Veggies, Beggars, and Smiles

The feria defines my Cochabamba.

The feria is a fresh produce fair held in a stretched loop of good road near the center of town every Saturday and Sunday. My mother and I leave by 8:30 on Saturday mornings, always equipped with numerous bolsas and hopefully coated in sufficient sunscreen. We have our taxi park at the quiet end of the loop and happily enter the friendly cacophany.

Outdoor markets make me happy. They’re my favorite feature of Renaissance Fairs, and I watch Notting Hill to see the booths of crafted goods and arts (well, and maybe for the clever sap). When I pictured myself in Bolivia it was a chaotic and smiling road of not-really-organized tables and bustling bodies in which my mental image was placed. The feria of Cochabamba does not disappoint!

The Feria

People are everywhere, everywhere and fall into four general categories: vendors, shoppers, cart-kids, and beggars.

The vendors generally buy their produce from campesino farmers. Their veggies and such are piled high on their tables and baskets. The fruit booths are the prettiest. The booth of nuts, herbs, and dried fruits is by far the most expensive. Veggies aren’t all that’s sold, although they’re certainly the most common. Girls and women wander around offering bunches of garlic or trashbags – usually both. One booth, right at the end where we enter, sells oodles of cheap earrings, beaded bracelets, and DVDs – generally not English DVDs, and hence not worth buying. I keep buying the cheap jewelry, though… then there’s the section of households supplies… and the apron lady… and the flowers are lovely.

The Feria

Two flower spots occupy the feria. At the beginning of the feria is a small, happy, and sweet lady with the most wilted and pitiful flowers available. We always buy a small bundle from her and she adds another for free. At the opposite end of the feria is a cluster of tables with gorgeous bouquets. Today we bought 6 calalilies for just under a U.S. dollar, and these lovely fuschia somethings the lady called “ginger” for 75 cents.

Personalities vary, naturally, but generally the vendor ladies like to toss in a few extra of whatever you’ve bought just to make you happy.

The shoppers, quite interestingly, seem to be every bit as international as the vendors are Bolivian. Americans, Brits, Germans, and Spaniards seem to be in near-equal proportion to the Bolivians. Or, possibly, the increased number of international faces simply holds stronger in my mind because it’s the most varied crowd I’ve seen outside of the English-speaking church.

The cart-kids took a bit of time to stop jarring my sensibilities. They range in age from 6ish to 15ish, and they crowd in the center of the feria and at the back end. Each child has a wheelbarrow, and for two or three Bolivianos (U.S. $0.25-0.33) they will follow shoppers and carry their goods. A single child probably makes four-ish dollars in a weekend for what is bound to be a tiring work trodging along the hill on which the feria rests. We pay them particularly well, and I’m happy for their service. Whilst the ideal remains that they needn’t do such work, to deny them the work either personally or through public policy would injure them for more than their efforts. Doesn’t quite keep one’s heart from breaking a bit, mind you.

The Feria

The beggars are a curious and entertaining lot. Tiny old ladies who silently stand at your hand with an outstretched hand until you take notice by handing them a coin, and middle-aged men who stand, press, and block your path until you buy their packs of chewing gum. A very disabled boy in his teens who smiles and stares with not-quite-right eyes. The blind girl, possibly in her twenties, who plays an accordian really very well. Mom’s favorite is the woman who sits in the middle of a path and will chat with you for a bit – although I’ve not quite been able to determine what she’s saying between my faulty Spanish, the noise of the feria, and her mumbling lips. She’s joyful, though, and welcomes a hand and a hug. A new team was in the fish corner today, a brother and sister or a mother and son – impossible to know, but I think the former – who sang very terribly (her) and drummed an ill rhythm (him). I gave them five Bolivianos, just out of delight… and maybe in apology for the unwilling grimace I know I must have made.

Here’s the important bit, though – everyone is at the feria working hard. The vendors who try to prove their cauliflower is better than that of the booth’s next door. The shoppers parting with their Bolivianos in order to feed their families and decorate their homes. The children carting fifty pounds of barrow and goods up and down the hill. The beggars who wait for an offer of personalized welfare.

and every one of them is smiling.

The Feria

Not at first, for some, but one can make even the grumpiest little ninety-year-old Aymaran woman cackle with glee at a joke over the overly-strong flavor of her herbs, and the most reserved and stern old bat will cave when you ask her how to best cook the root you’re considering buying. A tired little one will smile shyly when offered a cotton candy or their choice of hair-barrette at the accessories cart. With a few steady visits, a kind voice, and a session of haggling in which you pay full price after having already won a lower quote, nearly every person at the feria will greet you with a smile, a hug, and a chaste cheeky kiss.

This is Cochabamba.

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