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.