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(2011 - Fall Issue)


Markets are great windows on foreign cultures.  There, among country people who dress, behave and speak in ways uncompromised by external influences, I have learned much of what I know of the world. 

South American markets are among my favourites. They are as different from each other as are their villages and people. They vary more over any 100-kilometre stretch between Colombia and Argentina than they do between any two points within the immense Canadian-American territory, or between any European countries. Such great differences are due to the varied geography, climate, races, cultures and dress. But they also differ in the agricultural and manufactured products sold and the type of vehicles or animals used to transport people and merchandise.

Local Colour

Markets in South America may offer horse saddles and bridles, donkey packs and lassos; colourful textiles and rugs; Panama hats; jewellery; llama wool; coca leaves; dolphin-sized fish; and an impressive array of grains, vegetables and fruits. Even baskets and hats have their own regional designs.

Not all markets offer a variety of products. In Colombia, for example, Armenia has one dedicated only to plantains, while El Peñol fills its own with cases of tomatoes. Yet they are as quaint and striking as any. Their own colours appear in the looks of their chivas, their shiny refurbished World War II Willys jeeps, and the attire of the people.

Chivasare modified rustic rural transport vehicles with artistically painted wood panels and a roof built upon a bus chassis. Passengers, who cannot find a seat inside on tightly-spaced wooden benches, scramble up onto the roof to straddle 50-kilo bags of coffee and rice. Similarly, the Willys sway dangerously under awesome loads tied with ropes and with people precariously balancing at the back.

The typical male campesinohas his own distinctive way to dress—sombrero, ruana(poncho), a sheathed machete on his belt, and, hanging from his shoulder, a leather wallet big enough to hold a couple of hardcover books. Those Paisas, as they are known, may occasionally be as blonde, tall and wealthy as the average German, yet walk the streets barefoot.

At any market down south, you’ll see more than one opportunist. In Sevilla, Columbia, I saw a horse wearing a sign indicating it would be raffled off on the day and for the same winning number as that of a national lottery.

Unaccustomed to seeing many foreigners, Colombian marketers are among the friendliest. Vendors and shoppers always call me over for a chat. And though they are not rich, they often insist on treating me to a beer or a Coke.

Off to the Market

Traditionally, markets are held in town squares but not always. In Ecuador, towns, such as Riobamba, hold them in seven different squares on the same day, depending on the product, while in Ambato the markets are sprawled across town resulting in many street closures. Quibdó and Bocas de Satinga, in Colombia’s Chocó rainforest, hold them in dugout canoes on the riverbanks.

Markets dealing with animals can be the most comical, though they are often less colourful. Surrounded by onlookers, locals get so involved bartering over a cow or a pig, vehemently defending their individual interests a foot from each other’s faces, that I feel invisible. And there is a whole study to be conducted on how sheep and pigs are brought to market: tied to or pulled by a bicycle; held up by their hind legs and pushed along as wheelbarrows; carried on the back in ponchos or on the head in baskets; hung by the legs, head down, on the side of chivasor ensconced among packed passengers. I have seen 20 chickens inside a tied plastic bag, each head emerging from a tiny hole to allow it to breathe.

Surely the owners of chivashave never ridden in the back of their vehicles. Nor have the farmers ever paused to study the fear and indignation painted on the faces of those poor animals.

Cause for Celebration

South American markets can also be great occasions for celebration. For many South Americans, markets are not only places to buy fresh food and livestock, but also to visit the herb peddler, the lottery vendor, the fortune teller, the card trickster, the snake handler, the cock fight and, of course, old friends—often with accompanying music. When liquor gets into the mix, a woman will take off her husband’s hat and place it on top of hers. Hats are always the first things drunkards lose.

If there is any place away from home where food can be called homemade, it’s at a South American market. This is the kind of food your grandmother used to serve—fresh, hot, wholesome and as aromatic as the herbs and vegetables that go into their preparation. And clean too, for the women prepare it in front of you. At the market there’s always a chance to try something new, such as the meat of llamas, goats or guinea pigs ortamales, arepas, sancochos, chupes de chivo, empanadas, locrosand papas la Huancaína.

South American markets have evolved with the times. Some markets, as in Otavalo, Ecuador, and Pisac, Peru, have become so popular with foreign tourists that much of their wares are increasingly focused on the needs of these visitors. No matter; like all markets, they say much about their countries.

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