Sunday, March 03, 2013

Market Day in Chichicastenango or How to Live Without Wheels

There are markets and then there is Chichicastenango. A small town in the highlands of Guatemala, their biweekly market puts all other markets -- indoors or outdoors -- to shame.

For hundreds of years, this market town has served the villages of the highlands. Different tribes would gather here to exchange, barter, do transactions of all sorts. And pick up supplies for the week. As you know, the Mayans for all their technological advances, did not have the wheel, so everything was transported on someone's back...or head.

When we arrived in the town, the center was already a confused mess of stalls and the place was a-buzz with vendors getting ready for the Big Day -- which comes every week, on Sunday. Huge trucks squeeze past each other on the Main Thoroughfare (no bigger than the others, but definitely more congested). A giant tanker comes down, making a smaller truck loaded with cows and bulls back up and turn. Meanwhile, another truck struggles to get up the steep road, its tires slipping on the smooth cobblestones. In the highlands, all towns are incredibly steep, like condensed and amplified San Franciscos.

People are hauling poles and tables and lugging stacks of cartons. Boys carry huge wooden tables up impossibly steep inclines. A giant table on a tiny back. From afar, you see only a floating table making its way up the hill. Like magic. Women with piles of shawls or skirts stacked high on their heads march along resolutely, expertly weaving through the crowds. Multihued fabric, intricate needlework, brightly colored produce, painted masks and other crafts... I am tripping out on the colors.

We get a plate dinner at one of the market comedors (open air eateries.) In Japan, we have the "teishoku" -- a set meal that comes with rice, miso soup, a vegetable dish of some sort, a small appetizer-sized something, pickles and the main dish. The Guatemalan plate is sort of like a simplified version of that -- with rice, soft pureed beans, tortillas and a meat of some sort. Sometimes it will have a fried plantain, or a small salad, too. I got a plate with BBQ'd ribs -- tiny but tasty with a fantastic fresh tomato sauce that exploded with sweet, savory and tart flavors. Big Dog went for his usual carne de res (beef slices marinated and grilled.) When we were done, it was after 8pm but people were still busy setting up.

Market day is a sensory assault. Sort of like a Hong Kong market. On steroids. There is madness, crowds, noise. Vendors are calling out to customers, there is music blaring from the church, singing, too. Incense collides with grilled meat, car exhaust fumes, dust. All the ladies are in outrageously embroidered tops and even the skirts have bands of colorful embroidery. Old ladies with grey hair pulled back and tied with colorful ribbons walk on their knees on the cobblestoned entrance to the church, swinging coffee cans of smoking incense.

The market is definitely a tourist destination. Some arrive the day before but many come for the day, on giant tour buses from Guatemala or Antigua. So as not to disappoint these throngs of foreign shoppers, locals have set up numerous stalls selling goods only a non-Mayan could want -- beautifully embroidered vests, bags of all sorts made of handwoven fabric, handicrafts and souvenirs. Even the non-vendors get into the mercantile swing of things. An old lady came up to us in the smaller church, holding out a little terracotta figurine. She wanted 250 quetzales for the thing. Do we look like bozos with too much money?

We may not think we look as goofy as some of the tourists, but I doubt the locals make such distinctions. We ALL look like dumb tourists with too much money.

Thankfully, the whole thing is not a tourist market. There is a very real element to it. One street was Poultry Alley, with villagers buying and selling live poultry -- chicks, chickens, turkeys. The birds are amazingly tame and seem happy to be tucked under the arm of a big mamma or just sit around their owner. There's a cattle market on the edge of town, and probably pigs and goats somewhere, too.

Another street was Used Goods Road, with all sorts of used clothing, appliances, utensils, tools. We wondered who was going to buy the shoes that were not part of a pair. "Oh, look, a left sneaker to replace mine with the hole!" There are men repairing shoes, women selling flowers, more comedors inside the awning area as well as outside. Roving vendors make their way through the packed stalls selling donuts and soup and tortillas to the vendors tending stalls.

The market streets are closed to traffic -- you can hardly pass through with all the people -- and the other streets are filled with parked and moving vans, trucks, buses, tuk-tuks. One van was completely packed inside, with more men on the roof and hanging on the back. Everyone's got a big bundle of something: merchandise, empty bottles, babies...

In the late afternoon, the shops catering to the tourists start packing up. The tour buses have taken away the majority of non-Guatemalans. Aisles between stalls are less congested and things are tranquilo for a moment, but then a few hours later, it is madness again when it is wrap-up time for everyone. Vendors start closing shop, hauling their wares back to their vehicles. The ones who have finished packing up early start eating and drinking. Men carry three times their size and weight -- giant bags, stacks of boxes. Some loads are so big they need help getting them strapped onto their backs. I have never seen so many people in one place carrying so much. In fact, I have never seen anyone carrying so much. And up such steep hills. Little boys, old ladies, old men...everyone is a human pack mule in the Land Without Wheels.

Of course, today, there ARE wheels and there are many rickety old (and overloaded) carts being pushed up hills so steep I have to lean forward to walk. It almost looks like carrying the loads would be easier. It looks pretty incredible so I can understand why tourists would want to take photos, but Big Dog is different. He can never stand by and watch. (I love this about BD.) Jumping in, he begins pushing the overloaded cart. He's much bigger than the tiny man pushing the cart and so it suddenly lurches forward, making the guy in front who is pulling the cart turn around to see what was going on. He is shocked to see a gringo helping out and his eyes go all big. (Maybe he is shocked to see anyone helping out.) The other vendors laugh, we smile...and then the cart makes a turn onto another street.

"Adios, hard workers! Adios, Chichi!"

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