Otavalo, Ecuador
0° 13' N 78° 16' W
Dec 31, 2005 14:42
Distance 57km

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Text written in: English

Market factors

I'm on holidays, it's 5.45 am and I'm getting up. To go shopping. Well, there's a first time for everything, and I do need a new jumper, so what the hell, Otavalo market it is. A quick wash and a bleary-eyed stumble to the front door later and a taxi whisks us off to the bus stop, just in time to catch the 6.30 bus to Otavalo market, 95km or two hours north of Quito. It's Saturday and the last day of the year, so the full-scale market will be underway by the time we get there. Bargaining hats on, we admire the delightful scenery along the winding road. At this point I should mention that I took the sage decision to leave the digicam at home, for fear of light-fingered locals or travelling tea-leafs pinching it. It turned out to be a very poor call, as there were dozens of  great photo ops and not a whiff of a pickpocket all day.

Our mission was to buy a hammock for a friend, some jumpers, woolly hats, gee-gaws and curios for whatever house we end up living in and some knick-knacks and toys for various family members.
But first, breakfast. Llapingachos are little pankcakes made of cheese, potatoes and scallions, fried in a pan and served with a fried egg and some spiced pork. It's a delicious, cholestorol-loaded way to start any day, and I'll be having the recipe thanks, missus.

First rule of purchase - never buy anything in the first hour. Take a good walk around, have a look at a few things, ask some prices, see how low they might go if you put a bit of effort into haggling, then move on. I needed a red hammock with fish, and found one after a brief search, priced at eleven dollars, quickly knocked down to seven, but no further budging. I promised (ha!) to come back if I didn't find it cheaper elsewhere, which I did, shortly after, by bending the truth slightly about how much I was quoted for the same item at another stall. Six dollars was the final price, a whole hundred cents cheaper than what I was told to pay for it. It's the little victories (the fact the thing probably cost tuppence ha'penny and a package of crips to buy notwithstanding) that make the day.  About two minutes after sealing the deal, I came upon a stall selling hammocks with wooden struts, and a cold sweat of uh-oh broke out. Did he want one of those? Have I bought a useless lump of gaudy material that nobody will use, or pay me back for? Otavalo is an ancient town, and all the men wear white shirts and trousers, navy felt ponchos, one long plait, dark fedoras and sandals. And are never over five feet tall. Their wives and daughters wear delicately embroidered velvet dresses with colourful shawls, immaculately braided hair and buckled shoes. The boys wear Korn t-shirts and Wranglers and hang out in the cybercaf√© playing network games of Half-life 2. Here, I checked my email and the photo my mate had sent of his hammock, blissfully strutless. Woo-hoo!

And so it went on throughout the morning and into the afternoon; we accumulated jumpers, hats, whistles, hammocks (a nice white cotton number for us, and our imaginary garden), wall decorations and t-shirts. Some articles were easy enough to haggle down to about 40% of the asking price, while other vendors were trenchant in their insistence on a price not much below their initial offer. T-shirts, for example, could not be bought for less than four dollars apiece, no matter how many one wanted to purchase. I met people who managed to pay ten dollars for a t-shirt, which was quite a feat of negative negotiating, though apparently the opening prices are a bit higher if you speak English and wave the dollah-bills.
 Jumpers, on the other hand, could easily be knocked down from sixteen dollars to seven. One chap, when he didn't have what I was looking for, brought me down to his house, introduced me to his family (first time I heard Quichua spoken, it's a bit like Zulu with all the clicks and chirrups) and his dog, then showed me a room filled with millions of multicoloured geansais. I found just what I was looking for, scoffed at his fifteen dollar offer, and wore him down to ten (this was the first jumper we bought, so I thought it was a decent price, and in fairness, it's a very nice one, and there'll be no regrets over a pound or two).

The weather was sweltering, apparently in marked contrast to the previous week's chilly drizzle, and we were glad of the manifold juice-sellers, offering fresh orange, mandarin, blackberry, tree-tomato and loads of other pulps of unpronounceable fruits. At one stage, the guy selling the juices cracked an egg into a blender and added a can of beer and some alfalfa. If anyone knows what the hell this concotion is supposed to be, and why someone would want to drink it, I'd be glad to know.
For lunch, there was tilapia (a fish),  deep-fried and bathed in lime - absolutely delicious, and for high-tea there were chips. Plain old chips, albeit out of a plastic bag.

We left at about 3, before the New Year's Eve festivities began and in time to get home before dark (remember the murderings). The boys here dress up as women and stand either side of the road with a rope, which they pull taut in front of each passing car, before demanding a few pennies. It's cute, and a laugh the first few times, but you wouldn't want to be in a long line of traffic in a hurry.
The other most widespread custom here is to make life-sized effigies of straw, clothe them and equip them with a mask representing someone you dislike intensely - usually a politician, but often a neighbour, teacher, TV personality or footballer from a rival team. Into the dummy is stitch some small item representing bad luck from the year just gone. For example, if the harvest was lousy, you could stitch a few grains of corn in there, or if you'd failed your exams a lump of chalk. The dummies are then burned in the streets at midnight all over the country.

Back in Quito, we went for dinner at an Argentinian steak-house. The owner was a mad little grey-haired chap, who spoke English to everyone as though he'd learned it from an American  game-show. Mind you, he must have been quite a fan, as his grasp of the language was impeccable. We had onion rings to start, with garlic bread, and a main course of fillet steak so big you could seat a family of six on it - if you were a complete imbecile who used meat products as furniture.
Mine was a roulade, stuffed with Parma ham and asparagus tips, and each mouthful was a joy.
I'm looking forward to Argentina! Unfortunately, the long day and digestion took its toll thereafter, and at barely nine-thirty, we could sense that midnight might best be observed from the comfort of the hostel, preferably while sitting/lying on something soft, possibly with eyes closed. We made a valiant effort nonetheless to see the night out, and went back out into the streets. As the place was absolutely jammers at 7pm, we expected the crowd to have swelled even more in anticipation of the witching hour. Instead, the streets were slowly emptying, with everyone heading back home to celebrate the new year en famille, leaving a few brave bands playing the night away, and the beer sellers handing out their last buckets of suds.

Decidedly, home was the best place to end the evening and the year, although hailing a taxi was a bit of a chore (whatever about risking certain death at 6.01pm, the walk back uphill at ten-thirty was as appealing as ebola). People sometimes pretend to be taxi drivers when clearly they are not, and one such fellow pulled up in a grey jeep and offered to take us home. His ruse was unfurled, though, when he failed to recognise the name of the street where we were headed - Avenida Gran Colombia.
This is a bit like a taxi driver on O'Connell St. never having heard of Collins Avenue, so we waved him goodnight and waited some more. Relief eventually came in the form of a yellow cab, who wanted only two dollars for the ride and actually knew his way around town. Midnight came in a hail of gunshots and fireworks, seen through half-closed eyes and heard from half-sleep.

Happy New Year!

Photos / videos of "Market factors":

Beware the hammock ninjas! Told you it was a nice cardie There's me jumpah