Markets are what make Latin America go round. There are the touristy artisan markets, boasting handmade tapestries, rainbows of woven products, entire blocks filled with jewerly, carved gourds, dolls, belts, hats, and of course, here in Peru innumeral products made with the coveted (and often faked) baby alpaca wool.
Then there are the practical markets, where the locals go to find everything they could possibly need. Think Walmart, Peruvian style. Like Walmart, the Peruvians value one-stop shopping. Not only does the market include nearly everything you can imagine among it’s goods, but you will find that stalls are organized by the type of product they sell.
For example, if you happen to want a bag of rice, all you have to do is find the “Rice Aisle” and you will have your choice of 20 stalls, all selling white rice. Need some salt? Head down the “Grains and Salt” section and the aisle is lined with 50 kg bags of salt. How to chose among the 20 salt vendors? Usually it has to do with personal connections. Of course you’d stay loyal to your cousin’s brother’s sister-in-law. My first instinct was to “spread the wealth” by always stopping at a different “fresh squeezed orange juice” vendor, but I quickly learned that loyalty and interpersonal connection is what the system thrives on. Once you get a gold toothed smile out of the lady hand squeezing your oranges, you owe it to her to remain faithful. Otherwise, you send the message that something is wrong either with her oranges or with some part of the interpersonal relationship.
Yesterday we wandered around town on an informal tour with the Irish bartender at our hostel, Aiden. Aiden has been living in Cusco for a year, hanging out and working at hostels. He offered to show us around town, teach us the ins and outs of Cusco, both the touristy Plaza de Armas downtown, and the insider scoops in the less-gringo-frequented neighborhoods. Side note: Gringo is the word used to describe all white-looking foreiners and although it can sound a bit harsh, is used totally innocently as a way to describe the obvious. For example, when I stop to oogle over toddlers in the streets, their mom’s will often encourage them to ‘Say hello to the ‘Gringita’. It’s kind of become an inside joke for us that no matter how ‘normal’ our activity is (reading a book on a bench, or huffing and puffing up the Cusco hills) it’s always occasion for someone to point and comment to their friend, ‘Look at the Gringo!’ It’s also 100% cultutally and socially acceptable to call someone ‘El Chino’, literally The Chinese, but applicable to anyone who even looks slightly Asian, ‘El Negro’, the black guy, ‘El Gordo’, the fat guy, etc. I have collected countless tips from perfect strangers “just trying to help” on how to lose weight, so that my “body can be as beautiful as my face” as one 70 year old women with no teeth told me (She also, ironically, gave me very important advice on the importance of brushing in an up-and-down motion exactly 64 times for white teeth, the vital importance of my mother painting my front door red so that no incorrigable young men would try to taint my purity, and the value of eating fruit skins (including banana peel) for it’s incredible nutrictional value.)
Anyway, back to the market. Near the
end of our four hour stroll through the streets of Cusco, we ended up in San Pedro market- not in the travel guides and not somewhere most tourists do their shopping. Besides the normal fruits, vegetables, household products, clothing, grains, cheeses, and flowers, we discovered some less common and very interesting products for sale. (Although we were three Gringos, clearly out of place, we happened to bring along the hostel’s miniature schnauzer Baily, who recently groomed and looking sharp in her matching pink collar and leash, could get a smile out of even the grumpiest old market ladies. It’s amazing that despite the incredible number of mangy street dogs, Peruvians still LOVE lap dogs- especially the rare dog on a leash. Baily managed to get smiles from everyone she trotted past, especially girls under the age of 10 who dreamily watched her with looks of complete and utter adoration on their faces. If you ever want to to be completely accepted as everyone’s best friend in a Peruvian market, bring a lap dog. A blond haired, blue eyes baby would probably work too. But be forewarned that they don’t ask before they pet, so make sure your dog/baby is vaccinated!)
The first thing that caught my eye turned out to be Alpaca fetuses, dried out and hung by hooks. Apparently they are part of some kind of ritual, although I’m afraid I don’t know more than that. Next to the alpacas, was a soup bowl full of something that looked and smelled like mud mixed with dung. We asked what it was for and the wrinkled, hunched vendor explained that it was for putting on bruises and wounds. Yummmm. But the best was yet to come. Aiden led us proudly to the raw meat section of the market. After many markets, we’ve long since learned to switch to mouth breathing before approaching the meat aisle. Refrigerators? Ice? Ha! This meat is hung from hooks right out on the open, often dripping blood and attracting flies. Even adventurous Cameron and I would never buy market meat after 10 am unless the situation was dire – we stick to the big grocery stores or indoor butchers when possible, although I’m sure that we have eaten market meat many a time at
local restaurants and (knock on wood) haven’t had any problems, so obviously someone knows what they’re doing…Besides the sides of beef, chicken livers for 25 cents per pound (no joke!), chicken feet, and the many other “normal” protein options, we found and entire goat head (not a new sight), piles of skinned cow tails (I actually had to ask what the tough looking ropes were..), and most ‘en-grossing‘ of all: Cow snouts. Yes…that’s right, as if someone chopped the snout right off, hair, teeth, tongue and all and piled it up on the table for our consumption. We didn’t stop to ask what a raw cow snout is usually used for, but I’ll try to find out. 😉