Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Jan. 22, 2004

Shopping, Bolivian-style

As a general rule, I try not to shop on Christmas Eve. I'm not fond of crowds, and somehow jostling for position, standing in long lines and spending money just don't seem to go along with the whole idea of peace on earth, good will toward men.

But this past Noche Buena - The Good Night - as the Bolivians call it, I made an exception. Beginning in the early morning hours, I could hear a racket coming from the street in front of my sister's house where we were staying in La Paz. When I pulled open the drapes of my upstairs bedroom window to find out what was going on, I saw people setting up stalls and carrying goods from nearby trucks. This part of Inofuentes Street is closed to traffic every Wednesday to allow vendors to sell their items.

I was excited. The colorful, pungent street markets were among my favorite things when I lived in Latin America 25 years ago.

I quickly dressed and went out with my sister's oldest daughter Gabriela and Mechi, the family's maid. I was amazed by the variety of goods. Oranges, peaches, grapes, cherries, papayas, lemons, apples, bananas, pineapples, mangos, onions, beans, peas, carrots, artichokes, tomatoes, lettuce and several varieties of potatoes and other tubers spilled out of the fruit and vegetable stands.

Gabriela and Mechi had to identify some of the fruits and vegetables for me. The vendors gave us samples of a few of them. Pepinillos are similar to our honeydew melons. Pacays are large green pods with seeds inside that are covered with a sweet, cottony-looking fruit. Tunas aren't fish; they're similar to prickly pears.

Chuños are any potatoes that have been freeze-dried. Gabriela told me later that part of the freeze-drying process includes the farmers stomping on the potatoes to squash out the liquid. I wasn't sure that sounded too appetizing, but Mechi cooked chuños with cheese on top for lunch one day. They were black and rather starchy and I just couldn't seem to get the image of feet out of my mind.

Cow tongues, stomachs and other cuts of meat hung over the front of other market stalls. Huge trout and pejerreys - small, silvery mackerel-type fish - lined yet another. Mechi's Aunt Francisca was one of the fish vendors. She deftly skinned a trout, boned it, slapped it over her forearm to balance it, and then used tweezers to pick out all the small bones.

Stalls with spices, bags of flour, sugar and oats, kitchen utensils, bottles of shampoo, hair brushes, soaps, toilet paper, brooms, embroidered tablecloths and bright-colored women's panties vied for attention.

Gladiolus seemed to be the most popular flowers, although there were also mums, carnations, roses and baby's breath.

A live turkey - destined to be someone's Christmas dinner - gobbled and tried to escape from the bag he was wrapped in. The old woman holding him was quite proud. She pulled the blue bag down away from his head to show me his plump body. Only 180 Bolivianos - about $23 - she told me. The turkey reminded me of the one my Ecuadorian family kept in their back yard when I was a Peace Corps volunteer living with them in Quito. Every morning it gobbled me awake. I became quite fond of my turkey alarm clock. Then one holiday he appeared as the main course for our dinner!

I didn't buy the turkey at the Bolivian market - or anything else for that matter. But I came away with around three dozen photos and a stack of memories of this very different Christmas Eve.

December 2003: left, Mechi and Gabriela, right, chat with woman selling fish. Right, woman proudly shows off her turkey. This street market is located right outside my sister�s home in La Paz, Bolivia.

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