Chaotic but Hearty Markets by Karen Phelps
Entering a Bolivian market is a real culture shock. Replace our modern day supermarkets with rows of meticulously organised aisles gleaming under fluorescent lights with forcing your way through locals crowding around haphazardly organised stalls either jammed into a stuffy building or baking outside in the hot sun. At first glance there appears no rhyme or reason. But a Bolivian market exists in a state of highly organised chaos.
In the fruit and vegetable section tables are piled high with produce fresh from the ground still often covered in dirt. Items from the previous day (or before) sit wilting in the heat. When you want to make a purchase the cholita (lady in local dress) who owns the stall will push back her felt hat, rise off her haunches pulling her bustling skirts around her and choose your produce for you with gnarled fingers. But you have to watch closely. Anything old is quickly thrust into the bag first in the hopes you won’t notice.
In the section where grains and other kitchen ingredients are sold rice, quinoa and pasta spill onto the ground from large sacks. The cheese section will probably be nearby where rows of large round freshly made cheeses sit tantalisingly while cholitas wave away the flies with their hands. If you tend towards queasiness hold your stomach in the meat section where piles of whole chickens lie on tables and carcases of meat are hung from metal hooks and unceremoniously hacked before your eyes. Refrigeration is a foreign concept in Bolivia. How fresh the meat is is anyone’s guess. Best go to buy early in the morning and hope it has been killed that day.
Stray dogs wander around the market with heads hung low trying to look inconspicuous. These dogs act like a natural vacuum cleaner hoovering up with their mouths any stray edible items that happen to fall on the ground. Occasionally a fight will break out and the sound of raucous barking will soon turn to squealing as the stall owners chase the ragged, flea bitten fighting mutts away with sticks. But in a Bolivian market nobody seems to care. Dogs are left to wander like the children of the stall owners who don’t have the time to keep a close eye on their brood. For these poor Bolivian children the markets become both their playground and later their school as they are educated in the harsh game of market life.
All of this may seem an unlikely environment to stimulate the appetite but the markets are where many Bolivians will gather for almuerzo (lunch), which is the main meal of the day. Food is often cooked up early in the morning and at lunchtime this now lukewarm food is served from a big pot. Accompaniments such as salad are unceremoniously slapped onto plates with bare hands. For gringos (foreigners) eating in the market can be like playing Russian roulette with food poisoning. But for locals brought up with the various bacteria no doubt present in their food the fare is both cheap and hearty.
Although Bolivian cuisine often doesn’t get a good rap the country has some delicious dishes hailing from the country’s agricultural roots. It may not be fine cuisine but it is certainly solid unpretentious tasty fare. Meat and carbohydrates is the staple of any dish. Common dishes on offer include chicken and beef milanesia (thin slices of fried meat), thinly sliced strips of potato fried with peas, picante de pollo (spicy chicken stew), salteñas (a kind of empanada made with a sweeter pastry stuffed with meat or chicken), tamales (cornmeal dough filled with meat and vegetables wrapped in a maize husk and cooked) and tawa tawas (deep fried pastries) served with sugary syrup. You may also encounter more indefinable dishes where various innards or otherwise generally inedible pieces of animals are boiled together in a pot and slapped onto a plate. Everything is generally served with generous portions of fluffy white rice and potatoes.
In fact Bolivia could well be hailed as the home of the potato – there are around 250 different varieties grown here. Passing the potato section of the market is an education in this humble vegetable as you pass sack upon sack of different varieties - black potatoes, small magenta speckled yellow potatoes and even tiny shrivelled white dried potatoes called tunta or chunos.
Fresh jugos (juices) are as staple fare of any Bolivian market. A woman sitting huddled on the floor peels carrots tossing them into a waiting sack. The sack suddenly tips over spilling freshly peeled carrots onto the dirty ground. They are merely shoved back into the sack and left waiting for the next unsuspecting customer when they will simply be placed unwashed into the waiting juicing machine.
In a Bolivian market everyone seems to have just as much right to be there as anyone else whether stall owners, children or dogs. Cholitas that don’t have actual stalls sit huddle on the ground in front of blankets atop of which sit wares for sale. Cholitas tend to take three approaches to sales in Bolivia: completely ignoring you, staring at you menacingly or actively soliciting your attention by calling out to you. Whichever sales method you can be assured of one thing – you will be charged accelerated gringo prices. You can bargain or accept the price you are offered. If you put a smile on the cholitas face as she stuffs your money into her poncho you can have little doubt you have just been charged double to triple the amount she knows she normally charges.
Life in a Bolivian market is a complex organism where everyone wanders around doing their own thing yet where there seems to also be a certain order to proceedings. At the market you can meet the person who actually grew your food and who will now hand it to you with their bare hands for you to take home and prepare.
The special thing about travelling to Boliva is that the country’s traditional practices and cultural values are still firmly intact and in ground in everyday Bolivian life. And nowhere is this more apparent than the markets, which are a lesson in life in its rawest form, a place where people meet and socialise, where children grow up and people ultimately fight to survive.
Currently the poorest country in South America, Bolivia is a country in a state of flux. Modern asphalt roads are being built to replace the country’s highly inaccessible dirt roads. Ultimately progress such as this will mean the traditional way of life will be ultimately eroded. What this will probably mean the eventual demise of Bolivia’s markets which will no doubt one day in the not too distant future be replaced by the sterile, lifeless supermarkets of the western world where we may buy our food in hygienic conditions but where perhaps ultimately we have lost the real meaning of our food and of life.
BOLIVIA’S MARKET TRAIL
Best Market for Local Food
Tarija has several markets including a black market which sells a variety of clothes but it is the market right in the centre of the city on Calles Bolivar and Sucre that has one of the best food halls in Bolivia.
Best Market for Mingling with the Locals
The small town of Tupiza in the South of Bolivia operates several small traditional markets. These markets are for the benefit of the locals and not tourists so it is here you will get the best opportunity to observe the traditional Bolivian way of life. Markets are located on Avenida Regimiento Chichas and Florida, Avenida Regimiento Chichas and Junin and on the corner of avenidas Tumisia and La Paz.
The huge market on Bolivar Street in Potosi sells a wide variety of products from fruit and vegetables to clothes to kitchen supplies. Basically anything you could possibly think of. This market stretches endlessly and you could easily spend a day here.
Best Market for Souvenirs
The market in La Paz on Sagamarca Street and around is made for tourists but here it is possible to do all your souvenir shopping in one place. It is a good place to buy items such as traditional silver filigree jewellery, pearls, hand knitted garments of both traditional and modern designs, handbags, t-shirts and various knick knacks all at bargain prices.