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Mercado Central

I guess it doesn't make much sense to get a room, even though it only cost less then two Quetzales (about $1.65 US) a night. The bus going into the northern Peten jungle leaves the Terminal Central in Guatemala City at 4:15 am, so I won't get much sleep anyway. The bus station is adjacent to the largest market in Guatemala City and is the main depot for the entire country. There are always hundreds of buses parked here, either waiting to leave for some remote part of the country or else in any stage of disrepair. You see axles on the ground and entire transmissions and motors disassembled on tarps next to the bus. They are always coming and going, with porters loading everything from live pigs to sacks of corn on the roof, and screaming their destination for everyone to hear, "Quetzaltenango! Huehuetenango! Chichicastenango! Amatitlan! Atitlan! Solala! Zunil! San Pedro Saquatepec! San Juan Saquatepec! " Right now it's only 3:30 in the afternoon. I have 12 hours until my bus; but, it's easy to kill time at this market.

There are virtually thousands of vendors of every item and commodity that you could ever imagine. I never feel more alive than in this enormous market, with a history of generations of vendors selling the same goods as their parents before them. I never tire of the smells, sights, and tastes of this place. Most vendors are here with their entire families. Some seem to live right at their vending spot, with elaborate make-shift tents and covers made of canvas and plastic tarps. Straw mats and cotton fabrics make up their beds.

There are entire block-long areas devoted to specific commodities, both indoors and out; as well as mobile vendors carrying enormous stocks of product on their backs, in nets attached to their foreheads by leather straps. Meat (both butchered and on the hoof) from every animal: cows, sheep goats, pigs, chickens, and turkeys. Fish, vegetables, edible cactus and other plants. Parrots and other exotic birds; iguanas with their hands and feet tied behind their backs; armadillos, eels, monkeys, and snakes…all in every stage of life and death, including their spare parts. There are dried beans, seeds and grains of every sort. There are areas with dozens of different types of chile; red, green, brown, yellow, large, small, fresh or dried, powered or whole. Sesame oil sold in five gallon tin containers, each with a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe; honey of every variety: lowland honey from the banana and coffee region, highland honey from the pine forest, sweet jungle honey and wild flower honey from every region.

Machetes, hardware, farm implements, various utensils and knives of every sort. Bicycles turned into knife and scissors sharpening units. Large areas are devoted to straw products: baskets of every size and shape…for storage, for carrying, for shipping. Straw hats in styles you've never seen. Plastics (currently very big amongst the rural Maya in this country) come in every form to fulfill every function that hand-woven baskets used to do. There are entire sections devoted to gourds: for eating bowls, water, storage, spoons.

Healing and spiritual products fill vast areas. The aroma of copal incense, as well as medicinal and edible herbs are almost pungently visible from fifty feet out. Religious items such as a variety of crucifixes, medicine pouches, silver and amber milagros or charms, are everywhere. Pieces of coral, jade, shell, copper oxides, and other healing gemstones are available to fulfill their metaphysical functions, Various coloured beans, salves for all ailments, powders for all occasions, seem to be at every turn.

The local haspe or tie dyed hand-woven cotton cloth, for which the Guatemalan highland people are so famous, is astonishingly bright and bountiful. I have spent entire days in this area, studying and buying all manner of textiles. Women on foot with heavy cotton bundles carefully balanced on their heads, full of older antique family textiles as well as their own current work, are verbally hawking their wares everywhere…"Camisas, faldas, cortas, huipilles", they shout, pushing armfuls of cloth toward you.

I spend the day walking, munching seeds, nuts and fruits, looking for the few things I still need for this jungle excursion. A small machete is my first purchase, along with a scabbard and sharpening file. It takes a while to find a certain type of mosquito netting. I keep asking for "tela para los moscos" (fabric for mosquitos). The ladies I ask laugh at me, until one finally understands and shows me exactly what I want: a thin, but tightly woven cloth with straps at each corner to tie it down around my hamaca. She calls it 'maya' (meaning 'thin veil' in the Mayan language). The idea of this double entendre stays with me for the rest of the day, as I think about the thin veil that separates all of us from our real selves.

Even as the sun sets at this grandest of all local markets, there is still a great deal of activity. Vendors scurrying around to get settled for the night. Hungry children being fed. Entire families, loaded with their day's trades and purchases, looking for the last bus back to their rural homes in the highlands.

I go to one of the dining booths inside the market, just before it closes. I have fried bananas with fresh sour cream, mashed refried beans, a salad of shredded cabbage, beets and radishes, with a squeeze of lime.

As I wander the perimeter of the market, observing life as night settles in, the personality and texture of the entire neighborhood slowly changes. It's as though the stage is being set for a second act, with an entirely different cast of characters emerging. Back at the depot, I decide to get some rest. I first try to get comfortable on a metal bench; but, finally lay out some cardboard on the ground, like the other indigents.

I tie a piece of rope to my pack, and then to my wrist, so I'll know if someone tries to steal my meager belongings. Dozing intermittently, with one eye open, is no way to get any rest; but, what I begin to observe through my one open eye is far more interesting then any sleep I may miss! I hear a creaking sound and then see a person hunched down over a small cart, with no hands or legs, pushing himself by with leather-padded elbows.

This is just the beginning! A light from inside the depot is cast on a man with virtually no face. The entire area where his face should have been is scarred so badly, I could barely make out the orifices from which he could see or breathe.. An entirely new population of the city seems to come out of the woodwork after dark. These night people are a society unto themselves. I see prostitutes, cripples, and truly frightening and distorted human forms, acknowledging one another like the old friends that they probably have become.

Before long I see the light of the false dawn. The night people have receded back into the woodwork. I untie the rope, put on my pack and leave my cardboard bed, looking for a glass of hot corn atole before I board the bus for a fifteen hour kidney jarring bus ride on wash board dirt roads into a new adventure on the Rio Usamacinta.

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