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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, October 3, 1976

POSTMARK:  Mexico

By COLLEEN McGUIRE and TOM McGUIRE

The covered Acapulco market is large and sprawling. It is located in a section of the city that lures few tourists and the atmosphere is permeated with a mixture of strange, rancid odors. People bustle around from one stand to another like frenzied ants.

Most of Mexico’s poorer citizens buy their food at the market, and shopping becomes a daily chore because refrigerators are virtually nonexistent among the impoverished families.

As we approach the market, glistening slabs of diamonds attract our attention. But after spying pools of water at their bases, we realize that they are only blocks of ice. The iceman must sell his products quickly or the hot sun will literally eat up his profits.

But like everyone else, the iceman chooses a slow, easy pace. One day when we wanted to buy some of his ice, but he was off somewhere, presumably taking a “siesta.” Amazingly, no one stole his ice, except the thieving rays of sunlight.

Once inside we walk slowly towards the fish department to our sensitive noses, unaccustomed to such smells, the odor of dead fish is overpowering. The buzzing of flies combined with the stench is revolting, but everything looks interesting and exotic.

Shrimps, clams, oysters, lobsters are displayed everywhere in buckets of melting ice. The fish is sold fresh from the sea or scaled to suit the buyer’s taste. The vendor will conveniently chop up the fish on a block of deeply indentured wood. Crabs are tied together by a reed from the ocean.

Hopscotching over garbage on the grimy floor, we amble on bewilderingly until we find ourselves in the meat department. Here the wicked odor is even more putrefying.

No part of the chicken is wasted, and we are informed that the neatly arranged pyramid of chicken heads Is for sale as well as several chicken claws which are sticking out of a glass of water like skeleton flowers.

An entire pig’s head is displayed on a counter, blackened by the onslaught of hungry flies. Overhead hangs the remainder of the pig, on huge rusty hooks resembling the talons of a vulture. Blood trickles off the stall’s edge. Everyone is seemingly oblivious to all the flies and garbage and nauseating odors.

In the distance we see some of the this meat come to life! A man with a huge burlap sack slung over his shoulder is peddling iguana meat. The exhibited iguana is squirming as if in a wrestler’s pin. His front legs are tied behind his back and his mouth is clamped shut with a piece of rope.

The creature looked so pitiful and unappetizing it’s a wonder anyone cared to buy it But several nights earlier we had occasion to dine on iguana meat, and surprisingly enough it was very tasty.

The labyrinth, of paths leads us to the fruit and vegetable department. The produce is colorful and vibrant with freshness. Tomatoes are placed in creatively arranged piles. They are big and round, lacking artificial.

Sticks of sugarcane are also available. Nearby are brown sticks of an unknown nature. We learn that it is ocote. Ocote resembles sassafras sticks, but the fragrance is different. It substitutes as a candle and when lit burns slowly, releasing wisps of incense into the air.

Our thirst compels us to select from a variety of fruit drinks displayed in large glass containers which clearly reveal their tempting colors. A glass of watermelonade has bite-size pieces of watermelon floating on top. Limeade, lemonade, cocoanut juice, rice juice, orange juice or tomato juice are offered.

Bananas also are converted into drinks, but a blender is needed, thus making this an uncommon item sold in the street stands. The vendor adds milk and sugar to the pulverized banana, and the result, is a delectable drink vaguely similar to a banana milkshake. We each order one and pay for it with a 100-peso note.

We are astounded when informed that our money is worthless. It’s a counterfeit bill. Although it looks exactly like all other 100 peso notes, it does not bear the stamp of the Bank of Mexico in the right hand corner. All the natives are aware of the valueless bills, but the unsuspecting tourist is the last to find out about them. The ironic part of it all is that we obtained the bogus money from the downtown Bank of Mexico.

Many of the refreshment stands have convenient seats to rest on — they are wooden crates. The market totally lacks wastebaskets. Practically everywhere “stoves” can be seen. They usually consist of a small stone block with a charcoal fire burning a hole in the center. Ears of corn are roasting or fish is frying in pans. All the sellers are eating, so we’re confused if the food is for sale or exclusively for the sellers’ appetites.

Strolling through the market is a chore for non-natives. Our presence is so conspicuous that every seller yells to us to investigate his products. We are urged to buy everything from turtle eggs to avocados.

The sellers are overwhelmed when we choose their services. They take special care in wrapping the food in newspapers, shaped into cones, but it’s not quite the same as sticking a can into a shopping cart.

Leaving the covered stalls, we painfully walk through an obstacle course of sidewalk beggars; At times we gaze into their vacant eyes, but generally we just drop a peso at their feet, then disappear into the enveloping crowd.

We are on the outside now and still we come across more products. They are sold by aging women equating on the cement ground like gargoyles. Despite the hectic atmosphere, with hundreds of feet trampling over the ground, none of the products gets stepped on or crushed.

The noise and chaos of the city frustrates us. We are anxious, after a full morning of shopping, to retreat “home” to Pie de la Cuesta.

Finally our bus arrives. All protocol and etiquette are; completely abandoned as everyone struggles to be the first aboard the already crowded bus. Old women balancing baskets atop their heads receive no special privileges. Like everyone else, they must squirm through the small door and hope for space.

We find ourselves squeezed next to a woman carrying a live chicken by the legs. The upside down animal contributes to the pandemonium with its piercing squawks. Opposite the woman is a man holding a wire with five dead fish slung through it         

People start banging on the ceiling — the signal to the unconcerned bus driver that the vehicle is plenty full.

Paradoxically we hear the rhythmic strums of guitars. Despite the crowd on the bus, a boy and girl have managed to bring their guitars aboard to serenade the people. It is a common sight to see singing Mexican minstrels earn money on bus rides.      

The bus gradually empties after each stop as we approach Pie de la Cuesta. So ends a typical, enervating morning for us when we go grocery shopping at the “mercado.”         

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