The roosters in Gros-Morne start their screeching around four in the morning, which might explain why life in this Haitian town is already well under way by six. Motorbikes are zipping down the rubble-strewn roads, their drivers honking tinny horns as they navigate around pedestrians and potholes and donkeys. Schoolchildren march by wearing backpacks and neat uniforms; women balancing giant bundles on their heads gossip en route to market.
I've come to this part of Haiti to learn about the mango industry—what many see as a bright spot on otherwise grim economic and environmental fronts—but what I mostly hear about is Madame Ti Roche. The deputy mayor? He eats at her Ideal Bar Restaurant whenever his wife isn't around to cook. The head of the region's leading mango cooperative? Sunday nights invariably find him picking his way through a plate of Madame's chile-flecked poisson rouge. The truckers, the priests, the foreigners and NGO folks who rumble through this dusty outpost—they all turn up at Madame's at one point or another. It's a comfort in a place with few of them.
When I flew to Haiti to do some reporting just after last year's earthquake, I'd expected things to be rough. But returning this time, I had allowed myself hope for some improvement. On the four-hour drive from Port-au-Prince to Gros-Morne, though, the misery pretty much assaults me at every turn. There are the shantytowns materializing on the hills outside of the capital, slapped-together communities of cardboard and bedsheets and bright-blue foreign-issue tarpaulins. There is mountain beyond mountain denuded of plant life; endless stretches of road bordered by nothing but dirt and debris; plastic bottle—clogged rivers; men far too old for work, sweating beneath the weight of medieval-looking carts.
But there is also the sun-sweetened papaya I pick up in Saint-Marc, and the Madame Francis mangoes that will become the staple of my diet over the next few days. Wildly aromatic, they are also intensely juicy and hopelessly stringy—hard to eat, but impossible to resist. In Gros-Morne (or Gwo-Mòn, in Creole—Big Mountain, in any case), I wander the open-air market, where women sit beneath plastic canopies minding bundles of cilantro, thyme, and parsley, little pyramids of oranges, passion fruits, and mirlitons. From a young girl I buy a gloriously sticky cluster of peanuts and cane syrup vibrant with the zing of fresh ginger. Women motion for me to inspect their garlic and shallots, their plastic basins, enamel plates, and preworn blouses, in a way that suggests they expect something from me, but not really.