When Dunreith and I read about Santiago’s fabled trio of markets of Mercado Central, Tirso de Molina, and La Vega Central, one consistent message stood out: watch your wallets closely as pickpockets are everywhere and they’ll take your money.
It turns out that the warning was far too limited.
We discovered this today after walking from our apartment to the market.
Along the way we passed a lively postal workers’ strike in which red-shirted and red-jacketed employees were blowing high-pitched whistles, chanting and hanging signs near Pio Nono, a major Santiago bridge.
Some of the more adventurous strikers had used a rope to propel themselves down to the edge of the Mapocho River, where they danced, sang and held up more signs.
One worker had a sign on the end of a fishing pole that explained he was fishing for a decent salary.
Unlike in the United States, where the Chicago Public Schools’ teacher strike makes national news, organized labor is more than willing here to employ the tool of striking on local and national levels with high levels of frequency.
In addition to the postal workers, garbage workers, miners, workers at the world’s largest ground-based telescope and the entire city of Tocopilla, a city in the northern region of Antofagosta, all have gone on strike just since we landed here in mid-July.
We passed by a trio of workers in a nearby park huddling around a tree and counting donations they had received and, a little while later, arrived at Mercado Central.
Once there and in the other two markets, we learned that you actually have to watch out for all manner of hazards while you’re in all three places.
Dangers like a massive side of beef being toted on a worker’s back as he hustles toward a nearby butchery.
Like cardboard packages flying from one end of a truck to another as you walk past it.
Like being sandwiched by dozen of boxes being pulled along by a pair of workers, one of whom is talking on a cell phone, going in opposite directions.
Like the startling image of a pig’s head with skin and an even more arresting cow’s skull without, eyes protruding and the tongue hanging out to one side.
Like a bicycle that can run over your Achille’s heel and a car that can run over your foot, if not your entire body.
Like waiters in restaurants bustling by with arms full of clean or empty plates.
This of course says nothing about the sea of people who walk, jostle and bump you as you make your way through and around the stalls, rows and exterior of the three buildings that take up a few city blocks.
Yet navigating these obstacles is not only an integral part of the market experience, doing so allows you to enter a fantastic zone with a ferocious variety of smells and a seemingly limitless range of fish, meat, fowl, produce, potatoes, and household items carefully arrayed in a delicious splash of precision and color.
Each market has its specialty.
Mercado Central is the fish market.
Tirso de Molina has absolutely scrumptious natural juices made right in front of you and to which you can add sugar, vitamins, milk, or nothing at all.
La Vega has a certain swagger-a mural stated emphatically that after gods there is La Vega-and has an endless supply of fruit stands to complete the beef, pork and poultry sections.
I got a raspberry fruit juice with milk at Tirso, and will definitely be back to head up to the second floor to sample a cazuela, a typical Chilean dish with beef or chicken, a potato, rice and vegetables in a piping hot broth, for 1500 pesos, or three dollars.
Meanwhile, Dunreith got a kilogram of clementines for 300 pesos, a total of 60 cents.
Reading the charges for food and meals at the markets was a bit like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which my realized that the prices I had been extolling in our Providencia Market were not quite as inexpensive as I had thought was parallel to thinking that the shadows in the cave were actually light.
For instance, a mushroom and cheese that costs 1200 peso, or $2.40, in Mercado Providencia around the corner from our house, goes for just 780, or about $1.60 at the central markets.
The lower prices are just one part of the place’s appeal.
I asked the woman who owned the stand, who was short and had striking black hair and piercing eyes, where the meal that she stopped eating to serve us had come from.
They come from the fields in buses that stop outside the building, she told me.
Your meal? I repeated.
Oh, no, that’s from upstairs, she chuckled. I thought you were asking about the fruit.
So the fruit comes from the trucks, the meal comes from upstairs and you come from Santiago? I asked.
Of course, she replied. I’m Santiaguina.
Pura Santiaguina, I said. One hundred percent.
One hundred percent, she affirmed.
Another fruit stand we walked by was playing a scene from Destilando Amor, the Mexican telenovela that starred future Mexican First Lady Angelica Rivera and Eduardo Yanez as Gaviota and Rodrigo, a tequila worker and scion who fall in love with each other.
In 2007 I learned how to speak Spanish by watching the novela with Dunreith.
I told the owner of this stand, another woman, the story, then pointed to Dunreith and said, “This is my Gaviota.”
“This is my Rodrigo,” Dunreith replied, pointing her thumb at me.
We all laughed.
After a couple of hours, Dunreith and I began the walk back to our apartment.
We were crossing the street in the Baquedano neighborhood when a striking postal worker stepped in front of us and implored us to support their cause.
Dunreith obliged, reaching into her pocket and dropping a coin that clinked as it landed in the tin can.
We had managed to not get pickpocketed at the markets, but hadn’t avoided paying a price, albeit willingly, along the way home.