January 11, 2009
Chichicastenago is a town in the highlands of Guatemala. At 2023 meters above sea level, it enjoys crisp weather with a decided nip in the air at this time of the year. There is enough of a nip for the locals to shuffle around under multiple colorful layers and for the tourists to make beelines for café tables in the sun. A small town with a population of a thousand or so, it swells to three or four times that number on market days. The tradition of a weekly market started many centuries ago when people from the surrounding countryside would come into town on Sundays to trade goods. In the old days they would walk long distances hauling their goods on donkeys or on their backs. They still come to sell and trade now albeit on ramshackle buses and vans crowded with large sacks and overflowing baskets. The market is much grander these days and they arrive the day before to set up shop.
As the rosy fingers of sunset streaked across the sky yesterday, I watched people stake out spots around the central plaza. Bamboo poles, wooden beams and planks make up the ribs of the stalls as they are maneuvered into position making some of the structures are two storeys tall. They are then covered in plastic sheeting to keep out the rain and then every inch is covered with wares until the ribs are no longer visible. The stalls around the plaza seemed more or less permanent but as dusk stretched into evening, more vendors arrived and the stalls mushroomed along the streets. Where there wasn’t a stall a piece of tarpaulin lay spread on the ground with merchandise piled on it.
Today it is ablaze with color. Most of the stalls nowadays is geared toward tourists and carry a variety of products made by local artisans. Beautifully embroidered quilts, tablecloths, napkins and scarves flutter down from long beams overhead. Piles of woven materials – huipiles, cortes, cushion covers, and table runners lie on tables and shelves in tempting arrays. Some of the stalls carry carved wooden objects. Rows of masks nailed to the wooden beams stare down balefully at potential buyers. Candleholders, plaques and bowls in every possible size are arranged along every surface. Next to them are brightly painted pottery bowls, cups and plates. The cries of the hawkers is occasionally drowned out by music blasting from the stall selling DVDs and CDs. In the distance is the discordant honking of horns. The narrow spaces between the stalls are packed with tourists, their arms laden with purchases. Some women and children squeeze in between carrying belts, bags, table cloths and wooden bowls, thrusting them under noses hoping to make a sale. The crowd is so dense that individual direction is forgotten. I move, carried along by the crowd and spurt out like toothpaste from a tube at the edge of the market.
Behind the artisan front, deeper inside are other stalls catering to the locals. Readymade sweaters, shirts, pants and dresses are piled in a heap in one stall. Most if not all are Chinese-made, of polyester and nylon and come in eye-popping colors. A bilious green and neon pink seem to be particular favourites this season. The stall next to it has bras the size of buckets, socks with frilly edges and underwear festooned with Mickey mouse silhouettes. Not to be outdone, the stall next door selling hairbands and ribbons has several hairclips sporting Minnie mouse. A little further on an old man squats next to a pile of horse harnesses – the smell of just-cured leather, an effective advertisement within a five meter radius. There are long machetes in functional leather scabbards. Women dressed in traditional clothes walk down an aisle lined with sacks of beans and stop at the man selling dried fish. A turkey pops its head out of the basket it is imprisoned in along with a few other chickens. On the fringes and up the steps of the nearby church are women selling fruits and flowers. A couple of shops selling religious paraphernalia occupy the bottom of the steps. A huge sack of incense that looks like wood chips stands guard at the door.
Following my nose I come upon a couple of vendors selling the usual beef and onion on tacos liberally doused in tomato ketchup and picante. Next is a man selling batter-fried chicken and french fries. Deep inside the market there is a section where food is served in permanent with stalls. Each is a tiny open-fronted cubicle made of cement and bustling with activity today. Women stand slapping out tortillas on flat griddles, chopping onions at an unnerving pace and stirring bubbling pots on the fires. The aromas of beef, chicken and pork lace the air and the chatter of diners at the long tables drowns out the call of hawkers.