It was quite late in the night anyway when the three of us left. We were in a very low-class area of the city and were heading to the night markets in another similar area. I was with two girls, Vicky and Clara from LIFE Argentina, and we had just finished one of the birthday parties that we routinely hold for the kids in these areas.
It was not safe enough to walk from the party to the bus stop, so we took a taxi. Taxis in this place are normal cars. Well, not exactly normal, since it was falling apart. Rust and dents enveloped the whole thing and it sounded like it would stop at the next corner. Our conversations were only in Spanish from this point on, because there was a danger of being robbed should we be heard to speak English.
We paid a very cheap fare to the driver as we piled out near the bus stop. From here we crossed over a railway line, only metres from the train waiting at the station, and after asking directions, found our way to the bus stop.
The bus was extremely old and rattled and shook as we journeyed over poorly maintained roads toward our destination. There was no choice but to stand in this vehicle that was heavily packed with passengers. As we near our destination, the huge iron roofed buildings housing the markets came into view, and then we stopped. In the middle of nowhere.
Outside the bus, in the darkness of night, we found ourselves in line and moving at the directions of a forceful man. Before us were dozens of old and beaten up cars, some already pulling out of their parking spots, filled with people. It was a scene like the start of a great race where the drivers first run to their cars.
There was an urgency to all we did in this place, and the three of us quickly filled the back seat of one of the mobile wrecks. If I had thought the first car we rode in was old and rough, then it had been a luxury model compared to this one. Rust was so prolific in this car that certain areas were totally missing. The boot did not close and neither did my door, so I ended up holding it in place.
Our journey, with two people sharing the one front seat, was only a short distance compared to how far we had come. We passed through some tough looking neighbourhoods and over some very rough roads before we reached our destination. Throughout the journey my entertainment was the poor people stuffed tightly into the van before us. I could see their faces pushed against the back windows as they bounced and rattled over the roads.
The car park we stopped at was just across a river from the markets. The lights of a police car nearby were like a beacon in the darkness surrounding us. We passed them as we joined the growing line of people waiting to cross the river over a narrow footbridge, long since past its use-by-date. The steel structures of the bridge showed advanced signs of fatigue and heavy rusting, and the flooring rose up to meet our feet in places. With no space between us all, it seemed there were too many people for it to support.
In the darkness, illuminated only by the lights of the markets, we often held each other, struggling to remain together. I was thankful for the few breaks and openings in the wire mesh surrounding our caged walkway, and noted the nearest points for escape should the bridge collapse into the water below.
Beside us was a train track, which people were also walking across since the line for our walkway was so long and slow. This would have been fine if a train was not approaching. A loud horn like that of a ship sounded long blasts, indicating the impending doom of those who remained on the tracks.
Those on the tracks started scattering, some running back the way they had come. Others tried to forge ahead to the other side, but their time was too short. A large opening in our caged walkway allowed those remaining to jump through in front of us. Each one showing obvious signs of relief on their face as they escaped the imminent danger.
The moment we got off the footbridge, we entered the markets. Stalls everywhere, packed so tight that only narrow corridors of dust remained for hundreds of people to squeeze through. This was not the main markets however, and after passing through the bus area, also littered with stalls, we finally reached the main markets.
It was hard to move through all of the people in this place, and pushing and shoving was the norm. I thought it was filled to capacity, but after shopping for several hours I realised how wrong I was. People pushed with no concern for consequences, and at times we would be pushed off balance by someone trying to barge through the crowds.
Each stall in the main markets were formed from little square booths of iron and wire, and sold every type of clothing imaginable. Shoes, shirts, pants, jackets, sweaters, and underwear. Toys, baby clothes and even food was for sale here. I even saw parrots, snakes and other animals on offer. And everything was cheap.
People had come from all over the country to buy from these markets. Many people however, had come here to buy for their shop. They would pull or push huge trolleys filled with bags of clothing. It was almost miraculous that they could move through such an inundation of people. These purchased goods were to be resold for much higher prices back at their shops.
Each of us had our own agenda for what we wanted to purchase. Vicky, who had been here before, was our guide through the chaos. She returned a few items she had bought last time and bought some clothes for herself and others as gifts.
Both girls were looking for some new jeans, wanting to try them on before buying them. There were no dressing rooms here, so in preparation they had worn running pants underneath their clothes. I liked their idea, so I too tried on my pants before buying them, arguing that my long underwear was somewhat similar to the girls’ running pants. The embarrassment of the girl in the stall and the number of looks I received during this process told me that apparently this was not a very common process. The pants fit however, so I bought them.
Shopping with girls is always a slower process than with guys. If I like something I buy it. Simple and quick. The girls, and more power to them, have to decide not only if they like it, but whether they have too many of that particular colour, if it is too similar to their friends’ clothes, what other clothes will go with this new potential item, and many other decisions that all slow the process down to a snails pace.
This time I did not mind that it was so slow, because it was a great opportunity to listen to the Spanish as they spoke. During this time I learned many new words relating specifically to shopping, clothes, and colours. It was quite enlightening, and in the end I walked out with a pair of pants, two shirts and a sweater, all of which I had tried on to be sure they fit me.
Shopping completed, Vicky calls her mum to reaffirm that we have not been mugged and we head off toward the bus stop to go home. It is freezing cold outside as we make our way along the narrow edge of the road. There is no sidewalk for us, and the cars moving past only add to our dangers. Although the carparks are safe from cars, muggers from the surrounding slums often lie in wait for the unwary. So we persist along the road.
After a number of conversations we discover the location of our bus stop. It is an un-posted corner. Here we wait, staring at a darkened car park in one direction and a slum only metres away in the other. Between them both sits the road we had walked, choked with cars, buses and trucks as people head home from the markets.
Our journey home takes us through many poorly lit and very tough looking neighbourhoods and over some very rough roads. We are all tired now and after a change of buses we are glad to make it back home. I leave the girls at their place and walk the forty minutes it takes to get back to my hostel.
It was a shopping trip to remember. The night markets.
NOTE: This took place near the beginning of May, 2004, and was a lot of fun as well as being quite dangerous. I did not get to take any photos at all during the time because of the danger it posed both to me and to the girls I was with. There were many amazing sights however, not the least of them being seeing people hanging off the side and out of the doors of a dilapidated old bus as it drove past us. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to return and take photos, but even if not, the memories will remain with me for a long time.