Día de Mercado (Market Day)

So, I am sitting here sipping hot chocolate that I made from the 100% Cacao bar I bought from the market. It’s cool tonight, which means I’m cold given there’s no heat but luckily the hot chocolate has done the trick of warming me up. I’ve been thinking a lot about the market lately. Despite my short time here, memories that I enjoy thinking about have come out of the place already.

I love the market in Urubamba and I’m lucky to live only a block away from it. While it is open everyday with the same cohort of vendors, people come from the jungle three times a week to line the streets outside the building with all kinds of produce. I’ve been pondering why I like it so much when a trip to the supermarket at home is often conducted at as rushed a pace as possible and if not completely avoided, met with dread. My answer surprises me – markets here are a distinctly human experience. Sometimes this isn’t necessarily good, but on the whole I’ve found that my interactions in Peru have been wonderful and inspiring. Whereas at home I go to the store in the morning or at night to avoid the crowds and lines, fiercely disliking having to deal with the crush of people going about their individual business, I truly relish the prospect of a market trip here.

Scenes from the Market

Scenes from the Market - Note the woman with the top hat and dress with slightly bustled skirt, a traditional indigenous Quechua style around here.

My first trip to the market with the intent to buy something was very intimidating. With only a smattering of Spanish words and a large list of things I wanted to get (with their Spanish names as well) I wandered around, not sure where to try my luck first. While peering at an item with brow furrowing concentration, trying to figure out if I had finally found plastic garbage bags, a child boldly exclaimed about my camera.

I knelt down to show it to him and he asked me questions about it, miming in a natural fashion when he realized I didn’t understand Spanish. While I’m growing used to seeing children in the States perfectly comfortable with technology given the ubiquity of handheld devices, I have to admit I was surprised by the intuitive understanding the boy had for the way the camera worked given electronics are not as common here. I let him snap a number of pictures of his friends, bewildered looking shoppers and a rather cantankerous old woman merchant who yelled at me, miming that we were blocking the way.

One of the boy's pictures of his friend. Seems he caught the woman's evil eye instead, which makes me cringe everytime I see it!

One of the boy's pictures of his friend. Seems he caught the woman's evil eye instead, which makes me cringe everytime I see it!

I snapped a picture of him and his friends, because how could I not?? They were adorable and I really appreciated the way that the boy approached me. Rather than look at me from afar as something of an oddity he made me feel welcome and part of the place with his interest in my camera and his easy way of communicating. I have been growing ever more conscious of people’s reactions to me as Caucasians are on the whole tourists in this area and are not found in the more “pedestrian” parts of the town. It’s really my first time living in a situation like this and it’s providing a new perspective.

    The boy on the right hand side, pulling up his friend's hat is the one who approached me!

The boy on the right hand side, pulling up his friend's hat is the one who approached me!

Girl

Girl

Sooooo, yesterday I went back to the market with another huge list of things to get – I figured it would be much easier given my command of Spanish is better and I’ve been back there several times since. I still found it to be an incredibly overwhelming place and once again had no idea where to start. But one woman had caught my attention last time and I had taken a picture of her beautiful lettuce piles (below) so I decided to purchase from her specifically – she selected her best ones and exclaimed “muy bonita” (very pretty). We then carried on a 5 minute “conversation” in which she asked me where I’m from and I struggled to tell her I had been here three weeks and would be staying for six months. She told me she has a daughter living in Florida and I told her I had a Peruvian friend from Arequipa (a city Southwest of us) there as well. She was kind enough to speak slowly for me and correct my pronunciation and verb tenses as I responded to her. Thanks to many interactions like these I am becoming somewhat better at speaking, though I still have a lot of trouble picking up what people are saying!! I’m intensely grateful that people have been patient enough to interact with and correct me. On the whole, communicating with people here has been very positive.

I was captivated by the bright piles of lettuce and the woman's indigenous Quechuan hairstyle - 2 braids tied together at the bottom.

I was captivated by the bright piles of lettuce and the woman's indigenous Quechuan hairstyle - 2 braids tied together at the bottom.

Culture Shock – Urubamba, Week 2

Urubamba: The view from my Window

Urubamba: The view from my window. I know that to some people it might not be the prettiest, but *I* enjoy it.

One of the things I really enjoy so far about Urubamba is the ability to walk anywhere I need to go within the span of a few minutes – whether it’s to the school, the market, to get something to eat or to run an errand. This is also something I loved about Hong Kong – the efficient subway system and the ability to walk anywhere once in the district of choice.

It seems counter intuitive that one would feel such freedom when using public transportation or walking as opposed to using one’s own car to get places, but I’ve come to learn that I really dislike car culture. I think that the very reliance on cars in the United States is predicated in part due to strong beliefs about individualism and self-determination. Hence, the “right” to ownership extends to such things as cars and consequently we’ve built a society centered around them. As a result, not only is access to public transportation severely limited (95% being concentrated in the NY Metro area), but it is also not a priority when it comes to policy and improvement.

But enough with that tangent!!! There have been a number of big and little things I’ve needed to learn about day to day life here – from the best way to get a hot shower (trickles!!!), learning the basic things I need to say to anyone when going about my business (getting easier with each day), how to make toast without an oven or a toaster (frying pan), trying to figure out if the yogurt I just bought should have been refrigerated in the shop (Yes, it should have been, I ate it anyway.). I bought a bottle of vinegar this morning and I have no idea how to open it. I bought an avocado yesterday and had no idea how to tell the man that I prefer to eat them before they’re ripe and just bought the one he insisted on (nicely) instead. Things like this are utterly bewildering and somewhat of a mind trip; one wouldn’t give a second thought to them at home, and yet I’m sitting at the table tonight trying to figure out how to open a bottle and was unable to do so (I violated my rule of not using stuff that isn’t mine and went for the already opened one).

What do they do if the water is not safe to drink?

Given the tap water remains unsafe to drink I wonder what it is that they do exactly. Though I suppose there are a number of angles to sanitation.

Today I went about my daily shopping, which probably took all of 20 minutes, got back home to make something to eat and could not find matches or a lighter anywhere in order to light the stove… In utter frustration, I tried to figure out if there was a “creative” way that I was overlooking and realized yeah, no – matches or a lighter are non-negotiable.

So, it seemed a visit to the market down the street was in order. Again, faced with another situation that seemed utterly astonishing given how ordinary, yet not: I had no idea what kind of shop might sell matches or where I might find them, so I decided to bring a used match with me to show and ask shopkeepers directly “Tiene?” (Tee-eh-nay – Do you have…?) And in addition, rather than falling back on my Spanish dictionary it forced me to ask “Como se dise?” (Como say dee-say – How do you say…?) to learn the words for match and lighter (Lighter is “encendador”, but even after the shopkeeper said it twice I still couldn’t catch the word for matches.). I picked up a bunch of other things I thought I might need, and I know that being here is really changing the way I think when I balk at 1 kilo of sugar for 3 soles (1 dollar) because it seems too expensive to me.

I bought it to go along with the 100% Cacao bar (2 soles – 66 cents) I got the other day – thinking it was dark chocolate, I’m lucky to have been warned beforehand by my neighbor that there’s no sugar in it!! I took a test nibble and it’s the most bitter thing I’ve ever tasted. Apparently you melt it in boiling water and then add sugar and milk for hot chocolate. I figure it will be a nice way to keep warm, especially now that I’ve begun knitting again at night.

To some extent it’s fascinating that such familiar things can be so different from one place to another. It’s definitely forced me out of my comfort zone and I can appreciate that to some degree. It’s amazing to be put in these situations that are so familiar, and yet are so different by the slightest change of say, a bottle cap.

Thoughts on Hong Kong’s consumer culture

Graveyard in Macau - No relation to the post. I just thought it pretty dramatic.

I’ve been thinking a lot about consumer culture here in Hong Kong. It’s a lot of speculation on my part, and nothing I can substantiate right now – two months can lead one to make a lot of specious assumptions with no real knowledge. Part of this is asking questions I couldn’t even begin to answer.

Being in any sort of shopping area brings me extreme discomfort. As much as I love the atmosphere of the markets, it is here especially that one tends to be pounced on by the vendor of the stall immediately. I’m not sure if the same is true for everyone or if because I’m Caucasian, they figure I’m a tourist and therefore going to be susceptible to spending more money.

There are times when I’ve been in more traditional areas where vendors are selling authentic Chinese goods and they have been kind enough to educate me more on the symbolism and the purpose of the items. While it is wonderful of them to do so, it makes me feel uncomfortable to walk away without purchasing anything, as it seems there is still an implicit relationship of buyer and seller. They have given their time to educate me about their goods, and I in turn purchase something.

There seems to be a point when the vendor in your average market stall will know they’ve lost the potential sale – the friendliness they greeted you with disappears and their faces are closed to you, sullen and cold. If I haven’t fled from their initial pounce, I will at this point – wondering about their practical situations – how much money they make and if it’s enough to survive – if they hate this job with an utter passion (I would) – 10-8, and how tiring it must be to endlessly try to peddle their wares to people – dealing with obnoxious tourists who will laugh at their prices, only accepting the rock bottom concession that is made by the vendor as they walk away.

Man Selling Shrink Wrap Machine

Man Selling Shrink Wrap Machine - I can't help but think that all the ladies were watching because he was good looking. I mean, really? A shrink wrap machine demonstration??

I can’t get over what feels like the shiny newness of the sales industry (I don’t mean the markets themselves). Hong Kong was primarily a manufacturing economy and in the past two decades has become a service economy. In the markets it is not uncommon to see someone with a hands-free microphone selling some gadget, charismatically giving demonstrations. What amazes me is that often I don’t know why the item would warrant such a sales act or why people would even buy it despite the act – a shrink wrap machine, a cleaning mitt, and sometimes even just little chachkas. All the same, the salesperson extols the value of the product like gospel.

Man selling I don't know what - I couldn't figure it out before I got a "Missy, missy - no no!!!" because I was taking pictures. Chachkas??

The atmosphere in your retail stores is much different than the market, but still makes me think “new”. You are greeted by every single person you encounter and I have yet to come across an unfriendly salesperson. I know some stores back in the US require you to greet each shopper you encounter, but it is nowhere near the scale of Hong Kong.

I’ve been wondering about class and the idea of being a retail salesperson – in a culture where consumerism and business are prized above all else, are these people proud of their jobs in a way that retail workers in the United States aren’t? Is a retail job in a shiny new mall more highly regarded than what is probably a much better paying manufacturing job? Or is this perhaps a holdover from colonial Hong Kong where a subset of people are expected to serve without complaint? I’m also really curious about how I’m treated and how it might be different in comparison to someone who is perceived as a native Hongkonger.

Despite the image that Hong Kong tries to put forth – a glittering, wealthy metropolis – how much of the population is truly able to partake in the life it represents?

The things the man was selling... nightlights?? Chachkas!!

Mong Kok Night Market: Photo Essay

Nike Night Market Stall

A Nike ad peaking out behind a night market stall - liked the concept, not sure about my execution.

This is going to be more photo than essay, but after nearly nine solid days of being stuck in the dorm room I couldn’t take it anymore. Needed to get back out there with my camera, was missing Hong Kong and the ability to explore its streets. It was a scary couple of days there where they wanted to put me in the hospital due to crazy painful tonsillitis that just wasn’t getting better… I’m sure I’ll be writing more in depth about the experience and it will be filed under the “Lost in Translation” category…. Given my condition has improved greatly and I’m going back to work tomorrow (yay!!!), I decided to take a short trip to explore the Mong Kok night markets again. It was so wonderful to be back out.

Some of the highlights of the night -

Share Tea! - Iced Vanilla Milk Tea, Lemon Black Tea and Mango Cream

  • FINALLY finding the Share Tea stand in Mong Kok!! My haul comprised of a beautiful, freshly made 24(?) ounces each of lemon flavored black tea, vanilla milk tea and mango with cream for a hefty total of about $5 USD. (Starbucks…. what’s Starbucks?!?)
  • Watching an old couple while waiting for my tea – the old man shuffling down the street, the woman yelling after him in Cantonese amidst the Mong Kok craziness of tons of people and neon lights. He turns back and looks at her, says something, and continues on as he smokes his cigarette. Despite the difference in language, you could just imagine by the set of his shoulders and the way he looked back that his words were “yeeeeah, whaaatever”. He continued on as she shook her fist and followed…. It was an amusing scene to say the least, and one I wouldn’t have witnessed if they hadn’t bumped into me in the process…..

Pictures aren’t the GREATEST, but hope it gives you an idea of what the night markets are like….