by Jose Kevo
March 23, 2005
The market has a reputation for being a pickpocket's haven, and while I've never had reason to suspect problems, clutching backpacks in front is still a good idea to keep from bulldozing through narrow confines. Sales clerks are eager without being pushy; their Caribbean color further illustrated with wall-to-wall paintings. Styles of impressionistic Haitian art are finally giving way to Dominican talent using realism for creating local scenes and people. Works by nationally-known painter Rubén Gonza are definitely ones to ask for, or venture upstairs to the abandoned second floor where budding artists sit beside windows painting scenes from below.
Anyone coming to the market is guaranteed to be short-changed if only browsing inside. What awaits around the outer perimeter is how locals crudely define shopping based on needs. Mountains of produce, spices, and meats processed on-the-spot dominate the daily selections amid cultural encounters like none other. Mindful observance from the merchants indicates how few travelers actually explore beyond the tourist trap. Photo opportunities are endless while still respecting the locals, some immediately covering their faces at sight of a camera.
Across from the Mercado, shops selling souvenirs and artifacts are wall-to-wall for several blocks heading east along Avenida Mella until Avenida Duarte. Stores are less crowded and chaotic, and owners appeared more eager to barter prices, especially farther away from the heavy traffic area. Selections are basically the same, but it’s easier to browse in the more spacious settings.
Unique treasures plundered on this voyage included various-sized, wide-bordered picture frames matted with banana leaves, pods, and other dried flora for under $12. Island-influenced ceramics were equally priced, and the owner gave a two-for-one special on six-packs of shot glasses set in beveled leather with matching a case for RD800/$27.50. Smaller selections, like postcards, trinkets, and magnets, were tossed in for free.
Combined shelf price was over $140, but I was charged $87, only because I paid with cash. Tourist-related stores have signs indicating they accept credit cards, but Dominicans don't seem to like them. Shops add an additional percentage of total sales onto credit cards and do away with discounts all together.
The Zona Colonial is littered with shops as well as individuals that try and lure travelers to various places. Should you buy something, whatever price paid includes commission for the guide. The heaviest concentration of shopping is around Parque Colón and the pedestrianized El Conde, which also has an interesting array of street vendors. Unique finds are waiting in the equivalent of $1 department stores, where island flair can turn ordinary house wares and supplies into rare-find gifts and mementos.
From journal Legacy Lullabies: Rocking the New World's Cradle