The first thing I noticed about Mercado Modelo was the smell. When you put so many fruits, vegetables, spices and meats in one place, and mix it with the natural funkiness that permeates Santo Domingo anyway, you’re left with a sort of fragrant urban stew stuck deep in your nostrils.
And as if all that wasn’t enough to get me in the buying mood, there were the sounds. Traffic—crazy, as it always is in the capital—and voices calling out or arguing over prices, along with music, fast and rhythmic and blaring loudly, which is the way they like it most in the Dominican Republic.
My sister and I, along with our Airbnb hosts, were at the market in search of some very specific items. Our plan was to recreate a dish a friend make for us before we left Chicago—a light, tasty orzo dish with fresh herbs, veggies and dried fruit. Finding the right items at a large, outdoor market would be a challenge anyway, but doing so in an unknown (or unpracticed) language is almost impossible. Enter awesome Airbnb hosts who not only speak Spanish, but can also suggest alternatives when the market doesn’t have exactly what you want.I let my sister and our hosts figure out how much to buy of whichever mysterious item. As for me, I was occupied ducking into little alleys, snapping photos of locals who not only didn’t mind, but suggested photo subjects for me (a phenomenon that’s beginning to irritate me a bit now that I’m always carrying a camera around). In the end, we had no choice but to make our way to the big, indoor supermarket a short car ride away to find a few remaining items that Mercado Modelo didn’t have on offer, and even then had to make do without orzo, the one item on our list that couldn’t easily be replaced.
Before we left, our hosts insisted we take a quick look at the indoor portion of the market, which was filled with souvenirs and other semi-useless items—tacky paintings, anything and everything stamped with “Dominican Republic” and jewelry that was attractive enough, but would almost certainly fall apart quickly. My sister, a recovering shopaholic, found a few things that caught her eye, but was dissuaded by the aggressiveness of the vendors (“Hey, lady! Hey, lady!”). We left the indoor part of the market empty-handed.
Back at home, we whipped up the pasta dish and thanks to all the fresh ingredients from the market, quite enjoyed our little impromptu creation.
Mercado Modelo is good for the fresh produce, but even better for the authentic market experience, as in-your-face as it might be.