Saturday, January 10, 2009

To Market, To Market . . .

One of the biggest changes in Loreto since we took possession of our casa three years ago was the availability of good quality food in the stores. When we first started “homemaking” here it was expected that we would have to travel an hour and a half south to Constitution, the next town with a “Super Lay” to do our main shopping. For those of you not familiar with Mexican brand names, Super Lay is not a large potato chip, but close approximation to a North American supermarket. However, this is not to be confused with a Super Mercado, which is any small neighborhood convenience store, mainly selling beer.

In any event, the shopping in Loreto was pretty dismal. El Pescador was the biggest store, and had a very Mexican selection of canned and dry goods - an entire aisle of canned beans, for example. But the meat counter was “challenging” and frankly smelled bad, and the “fresh” produce section wasn't. There were other stores, but their selection was worse, and so we only counted on shops in town for a few staples like milk and bread (Bimbo) and what we could find by chance.

When we first started spending time in Loreto, in addition to the 3 hour round-trip travelling time to Constitution, it was usually necessary to rent a car, adding substantially to the cost of the groceries as well as the day out of the holiday that was spent in the process. The change for the better began when we discovered the weekend markets a little over two years ago. The first location was on some bare land off the highway at the north end of town, where vendors set up temporary tarp-covered stalls. The following year, it moved to the big arroyo separating the south end of Loreto from the “suburb” of Zaragosa, where there was more room for expansion.

In addition to the location changing, the market day has changed several times. Originally, it was on Saturdays. Then, without apparent notice (to us anyway) it was changed to Sundays. There was an immediate increase in traffic following this, because most labourers have to work on Saturday mornings and so they could now attend when it switched to Sundays. Then, this fall it switched back to Saturdays for several weeks before returning to Sundays. Confused? Try arriving with a list for the week's shopping, only to find a bare dirt field, where you expected to see a couple of dozen stalls and several hundred people milling around.

In any event, for the time being, the Market is on Sunday mornings. The layout is simple. There is a corridor of booths, perhaps a quarter of a mile long running east to west from the main road connecting Loreto to Zaragosa. Parking runs parallel to the stalls and it is usually hard to find a space during the market hours, which reputedly start about sunrise, or as soon as the vendors are set-up, and runs until about noon. We usually try to arrive between 9 and 10 and this is prime time, with a throng of people filling most of the corridor between the stalls.

Although our prime target for shopping at the market is fruits and vegetables, that's not all that there is availabile. In fact, there are only about a half a dozen “green grocers” and these are some of the larger stalls. It is an acquired skill to properly shop these vendors. In the first place,
probably 80% of their produce is the same. A lot of it now comes from the US, although we sometimes see things like strawberries that are grown in Mexico and packaged for the export market, in some cases the same brand names we see in Calgary. Other staples, like tomatoes and onions are local, (i.e. Mexican, possibly from the Baja) and other things, like an edible type of cactus, are certainly local and an acquired taste. One of my favorite indulgences are oranges. Grown locally, (there are big orchard plantations check out what is special at any one spot or another. One of the big comparison points is lettuce, more particularly Romaine, and finding who has the best and freshest is a good start to choosing where we will shop. Once we have made our decision, we usually pick up most of what we need at the first stop. It is all self-serve, with boxes and trays full of the various fruits and vegetables and rolls of plastic bags hanging above or laying nearby. There are no prices on anything, so when you have finished selecting and have an armful of bags (unless that vendor is one that has shopping baskets available) you then get in line for your turn at the “cashier”. Your bags are then weighed, sort of. Over time we have learned that certain vendors tend to “accent” the weight by not removing their hand from the scale while weighing and often, the pointer is still wildly fluctuating when they remove the item. But in fact, because we have no idea what the prices are, or what we are in fact being charged, whether the weight is accurate is of secondary importance. After each item is weighed a figure is punched into the ubiquitous calculator, and when everything has been added up and bagged the calculator is handed back to the customer and the transaction is paid for.

While I don't want to appear paranoid, I am resigned to my belief that although we may not actually pay a higher price than others, the weight and calculation of the totals is at least “rounded up” in our case, as compared to the local Mexican customers. And - you know what? - I'm OK with that, to a point, because the fact is we can afford to pay more than some of the other customers. However, there was a case, a few weeks back, that we had bought a couple of bags of assorted produce and the “bill” came to over 300 pesos (approximately $30 US) which seemed steep for what we had bought and so as a result, we have boycotted that stall since. Not that I expect he or his heavy thumbs have noticed!

Although we are there mainly for the fruit and vegetables, that's not all there is at the Market. Originally, we used to refer to it as the “Farmer's” Market, but since more than three quarters of the vendors sell other things, it's really more of a Flea Market, so we now just call it “the Market”. We have also heard it referred to as the “swap meet”, even though one only ever “swaps” dinero for goods. In fact, there is pretty much everything that a family needs available here. While some of the veggie stands sell whole chickens and parts (semi-frozen, if you're lucky) there are one or two butchers with stands as well. This is where our cultures tend to collide. Our North American standard of shrink wrapped, stryrofoam trayed meat with absorbant pads underneath soaking up any errant juices, is a long way from the reality of open air, unrefrigerated tables of meat, perhaps with a well used transparent plastic drop sheet cover for protection from flies and dust.

But that is not the most challenging. Personally, I find the “Goat Guy” my threshhold. On his table in front he has several containers of different types of goat cheese, and it's pretty good cheese, although a bit bland to our taste. However, hanging from his stand's awning is usually one or two goat carcasses- complete, except for their skin, which leaves them looking like some kind of anatomical modelfor biology class. To be fair, I have heard that it is good goat meat, and that goat is a traditional celebratory meal, sort of like turkey, for us. But I don't know how long I will be living in the Baja before I will be in the market for a well hung goat.

In addition to the food stalls, there are several diner-style establishments, specializing in different foods cooked on the premesis, including the usual range of tacos, enchiladas etc., but also small individual pizza-type pastries with various fillings. There is always at least one stall advertising “hay menudo” (translation: getcher menudo here), which I understand is a kind of soup, reputed to be a morning-after cure for hangovers, and is invariably popular particularly on a Sunday morning. There are also a number of roaming vendors selling ice cream, various flavoured drinks, and “nut men” wheeling around 3' x 6' carts full of perfectly arranged 2 gallon sized bags of nuts and candies that they will weigh out in small quantities for the constantly hovering crowd of kids that seem to follow them everywhere.

But it's not all about the food. A disproportionate number of stalls are either partly, or completely devoted to shoes. All kinds of shoes - women's high heels, (it appears the higher the better, but where they manage to wear them on these streets is beyond me) men's shoes, athletic, workboots and some very handsome cowboy boots in exotic leathers, and of course kids shoes in all sizes shapes and colours. Without wanting to sound like an amateur sociologist, I have a theory that in a “Second World” society, like Mexico, shoes represent an important step up the economic ladder (no pun intended). After your basic living requirements are met, I suspect a better pair of shoes is a high priority and this is confirmed by the space devoted to them at the market.

Probably the largest group of stalls deal in a variety of second hand or nearly new goods. Household goods, electronics, small furnishings, tools, and clothing cover the main categories, but on a stroll through the market, one can invariably come across a one-of-a-kind item that beggars the imagination as to where it came from, how it got here, and WHY? Like the guy without a stall, displaying police car rooftop emergency lights on a blanket. As we passed by, the local police were his most interested customers, although I think talk more turned to where he got it rather than how much it was. Another big category is kids toys, usually, but not always, new. Often very cheap and colourful, no X-boxes or Guitar Heros here, but simple traditional toys and games that a hard working family can afford to pay, probably less than a dollar for, to buy a treat for their kids. Sort of like the stuff you would find at the local dollar store.

So that is a visit to our weekly market. In fact, if you are reading this on a Sunday morning, that is probably where I am right now, unless, of course, they've changed the day again. While aspects of the market seem disorganized, verging on chaotic, it is an economic system that works. It provides most of the essentials in one place and in a walk past the stalls it is possible for a Mexican family to shop for most of their weekly needs in an hour or so. All this as well as meeting and visiting with friends and neighbours, exchanging gossip, giving teenagers somewhere to see and be seen, and little kids an exciting busy place full of sights, sounds and smells to run around free and safe in. And by early afternoon, it all disappears into a motley series of vans, trucks, and cars to go who-knows-where. But it will all return again next Sunday before dawn - and that is part of Living (and eating) Loreto!