By Chit Chan Cho
In this age of air-conditioned markets and ingrained notions of milk originating from cartons on counters, the Myanmar wet markets would prove a mild challenge for the carton-accustomed. By no means obsolete, these markets can be found in every township and are most robustly thriving from the patronage of everyone and anyone. It is where the freshest ingredients are to be got, latest gossips are to be had and all the intrigues of the world laid open-quite literally-for the public to prod and pry.
These wet markets are usually endowed with a compound and sheltered structures but the sprawl of hawkers outside, often as not, quite conceal the market itself. The operating hours are between an ungodly 5.00am and slovenly 10.00am. However they ‘kware’, directly translating to mean ‘breaking’ or ‘shattering’, by around 9.00am. Which portends that nothing good is to be had by that villainously late hour. (Fret not, there are night markets for the tardies.) When open, the markets, including the sprawl seen in its full glory, will congeal one in mid-stride. A cacophony of riotous colours and shapes would greet one from the trays laid out at sole-level amidst the mass gathering of the wide-awakes. Vegetables ranging from the mundane to the queer are fanned around their cross-legged proprietors intent on catching the eye of any passer-by. On less colourful trays, fishes with funny names writhe just enough to rile up some or someone’s appetite.
Everything is demand on attention but the lustre loses slight appeal upon entering the sheltered structures where the meat and poultry stands are mostly situated. The occupants of this territory are raised on a pedestal and their wares, dead or alive, enliven the air with their tang and texture. The fragrance of a wet market, no doubt, requires no further need for account, just as the scent of a hospital or a rubbish dump or your hoarding grandmother’s house. In here, the on-goings cannot register on one’s mind instantaneously, due to a possible sensory overload and the niggling notion of a macabre Richard Scarry’s world crowding one’s head. Against the backdrop of a black goo-coated ground and the genial presence of four-legged best friends of men, the flashes of long-tailed critters seemed almost befitting. Dazzled, befuddled or otherwise, one must be game to bargain and anyone foggy on maths and metrics should become snug with the concept of receiving less by paying more.
The stars of the wet markets, indisputably, are the vendors. These vibrant gents and ladies are famed, and make up the stuffing of many an urban legend. The general perceived notion of their persona includes marked volubility, volatility and an inclination to be rather reactionary. They are maths whizzes in their own rights and kings of their castles (or vegetables). Anyone wishing to contest on their terrain must contend with a vehement onslaught of shouts and waving of cleavers. Not forgetting the aiding and abetting from the neighbouring royalties. Many contesters, however, belatedly realise that the sight of cleavers or the promise of publicity did wonder to their sangfroid and desist. Therefore, most heated tiffs are just smoke with no fire, gone with the wind, with little notice.
Such is a one in which a customer (a dry goods royalty herself) was purchasing some powder of sorts from a neighbouring Spice Lady. Nothing out of the ordinary in that, except when she released a shout like a paper bag bursting, and continued screeching like a fiend from hell. There surely was a disagreement. The cause cannot be quite deciphered as the squabble fast degenerated into an exchange of personalities and innuendos. The Spice Lady, evidently less attuned to shouting, ceased responding and simply glared with the intensity of an unhinged Pterodactyl. The gist to be had was as follows:
Dry-goods monarch. Spice-sifter. Former buying a pinch from latter. Supposed payment of a paltry sum. Spice bird denied knowledge of any such payment. Dry-goods then cried blue murder and something about the civility of notification if one was bent on fleecing another.
At this point in the proceedings, the dry-goods lady started rallying any human life in the vicinity for support. She asserted her concern for moral decay rather than naked cash and it roused the Spice-dino to retaliate with un mot juste. There was little neighbourly help in this bout as they were possibly bound by the diplomatic code of not interfering in wars between allies. Thus the fight fizzled before reaching saturation point. A lady of some authority diluted the lukewarm ending further by reproaching both about the preservation of peace.
Quarrels do break out ever and anon but life in the wet market, although not lacking in society, is somewhat repetitive.
“It is rather slow here but I don’t have much to complain about. I have all my friends here. All spinsters like me,” twinkled the careworn little banana lady. It is indeed true that the majority of the customers are female. However, the vendors’ daily 4.00am pilgrimages to the wholesalers would indisputably put a damper on even the bounciest of romantic spirits. What with the tiring physical nature of their work, the biased reputation and the difficulty of appearing to an advantage amidst the blood and goo, all the odds are seemingly against love.
Customers are another reason for love not being in the forefront of their minds. They would come pumped up like old martyrs ready to wring miracles out of them and demand to try, test and taste whatever was on offer barehanded. Unflattering feedbacks of the test products would then be objectively proffered before their rightful claims to discounts. It is with little wonder that the sellers were of a ‘You bite my cheek, I bite your ear’ mental attitude. If they are to be on guard at any one time, there must surely be some reward for their vigilance. And reward they do. When customers ask the customary did-you-give-me-the-best-of-the-best, they would bestow upon them a smile and the time-honoured reply.
This article was previously published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine, InDepth #10 August 2015