in Santo Domingo many prefer to stay at home and let the store come to their door.
The egg man arrives before breakfast. He may have ten or fifteen egg cartons, each containing thirty eggs, stacked on top of his head. Yet he maintains a fairly brisk pace and does not even use his hands to steady this tower of eggs. Think of what would happen were he to stumble! But the egg man seems oblivious to the danger and seldom breaks even as much as one egg.
Most common among the street merchants is the platanero, a seller of plantains. This bananalike fruit, when abundant and inexpensive, is nearly as common in the Dominican diet as the daily portion of rice and beans. The platanero might also sell yucca, a starchy root that serves well as a substitute for potatoes and is usually more economical.
What do you need for your salad? Soon the marchanta or lady vegetable merchant will come by singing “verdura!” On her head she carries a large rectangular wooden receptacle loaded with all kinds of green vegetables, herbs and tomatoes. When this concave receptacle is filled at the market early in the morning, it may weigh thirty pounds (14 kilograms) or more.
“Doesn’t your head ache or your neck get sore after carrying that load around all morning?” I asked one sturdy woman recently.
“It sure does at first, but after a while one gets used to it,” was her reply. I stood in amazement at the mountain of fresh food perched on her head and thought to myself that I was glad it was her head and not mine.
Besides a host of food items—vegetables, fruits, live chickens, fish—many other things can be bought right at the door. Do you need a mirror, or would you like a sturdy flowerpot for your begonia? Just listen for the vendor; he will be by shortly. What about something for the sewing chest? Soon the sewing store will come around with cloth, thread, thimbles, zippers, buttons, snaps and the like. Another merchant may carry men’s and women’s clothing, both inner and outer garments. Various household items may be bought from still another salesman.
One is likely to see baby buggies or strollers laden with everything from women’s hair curlers and bobby pins to books and magazines to buy, trade or rent. Yes, one can rent a book, so much a day or week, right at the door.
Even services are available at the door. To fix that stopped-up drain or to care for other plumbing needs, a traveling plumber will be by in due course. Listen for his call. Do your knives or scissors need sharpening? Listen for the up-the-scale, down-the-scale whistle. That is the sharpener announcing his presence. Does your umbrella need repairs? The umbrella fixer will be glad to serve you on his daily round. What about that lost heel or that hole in your shoe sole? A traveling shoemaker will be pleased to repair it.
Hawking methods vary. Each is distinctive and accurately describes the item or service available. Some traveling merchants have a voice that seems to penetrate for miles. One woman who sells shelled peas can be heard for several minutes before she arrives at the door. Should she be opposite your home, her voice could drown out a conversation you might be having. To be heard, some salesmen place their hand about an inch from their mouth to deflect the sound around corners, behind and above. Some hawkers use portable battery-operated public-address systems.
Over five years have passed since our arrival. For us, the novelty of street vendors has worn off. But we still appreciate how practical and convenient it is to have a store come to our door.