Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ecuador, Day 5

The Indian animal market in Otavalo

I got up painfully early this morning to make it to the Indian animal market, which opens every Saturday at 6 a.m. It’s held about ten or fifteen minutes from where I’m staying, and I made the early morning walk in utter darkness. In fact, the only illumination came from the headlights of passing cars and trucks along the Panamericana highway, which I had to cross on my way.

As I mentioned in my last post, this market, as well as the craft and food market in the heart of Otavalo, is hundreds of years old, and it seems that for Otavaleños it’s a major social opportunity, too.

On my way to the market – actually, on the narrow edge of the highway, which dropped to a rocky river – I was held up by two Indians who decided to sell their large, waddling pig, which was willingly being led to market by a rope around its neck, to a man who ran up behind us. I didn’t stop to watch the entire transaction, though I did strain my eyes to see him wave three crumpled five dollar bills at them. He was reaching for more money in his pocket as I squeezed past them. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going once I lost my leaders (the Indians and their pig), but it didn’t take me long to figure it out. All I had to do was follow the blood-curdling screams of pigs farther up the road. They were squealing because they didn’t want to go to the market, and despite their weight the Indians, in great feats of strength, pulled them across the highway. (On a paved highway, pig hooves are like skates, which makes it easier to pull them, apparently.)

My photos of people dragging pigs across the street didn't come out. These pigs were calm, like dogs being taken for a walk.

The animal market itself was really interesting, and for anyone traveling to Otavalo I highly recommend coming here. One sees all kinds of interesting things: angry cows charging through the crowd (watch the people scatter!); bleating sheep all pressed together; mules and horses; chickens in crates and makeshift pens; guinea pigs stuffed in cages; pigs everywhere; truck beds full of every variety of farm animal; and food vendors perched on a hillock, cooking up a storm.

Guinea pigs. In Spanish they're called cuy and are commonly eaten.

Crated chickens. You can see the chickens poking their heads out and looking around, wondering what on earth is going on.

In general cows are tranquil animals. These, however, were not happy being here.

I like the sheep. They're docile and stick together.

These guys were big, but they're weren't even close to the bigger ones I saw in the bed of a truck.

The food stands looked interesting, but I didn't want to risk getting sick...

I don't know if it's a weekend market thing, but whole roasted pigs were all over Otavalo today.

Speaking of storms, it started raining after about forty minutes, and since I’d seen, and smelled, quite a bit of the animal market already, I decided to head back to my hotel. However, once at the door I decided not to bother the guard I woke up to let me out initially, so I walked toward the Plaza de Ponchos to see if the Saturday crafts market was underway yet. Already at 6:45 the plaza, along with several of the streets around it, were filling with Indians setting up their vending booths.

I wandered around town for a while and came upon a bakery that had just opened.

On the corner of Morales and Bolivar Streets, if I remember correctly.

I ordered a croissant and a cup of coffee, and for the next half hour I had a conversation with the bakery’s friendly manager (pictured below), who ended up eating breakfast at my table and inviting me to the beach, which isn’t anywhere near Otavalo. I declined the offer, then excused myself to wander more around the market.

The guy in red liked to talk. He invited me to the beach with his family, but I said no.

For the next several hours I watched the Indian market grow, spreading further out in every direction. By noon, the market – the largest Indian market in all of South America – was easily the size of, I’d say, three or four Malls of America. It covered at least 70 square blocks, and the booths numbered in the thousands. Many vendors didn’t even have booths. Some of them simply occupied the sidewalk, or the middle of a pathway, while some wandered around selling their wares. It went on and on, and I’m not sure it EVER ended.

Colorful fabric stall.

Indian men buying and selling wool.

Chickens lying on the sidewalk in front of a mobile phone store.

I was afraid a strong wind would come and blow their spices all over the plaza.

A typical scene in the early morning. It got much more crowded as the day wore on.

You could even buy large paintings of local people and Otavalo scenery.

Maize stalls.

Colorful yarns for sale. Colorful building. Colorful Indian women.

This girl was supercute. She reminded me of a squirrel with more acorns than it knows what to do with. She was having a hard time holding all three of her toys.

There were many food stalls in the area of Plaza de Ponchos, but also along the surrounding streets. Some of the items being cooked and sold were familiar, but others were completely foreign to me.

Packages of snails with lemon wedges and chopped green onions.

Man carrying a whole roasted pig past a table holding a whole roasted pig.

I have no idea what this food is.

At around 10:30 I decided to head to the food market, which begins about five blocks away from the Plaza de Ponchos and continues for several blocks in various directions.

One very small part of the food market.

I took this from the start of the food market. The line of people almost looked like a pilgrimage of some kind.

At one edge of the amorphous market there’s a building – perhaps a central food market on weekdays? – inside of which are various food stalls, most of which specialized in whole, roasted pigs.

The stall in the food market where I had roast pork.

I plunked myself down on a bench and ordered what everyone else there was ordering: roasted pork, crispy pork skin, yellow potato patties, and steamed white maize.

I'd call this a snack. It was good!

It was excellent, and I could have had another plate but I wanted to save room for more food later. The cost of my dish, including a drink, was $3.50.

At around one o’clock I decided to get a taxi to a town called Cotacachi, which has been famous for hundreds of years for its leather works. The main street, 9 de Octubre, is lined for blocks with stores selling designer leather jackets, tote bags, purses, wallets, shoes and boots, belts, and so forth. Apparently there are serious deals to be made on these items, but since I’m not looking to load myself down further, I just walked around the streets to see what there was.

A quiet sidestreet in Cotacachi.

An interesting mural that I saw in Cotacachi.

Church in Cotacachi.

Cotacachi is a quiet town – UNESCO has called it a “city of peace” – and there doesn’t seem to be a lot to do other than shop. Before heading back I entered a cafe and ordered a malted milkshake at a café.

Cafe in Cotacachi.

I didn’t really know what I was ordering, but I should have known by the word malteado. For eighty cents, it wasn’t bad.

My big, unhealthy portion of sugar for the day.

I came back to Oltavado about an hour later and wandered a little more through the market. Since it was after two, I decided I should have a small lunch, so I found a tented area on the Plaza de Ponchos that made fried freshwater tilapia (from Laguna San Pablo) and ordered a plate.

Fried tilapia stand in Plaza de Ponchos.

Interestingly, people there ate their fried fish with their fingers, which is messy work. But I managed pretty well, and also downed some yucca that they added to my plate. For $2, I could eat this every day.

Yes, there's a plastic spoon there, but it was like rubber. Much easier just to use your fingers.

After that I went home and slept for about an hour and a half. I don’t feel like I need to slow down – I don’t feel like I’m doing all that much besides walking – but with all the Spanish I’m speaking (or trying to speak) I find that I get tired a lot quicker than I normally would.

I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go back into town for dinner, but one look at my hotel restaurant’s menu, which is neither Ecuadorian nor particularly cheap, and I decided to go to a seafood restaurant that I’d seen several times near the Plaza de Ponchos. Not surprisingly, it was closed – as most things seem to be when I decide to visit them. Since I had good luck with the huma and quimbolito at a food stand last night, I decided to go back. This time a stand selling meat and potato skewers caught my eye.

Looks can be deceiving, unfortunately.

One skewer only cost $1.25, so I opted for one and then walked toward a bench in the plaza and sat down. It took me one bite to realize that I might be in trouble with this food, yet I soldiered on as much as possible to eat this meaty mix. The texture and flavor were both really foul to me, but luckily there were tons of dogs running around the plaza and one came up to me with his nose working in overdrive. We shared my food. I was pleased to have the dog’s company and we talked and shared some laughs and had a good time together. Another dog eventually attacked him – playfully, as dogs will – and he quickly forgot I existed.

I went home, wondering if I’d get sick later tonight, and ordered another salad at the hotel restaurant.

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