It is market day in Ollantaytambo, Peru and Logan has decided he will not accompany me this time around. Unable to ascertain my reasons for the pinprick of anxiety over the prospect of this solo venture, I respond indifferently, “That’s fine, I’ll be right back.” I toss the cloth sack over my shoulder with strained nonchalance.
Seasoned travelers often encouraged us to seek out town markets in Central America, proclaiming their superior quality and economic benefits. We didn’t yet understand the draw of the municipal market. There were supermarkets with posted prices and thrice washed bagged lettuce to be had beneath the comfort of fluorescent lighting. Venture into the musty shadows of the municipal market? You must be crazy.
Tattered flip flops sound my presence on the cobblestone streets and I’m greeted merrily by every one I pass up. Why am I walking so fast? The market comes into view. A large, cement building with dozens of stalls, colorful wears, colorful people, lighted only by open doorways and the occasional gap in the roof. I take note of my increased heart rate. Deep breath. It’s only the market.
We found our road rhythm somewhere in Colombia and with measured confidence we ventured further off the beaten track. There were no apples stamped with Fuji stickers to be found in these dirt road towns. No perfectly saran wrapped meat to sustain the red visage we recognize as fresh. We found ourselves thrust into the market scene out of necessity. And we’ve never looked back.
Dozens of faces angle toward me with anticipation, my position as an outsider is evident. Shabby jeans and long red hair pull a sharp contrast to the vibrantly patterned petticoats and thickly braided tresses. It’s an exhilarating experience every single time. I’m inundated with offers the moment I step inside.
Senorita, venga a ver a mis paltas!
(Miss, come see my avocadoes!)
Senorita, aqui, aqui!
(Miss, come here, come here!)
Gringita bonita, tengo duraznos deliciosa!
(Pretty little gringa, I have delicious peaches!)
I can’t explain why, but the lively old women who call me mamacita win me over every time. When they see I’ve decided on their stall, their eyes light up with a curious mix of mischief and relief. A grandmother, maybe a great-grandmother. Her face is deeply tanned and her eyes sparkle, crinkling around the edges displaying years of laughter in a single smile.
The urge to pick one of everything is great. Huge avocados that seem ready to burst and tender tomatoes so juicily red I can barely contain my greedy fingers. “Cuanto cuesta?” (how much?) I ask as casually as I can muster, testing the weight of the avocado in my hand. There it is again. That mischievous twinkle. She is measuring her own cavalier demeanor with care when she responds “dos soles,” and her eyes dart up to meet my own.
I’m certain I’ve coughed up the gringa price more than once on this trip to the market. But at the inflated price of 50 centavos ($0.17 US) for a head of lettuce, the cost for my foreign status, I’m more than happy to oblige. Shopping at the town markets is something we should have done from the start. It helps the local producers, our cultural immersion, and pocketbooks on both sides.
Leaving the market with my overstuffed sack of groceries, I know I’m not alone. I share a secret smile with the ladies I’ve done business with this morning. We both privately thrill in our triumph, she pockets her coins with satisfaction, and I tear into that avocado with unabashed delight.