It took me a while, but I have finally figured out where the main entrance to the market is here in Antigua Guatemala. Or at least the place that people refer to when they speak of the entrance of the market, because in fact, it doesn’t exist. The “Main Entrance” is basically a street going around the market. Around the back of the market, depending on which side you consider the front of the market.
Anyway, if you start at the busy Alameda Santa Lucía and have the luck to find a traffic controller who holds up his stop sign just long enough to hold the busy traffic for you to cross the road, you’ll get into that narrow street, a continuation of 3a Calle Poniente, with market stalls on both sides, and there you are, at the Main Entrance of the Market. If you keep on walking, that street veers to the right. On your left, the market turns into the bus terminal, the two only separated by a thin line of wooden shops of all kinds and flavours.
This open air market street is interesting enough with a wide variety of produce, plastics, clothes, toys, fabrics, tools, phones and ambulant vendors loudly advertising their ware. DVD dealers (of illegal copies, of course) try to outdo each other by cranking up the volume of their TVs way beyond distortion. Women loudly promote their fruits and vegetables, little girls mimicking their mothers in the same detached and mechanic voice. Buses, only a wooden partition and some mangos away, honk to announce their arrival and departure. This street is loud, busy and a little crazy like all markets everywhere in the world. But this is not even the real market…
From this, well, let’s call it “Main Street”, there are several entrances to the right into the real thing. These entrances are not well displayed or logically located, so entering is either a case of know-how or serendipitous luck. I can tell you there’s one on the far end between the bananas and papayas. Usually it is, because it seems these entries change as often as the stairways at Hogwarts, which is totally my own imagination, but that doesn’t make it less mystifying.
Whenever I walk from the Main Street through a narrow corridor into the roofed-in market, it seems you enter a world of silence. Not that there are no sounds, quite the contrary. But as opposed to outside, where the noise of selling and buying seem to echo off the asphalted street, inside the market sounds are being absorbed by simple wooden structures, sacks full of cereals or herbs, heaps of today’s fresh fruit, fabrics in fantastic colour combinations, wooden kitchen utensils, clay pots, plastic woven shopping bags and brightly painted saints with their love and good luck potions.
Not a square centimetre is unoccupied here, not an inch without some sort of product. Vendors with stalls have their merchandise stacked up all the way against the zinc lamina roof. Women with baskets occupy the already narrow pass ways and ambulant vendors make passing through sometimes next to impossible, not to speak of those heavily burdened men and women supplying the stalls or just moving huge amounts of goods from one place to the other.
When I first entered that magic world of the Antigua market, I didn’t think I’d ever find my around. I quickly found a section with great vegetables, but just as quickly I lost it and it took me weeks to find it again.
But by now I can at least identify some sectors of the market and their own specific ambiences. Not that a clothing section means it only sells clothing, it just means is sells mostly clothing, along with anything else.
Least interesting I find the indoor section close to the Main Entrance (whether it exists or not) with its new cloths, fancy sport shoes and salespeople more interested in the current soap opera on a tiny TV screen among the merchandise than in actually selling something. Way more intriguing is the food court, the meat sellers (not for the fainthearted or vegetarians), the fruit and vegetable section and oh, the flowers, both fresh and dried, clean cut or neatly arranged for weddings or funerals. The smells, the colours, the sounds, the textures, each visit is a feast for the senses…
When you enter the true heart of the market, if feels like travelling back in time. That wrinkled old Maya lady over there in a corner, selling dried herbs, she might have been sitting there for hundreds of years. That woman there pouring atol in a gourd cup, she has been doing that since the beginning of time. Those tiny dried fish, the sweet smell of ripe fruit, grains I don’t recognize and huge stacks of dried chile… Time stood still in this part of the market.
As always I find it hard to leave this labyrinth of colours, this maze of things familiar and unknown, to return to the world of tuk-tuks and cell phones. But on market days (Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays), the transition is less harsh, because there’s an extra bit of outdoor market where (mostly) Maya women sell their fruits, vegetables and flowers under colourful umbrellas, in a world where Spanish is not the first language. More of the magic, but in the blazing sun and under the watchful eye of the Agua volcano.
What a world! I’ve never enjoyed shopping so much.