For those of you who have been following our posts, by now you’re well-aware of one thing (as this might be the fifth time I’ve mentioned it): Mark and I are big fans of markets. We love to take our time strolling through rows of stalls selling everything from hand-woven bags to whittled wooden statues, mysterious looking fruit to pig snouts. Well, maybe not the pig snouts. But no matter the size of a market, it’s always brimming with energy, full of people haggling over prices, and, for the most part, it’s an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. As we are discovering, however, not all markets are created equal. If you’ll allow me to clamber up onto my high horse for a moment (the equestrian prodigy that I am), there are a few preachy words I feel compelled to espouse after visiting the famed Saturday “artisan market” in Otavalo.
A bit of background. After briefly stopping in Quito for a night, Mark and I headed to Otavalo, in northern Ecuador. Otavalo is a touristy commerce town on most of the Galapagos itineraries. It’s famous for its Saturday market that stretches for four city blocks in every direction. Although we toyed with skipping it altogether, our decision to visit Otavalo was based on our wanting to verify whether the market would live up to its hype and because the town would be immersed in celebrations for the annual IntiRaymi festival (the Summer Solstice).
Unfortunately, due to our collective inability to kick a dastardly illness resembling the flu, we missed pretty much all of the nightly parties in favor of holing up in our hostel room . . . coughing, sneezing, kvetching, and watching episode after episode of TREME, a surprisingly endearing HBO series about life in N’Orleans post-Katrina. What we did manage to do, though, was to check out the market. And here’s where I commence my rant.
Yes, there were miles and miles of booths containing a multitude ofcrafts at Otavalo’s legendary street fair. But more often than not, these items fell under the category of Mass-Produced Schlock. You know what I’m talking about. The overpriced striped woven pants that countless gringos buy and wear while traveling that are made in some sweatshop somewhere and look completely ridiculous. (I can say this because I was one of those doofs three years ago. Bought a pair; wore them once; felt and looked like an idiot before coming to my senses.) The “handmade” embroidered muumuus that are actually machine-sewed in factories. The alpaca sweaters, hats, gloves, blankets strewn with figures of llamas, dancing Egyptians (what?), or wolves. This was the bulk of what we saw while strolling, squeezing, shoving through the market’s crowded aisles.
What’s worse? A scant few of the booths did boastuniquely hand-sewn blouses, hand-woven bracelets, hand-painted portraits. But do the artists who actually did the sewing, weaving, painting, see all of the money shelled out by tourists at the end of the day? No. Because the middleman in charge of selling (i.e. most often, the booth vendor) takes a hefty percentage. Maybe it’s because my mom’s a weaver (check her out!) and I know how hard she works to create each and every rug, throw, wallpiece for her clients. But the fact that the original craftswomen or artist sees only a small portion of the money owed to them—well below what it costs to buy materials and supplies, not to mention the time it takes to make and transport the finished product . . . well, that just doesn’t sit right with me.
In the end, we left the market in a bit of a funk, wondering what all the hullaballoo was about in the first place. In our minds, if you are really interested in supporting artisanal trades, cut out the middleman and buy directly from the source whenever you can or from retailers who pay a fair price and promote just economies. There are a number of projects and cooperatives we stumbled upon in Otavalo and elsewhere in our travels that offer a direct connection to artists and their trades. Although the items might cost a couple more dollars, they’re worth a whole lot more.
As for our overall experience in Otavalo? It was a bit of a bummer, no thanks to our ongoing physical malaise. Although we didn’t love the market, we heard the Inti Raymi festivities were pretty spectacular, including one which involved dancing and a bathing ritual in a nearby lagoon. But we are ever grateful to the owners of the hostel who did what they could to make us feel comfortable and whose room we virtually destroyed in our delirium. Ahem.
Sorry you both are still feeling yucky. Thanks for the astute observations about the market and for the link. Does that mean you get a percentage?????
Sad to learn that even in the Andes the Fleas of the Flea Markets are heading for extinction, succumbing to the Schlock of DDT (Disastrous Dilution of Trade)
It’s definitely sad that the artisans don’t see a decent return for their skill. Apparently there’s only a few middlemen that cover the majority of the stalls which is depressing.
I did like some of the small paintings of Pacha Mama and scenes of town life and festivals. One artist in particular had amazing colours and a confident, simplified style.
I think the proximity to Quito is what makes it really popular with the older demographic which swarm in every weekend. Probably a lot of them don’t realise most of the stuff is mass produced, generic “south american themed” junk.
Those striped pants are pretty doofy. We’ve resisted following the trend of walking around in slouchy, hobo-carnival pyjamas. Here in Vilcabamba saw an elderly gringa in a ridiculous striped pants and jacket combo.
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