In Bolivia I love to shop at the open air markets. They are filled with a colorful assortment of fruits and vegetables, meats, dry goods, pungent spices in 100-pound cloth bags, personal hygiene items, household cleaning products, and other seemingly unrelated articles. Each section is usually presided over by a Quechua woman, her long black hair in braids, wearing a flowered apron with pockets where she keeps her change. There are often one or two red-cheeked children in tow, sometimes sleeping peacefully on sacks behind the stands.
The “aisles” between rows of stands are narrow, dark, and congested with shoppers, wheelbarrows laden with purchased items pushed by young boys, wandering animals seeking fallen scraps to devour, and hawkers calling out prices and special items for sale. “Garlic: three for a peso! Towels…dish towels…best you can buy! Nuts…fresh nuts for sale!” Between the crowdedness, the smells (some sweet and some astonishingly disgusting), the sounds of barter, and the sights; the open air markets remind me of three-ring circuses. Truthfully, one has the idea that anything could happen….and that surprises await just around the next corner.
I think I like best the relational factor of these markets. You don’t just go in, pick out what you want, then pay for it at the cash register. Instead, intrepid vendors compete to woo you. “Señora, let me help you! I have lots of really fresh papaya. Doesn’t it look good?” Or “Casera (housewife), look at this cheese! Only 8 bolivianos for 500 grams!”
Usually I end up with a favorite vendor (chosen mostly for honesty, good produce, and service). We chat for a while. I ask about her family; she inquires about mine. I comment on her little boy’s thick hair. If she knows me well, she asks about my work. Then we get down to business. I tell her what I want…and we dicker over the cost of each item. It is a game really. She offers to sell at 3 times the normal price; I counteroffer with ½ of the normal price. Gradually we come to an agreement and I point to which article I want to place in my wheelbarrow. I hand over the coins, and she digs in her ample pockets for change. It seems settled…then I ask for the “yapa”. At this, her brown eyes light up and she smiles in delight. I have asked for the baker’s dozen…the extra portion thrown in because of the Quechua culture. If asked for, the seller must comply. She grins broadly as she gives me several more zucchini and peppers for free. She likes that I know the custom.
I like that I can be a thrifty shopper.
On my way home, I think about the “yapa”. It is available to anyone; but the shopper has to ask for it. I am aware of the parallel in Christianity. Salvation is free; available to anyone. But you have to ask for it. I am so glad I did!