Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Joys of Market Day

Something that I love about Guatemala is the extent to which people are still engrained with the land. I see this every day, but it's on market days that the prevalence of the local economy really shows; in one tiny space you can get an amazing variety of goods: vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs, fresh cheese, dried staples, spices, artisan wares, street foods, and other goods, the majority cultivated, crafted, or raised within the same department or municipality, or at least within Guatemala. And generally speaking, the people work incredibly hard to make the land as productive as it is.

I was reflecting, walking home from the plaza today (eating a pineapple pastry which cost me about $0.40 cents), that taking for granted a twice-weekly year-round market, teeming with fresh cheap produce, is something I am going to miss a lot when I go back to New York and Michigan. I am going to miss being in a place where it is the norm to shop at an open-air market instead of an air-conditioned store where the average product inside has traveled more than 300 miles to get to its destination. There is just something about a market that makes me feel inherently more alive and engaged in the process of feeding myself.

It's not just the market, either. You can't go on a walk in our forest without someone plucking a bunch of hierba to boil up, or leaves to use in cooking, or some plant for medicine or to jazz up their food. My host mom was once talking about how she didn't know what to make for dinner, and my 8-year-old host cousin overheard. “I'll go get some hierba (greens) on the mountain,” he said. And he did. Just like that. Most people here know where food comes from, and from a young age, too.

Today my host mom invited me to have lunch with the family because they were going to slaughter a chicken. (They know how we "vegetarians" love meat!) My host sister and I ended up depluming and butchering up the poor lady while my four-year-old host brother looked on nonchalantly. After lunch I sat in a circle with the women, them chatting in Mam, me straining to catch words I knew, as we scraped corn off the husk by hand to make sweet corn tamales for dinner. As we worked my host grandfather and little host sister brought us fresh cobs from the field; it struck me how remarkable it is that these are all still totally normal, everyday tasks here for an average middle-class family in my town.

You find plenty of signs of the disconnected-from-everything global consumer economy here too, though. In any Guatemalan market or plaza you can find an amazing array of cheap throw-away goods from China. Out of habit, most people get everything in a brand new plastic bag. People are just as likely to buy a pill as use a natural remedy. Seeing all of this, I wonder sometimes if it is inevitable with greater people having greater economic security that fast convenience will over-take traditional ways of doing things - leaving the slower methods for special occasions, holidays, and stories for grandkids.

Based on my experience so far, I would argue it's a natural human instinct to seek greater convenience to the extent it's within our economic means, and you can't judge people for it; we all look for ways to make life easier, which is a fundamental driver of cultural evolution. Yet at the same time, personal taste, familiarity, and culture pride have a lot to do with it, too. Based on what I know of my town's cultural tenacity, I'm inclined to say that even if everyone in my town became rich, I wouldn't expect them to abolish the market and throw up a Wal-Mart the next day or anything. But I suppose we will have to see!

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