There are a few times and places in the world that make you feel very much outside yourself. You pinch yourself and whisper, “Is this really me? Is this really my life?” If you are me, you look around you at the other people, wondering if this is their daily life and so find nothing remarkable in the situation, or if they happen to look just like you, awe-struck and snapping away with their camera as if this was their last day on earth.
The Saturday market in Otavalo, Ecuador, is one of those times and places. On Friday night, Otavalo is a typical South American town (or at least, a typical larger one). Teenagers wearing Abercrombie & Fitch pour on the cologne and hit the town, ready for a night of what we Americans consider under-aged drinking and dancing. For them, it’s just fun. All the restaurants are open, warm, glowing and inviting to tourists such as ourselves. You can hear music playing. Laughter. Chickens. I remember how we sat and ate a very expensive dinner, close to $6 each. We had trout from the skeleton, and a classic dish of lomo saltado (emphasis on the salt, but still delicious. Not to mention ridiculously tasty french fries.)
During the night, we heard what sounded like dozens of metal beams being thrown onto the cobblestone streets. This sound lasted for hours, the heavy, hollow poles ringing out into the street, reaching up to our window. We wondered what the noise was.
When we walked out of our hostel the next morning (close to 7:30am, which is very early for me), we found out. The entire town had transformed into a giant market. Street after street was filled with merchandise. The vendors stood at their booths under tents (which explained all the noise), ready to sell their wares.
Locals travel from all over the country to shop at the Otavalo market. First, we saw the food vendors. They’ll cook up an entire chicken for you, no big deal. Little balls of dough were actually tortillas, unlike any we’d seen before. More like dumplings than the flat things we use to hold tacos.
Then, we came across the raw foods. Colorful spices and green onions the size of a six-year old. I’d never seen produce that large in my life. The smells were intense. And the wild dogs, as cute as they were, whined pitifully for the meats hanging above their heads. The vendors used squirt bottles to shoo the unwelcome guests away.
The wild dogs bounded about, flaunting their freedom. People looking to purchase livestock examined their selected animal thoroughly: from hooves to genitals. I heard constant shouting. The dust settled into our clothes and our noses, making us sneeze. I couldn’t think about how many of these animals might become dinner that night. Especially when it came to the cuy (see photo). These animals froze in the vendors hands. We never ate cuy on our visit. Not that I have anything against eating rodents, if that’s your last choice on earth.
We hurried past the edible creatures. I felt relieved to focus on the animals that were likely desired for their wool, or milk, or strength. Beasts of burden, shall we say. It’s not often you see a llama (or alpaca) in a marketplace.
They sold bulls, cows, oxen. I don’t think there was an animal that wasn’t for sale. Cute ones like kittens, bunnies, and puppies. My husband had to drag me away from the baby animals, saying there was no way we could take one home with us. I pouted, but accepted that he was probably right.
So eventually we pulled ourselves away. We returned to the sea of nicknacks, t-shirts, and jewelry. I bought some colorful beaded earrings (I’m a sucker for earrings.) Justin bought a soccer t-shirt. We both ate some ice cream. And I pinched myself. Awake and alive as I could ever be.