The taxi driver had warned us.
But we didn’t listen. I mean, who really follows the advice of a Colombian taxi driver?
On the way there we passed by a swamp where pelicans floated and white herons circled overhead. Cars, motorcycles, and buses lurched down the road alongside our taxi, clouds of exhaust swirling around in the dense heat.
Vendors on the sidewalk yelled out at the top of their lungs, deafening shouts that let us know there was yucca for sale. Avocados were placed in huge piles on the next table. Fresh-eyed fish laid out in rows on wood planks let us know we were close.
The taxi stopped. “We’re here,” the driver muttered gloomily.
My heart was beating hard.
The heart of a food market
We entered the food market through a narrow opening in a dirt-stained concrete wall. I followed my husband down the dark hallway. We passed fires lit in random places. Gray ashes were piled up everywhere and the air was smoky. I felt I’d stumbled onto the set of an apocalypses movie. But this was real. I coughed against the smell of rotting fish parts and stagnant water.
I felt I’d stumbled onto the set of an apocalyptic movie. But this was real. I coughed against the smell of rotting fish parts and stagnant water.
We fought our way through the crowds of people you expect to see on a Saturday morning at a food market in Colombia.
A man started shouting, and we jumped out of his way. Two men ran by with a huge blackened pot and stopped at a table lined with ripped up paper sacks that had once held flour. They tipped the pot and out poured mounds of steaming boiled yucca. Ladies at the table quickly folded the paper over the yucca to keep it warm until lunchtime.
We moved into another hallway, equally dark and spooky, inhabited by scrawny cats and scrawny people, like the winding corridors of a haunted house. The abandoned stalls were shut up against roaming delinquents, the metal gates pulled down and padlocks clamped tightly in place.
We had entered the market through the worst spot – and yet the best.
Do you belong here?
A pinched young face peered at me from underneath a baseball cap, clearly wondering why I was in that part of the market. He and other people stared and began to crowd in close.
I wanted to say to him, “For longer than you have, sonny.” But there was no time to explain. Up ahead my husband had found the fried mojarra and plantains and was feasting joyfully. I caught up with him to steal a plantain.
While we ate, I heard a woman calling out “mojarra, mojarra.” I turned to look at her and saw her standing in a corner holding a soggy bit of carton with 8 cut-up fish, ready for the frying pan.
She offered me all of them for US$2.
Nearby, a barefoot man defended his food from a hungry cat. He ate fried fish from a piece of torn paper and drank juice from a plastic sandwich baggie.
Becoming a princess
We kept walking and without realizing how, we were suddenly out of the dark labyrinth and out in the open air, blinking against the bright tropical sun. We had arrived at the fruit and vegetable section.
Slim young men rushed past us pushing makeshift supermarket carts that were turbo sized for life in the market. Equipped with chains and heavy wooden bases and thick wheels, these super carts were ready for the broken cement floors of the market. The carts were numbered as if they were race cars, and they zoomed along the crowded aisles at dangerous speeds.
Next to me, a woman leaned over to a man who was sitting on a high stool at a fruit stall.
“Dónde está el negocio de Matute?” Where’s Matutue’s store?
“Venga, princesa, te muestro.” Come, my princess, I’ll show you.
Memories of childhood
Women with tubs of fruit on their heads wove their way through the crowds. These weren’t the colorful palanqueras in the downtown area that dress up for tourists. These women were the real thing. One woman, dressed in a plain t-shirt and cotton pants, shrugged her shoulders to the beat of salsa music blaring from a speaker, seemingly not weighed down by the load on her head.
Fruit packed in plastic bags was quickly rotting in the tropical heat. We bought corozo in one of those little claustrophobic bags. When my Colombian-born husband, who had briefly lived on the coast when he was a child, put one of the little round fruits in his mouth and sighed deeply. The tart taste of the common fruit on the coast brought him back to his childhood.
There was nothing at this market to remind me of my childhood, but I smiled at my husband’s ecstasy over the long-forgotten taste of a fruit he’d once loved.
However, a freezing cold Costeñita beer at 11 a.m. seemed just right amidst the smells and sounds and the dense hot air.
Food at the food market
We bought a few things – avocado and pineapple and passion fruit pulp to make cocktails later. Of course, survival in a food market is all a money game. Who can get away with charging the blonde gringa more? I’m a failure at that money game, so I stepped away and let my Colombian husband haggle for the best prices.
Soon lunchtime rolled around and our stomachs growled. We’d seen the mini restaurants with makeshift tables on our way in, so we drifted back towards them.
Aluminum pots rested on squat propane gas tanks. Plastic tubs perched on boards, filled with rice and salad or shrimp. Women in spandex and aprons and plastic flip-flops spooned out their offerings of the day.
Rice tinged pink with black beans and coconut. Fried or stewed fish, fried pork or stewed chicken. Steaming pots huge enough to bathe in held fish soup and sancocho de hueso.
Flies buzzed around the uncovered food. A woman held a machete menacingly over a plantain. A rather large kitchen knife, but it was effective for getting the job done quickly.
To these women, it was simply their everyday food in their everyday environment. They didn’t notice the smells, both good and bad. They also didn’t realize the marvels of their stewed fish or expertly fried plantains, and they mostly ignored us as we exclaimed over their coconut sauces and soups.
We bought a plate of rice, chicken, salad, and pasta for US$2.25. Ah, and it came with a dish of fish stew, too.
We sat at a table and an elderly woman at the stall next door offered us juice. My husband ordered sapote en leche. The blender was on a tiny table, precariously plugged into a socket on the wall with dirty extension cords. She slipped the fruit into the blender and then served us the entire jar of juice for one dollar.
She also sells Pony Malta and Kola Roman as well as aprons for the ladies behind the pots. This is her life. Her whole life spent in this market that bubbles with energy, her fruit carefully stored in glass jars and her earnings stored safely in a money belt around her waist.
What makes a food market in Colombia special
Tourists love to talk about food markets, about seeing the ‘real’ side of a city. As if all neighborhoods aren’t real, as if in some places people are only faking their lives. What is it about food markets that give people the feeling that here life is truly taking place?
It crept up on me slowly. As we ate I looked around, and I began to understand Bazurto.
I watched the local workers. I also watched the tourists, both national and imported ones. They wore clean clothes and closed shoes, and were not carrying heavy market bags or pushing a cart filled with someone’s purchases. Did they understand the secrets in Bazurto?
Did they understand the secrets in Bazurto?
The secrets of a food market
I had seen a glimpse of the secret when I watched the lady dance under the load of fruit she balanced on her head.
When the men rushed past me with the steaming pot, working together to empty it onto the table where the ladies would later sell their lunches.
I heard it when the man offered to take the woman to someone else’s store.
It’s the feeling of family. The casual camaraderie. I watched closely and caught the smiles, the hugs, the conversations and the casual agreements that lead to business deals.
The drama of life in a market is more intense than a soap opera: the injustices, jealousy, and bonds of friendship all mingle together. Each day unfolds surrounded by friends and family. Working together, vendors protect themselves and their space in the market. No one works alone, every stall or restaurant is a family affair or a bond of friendship.
Women band together to work in their restaurants, groups of 5 or 6 to take care of each step from peeling root vegetables to frying the fish to collecting the money and wiping down the tables.
Men pass watermelons from hand to hand down a line as if they are playing basketball. At the market people help each other, buy from each other, protect each other, and protect themselves from others.
The market is about unity, survival, and triumph. It’s people caring for people, banding together to create the best out of the worst.
The future of the market
We heard that the government wants to move the market to a new location. And perhaps Bazurto should be condemned: It’s messy and disturbing and upsettingly disappointing.
Yes, this market is just like life. 100% distilled life. It’s raw. It’s brilliantly vibrant and not the least bit synthesized or disinfected for tourists. It’s Cartagena in a bottle necked, dirty, dizzyingly hot package.
Don’t miss it. It’s glorious.
Visitor’s Tip: Take a tour to get the most of it.