Posted on March 18th, 2013
“Saturday is gringo day,” our hostel owner told us. “Prices too high, too many tourists. Don’t go Saturday.”
We were headed to Otavalo, Ecuador, for its famous Saturday market day. People mainly go there for that, hundreds of tourists streaming in to buy hand-knit caps shaped like cartoon characters, Technicolor alpaca sweaters, and “hand-carved” wooden replicas of Machu Picchu (yes, the one in Peru) to put on their mantles or to give to coworkers and pet-sitters. Over the years enough tourists showed up that now every day of the week the central plaza is clogged with souvenirs and mass-produced Andean tchotchkes, but Saturdays are still the big show. On Saturdays the entire town turns into a market, stalls and street vendors snaking through the streets for blocks outside of the central plaza. It’s partially for the tourists, but it’s also because it’s the local market day – the real market day – when farmers and other producers travel in from the countryside to sell their produce and meat and flowers and cloth. Our hostel owner made the mistake of thinking we were going for the crafts, but in reality we were going for everything else.
Along with the farmers and butchers and fishermen and other food producers, hundreds of other entrepreneurial types populate the Otavalo market, selling just about anything else the average Ecuadorian household might need – string and buckets and television parts and car headlights and fake GAP hoodies and mountainous piles of secondhand clothing from the United States. At one edge of the market, people buy and sell live animals, in all sizes, from cows and horses and the largest, hairiest, smelliest sows I’ve ever seen, to newborn chicks and guinea pigs and even live shrimp. Items are sold from tables and cages and plastic tubs and tarps and wicker trays balanced perilously on heads and baskets and wagons and just about any other sort of surface a person can construct. It’s like a dollar store upended itself on top of the biggest farmers’ market/livestock auction you’ve ever seen, in a world without health and safety codes, and what results is a chaotic jumble of plastic and wires and vegetables and feathers and manure and crowds of people, snaking through the streets.
The Otavalo market made American farmers’ markets look like Disneyland.
And this isn’t the only one, by any means. Aside from the particulars of the Otavalo market’s location, most markets in developing countries – whether permanent, daily markets or more temporary ones – have many of the same exciting sorts of things to see and purchase. In Vietnam, I watched a woman spool long pieces of pig intestine around her arm to package it up for a customer, tourists gasping and pointing from a safe distance over by the pirated DVDs across the aisle. In Cambodia, I pointed at a fish (a catfish, to be specific), wriggling around in a plastic tub along with a half-dozen others, and a woman half my size killed and gutted it for me in under a minute, right on the concrete in the middle of the sidewalk. Then she sold its head to the next customer in line, who probably thought I was the craziest person she’d ever seen for not taking it home to add to my own personal stock of fermenting fish parts. In Peru, a jolly middle-aged man flirted with me lewdly in Spanish as he butchered live frogs, the framing on the butcher stalls around him sagging with the weight of dead suckling pigs in clear plastic bags and millions of enchantingly sparkly strands of drying roe. At another market in South America, I picked my way down the sidewalk between piles of twitching burlap sacks, full of live chickens waiting for their new owners to finish shopping. (You’ll note I mention mostly animal-related experiences here – while the mountains of potatoes and olives and mangoes are pretty and delicious, they don’t make for the most exciting of stories. And you can thank me later for not talking in detail about the durian, which unfortunately appears to grow rampantly across huge swaths of the planet.)
There are hundreds of thousands of markets just like these in countries across the world, and I love them. They’re one of the first things I seek out when I travel to a new place, and one of my favorite places to wander around when I have extra time. They’re always a bit jarring, certainly, but at the same time absolutely beautiful and a great reminder of what a food system actually looks like. In these places, it’s just you, the food, and the person who produced that food – people and food, food and people – and no one in between trying to convince you when and how and why to eat it. No marketing, no specials, no shiny signage, no coupons. Nothing ever goes to waste, and everything is seen as a resource.
Back at home in our modern, clean, “civilized” places, I think we like people to forget where food actually came from and what it actually looks like. We like things clean, sequestered behind plastic and glass and paper, veiled to make everything look clean and easy. But food isn’t always clean and easy. (And clean and easy doesn’t always mean safe, let’s not forget.) There’s all kinds of stuff involved in the production of food, and some of that stuff isn’t what most people want to think about when they think about eating. There is blood and there are guts and there is dirt and there is mold and there are bugs and there is poop. It still exists with the food you buy at the grocery store, you just don’t see it there. But animals have blood, and when you cut them up to eat them, blood comes out. Same with guts. (And sometimes poop.) Lots of things grow in dirt (ideally, with a bunch of poop mixed in), and some of those things get mushy or moldy or attract bugs when you don’t want them do. That’s how food works, really. (Well, actually, that’s how nature works, but the connection between the two is pretty clear, especially in these markets.)
I like going to markets in exotic places because they remind me of all of this. They remind me that food requires a lot to produce – a lot of hard, backbreaking work, a lot of natural and material resources, and a lot of time. It takes people and animals and a million other living things to make it all happen. These experiences remind me that meat comes from animals (not that I regularly forget that, but I like it to be in my face every once in a while), and that produce comes from plants that consist of more than just the parts we normally eat. They remind me that people eat all sorts of different things – different parts and different types and different shapes and sizes and colors and flavors of food – and that what I eat in my normal, daily life at home is only a small, in fact infinitesimally small, selection of what the world eats.
There’s no denying the farmyard, the farmworker, the livestock, or the fisherpeople in these markets, and when you consider all of those you start to consider a food system much bigger than the material that ends up in your mouth. Wendell Berry said a really great thing once about eating being agricultural, and when I shop in these markets I start to see how simultaneously obvious and important that statement is.
Not that shopping at or even just visiting these places is always easy. Beyond the issues of language and translation and pricing and simply identifying what the items for sale actually are, there are certainly issues of health and safety. Health codes in these places are fairly nonexistent, and I’ve seen and smelled my way through some pretty gnarly markets and have spent plenty of time crossing my fingers that the restaurant where I just ate didn’t buy their meat from the stands in front of me. But I try to remember that my body naturally possesses intuition about food that is safe and food that isn’t, with my nose in particular helping me to weed out what I should and shouldn’t ingest. Then there’s the fact that people in these places eat this food, and that they generally like getting sick from eating just about as much as I do. My home world has fairly well-defined cultural standards for what food should look like and where it should come from, but every time I buy something from these markets I try to break those down a bit. I eat what looks good, and try to turn my energy away from being nervous and instead toward how exciting food can be, and how much it can teach me about the world I live in.
And besides all of that, nothing beats the victorious feeling of managing to put a meal together – successfully communicating the purchase of ingredients by hand gestures and smiles alone, cooking in the makeshift kitchens of hostels and homestays, and then making it the next 24 hours without any sort of digestive retaliations. It’s travel at its best.