As a sworn minimalist, I have a ambivalent relationship with markets, even giant ones as filled with interesting bric-a-brac as the one here in Chichicastenango. Scoff, I say, at the cheesy looking bracelets that look like they were mass-produced in China (and they probably were). Hhmph, I think, passing by the wooden masks; I don’t have anywhere to put those anyway. Ooohh, I sigh, looking at the abundant and beautiful textiles and wishing I had a reason to buy them… Okay, so sometimes I have to remind myself about the whole minimalist philosophy thing.
The reality though is that other than a tiny pocketknife for cutting fruit and a couple plastic cups for home poured cuba libres, I won’t be buying anything here. The leave no trace mantra for wilderness travel, “take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints,” pretty much sums up my approach to foreign souvenirs as well. The center of the market is proving to be pretty touristy anyway. Too much English spoken: “Amigo, buy something!” isn’t exactly what I want to be hearing here. “Hombre, buy this machete! Por proteccion!” is getting a lot better, but still not right. I’d probably rather give up my wallet then risk a machete battle anyway. So I move to the outskirts of the market, ducking (literally, most of the ropes and tarps are set up for a population at least a foot shorter than me) down smaller and dingier side streets, and things start getting a lot more interesting.
Here nobody is yelling at me in English, in fact there isn’t a lot of Spanish being spoken either, but rather Quiche or whatever other Mayan dialect they’re using. There aren’t many stalls filled with the beautiful, brilliantly colored textiles that draw so many foreign shoppers to Guatemala. No intricately tooled leather purses or backpacks, no carefully embroidered huipil shirts that take weeks to make, hecho a mano. Instead there’s a guy orating in Quiche to a crowd of people, holding up various herbs and plants and pointing to murky, dirty looking water bottles holding some sort of curandera tea, a cure for what ails ya. Another guy is doing the same thing, but literally appears to be selling snake oil, judging by the serpentine coils in his baskets. A steady flow of dignified looking old men in simple clothing file past, carefully squinting at the blankets that have been spread out and piled with what appears to be, from my perspective, a bunch of absolute junk: twisted, broken spectacles with only one lens; small tins filled with random bent nails; cracked and stopped watches; unidentifiable electronics innards; a small bag full of used, dusty plastic spoons, the really flimsy kind meant for a single use.
Getting hungry I stop for breakfast at a food stall filled with men eating eggs, refried black beans, rice and tortillas. I ask the kid working how much for the same plate as my neighbor; he looks at his mom and starts to say fifteen, but she says ten. Twelve with coffee. Everyone looks at me, I say okay and sit down, and everyone laughs and jabbers away in something I don’t understand. It appears I’ve just been taken pretty badly, but twelve Quetzales is only $1.50 US. The meal is big and delicious, although the coffee is basically just sugar water with a bit of instant coffee essence.
It’s fairly cold up here in the highlands. It rained off and on during our stay, so we’d go back to the hotel periodically and sit out on the balcony in the chilly air, drinking a beer and listening to the sounds of life happening. One night we sat mesmerized for twenty minutes, serenaded by people talking and laughing, roaring truck engines in the street out front, and one lonely trumpet playing somewhere off in the distance.
We’d been told the Chichi market had become a tourist spectacle and to some degree it had, with plenty of pale tour groups tottering around wearing safari clothing and pestering the locals with giant telephoto lens cameras. We were cornered by pushy touts a lot more than usual, and a lot of the things for sale in the market seemed pretty overpriced. We even had a little girl come up to us and try to beg for five Quetzales with an unfortunately unique sob story: she really needed a Coca-Cola.
The experience was totally worthwhile, though. Chichicastenango itself was a pretty little town, and the market was huge and colorful and a lot of fun to explore. And it was here in the center of it all, sitting on the church steps and looking at the flowers for sale and smelling the burning incense, that we had one the sweetest interactions with some locals that we’ve ever had while traveling. A watch salesman approached us and at first we were pretty dismissive, thinking he was only trying to sell us something, but he said he just had a question for us. His friend was an evangelist street preacher, and he’d been given a bill by one of our paisanos that the bank had told him was counterfeit; could we please just verify that it was in fact worthless. The bill in question turned out to be an oversized American dollar style note for $1,000,000 usd. The bank had written “Falso” on it and hole-punched each corner. The men were asking us if it was real with complete earnestness. I’m sorry, we told him, but this is a joke bill. It would be worth more money than we’ve made in all our lives, the same as eight million Quetzales. By this time we had a fairly big audience, and at that they also burst into incredulous laughter. Such a sum of money was simply absurd to them; completely unimaginable. I got a big laugh when I joked “All the market is yours!” The men thanked us and left, and we were left smiling and happy; that kind of sweetly naive innocence is increasingly rare in today’s shrinking world, where many people are acutely aware the current exchange rates.