Markets around the world share common characteristics that gathers locals and tourists alike to spend their time and money. They have a simple feature: the pleasures of life.
Though cities and countries will vary in smells and goods, the one unchangeable, unmistakable quality all markets share is the vibrant colors and enthusiastic vendors at the fresh fruits and vegetables stalls.
This is something I always knew instinctually, but was only able to fully realize at the Mercado Municipal de São Paulo. And how it felt like that was the moment I was supposed to find out. Let me back track for a moment.
Under any other circumstance I’d shudder at the thought of having a nine hour layover after two flights and 16 hours of travel. But this time I devoured the idea of getting my first taste of Brazil, for it allowed me to squeeze in a small glimpse of São Paulo. And what better place to go if we wanted a crash course in the city’s sensations than the Mercado Municipal.
So we locked up our luggage, and took an hour long city bus to subway station São Bento. Ten minutes of negotiating the underground later, we busted out of the station like the sweat from my pores upon feeling the city’s fervor. Navigating the crowded city streets was part going with the flow, part swimming against a strong current while avoiding jagged rocks. But I gotta say, the sensation was festa.
Then suddenly – and breaking from every preconceived idea of what I imagined it would be – we were walking through a tall and wide entrance door to a old European building.
I was expecting large umbrellas and tarps strung together like a traveling caravan, or an open-air marketplace. Instead I got huge ceilings, column pillars and stained glass windows.
What a pleasant surprise. (Never let people convince you to hate surprises. Surprises requires an explorer’s drive to discover and a humility to be proved wrong. It realigns assumptions while adding new ideas to the imagination. It can crack the monotony of everyday life.)
I was told of a famous sandwich place, so I should have been ready for what I found. Instead I had a double take like a camera struggling with its auto-focus. I was not prepared to see the immense size of Mané’s famous Mortadella sandwich. My mouth was salivating in the same way the patrons’ seven centimeter thick sandwiches were dripping juices.
Mercado Municipal is tightly packed. This despite the aisles being fairly wide. Layers of people upon one another as we squeeze past butchers and fish mongers to vendors of kitchen wear and trinkets.
Eventually one these aisles will lead you to the main street of the market where it opens up like a boulevard. This is where the fruit vendors stalls have their pyramids of fruit reaching for the windowed ceiling. And like any main street of a community, the crowds gather.
I was attended to at every step by the fruit vendors. Greeting me with hands extended waving me in, shaking my hand, offering me samples of delicious, fresh and fragrant fruit of the likes I’ve never seen before.
This is where I usually get overwhelmed by the attention and tighten my resolve to go forward without stopping. But I was on the brink of a lesson. My partner told me: the market experience is an exchange, you have to give them attention back, humor their efforts, acknowledge their kind advances, and when we’re ready, we will buy at least one fruit from someone, for it’s part of the ritual.
This made so much sense to me, yet I never thought of it before. Without the fruit and vegetable vendors, markets would smell cold and heavy with blood and freshly slaughtered meat, damp with sweaty cash. The fresh produce – some quite exotic to my eye at Mercado Municipal – oozes vibrant life and diversity. Their colors radiate fresh experience and live inspiration, much like they did for this post.