Feb 17, 2005
|The great draw of Chichicastenango is its Thursday and Sunday market. Vendors arrive from neighboring villages on Wednesday and Saturday nights to set up shop, and tourists come in hordes the following mornings to begin their bargaining for a variety of gorgeous handmade textiles, woodwork, jewelery, pottery and clothing.
What is so unique about the Chichi market is that, unlike most other artisan markets we had experienced that cater mainly to tourists, it is a market for locals as well, who come to shop for their food and household needs for the week.
We had heard that it was worth staying in town on the night before the market in order to see the vendors setting up their stalls in the center plaza. It is easy to take for granted the remarkable amount of work these people do in a day in order to prepare for such an event. This is because we had never truly seen the act from start to finish. The textiles and other handicrafts are just amazing in and of themselves, and you are constantly in awe of the colors, the weaving abilities of the women, and the overwhelming quantity that is produced. You forget that at the end of the day, everything must be taken down, boxed, and lugged away- lugged away meaning most often carried on heads or backs to chicken buses where the goods are then thrown on the roof, and hopefully arrive at their destination.
On the Wednesday evening we arrived in Chichi, there were several stalls already set up in the plaza. Wooden poles, 17 feet tall some, were tied loosely with rope to create a hanging space for goods. In the center of these stalls was a more permanent market, a space for fruits, vegetables, hardware items, razor blades, kids shoes, piles of "Ropa America" (American clothing), chicks in cages and boxes, tortillas, very aromatic smoked fish, raw beef and bloody chicken pieces. It is dark in here, and people are bunkered beneath their selling spots, many of them passed out from exhaustion, or kept subdued by the delicacy of their prospects. Older vendors, whose life of endless work seems to seep out of their wrinkling skin, doze off in small piles of potatoes.
Our hotel sat at the bottom of a steep hill leading away from the market and heading for the town cemetery. As we returned there just after dusk the market was still in an early stage of production. From the hotel roof we saw a man, hard to tell his age, with a table on his back. The table had a rope drawn around it that was fixed with a piece of worn leather that the man strapped on his brow. Without exaggeration the table was twelve feet long, four feet wide, and made of a solid wood. Thinking that he might need help we went out to ask him if he would like a hand. He would not be slowed, however, and despite the enormous strain the table was putting on his head and neck he waved us off. It appeared that he was annoyed we even asked, but even more interesting to notice was that in the dim light of the street lamps you could tell the man was over 65 years old.
The market itself is a strange event for us. There are no windows to protect us from our casual perusal, and the act therefor, is no longer casual as we come face to face with each vendor. "What do you see that you like?" They ask, and "A good price for you. A very good price." Often we simply say that we are only looking, finger a few items and continue on our way. If we linger too long, however, or show too much interest in a particular item the retreat becomes that much harder. Many of the sellers are content to have you say good morning and smile, but others are much more desperate to make a sale and will say any number of things to keep you around and get your money out. So, what can we do, we buy a few things. And it's nice. We bargain as best we can and as much as we dare.
It is an adventure though, the Chichi market. The city center was completely transformed overnight, almost as though a new micro city had emerged in the place of the plaza, with its own maze of streets and commotion. Our senses were utterly overloaded with sights, sounds and smells- which were, for the most part, pleasant. Although, by day's end, and nearly 7 hours of wandering the market, our stomachs and heads had begun to feel the effects of the stimulation. Perhaps it was the "vegetarian" soup and tortillas we enjoyed inside the market that was making our stomachs churn and our heads ache. But we also speculate that our sickness had something to do with the sights and smells that arose from the breakdown of the market at dusk. The remnants of such a scene are indescribable- somewhat like an american-style festival that leaves in its wake a disastrous mess of waste... half eaten hot dogs, fried dough, styrofoam containers, and beer cans. The waste was different of course, at a market in Guatemala- the smell of fried dough would certainly have been more welcome.
Perhaps an excerpt from Mandy's journal written at day's end, while crouched with an awful churning stomach, would be most effective in relaying the scene.
"After market day in Chichi"....."Both Jon and I feel sick- headache and stomach pains. Rethinking the day, its source could be anything and everything:
smell of raw meat; sight of dead chickens; raw chicken feet; smoked sardines; dogs gnawing on carcasses; dirty, desperate, begging children, with their sad runny noses and dirt-filled nails and hands; drunken men passed out on church staircases; man with glass eye, one leg, begging; lunch in the market- raw chicken being diced and de-boned before my eyes while I eat; smokey air, exhaust fumes; the heartache and feeling of inadequacy when giving out 'dulces' (candies) to desperately begging children with already rotting front teeth; image of dirty 6-year-old shoe polisher wearing a GAP sweatshirt; women falling asleep, heads dropping upon their baskets of warm tortillas; the exhaustion that abounds, the utter exhaustion; the headache of bargaining itself, and the knowledge of how much tedious, beautiful work that goes into each piece and how little the cost; men carrying tables, chairs, 100lb bags of handicrafts upon their heads and backs; crying children pinned to their mother's backs, hungry; the mothers shoving hand-woven textiles directly in your face.."compralo, compralo, por favor" (buy something, buy something, PLEASE!!); small rabbit in a bucket on a leash, and chicks peeping helplessly from a closed plastic sandwich bag; smashed watermelon and orange skins littering the ground, along with chicken bones, tortillas, trash, spit, green mud, lolipop sticks and dog shit. Screeching, ear piercing "music" belching from the church."