You step inside the market, the condensed and uncensored microcosm of the town, city, or neighborhood you’re visiting. Your awareness of your foreigner status is heightened. Vendors call out to potential customers and each other. There’s a stand selling undergarments next to a fruit stand next to a handicraft stand. Families squeeze past you as you gaze around wondering where to begin. You let your senses lead.
You turn a corner and you spot cow heads looking at you. Pigs are piled high. Live chickens are squawking. There are baskets of bugs, fried and seasoned for your enjoyment. This shocks your sanitized and plastic-wrapped grocery shopping sensibilities where what’s edible is more clearly defined and confined and food is sold in a way that rarely makes you think about what it is you’re eating.
There are smells you’ve never smelled before, some pleasant and some you wish you could erase from your nostrils. There are spices and folk remedies piled high. There are fruits you’ve tried, but you’ve never had them as sweet and tart and tasty as this. There are fruits and you’ve never seen and you sample them, sometimes puckering up your face in disgust and other times, pre-wistful because it’s so good and you know you won’t find this at home.
You laugh at mannequins making funny faces. You also wonder why their features never look like those of the local people. In a sweaty makeshift dressing room created with sheets, you try on a tunic and try to get a sense of what it looks like on you by examining yourself with a hand held mirror. You find the most fascinating jewelery to add to your collection, pieces that will continue to remind you of this country and these moments long after you leave.
There is color and creativity in abundance. You marvel at what people can do with a piece of wood or metal or clay. You run your fingers over the bright stripes of hand woven scarves. There’s embroidery and batik prints in patterns that are folksy, complex, or whimsical. There are flowers bursting in vivid shades, ready to be taken to a home or venue to decorate for an upcoming festivity.
People holler at you, everyone with an offer they think you can’t refuse. Some vendors tell you stories about how their stuff is one of a kind, but two stalls later you see the same exact things. When you find something you like, you put on your game face and playfully settle on a price that leaves both you and seller feeling like you got a good deal.
You have lunch at a stall that looks popular with the locals and the food looks damn good. So what if your stomach may not thank you later? These flavors and the heart that went into making this dish cannot be recreated elsewhere. This will go down as one of the top meals of your life.
With every sense now introduced to something new and with a few items to take home, you decide to leave. And you realize you’re lost in this maze of stalls. You walk around, sometimes in circles until you spot daylight peaking through one of the market entrances.
You step out of the market and re-enter the larger picture, a bit disoriented, but also with a deeper understanding of where you are.
A market vendor poses with one of his peppers at the Tlacolula market in Oaxaca state, Mexico