Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Valdivia Market

Despite intermittent earthquakes and a conflagration that consumed most of its traditional, wooden structures a century ago, Valdivia stands right where it was founded in 1554. The city owes its longevity to a resilient economy based on timbering, agriculture, and ranching in the uplands to the east and the rich, marine resources of the Pacific Ocean to the west. This mix of land and sea colors the local palate and the daily produce market that is the subject of this post.

The opening of the Chilean economy, a hallmark of two decades of military dictatorship, brought a plague of supermarkets to the country. Mass merchandizing, prepackaging, and long distance hauling have undermined some sectors of food retailing. But in a way that locovores have recently adopted in the United States, Valdivia offers an alternative to the supermarket. At the foot of the Paseo de la Libertad and beneath a crazy quilt of plastic tarps, farmers and fishermen offer their wares from 8 AM to sunset.

An aisle divides the market into a realm of vegetables and another of fish. I found the green groceries familiar. Mounds of potatoes rose beside flats of strawberries, green and red peppers, baskets of peas and pints of the locally-abundant bing cherries. Across the aisle, many of the offerings lay outside my vocabulary.

Torpedo-shaped pescada stared up from pallets with eyes so shiny that they appeared ready to slip back into the water and swim away. (Since “pescada” differs by only one letter from “pescado,” the generic name for fish, I asked several times for clarification.) A large, pink-skinned fish whose body tapers to a finless tail carries the name congrio. It’s delicious, by the way. There were also some familiar species: salmon (wild, I was assured on more than one occasion), flounder (merlusa), and pejerrey, a brakish-water fish introduced to Lake Titicaca fifty years ago with disastrous consequences for its ecosystem. I did not see octopus (calamar) in the market, but I found some later in the day in a soup.

Shoppers chose both their fish and its processing: au natural, beheaded, scaled, filleted (or any combination). Butchers followed individual orders and tossed fish heads, entrails, and scales toward the river. Most of the discards never touched the water, though, as flocks of gulls and white pelicans hovered in the air hoping for some easy pickings. And patrolling the water’s surface, huge sea lions (lobos marineros) silently feasted on the largest bits and noisily received the leftovers at maket’s end—nothing wasted here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Whales in Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia is duly famous for its lobsters and lighthouses, and they're plentiful, all right. But the highlight of our July 2010 vacation to the island was a whale watch in the Bay of Fundy.

The humpback whale's life cycle brings pods of females with their calves in tow to the north Atlantic as they swim to summer feeding grounds off Newfoundland. Nova Scotia seems to be something of a stopover on the way further north. So whale activity there is somnolent; it's as if they were catching their breath before the last push to Newfoundland.

Pacific Life Insurance’s use of the whale as its logo, and their superimposition of breaching and tail slapping to try to convince viewers to use their products trivializes the attraction of whale watching. First of all, nothing is guaranteed. Certain areas of the coast, certain times of the day make sightings more likely, but much depends on luck. Many outfitters guarantee that they will take you out until you see whales, but that is a hollow promise given most vacation schedules. And second, the dramatic breaching occurs so unexpectedly that it is almost impossible to observe and even more difficult to capture on film or digits. Talking to the crew after our own successful cruise, we learned that the day before, they had seen nothing. But I get ahead of myself.

Whale watching boats come in two flavors. The “traditional” rigging is a flat decked, diesel powered craft carrying a couple of dozen people and a crew of four. These are often refitted from other uses for the tourist season—ours is a lobster boat eight months of the year. The second type is the Zodiac, a large, inflatable craft with an outboard motor and a crew of two. The appeal of the Zodiac is that it takes its six passengers right up to the whale. But because they are so close to the water, Zodiacs require a wetsuit-like garment to shield whale watchers from chop and spray. We chose the traditional rigging.

Most outfitters run two daily cruises, morning and evening. In making reservations in the spring, I had quizzed the owners on which was more likely to see whales, but never succeeded in getting a straight answer. For some reason, I chose the 9AM departure. This seemed reasonable until we got driving times from our B&B at Annapolis Royal to the dock at East Ferry, an hour and a half. What was I thinking on a vacation? As it turned out we arrived with ten minutes to spare only to learn that the cruise had been cancelled. Turns out we were the only takers; “people just don’t want to get up early,” the owner observed as my wife gave me a withering stare. Rather than get back in the car, we reserved seats on the 2PM boat and took in some Nova Scotian lobster and lighthouses as we whiled away five hours.

The afternoon boat was filled, but not beyond capacity. I believe that we were the only people from the States aboard. Most of our companions were Canadian, but from all across the country, one couple hailed from Vancouver. There was one Englishman (more on him later) and an Australian couple. After its crew provided a brief overview of the trip and safety instructions, the Passage Provider, chugged off from the pier and out into Digby Neck before turning north into the Bay of Fundy. The first half hour passed uneventfully. We excitedly sighted a pair of dolphins rolling off our starboard and laughed as a seal (of some sort) poked its head above the water and watched us pass. To this point we had dutifully seated ourselves along the boat railing and on both sides of bench positioned in center of the deck. This would soon change.

Perhaps a half hour out of port, one of the crew who was sitting on the roof of the cockpit spotted a whale breaching. He didn’t say “thar' she blows,” but that anachronism would have been appropriate as spray propelled from the breathing hole is the surest sign of a whale when viewed from a distance. As we approached our quarry, the passengers moved, tentatively at first and then in a rush to the side of the boat that would have the best view. Our Englishman, brandishing a video camera, was particularly aggressive in his movements. After a while, we learned to give him a wide berth. But everyone managed to get a good look.

For an hour and a half, moving between four pods, we saw whales breach with loud hisses as they expelled carbon dioxide and water vapor above their blowholes. Sometimes they just logged as we went by. They rolled and dove—the pattern was three rolls and dive. We even got several signature tail raises on the dive. Everyone was thrilled, especially the crew.

Since we had done so well, they felt free to admit that things are not always so good. The day before, the single whale that was sighted became the quarry of five boats. But not today. Today was wonderful.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Marketing in Solola

Sololá is a town of 35,000 perched 2,000 feet above the shore of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán. It has a long history, appearing in the Anales de los Cakchiquels as Tecpán-Atitlán and dating its Spanish foundation to 1547. But that’s all in the past. Today, a sunny Friday, Sololá welcomes shoppers to its twice weekly market, and we’ve come along for a look.

Sololá sits at the nexus of a commercial network that includes fish and water plants taken from the lake below and garden vegetables harvested on the plains above. Wholesalers visit the market on Thursday night and make purchases destined for tables in Guatemala City, El Salvador and the United States. The retail action begins (very) early on Friday, and we found that some items, especially flowers, were sold out by 9:00, the time we pulled into town.

While the market spills across the whole town, its main concentrations are the Parque Central and three commercial blocks to the west. Grain and vegetable sellers sit around the park’s perimeter, breaking down large lots into small quantities weighed out on hand-held balance scales. Commerce at this location seemed pretty bland—order, weigh out, pay. But walk a little further west, and hold on to your wallet.

Three narrow streets are closed to motor traffic on market days, making way for one of the most interesting brokerages on earth, a wave of crowd and color. The products are as varied as they are copious, a pot potpourri of the familiar and exotic. “BAÑO hay BAÑO,” droned a man with plastic basins at his feet. A shoe salesman hawked his wares with “ZAPATOS MEXICANOS, BARATOS.” We stepped over chickens, ducks and turkeys and learned that they are priced at 60, 50 and 100 Quetzales, respectively. In another area, we sniffed medicinal plants, some of which have yet to emerge from their Maya nomenclature.

At some point, I realized that my friend, Leigh, was in the grasp of a woman selling textiles. Turns out that “Maria” had made first contact as we crossed the Parque Central and was now addressing Leigh by her first name. Leigh doesn’t speak Spanish, but Maria had crossed the language barrier for her. “Give me another price,” she kept repeating. For what seemed like an hour, but was probably no more than fifteen minutes, Maria followed us through the crowd. She would sometimes disappear from view, but only to get a better angle for the next round of bargaining. And when we entered the park again, the two adversaries reached a dignified agreement.

We left soon after, but I still have my memories and my sunburn.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


January 24, 2010
Today La Paz, Bolivia, begins a month-long observance of Alacitas, the annual festival of hope for a bountiful future. A mix of indigenous and European traditions – what in Bolivia isn’t?— Alacitas encourages the purchase of miniatures in anticipation that with enough faith and effort from the devotee, they will grow into the real thing before the next January 24th rolls around.

The miniatures have morphed over the years with advances in technology and expectations. Trucks, cars and houses along with dollars and Bolivian currency used to dominate. Now currencies are world-wide with Euros, Yen, and yuan entering the market basket. I did not see many trucks this year, but busses abound and Hummers have supplanted sedans. Another interesting twist for 2010 is a miniature house construction, with reinforced concrete pillars erected and sacks of cement, corrugated roofing panels and floor tiles laid nearby.

To add to their prospects, shoppers can also purchase a blessing. The blessers, most looking like curanderos brought in for the day, burn offerings of coca, honey and flower petals over tiny braziers and pass the miniatures through the smoke. Another technique employs intinction, using a flower dipped in solutions whose compositions I could not discern.

The icon of Alacitas is the Eke’ko, a jolly, little man offering an expansive gesture with his arms and sometimes accessorized with a cigarette thrust between his parted lips. “Eke’ko” means “buy me” in the Aymara language. Thus named, he is the pitch man for Alacitas’ miniatures, some of which he carries on his arms and back. The Eke’ko also references Pachamama, the Andean earth mother, and is appropriately venerated as the sustainer of life.

Another item associated with Alacitas is the “periodiquito,” a miniature edition of Bolivia’s major news dailies. These mini-jounals, which began at the end of the 19th century, combine an approach reminiscent of The Onion— one headline reads “For Tiger Woods, Eighteen Holes are Not Enough,” with biting political satire. This year president Evo Morales appears as a super hero called Egoman, the futuristic Evotar and a bumbling detective, looking for corruption in his administration. Evo’s unsuccessful rival in the last election is held up to particular ridicule. Manfred Reyes, who surreptitiously fled Bolivia last year, has his escape ascribed variously to: disguises, a tourist with pot belly and shorts or a tall chola with exceptionally long skirts, but more likely reverting to his true nature as vampire who winged it out of the country in search of new prey.