Going on four weeks now I have become attuned to the hum and ways of daily life here. From my observations I have learned a few things: If getting into a taxi one must always set the price beforehand as to not get scammed. Lunches and dinners can often be found for a set-price (menu de dia) in which one receives a full meal that is significantly cheaper and much better in taste than any “western restaurant”. Clothes are washed by hand and then hung out to dry. Younger children go to school in the morning hours while older children go in the evening. In smaller towns, traffic signals don’t really exist and instead cars rely on a sort of “honor-system” that involves a bit of luck, a lot of honking, and confidence that your vehicle can speed up fast enough to avoid a crash. And, lastly, the marketplace is the place to go if you want to find anything.
Food, clothing, kitchen utensils, livestock, trinkets, fabrics, silverware, dead meat, live meat, sweets, hardware, shoes. You name it, it’s in the market.
While each country I’ve visited has been unique in many ways, one stable aspect of every city and town is the market. From the vast indoor maze of Cali’s food market to the colorful explosion of Otavalo’s craft markets, I have indulged in each experience because there is always something new to see that I didn’t see beforehand. Bargaining is the way to go if you want to buy something. It’s taken me a little while to get the hang of it because for most of my life I’ve been surrounded by set prices and simply accepting them. Shyly at first I would ask for a price, fearing rejection, and then maybe counter once or twice more to the price in question. Unconfident, I feel as if I was often duped in those early interactions. Now, I have learned that you must be bold and be demanding with the price you want (without being too ridiculous, the sellers must make a living too and I respect that).
Over the weeks, learning the worth of items has also helped in these bargaining sessions. Food is generally cheap and most sellers give you the accurate price straight up. I have not needed to bargain as much for food as for material items, such as blankets and clothing. In Otavalo, Ecuador, the small town boasts the largest open-air craft market in South America. We spent a good few hours running around in the maze of stalls, drunk on the colors and materials at every turn. It was here that I had to bargain the most. For the items on display here, from alpaca sweaters to silver jewerly, the sellers would give you a price that would be twice, sometimes, three times the worth of what you’re looking to buy. I was locked in a session with an indigenous woman for a beautiful handmade tapestry. She asked for $28, I said $15, she said $25, I said $17. This interaction went back and forth until we both settled for $20. I am now a proud owner of said tapestry.
Otavalo's craft market adventure
As much as the goods markets satisfy my materialistic urges, I have found that the food markets are the most interesting and provide enough mental stimulation that I am constantly wanting to go back. In two words: sensory overload. Your senses are assaulted. Your nose has a workout with smells of all kind - pepper, fish, vegetables, bread, meat, cheese - and tries it’s best to identify each and every one. Your eyes try and adapt and discern all the moving parts around you. They tear up when you go near the spice stalls and they try and dart away when you see the fresh organs of various livestock. They are spoiled when looking over the pastries, drizzled in sugarcane syrup and warm to the touch, and you resist the urge to pick one up and bite in. They quickly gaze over the set lunch prices from the multiple authentic and cheap eateries. For your ears, you can barely hear yourself think over the sounds of grain falling into bags, people yelling for that chicken or this fish, and food sizzling on greasy grills. It’s maddening and I have had minimal beforehand experience with such sights.
The markets here remind me deeply of my market experiences in Tangier, Morocco, a short trip I took in the fall of 2016. For the fast paced and abounding aspects of those markets parallel the mazes of food and crowded shops of items here down south. I have been to farmers markets and pop-up markets in the United States and Europe but they all seem quite bland compared to the market atmosphere here. I attribute this to a few things - stricter hygienic standards and the abundance of brand name stores that, simply put, have everything. Walmart, Cosco, Wegmans, Stop & Shop. These types of stores provide westerners convenient, clean, and reliable access to the items they need. To be clear, I am not stating that one is better than the other, rather I am commenting on the differences.
If anything, the western version of markets lack one crucial aspect - human interaction. With every transaction in these South American markets, you must talk to someone. You’re surrounded by other people as you jostle through the stalls and must be conscious of the volume of your voice if you want to be heard. You must get the sellers attention, ask questions about the quality, ask for the price. It is an intimate conversation and I have learned that these interactions are the life and blood that keep these markets alive. In the west, it is a much more solitary outing as you pick and choose what you’re looking for, have an awkward conversation with the cashier, and then walk out of the store.
I’m sure that when I go back up north I will be very aware of how different marketplaces are - whether it’s for food or for goods. The lack of strong smells and loud sounds, the brightness of the the artificial lights on packaged meats and pasteurized dairy. The hanging clothing on neatly arranged racks, all with a shiny price tag attached to the sleeve. But until then, I entertain myself by getting lost in the marketplace mazes, absorbing the intimacy that can only be created by the collision of goods and people.