Markets provide a wonderful point of access to the soul of a culture. Healthy, thriving markets like Granada, Nicaragua's Mercado Municipal offer the willing traveler an enlarging experience and an illuminating window into the unique makeup of that particular community.
I’m speaking here primarily of traditional markets - usually open-air or housed in a large covered hall (or a combination of both, like this one). However, much the same is true of slightly more modernized versions such as those found throughout Europe.
A healthy, thriving market pulses on many levels. Happening upon one, as I did, is an invitation - the understated kind of invite life periodically sends our way, easy to undervalue and overlook. When that happens it’s worth downshifting those internal gears and tuning in, opening ourselves to the insight and enlargement, the delights and surprises that only come to those who accept such invitations when they come along.
Traditional markets reveal a wealth of information about the region, and about the state of affairs in that town - that country, even. What is grown and produced, valued and consumed, scarce and abundant. What’s unique to the area, or unexpectedly absent. But it goes beyond what’s for sale and how it’s sold - to the locals’ pride of place, sense of beauty and order, attitude toward foreigners, approach to commerce and entrepreneurship.
How was the weather, the fishing, the growing season, the economy in recent months? If you take your time, you might event pick up cues about faith and politics, and about the community’s general sense of wellbeing (or lack thereof).
All of this provides context for the main event: the multi-sensory immersion into the space itself. The insistent, persistent, consistent sights, sounds, and smells of a busy market in full-court press. The taste of local fruits and cheeses. The touch of root vegetables and squirming mollusks. The art of the display; the craft of the presentation.
Just go slow and pay attention to colors and textures, sounds and smells. Some of it may be a little jarring, but it will be real. Authentic even (minus the "Genuine!", "Authentic!" stickers.) And strikingly similar to the way it has all been going down in this place for centuries. Millennia, in some cases.
A traditional market is a living thing, unlike a big-box grocery store (as convenient as they may be). It is a trifle unpredictable, a little bossy, maybe a bit ... coarse. Smelly, noisy, unapologetic, rough-hewn. A market is a good antidote for some of the aspects of modern life that diminish us, providing helpful re-calibration for lives steeped in homogeneity, sterility, insularity, and shrouded with warning labels.
But a local market is also a thing of beauty. Unexpected colors, tones and textures, light and shadow, dizzying contrasts lie around every bend in the narrow, ad-hoc passageways. Simple abundance, elegant simplicity, creative resourcefulness, doting care transform the most humble surroundings into breathtaking still-lifes. Mindfulness and diligence create transcendent portraits bathed in morning light.
As you mosey along, tune into the people. By and large you are surrounded by honest, unselfconscious, hard-working people, taking pride in what they do and carving out a living on that little piece of real estate. They show up every day, set up shop at that table or stall or stand or counter or corner, conduct the day’s business, close up shop ... then do it all over again the next day.
Cacaphony, chorus or chaos; inspiration, epiphany or immersion - call it what you will, it can come at you like a flood, threatening to overwhelm our sometimes more sedate sensibilities.
If that happens to you, just tread water and float a little. Let the current take you where it will. Eventually you’ll literally see light at the end of the market tunnel. Keep moving; there’s an exit ahead, somewhere. Just follow the light.
Fresh air awaits, and welcome elbow room, while you take a few minutes to ponder your memorable market immersion experience.