When I was in Ecuador three years ago, we had a tour of Old Quito. In the Plaza San Fransisco, I felt sure that I remembered being there on market day. I asked the young tour guide about the market that I remembered and pointed to where I thought it had been. He said, “No, there has always been that mansion there.” Later, I asked another guide who seemed more knowledgeable about the history of the city. He said there, indeed, had been a market there and that it had been moved to the edge of town. Reading the essay “Cities of women” in The Ecuador Reader brought it all back to me.
When I was 5, I took piano lessons at the radio station (HCJB) so I also got taken along on other errands that Mom or Dad combined with taking me to my lessons. I would ride along in the cab of the green International pickup truck. Sometimes, I would be taken along on an errand and sometimes I would be left in the truck. Once Dad left me in the truck in the middle of the Plaza and told me to lock the doors. I got bored and started to play with the knobs on the dashboard. One came off and I was overcome with guilt and shame. I hid under the dash and cried. I do remember someone coming by and looking in the window. They were pointing at and talking about the little tow-headed child crying under the dash board.
Back to the market. We would bring some large baskets in the back of the truck. When we got to the market, we’d find a man with a head strap for carrying the basket on his back. He was barefoot. His feet were calloused and cracked. He wore a poncho but he was strong. One basket went into the strap over his forehead. The other, he carried in his arms. He would follow us, serving kind like a grocery cart.
The tall roof of the market loomed over the darkened space. Light filtered in through the door and the high, grated windows. Women sat at their produce stands, while their little children played or slept at their feet. Some nursed while their mothers called out to passing customers. “Cassera, tengo papayas maduras.” The market smelled of rotting fruit and urine of the babies and children. The floor was damp and slippery. Under the produce stands, dogs rested or nipped at each other.
We moved throughout the mercado, Mom looking over produce, purchasing what she needed and putting it in the basket. Women would call out to her that their produce was better of cheaper. They commented to one another after she made a purchase about what kind of deal they had struck. Sometimes, Mom would buy a little of the same thing from several women.
Then we would go back to the truck over the paving stones of the plaza. We passed beggars with horrendous deformities, men with shriveled legs perched on little skate boards, women with babies who were dull and listless, people with cloudy eyes from cataracts. Each held out a hand and asked for limosnas or charity. Their plights tugged at me as we hurried past. The man put the baskets into the back of the truck. Mom paid him a few sucres for his services.
When we got home, the baskets were taken into the kitchen. They were set on kitchen floor until Mom (and Maria) washed the produce and put it away. Fresh fruits and vegetables were soaked in potassium permanganate before being stored. One time, the parrot got in through the open screen door. We found her sitting on the basket handle, eating a banana!