Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sunday Market - a visit to the "Mall" Loreto style

As I start to think about my return trip to Canada in a few weeks I have been considering topics for the remaining Blogs and decided to make a return visit this week to the Sunday Market that is held in Loreto.  While I have written about the Market previously (To Market To Market, January ’09) I confess that I have not been there this past winter season.

The reasons for my abstaining from going to the Market are twofold.  First of all, the quality of the produce available at the stores in town has improved over the past years to the point that I can usually find the fruits and vegetables that I want on my regular shopping trips into Loreto without making a special trip to the Market on Sunday mornings.  Secondly, since I have been working in the Dorado Properties Office five (or sometimes six) days a week most of this winter, I look forward to a relaxing day off on Sundays and the lure of fresh vegetables had not been enough, until now, to tempt me out of my weekend routine.

However, no sacrifice is too great for you, my loyal reader, and so this past Sunday I grabbed a quick breakfast and headed to the Market about 9:30.  The location of the Market is on the edge of the Arroyo (dry river bed) that separates the south side of Loreto from the “suburb” of Zaragosa.  It can be reached off Francisco Madero, which runs parallel to the Malacon, south off Salvatierra, but I took a “back road” from the highway that passes north of the Airport land and comes in on the Zaragosa side.

The Market itself is two rows of temporary stalls facing each other across a gravel path that is about 30 feet wide.  The stalls stretch about a hundred yards, with a parking lot along the length of one side.  Scattered among the stalls are about half a dozen vendors that sell a variety of fruits and vegetables along with a few smaller ones that specialize in a couple items like strawberries, or some prepared foods like Tamales.  These vegetable and food stalls are the main attraction for the ex-pat community, as well as many of the locals, for whom a trip to the Market is often a family occasion, much in the same way as a trip to the Mall is for many North Americans.

When I first started shopping at the Market several years ago, I thought that it was going to be more of a “Farmer’s” market with locally grown crops available, but much of the produce available here comes from outside the Baja and as far away as the US, in some cases.  While there are some locally grown products available, they tend to be the staples like tomatoes, onions, oranges and possibly lettuce, a lot of the rest that’s available comes from the mainland and a surprising amount comes out of boxes identified with their US origin. 

As I understand this, it is due in large part to the intensive factory farming practiced here, particularly in the northern Baja, close to markets across the border in the US.  In other Blogs about my drives through some of these market gardening areas, I have described hundreds of acres of fields covered with shade structures where one crop, like tomatoes are grown.  Because this mono-culture of export crops dominates most of the arable land (usually meaning good access to artisanal water) there is not much variety in locally grown produce.

However, this is a great climate for growing citrus, the small flavourful “Key” limes are available almost everywhere and one of my most enjoyable indulgences which is freshly squeezed orange juice every morning.  I may have mentioned in an earlier posting, that after a shortage the previous winter due to a late hurricane, this year I am again able to purchase 20 lb. bags of oranges for about $4.00.  While the price and the flavour are great, these oranges tend to be smaller than what you see in Supermarkets up north and there are often blemishes on the skin that lowers the grade on appearance.  As I understand that is typical of the local produce, the Grade “A” crop is exported at top prices, while the remainder is sold locally at a lower price.

Otherwise, most of the stalls are stocked with an amazing variety of goods, often second hand, including clothing, household goods like small appliances, pots and pans and dishes, shoes, some furniture, automotive accessories and general hardware.  Added to this, there are a couple of busy open air restaurants with plastic tables and chairs, serving breakfast and lunch, including Menudo, a soup with reputedly restorative powers over hangovers.

There are several fish vendors selling frozen shrimp, scallops, lobster, and squid out of stacked coolers and at one table they were shucking fresh clams.  One of the “fixtures” of the Market is the “Goat Guy” who sells both goat meat in the form of a skinned carcass hanging at his side (that he will cut portions from on request) and a table top display of rounds of cheese.  There is also a large booth which is a nursery with an extensive display of potted plants that attracts a lot of interest from gringos and several smaller booths are selling hand-crafted jewellery.  Another jewellery vendor wheels a baby stroller totally covered with an amazing display of beads, ear rings and bracelets of every imaginable description.

On the gravel walkway between these booths there are several other independent vendors moving around within the crowd.  Some push small wheeled coolers packed with a variety of ice treats, clanking small cow bells incessantly to attract attention and often surrounded by children with their heads stuck in the cooler inspecting the inventory.  Another one walks around carrying a 12 ft. pole studded with bagged balls of candy floss on sticks, trailing another enthusiastic crowd of kids behind him.  A common fixture in town, often set up near Banks or other high traffic areas, are the table-topped barrow vendors offering a kaleidoscope of different coloured nuts and candies, each variety separated into impeccable display bags, the contents ready to be weighed out into individual servings.

Some of the most popular booths are full of stacks of second hand clothing which obviously require patience to sort through, and a careful eye to judge size and fit, since there are no changing facilities nearby.  The presence of this clothing makes me wonder where it all comes from, but I expect some of it may find it’s way here from north of the border, where it may have been donated to various charities.  Regardless, here it is, and judging by the crowds it attracts, the price is right!

Shoes are another popular category of product for all ages and types of customers.  Work boots for the many men involved in construction and outdoor work, and by younger, more style conscious teenagers, there are highly coveted running shoes, which one vendor has carefully wrapped each individual shoe in plastic film to protect this prize merchandise from the ever-present dust.  For women, surprisingly delicate high heeled sandals and pumps – surprising, considering the condition of much of the pavement and amount of sand and gravel that one encounters here as a pedestrian.  I was also told recently that the selection of children’s shoes here was far superior than was readily available in many large North American markets, perhaps an indication of the exalted position small children are held in, in this society.  

Speaking of children, one of their most popular booths is the “Toy Store” with a counter-top display of inexpensive brightly coloured plastic toys and treats that have mesmerizing powers over the “captive” audience of youngsters surrounding it.  I also saw a meticulous display of nail polishes and other make-up products in another booth appealing to the young women, across from another booth selling natural source skin care products.  Meanwhile, for the men, there are tables of used tools and hardware that need to be examined carefully (sort of the equivalent of an open-air Home Depot) and on the fashion side for him, there are a number of display racks crowded with dozens of baseball caps bearing every conceivable logo and brand, team and city, almost all of it in English.

As I make my way out of this marketplace I realize how the initial impression of tattered awnings lining a dusty lane has changed.  In fact, this is a very efficient group enterprise that provides almost everything that is necessary for a comfortable lifestyle, by local standards.  And although the first impression, particularly to a foreigner’s eye, is one of shabby chaos, when you delve into what is actually available here, you are hard pressed to find any significant shortcomings for what most of the people here want and need. 

But after all, being pleasantly surprised by the differences between appearance and reality is one of the lessons I have learned, over and over again, while “Living Loreto”.