As if Haiti needs another way to flaunt the economic disparity amongst foreign NGO workers and the people they are trying to help, a rich Haitian family has decided to open what is now the Cadillac of grocery stores smack dab in the middle of Petionville. Just blocks away from not one, but two tent cities, the behemoth of a building aptly lives up to it’s name: “Giant.”
You walk inside and enter another world, one that’s filled with happiness and overconsumption. It’s almost like when you walk in the doors you leave Haiti and enter Whole Foods in America, in which every item is priced 10 times higher than you would buy the same items on the street (if they are even available on the street). The men stationed at the cold-cuts counter wear chef hats, the produce section is laid out like a cornucopia of vegetables and fruits that they decided to import from other countries, instead of buying locally, of course.
But the real reason this grocery store stands out from the rest is the sheer amount of choices. In most grocery stores here you can usually get what you need, minus the hundreds of options we are allowed in the States. While Jillian and I could not find refried beans for about 6 months here, everything else is cyclical, almost like every grocery store here lines up at the same shipping container every month and all of a sudden they all have Ginger Ale for a week or two. But at this place they always have ginger ale…in about 15 different varieties.
But you walk around with your little European style shopping trolley/basket and fill it with items that cost more than Haitians make in a day removing rubble. “Oh! Some brie! That would be delicious with some brown sugar and walnuts!” You pick it up, throw it in your cart, and bury your intense feelings of guilt knowing that the local population usually only enters this store to buy one item they urgently need because they don’t have time to locate it in the sprawling street market just blocks away. At another grocery store I was approached by a man in the milk section: “Will you help me buy formula for my baby?” he asked. “I’m sorry,” I awkwardly said and then walked away to go pick up pre-shredded cheese for Mexican night…bury, bury, bury.
I went with Jillian and my’s friend, Devon, who was visiting the city from the country-side town of Jeremie, and she almost couldn’t handle the choices. She walked through the store like a kid in a candy shop, realizing that if they had 75 different kinds of cereal, that was 74 more than the store has where she lives. She couldn’t believe her options, and decided to shop simply to stock up on cookies and other things that don’t reach the rural outskirts of Haiti.
But as you walk through the isles you notice something, or the lack of it. Where are the toiletries? Where are the cleaning supplies? Where is everything that is not edible? Well, that’s easy, you see. You simply take the ELEVATOR to the next floor!!!
Now, I haven’t been in Haiti for long, but I know for sure that this is only the second elevator that I’ve EVER been on while living here (the other is in the US embassy). This place has two, one to bring you to the second floor, and the other to bring you to the parking lot underneath the building. (Judging by the recent history of this country I will not be parking our trusty chariot, Pinotage, in the garage downstairs…)
But you go to the second floor, and it’s just like the first, but with every non-edible item you would ever need. You walk down the isles wondering if you are in a dream, until you turn the corner and see it…they have a wine shop! As if they needed to add to the incredible ridiculousness of this place, they have dedicated an entire area just to wine and liquor. It was here that I saw an employee bring a customer what appeared to be a piping-hot espresso…in a silver cup…on a silver tray…in a grocery store…in Haiti. I could not make this stuff up.
So like a Nickelodean Toy’s R Us Shopping Spree, Devon and I barreled through the isles as fast as we could, grabbing what we could hold, and sprinted to the counter, hoping that we weren’t just going to wake up. We checked out to bills that were far too expensive considering the country-context, and left feeling slightly overwhelmed.
And while getting excited about a grocery store may not make sense to many of you readers in the States, for those of you in Haiti, you will totally understand. Like I said before, there are a handful of grocery stores here already that have the items that we’re used to eating, so it’s not like we were struggling before. But this place makes all the rest of the grocery stores look like amateur-hour, and it could probably fit all the other grocery stores in it’s two stories of awesomeness.
But it’s funny, because when Jillian and I go to the States to visit it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the choices and the excessiveness that is the
capitalistic U.S. of A. After living in Haiti, that lifestyle is hard to swallow, but because everything there is like that it’s easier to accept. But here, this store, with it’s choices and it’s sheer humongousness, seems so out of place in a country that is inundated with poverty. It’s almost a good lesson to make you realize how ridiculous that lifestyle is, without the ability to write it off because everyone lives that way. You cannot avoid the tent cities on either side of this place, so no matter where you’re going after you just dropped 50 bucks on fun sauces and cheese, you are forced to remember how bad it is for the people that can’t afford to shop at a place like that.
Now I’m not saying that I won’t be returning to Giant, in fact I’ve been there again since I went with Devon, but I don’t think that the guilt will be going away anytime soon. It impossible not to feel bad buying such expensive food when others don’t even have a house. But having this little sliver of excessiveness is nice in some ways, because it’s comforting to know that if you had a really really bad day, you can just head over to Giant and grab a tub of Starbucks’ Signature Hot Chocolate ice cream, curl up by the oscillating fan, close your eyes, and think about home.