Market Day in Guatemala

It’s Friday. If you live in one of the villages on the north side of Lake Atitlan, that means it’s market day in Solola, the regional capital that sprawls across the hills high above the lake. So you get up and put on your second-best clothes (the best are reserved for religious holidays and fiestas). Made of colorful hand-woven striped cotton, often elaborately embroidered, your clothing is as good as a signboard for telling people what village you come from.

Setting off early before the heat, you walk along dusty paths—or, if you have 3 quetzales (40 cents), you take a crowded bus up the switchbacked road—with stunning views over the lake to the three triangular volcanoes on the southern shore. At last you reach the highest part of Solola, the central plaza. It’s a seething mass of humanity. People file like ants along the narrow lanes between the rows of stalls, pushing anyone who pauses in their path.

You can buy almost anything here: bunches of flowers, cloth, weaving and sewing supplies, fruit, vegetables, dry beans and corn in a range of colors, chickens (live or dead), small dried fish from the lake, shrimp from who knows where, pots, housewares, toiletries, pirated CDs, shoes, second-hand western-style clothing, machetes, woven straw mats, pipe fittings, even gray rocks that are crushed and sold in small batches of rubbly powder (something used for laundry, perhaps?).

Tired from pushing, shoving, and hard bargaining, you find a shady spot on a low wall in the plaza to rest. Nibble a popsicle, a tamale wrapped in corn husks, or a cup of mango slices and watch the world go by. On a stage in the center of the plaza, some officials with a loudspeaker and posters are talking about the importance of recycling and keeping the lake clean, switching between Spanish and a few local Mayan dialects.

Vendors walk by hawking blankets, plastic trash cans, chewing gum, kitchen implements. You can keep shopping without even having to move.

When you get tried of watching them, there are a few pale-skinned foreigners in their odd, drab clothes to look at. Their light-colored hair and facial features remind you of the people you see on TV shows from the United States.

There aren’t too many foreigners, though, thank goodness. It’s not like at the huge market in Chichicastenango, where busloads of tourists roam around sticking their cameras in people’s faces. This is your market, not the tourists’.

There’s one last duty to attend to before you go. You climb the steps of the big white church next to the plaza and slip into the cool interior. There you join the long, silent lines of people waiting against the back wall for their turn in the confessional.

Lent has just begun. The carved figures of Jesus on the cross and Mary kneeling at his feet remind you of the processions, solemn and festive, that will mark Easter week.

At last, with your soul (and your pockets) a little lighter, and the load on your head or back much heavier, it’s time to head home. Through the dull work of the coming week, memories of market day will be a bright spot of color.

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