Caribbean market dry: breadfruit to brake fluid

Under a pitched corrugated iron roof shimmering with tropical heat waves, the fruit and produce from the fertile volcanic soil of St. Kitts wait to be inspected, pummeled, haggled over, and ultimately sold.

It is market day in Basseterre, capital of St. Kitts, where shoppers complete their deals by handling over the paper East Caribbean currency that bears the picture of Queen Elizabeth II in the top right hand corner.

A stall can be rented for just 25 East Caribbean cents (about a dime) a day. Merchants arrive before 6 a.m. at this market that fronts the brilliant blue Caribbean Sea.

As far as the eye can see, exotic fruits and vegetables spill out of battered cardboard boxes, galvanized iron buckets, wooden trays, paper bags, and baskets. There are golden yellow pumpkins and papayas; sliced pineapples and sweet potatoes; mounds of coconuts awaiting the slash of the machete; breadfruit the shape of huge green cannonballs; more exotic vegetables like dasheen, tantan, and christaphene.

Everybody is laughing. Everybody is talking. Everybody is eating, including the sellers. And most things -- from a ginger root to a pile of peanuts -- seem to cost $1 EC (about 37 cents).

Women sellers and buyers are moving rainbows of colors in dazzlingly bright floral blouses and dresses. Heads are covered in scarves tied at the back of the neck, but many wear straw hats or floppy cotton hats. Christabel Watts at the carrot stall is wearing both a headscarf and a red and green floppy hat festooned with miniature palm trees Alice Spencer, who drove into market with 25 other women at the back of a truck, stands out in a hat the color of fuchsia.

Boys in short pants talking excitedly about the international cricket match between England and the West Indies are tearing off pieces of sugar cane with their teeth and letting the sweet juice run down their faces and splatter their dusty bare feet.

Not all the products sold here are from the soil. A handpainted sign at the entrance to the market proclaims: "These goods are sold here: plastic bags, contact cement, shopping handbags, ground coffee, paper plates, matches, evaporated milk, caramel wafer biscuits, orange juice. razor blades, all kind's [sic] soap, brake fluid, Andrew's Liver Salts, guava jelly: Stop by, ask, and see."

Pork is in strong demand at the flourishing meat market next door. The best cuts according to the board: precrural, sub lumbar choin, sub dorsol (local spelling), suprasternal, and prepectoral.

Moving through the milling crowds is a strapping Kittitian (rhymes with Tahitian) dressed in khaki from his pith helmet to his boots. Ruel McIntosh is the local mailman, or postman, as they say here. HE's clutching a wad of mail that would delight a philatelist -- letters with stamps of exotic birds, fish, and fauna that come from the surrounding Caribbean islands.

He's delivering mail to the hundreds of stallholders not home this Saturday market day. "I know dem all," he says, "I know dem for 21 years," which is how long Mr. McIntosh has been delivering the mail here in Basseterre, the capital of St. Kitts. He suggests an introduction to the postmaster. "Where is he?" the visitor asks. A feminine voice replies: "I'm the postmaster."

Dorothy Ferguson, a strikingly tall woman in a red and white seersucker blouse and navy skirt, wears an amused smile at the discomfiture of the male visitor who should have known better. Just days before he was introduced to the traffic commissioner of Basseterre -- also a woman.

Together they fill two important offices in this island of 46,000 people, which, together with its smaller sister island of Nevis, just three miles away, has self-rule but remains a British possession. London has charge of its defence and foreign affairs.

Demands for independence have receded somewhat since the ruling Labour Party lost its majority in last year's election. A coalition now governs the islands, but Postmaster Ferguson believes independence wil l come soon. "It's inevitable , " she says.

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