Monday, December 28, 2009

mercado central, or; will i be murdered while buying cinnamon?

Here is the Mercado Central, the heartbeat of Sucre and a stark contrast to the prepackaged predictability of Safeway. No two visits are ever the same, and I can never decide whether to be thrilled or terrified when I walk in.
One afternoon we went to explore the spices, wide-eyed at the stacks of bright saffron and curry in sacks the size of 8 year olds. Entranced by the range of colors, I grabbed my camera to document the pointed towers of flavor and was rewarded promptly with a furious 70 year old woman, who shooed us away with a bitterness I assumed was reserved for the gringos alone. It wasn't the first time I'd heard about the strange fury that fruit vendors can possess. Vlad, a Romanian transplant from California, told us that as he examined avocadoes once in the vegetable aisle (paltas, which we were disappointed to discover taste like anise) he was furiously maligned by the old woman at the stand for stealing her products. She embarked on an extensive, detailed rant until the woman one stand over kindly guided him to her selection of paltas and allowed him to inspect them without suspicion. Lifting your own fruit becomes a crap shoot-- you run the risk of being given older, bruised produce if you don't choose your own, but could also become the victim of a screaming Quechua matron if you do.

I understand that the art of photography isn't always appreciated by the subjects, a lesson that was reinforced with my spice section ostracism. I am a slow learner, however, and assumed that if I avoided catching people's faces in photos I could avoid their wrath and still document the impressive piles of their wares. I was sadly mistaken, and almost suffered a concussion while trying to snap this shot of the potato sacks. Right after I took this picture, a furious woman rose up from behind one of the bags with a massive papa in her hand, which she wound up to throw at me while screaming, "POR QUE SACAS FOTOS?!?" I understand that one would be tired of tourists snapping shots of you as an example of the "natives in their natural habitat," but what these women don't understand is Western awe at the sheer amounts of everything in the market. It's something quite stunning when one is accustomed to small portions of plastic-wrapped food that get replaced daily in the supermarkets at home. We can't help but take pictures.

Later that day, however, we discovered that the anger of mercado merchants extends to their own, as well, as two women fought loudly in the meat section until one was disgraced enough to wander away like a defeated buck who had just tangled horns with a much-stronger peer. "We just wanted to buy some butter," we marveled to ourselves, since grocery shopping at home rarely holds the possibility of deep human emotion (unless you are at the Trader Joe's on Roosevelt and run into my favorite bald gay man JoeJoe, for whom running the sample table becomes a wild, loud affair involving everyone in a 30 foot radius and stories from Gay Pride parades a decade ago, while you drink six Dixie cups of coffee in succession and stand riveted to his one man show).
Getting back to the mercado and some things I would like to change about it: the dog issue. The health department would have an absolute coronary at the goings-on of Bolivian perros. They wander freely, peeing liberally underneath the meat stalls, mere inches from the whole pig heads, chicken feet, and heavy racks of cow backs dangling from wires. Our legs turned to jello when we were on the scene of a roaring dog fight, because apparently it's normal in Bolivia to allow your Rottweilers and other attack dogs to wander amongst humans. More than once we have mentally drafted a leash law amendment to add to Evo's new constitution.

Conversely, your market experience could be a delight that leaves you marveling at how wonderful the world can be. Marlo and I have been lucky to find a fruit woman who cuts us thick samples of peaches and plums and mangoes and apples while regaling us with scary stories of La Paz, and thanks us for being loyal to her by tossing extra limes into our bags. We found a potato woman who, instead of yelling at us, asks us about traditional American holiday meals and begged us to teach her how to make baked apples. We buy cunape every day at exactly 4:30, when the little balls of yucca and cheese come out of the oven like clockwork (and never a minute sooner, an unspoken rule), and the sweet couple in the bakery section always laughs when they see us coming, since our order never changes. We buy butter from a lovely woman who gives us advice on how to stay safe in Bolivia, and homemade pasta from another woman who thinks our relationship with the kids from the guarderia (two of whom often are present for mercado adventures) is "just really beautiful." The world's most wonderful people can be found at the mercado central, once you find out who to avoid. Grocery shopping is a potent mix of sights and smells and the absolute inability to guess what will happen that particular day. And I think, besides the amounts of dog urine and fly colonies one has to dodge to get to what you need, I will really miss how alive places like the market are.

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