Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Otavalo with a View

This morning we went on the Ecuadorian adventure that I have been looking forward to for months: Shopping at the Otavalo mercardo (market). According to our Lonely Planet, "For hundreds of years, Otavalo has hosted one of the most important markets in the Andes, a weekly fiesta that celebrates the gods of commerce... The tradition of swapping money for goods here stretches back to pre-Incan times, when traders would emerge from the jungle on foot, ready to conduct business." Now most people emerge from their hotels...but anyways... Thankfully, I brought my Spanish interpreter/bartering partner along, aka J. We couldn't even dream of starting this exhausting adventure without some energy. So we stopped and picked up two ice cream bars. Mine was coconut and J's was chocolate. Of course I had some of J's, too.

First stop was the animal market- maybe we'd want to purchase a cow to ride around the market on? I've always wanted a sheep...think about it dad: you would never have to cut the grass again! We entered a chaotic world of squealing pigs, sheep on leashes and cows tethered to stakes in the ground awaiting their fate. There are cardboard boxes stuffed with chicks, chickens and guinea pigs in mesh bags being thrown over shoulders, and puppies in crates. A couple is literally dragging a big, pink pig to their pick up truck. The woman, in the traditional long black skirt and white embroidered top is holding this (massive) pig off the ground by its tail while the man has the rope tightly wound around his hand and the pig's neck and is putting all his weight into yanking this very un-cooperative pig through the muddy field. I have never seen a pig in so much distress. He's digging his piggy paws into the dirt and flailing about and making the most horrible, high pitch, tortured pig scream that I couldn't even have imagined existed. Its like a horrible, disturbing car crash and I can't look away. We move on to the poultry section where chickens are being plucked out of cartons by their feet, wings flapping when they are then either stuffed into mesh bags, or given to the children to carry home by their feet, chicken heads bobbing along the sidewalk. There are opaque bags rustling and moving and making noises I can't quite discern. Sheep are being led along like dogs to their new homes. It's crazy and wonderful... and a little bit smelly.

This little piggy went to the market
Otavalo's main market is situated in the aptly named Plaza de Ponchos. Its not even official market day and the square is jammed with stalls displaying colourful ponchos, scarves, socks, blankets, hammocks, sweaters, etc. Wandering through the maze of stalls is wonderful and exotic...and tempting! Its like a dreamland, I think. From my toes to above my head I am swadled in colours, textures, fabrics.. Oh la la! AND, best of all- I'm allowed to touch EVERYTHING. In fact, running my sticky hands all over the soft alpaca goodness is actually encouraged! It really can't get much better than this. Plus, I (technically) could afford to buy almost anything I want! Maybe not as many as I want- like I might not be able to get that luxurious alpaca scarf in ALL 100 shades- but I could probably get away with my top 10 favs.... If stick-in-the-mud J weren't hanging over my shoulder... Merchants are hollering the 'best' prices at your back and thrusting silky smooth Alpaca wares into my not-unwilling hands in front of me. Turns out Alpaca wool is oh-so-soft and quite irresistable. (J: Bonus points for anyone who knows the difference between an alpaca and a llama). J and I spent hours bargaining with the hockers, meticulously choosing exactly what "we" wanted and making sure we got it for a price that everyone could be happy with. The ginormous two-person hammocks were by far the best deal of the day. J bargained down from $42 for one to $30 for two! I hummed and hawwed over exactly what colours of alpaca scarves I needed most. I also tried on various versions of the exact same llama-printed alpaca sweater to make sure I ended up with the right one.

Now that the shopping fun was done, we needed to figure out how to get all this junk (K:NOT junk- precious, precious lovelies) back to Canada. Laden down with five exquisite kilos of merchandise (funny how five kilos always feels more like two when you're taking it to the post office) we trudged up to the second floor office with our bags overflowing with vibrant alpaca productos. We held our bags up to the post office lady hoping that the rest of the process will be easy, straight-forward and cheap. Wrong, wrong and wrong. "You need a box and some tape," she tells us in broken Spanglish.

One of these hammocks will be ours!

"Where do we get a box?" I inquire. The only word I understand is supermercado. So back to the supermarket we go. We bypass the ice cream fridge and asked the lady at the till for a box. We point to a pile of boxes behind us, which are sitting beside twenty-seven pound bags of animal crackers (no joke). There is a bit of confusion, but ultimately we end up with a cardboard box of perfect proportions. We jam all of our goodies into the box, the bottom of which is not taped closed, and head off in search of tape. We bought an entire roll of packing tape and were convinced that we are now fully prepared to mail our five kilos of bargoons, we carry our box back up to the second floor postal office. The security guard (a 15 year old boy with a gun approximately the length of his leg) shows us into a back room. We are about to start taping our box closed when the security guard announces that the police need to inspect our package. A man in jeans, sweater and a small backpack comes into the room and proceeds to unroll, and thoroughly smoosh through all of our items making sure that we weren't stashing any cocaine with our llama sweater (don't worry, we weren't). His radio was droning on from some obscure place on his person and we are keeping our eyes peeled, always wary of any funny-business. Once he is satisfied that our stuff is drug free, he proceeds in rolling the majority of the packing tape around and around the box, nearly making the box bulletproof. Our alpaca goods are bulging at the seams of the box and are quite determined not to be held up in the box for their trip to their new home in Canada. 'Round and around more tape went until the alpaca had no choice but to surrender. It is then that we placed our package on the scale and realized that our two kilos of goods are either five kilos or are sealed in with three kilos of tape. I'm voting for the latter. Either way we are paying to ship 4.98 kilos home to the Great White North, eh?. Oh boy. We wait in line for half and hour while other people are either picking up or sending off variously sized (yet smaller than ours) packages. I filled out three identical forms (which are all carbon-copied). The lady rips apart the three page forms and makes me sign and date all nine copies individually. "I need your passport," she says. J hands over my passport. "No, I need a copy of your passport," she says next. So J zips off down the street to get a copy of my passport for our lady.

Pile of shrunken heads!
A pile of treasures, a free supermarket box, a roll of packing tape, a photocopy of the passport and half an hour later we are five kilos lighter and $89 poorer. And hopefully our dear alpaca (products) arrive in Canada in twelve days or less. Yes, we spent nearly as much on the shipping itself as we did on the actual goods. Thankfully, we didn't have to mail anything over an ocean.

After a very exciting, expensive and quite tiring morning we were in desperate need of almuerzo completo (a big lunch). We came across a cute little local restaurant in the corner of a colonial square and it seemed like a hopping place. There were friendly staff, good prices and no sign of a fanny pack anywhere...score! I got a bowl of soup, fresh fruit juice (with a refill) and a plate with a quarter chicken, potatoes, rice and salad plus dessert (and a complimentary banana...we'll take it!) for $2.50. The chicken and potatoes were covered in a delicious sauce and there was a whole bottle of aji (which is sort of like a chili/coriander sauce) for us to slather everything in. PS we LOVE this sauce. J got a vegetarian version of all of that for $1.50. By far this was the tastiest and best value meal we have eaten in Ecuador. See you tomorrow Bachoky Restaurante!

p.s. Don't be expecting post cards this time. At $2 a pop just for a stamp to North America (and even more so to Europe) it is cheaper to mail a postcard from Canada to India than it is to mail one from here up a few thousand kilometers to Canada!

Where we stayed: Outside Otavalo in the beautiful countryside (3km)- Hosteria Rose Cottage $42/night incl. tax and continental breakfast. Cute little private cabana with ensuite in a really fantastic setting-lots of hammocks! $3 taxi ride from town.

In town: Hotel Riviera-Sucre- $18 night for private room, shared bathroom. Nice place with welcoming courtyard and garden, helpful staff, good location for the market- good deal!


Parentals said...

what no postcards? my collection will be incomplete!!!!
guess I'll settle for a nap in your new hammock!!

The Little Tweet Heart Co. said...

i don't like your piggy dragging story. boohoo :(

however i know the diference between and Alpaca and a Llama....once is an Alpaca and the other a Llama...however Alpacas have pointy ears with curved backs and Llama's have floppy ears shaped like bananas and flat backs...a cross breed you ask? Huarizo.... :)