“What are these things,” I ask my friend squinting at the plump, green pear shapes heaped in small baskets, “figs?” He squints at them too, sniffs, and shrugs.
“Yes,” a voice answers, “these are some of the best, grown right here by the river. You should try them when they are like this, fresh and green. This guy always gets the sweetest ones.” As he speaks a sunburnt man in a plaid shirt and jeans stacks up three cardboard boxes of figs and puts them in a dolly next to him.
I gape and ask, “Are you running off with all the figs, then?” He smiles as he moves towards the russet potatoes.
“Don’t worry,” he replies with a wink, “I’ll leave a box or two for you.” He quickly packs up three boxes of the starchy tubers as well and hauls the entire lot into a pickup truck parked behind the vegetable stalls.
“You seem to love the potatoes here just as much their figs,” my friend says, amused. The stranger laughs, “Yep, nobody has better potatoes here. I come every week and make sure to get them from these folks.” He catches my friend and I staring at him curiously and laughs again.
“I’m a chef at a restaurant a few blocks away, so I’m here all the time getting my supplies.”
“Oh,” my friend and I both murmur, secretly excited. “What is the name of your restaurant?” my companion asks.
“Much Ado,” he answers, “it’s about two blocks from here actually. You should drop in for lunch…or brunch.” He pauses, leans in close to us, and says in a stage whisper, “We do a wonderful wild mushroom risotto, though I say so myself!”
My chum and I send each other looks of high approval.
“Figs and Shakespeare in a restaurant? Who can resist?”
The chef moves to the next stall which is piled high with chives, endives, and cilantro. He moves through it at fantastic speed, barely stopping to examine the produce, his eyes are so sharp. He picks out a particularly sprightly bunch of cilantro and lets us smell the sweet, fresh scent. Then he moves on to tomatoes. Suddenly my friend and I are following a local chef around as he does his morning grocery shopping. We smile at each other as we trail after him towards the carrots. Guess we both know where we’ll stop for lunch today.
Meeting locals while traveling is an integral part of truly exploring a destination, but chance encounters rarely happen while I am wandering through an art museum or poking around a historic castle. This is not where most residents spend their lunch hour or day off. Besides, confronting a stranger in whispered tones in a hallway dripping with masterpieces is awkward work for me. I can never manage the right amount of suavity or think of clever lines.
“What do you think the effect of war is on Matisse’s color palette?” hardly exudes the friendly and conversational mien I wish to begin with a new acquaintance. Parties and dances are off-limits for me too. Meeting an entire room of new people starts my palms sweating and leaves me at the end of the ordeal an exhausted wreck. This is why I seek out public market days on my travels. Whether it is a daily crafts fair or a one-day-a-week farmer’s emporium, these shindigs are just my style. The open air bazaar reveals a destination’s sense of community and lets me enter it as a stranger, without pretense or subterfuge. Here I can mull over unusual fruit which may lead to discovering a new recipe from a local grandmother. Or I may espy that one-of-a-kind souvenir every traveler craves and make friends with an international artist. The possibility of chance encounters that may change my life sends a tingle up my spine every time I find myself wandering through the aisles of a public market.
I have met all sorts of interesting people at markets, fairs, and bazaars and through them enjoyed experiences I would otherwise have never dreamed possible. In Cusco, Peru there is a daily market square filled with vibrant colored woolen sweaters, socks, and ponchos. Every doll and every article of alpaca clothing is made by hand by the women of mountain villages who travel to the city to sell their handiwork.
“Among the riot of dyed woolens there stands an old, wrinkled woman whose dark eyes shine brightly.”
Unlike the other sellers this woman doesn’t yell out prices or gesticulate madly. She poses quietly and smiles gently as customers pick through her merchandise. I finger the soft woven neck of a hooded sweater and ask her how much. “Veinte-dos sol,” she replies. This is less than the number printed on the sticker attached to the sweater so I accept with a smile and hunt out bills from my pocket. As we make the exchange I haltingly tell her in Spanish how soft I find her wool and how beautiful I think her designs are.
She nods at me encouragingly and says with her finger up, “Si, si, uno momento.” She scurries behind a wall of rust colored rugs and when she reappears, I see her holding a woolen doll the size of my pinky. It is traditionally dressed in an eye-popping sapphire poncho and has two tiny braids that stick out, as if she were a Peruvian Pippi Longstocking. The old woman pats her chest and offers me the doll. I turn the toy around and realize it is a brooch. I exclaim delightedly as I look at the pin and she smiles and pats her chest. I ask how much for the doll pin and she shakes her head, saying something as she folds my fingers around the trinket and pushes my hands away from her. I wish I had more than my limited smattering of Spanish so that I could know what she said or do more than brokenly repeat “Gracias,” multiple times. To emphasize my gratitude I give her a hug and a kiss on the cheek, hoping she understands how much I appreciate her kindness. She pats my head and holds me by the chin as she mumbles to herself softly. Our language barrier and her lack of business cards limits the length of our acquaintance, but I will never forget my sweet encounter at the alpaca market stall.
People color my travel memories just as much as misadventures and foods. I find, though, that where scenery and regional dishes remind of the distinctive individuality of a destination, the locals that I am fortunate to meet remind me of home. In their personalities I see reflected my neighbors, my childhood friends, and even myself. The pandora’s box of sights, sounds, and smells at a bazaar gives me the characteristic personality of a place. The communal sensibility of public markets welcomes me, the foreigner, wherever I am. Whatever attracts me first to the rows of open-air stalls: the scent of fresh cut blossoms, the sight of an unusual fruit, or the gleam of an exquisite trinket, it is the chance to meet a local stranger and develop a beautiful friendship that keeps me coming back to market days.
BESPOKE TRAVELER TIP #23
Explore the work of native craftspeople for souvenirs that are both unique and useful.