Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

INSIDE THE Marketplace

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

INSIDE THE Marketplace

Article excerpt

These colorful places of commerce and social interaction are an enduring face of popular culture throughout South America

Markets are some of the best windows on foreign cultures.

There, among the country people who sell their grain, vegetables, fruits, prepared food, livestock, and handicrafts--and who dress and behave and speak in ways less subject to outside influences--I have learned much of what I know of the world, particularly of its less developed parts, where customs die harder.

Oftentimes, people there don't mind the stranger with a camera. With the exception of a couple of Andean Indians in Ecuador and Bolivia, who, half jesting, threw beans and small potatoes at me for aiming a camera at the, they don't mistrust my intentions. As they are naturally friendly, they assume that I am too. They don't chide me or try to hide from me. In Colombia, where they don't see many tourists, they can be even too eager to pose, though they will act naturally if asked to. "Hey! Gringo," they'll call. "Come here. Let's chat." They're as curious as they're relaxed, and have as much interest in me as I have in them. "Where are you from? Why are you here?" Though often poor, they'll insist on buying me a beer, or offer a piece of fruit that is common to them, exotic to me.

South American markets are as different from each other as are their villages and people. They vary more over any hundred-mile stretch between Colombia and Argentina than they do between any two points of the immense Canadian-American territory or between any European countries. The differences reside first in geography, climate (determined either by latitude or altitude or both), race, culture, dress, speech, and even vocabulary. But also in the agricultural and manufactured products sold and the type of vehicles or animals used for the transportation of people and merchandise. The market is the place to find horse saddles and bridles, donkey packs, and lassos (distinct styles between Mexico and Argentina); colorful textiles and rugs; Panama hats; llama wool and fat; coca leaves; six-foot pans to dry grated manioc over the fire; and fish as tall--once hung from their mouths--as the small men who fished them. Things that are needed everywhere, like baskets and hats, will have their own regional designs (different hats used to identify the origin of every subject of the Inca empire).

Not all markets offer a variety of commodities, however. In Colombia, for example, Armenia, Quindio, has one dedicated only to plantains, and El Penol, Antioquia, one filled exclusively with cases of tomatoes. Yet they are as quaint, as striking as any: There are the chivas (trucks that have been artistically painted and equipped with too many hard, tightly spaced wooden benches to serve as buses) that arrive so full that you would take the passengers inside for refugees; the shiny, refurbished World-War-Two Willys jeeps; and the typical attire of the local paisas (poncho-like ruana, hat, machete, and a huge leather wallet worn on a shoulder belt), who may occasionally be as blond and tall and wealthy as your average German, yet may walk the streets barefoot. At any market, you'll see more than one opportunist. At that of Sevilla, another Colombian town, I saw a horse wearing a sign that said that he would be raffled on the day and for the same winning number as that of a national lottery.

Traditionally, markets have been held in town squares. Some towns, like Riobamba, Ecuador, hold them in seven different places on the same day, according to the product. …

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