Jamaica Magazine

Montegonians Go to the Market by American Retiree in Jamaica

There are 2 markets in Montego Bay. The smaller one is Gully Market located near City Centre. The other one is Charles William Gordon Market or Fustic Market which is one block from Barnett St. The focus will be on the Fustic Market where I purchase my fresh fruits and vegetables.

This market is open six days a week from early morning to dusk. Things are slow at the beginning of the week but pick up for the busy days, Friday and Saturday. The market is mostly an open area surrounded by an 8 foot high wall. Numerous entrances can be found around the perimeter. There are 2 main buildings which house both produce booths and a meat market. Outside the main buildings, each vendor has their own piece of ground in which to sell their goods. Some are lucky enough to have wooden stalls for shelter, while others only have a piece of tarpaulin with which to display their goods. Tarpaulins are interwoven above most vendors to protect the produce and the vendor from the sultry hot sun and the all too frequent sudden downpours. The ground is either a dust bowl or a gigantic mud bath.

The vendors are called higglers and come from all the surrounding parishes. Most of them are women but there are a few men scattered amongst them. Some of these people have been there 15 to 20 years. The women usually wear long, roomy dresses over pants or shorts. Over this they have an apron with large pockets where they keep their money. Each vendor pays a fee of $1200JA($60US) for their spot. There is an unwritten rule that each vendor has the same spot each week. Woe to the one who takes someone else’s space! Women fighting is not a pretty sight.

Most of the higglers, and there are over 150 of them, buy their produce from the local farmers near their homes. Other higglers purchase their produce which arrives at the market in a very old and colorful bus. Many of these higglers sleep inside one of the main buildings. This saves traveling back and forth to the market and allows them to keep an eye on their produce. As you walk among the vendors, you will notice many sell the same items. Most sell for the same price with the only difference being the quality of the fruits and vegetables. Some vendors are more generous with their weights than others. It took me several months of trial and error before I settled on the folks I do business with today.

Most of what I buy comes from Dawn, Gloria, and Terry(one of the few men in the market). If they don’t have what I want, they direct me to someone who is trustworthy. During those first few months I found some vendors who inflated their prices because of the color of my skin. I’m in the minority at this market. Most non Jamaicans and middle and upper class Jamaicans send their “helpers” to do the shopping. For those shoppers with large orders, there are young men who will transport your purchases in a trolley from the market to your car or taxi. A trolley is a handmade cart with a steering wheel and brakes. Each one is about 6 feet in length and 2 feet in width. They all slope from a high in the front to a low in the back. As crowded as the marketplace is, these trolleys travel at speeds much too fast. In three years of shopping at the market, I have never seen an accident and only heard of one. Truly amazing! There are probably twenty or more at any given time, maneuvering at these incredible speeds to get to the next customer. Somewhat similar to taxis on the road.

Time is money! Most higglers have scales. Those who don’t, share with those around them. The scales are more for the customer than for the higgler. The older and more experienced higglers can bag a pound just by the feel of it in their hands. Some have handed me a pound without weighing it. I asked if they would weigh it for me and it was right on the money. Reasons why I shop here instead of the supermarket are fresher produce and lower prices. It is also an enjoyable experience of Jamaican culture which dates back to colonial times. It is something I look forward to every week!

About the author

John Casey