14 Jul 2012

Color and Carnage in Bolivia's Central Marketplaces

Mercado Centrales are quickly becoming my favorite part of Bolivia. These bustling centers of commerce pump and pulse with merchandise, foods --sweet and savory, raw meet, and rainbow colored produce. Cows' heads and pigs' feet, pyramids of multi-colored puddings, juice and fruit salad stations, yogurt dolled out of gigantic tubs, mountains of spongy cheese.

Bowling-pin-shaped cholitas (Ladies in indigenous dress) sit beside their bowling-pin shaped sacks of coca leaves. Dogs roam amidst the meat counters gazing longingly. Getting lost in these mazes is inevitable, and you're likely to find a whole new room or section of the market after you already visited it three or four times before.

Besides moseying and browsing, these markets are equipped with several different dining halls. There is one floor for lunch, a subsection for afternoon tea or breakfast, a third corridor for dinner, and final hall for dessert.

Remove the idea of a food court from your mind, where one might stumble into a Chinese counter next to a pizza joint. Here literally ever stall within one section of the market offers the same menu at the exact same price. What defines one from an other is essentially which plump middle-aged women is most aggressive at convincing you to stay at her table.

These sturdy and compact ladies will sweet talk you and then mean talk you to get you to stay. Their daughters cower behind them like shadows, listening in and learning more persuasive tactics. The mothers bop back behind the counter to throw together a meal or two, but are quick to reinsert themselves into the isle if they see their daughter loosing a customer. Still meek-eyed and soft-spoken, these little girls have yet to learn the hardened ways of their mothers.

Once you've been convinced to sit at their table, expect to be crammed in, elbow grinding elbow, up against other diners at all sides. Each stall has only one semi-long table perpendicular to it. Don't be surprised if during your brief sit down, you're asked to move one way and then the other in order to accommodate more diners. After eating you'll start to get searing looks if you don't skid-addle immediately. There are slews more diners to feed before the day is done.

It's worth mentioning that everyone working at every market i've stepped into, even the butchers, are female.

To see the whole color and carnage album click


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