Mercado Central, San Salvador © Jane Damm

 

Sunlight filters through the treetops and spills onto our cobblestone road as I roll down my window and let the cypress-scented breeze flow in. Everything rattles inside, including my Cat Stevens cassette tape dancing in the car-door pocket. I accept its invitation, but just as I’m about to slide it into the cassette player, my grandmother, Lita, takes a hand off the steering wheel and slaps mine away.

“We cover ourselves and our loved ones with the sacred mantle of the Virgin Mary,” she begins her takeoff prayer, which extends for another couple of minutes. “Amen,” we wrap up in unison as we make the sign of the holy cross. Forehead to chest, to shoulders, to lips, to cassette player – a variation of the sacramental, although just as holy to me.

As the gentle guitars begin to play over the sounds of the songbirds, I take one last breath of clean mountain air, roll my windows back up and turn the air conditioning on. We don’t need it in this corner of El Salvador, but we will soon. On the highway, we pass long driveways embowered in trees leading to the ruins of once wealthy estates, then smaller homes with shorter driveways and less vegetation, and after the bridge, crowded tin-roof houses and shops on dusty lots. A dog darts across the street and Lita honks for five seconds straight – her alternative to swearing.

“Did we cover ourselves already?” Lita asks.

“Yes, we did.” I sigh, knowing she’ll never be convinced.

We pray again, becoming twice as blessed according to Lita.

When we reach the marketplace, Cat Stevens’ guitars are replaced by the coarse accordions and gourd instruments of Aniceto Molina’s cumbia blaring outside. They compete with the discordant sounds of sirens, honking, tires screeching and the yelling of men hanging halfway out of buses, crying out their routes. I open my door and I’m instantly assaulted by the 35° heat – a phenomenon I’ve christened the “oven door” effect. The smells of chemicals, burning trash, overly ripe fruit and sweat overstimulate the sensory neurons in my nose and attempt to settle on my taste buds to imitate an unpleasant experience of taste.

I’m surrounded by filth and chaos, and I absolutely love every bit of it.

The walls of the market are covered in graffiti, some belonging to the Mara Salvatrucha, one of the two most notorious gangs in the country. The mayor has a plan to paint colourful murals on these unsightly walls. I can already picture it – modest women balancing baskets of plantains, mangos and lemons on their heads, and a depiction of Jesus himself peeking through the cloudscape between the San Salvador and Izalco volcanos, casting his blessing over our restless country.

I step out of the car directly into a puddle of stagnant water where mosquito larvae have begun to squirm around. The guard wakes up in time to see my mishap. He chuckles – the fat on his belly bouncing leftover crumbs of semita, the Salvadoran pineapple jam-filled pastry, onto the pavement, attracting a loft of pigeons. He lifts his palm towards us and bobs his head, and we reciprocate the greeting. Lita has been a regular here ever since she made a deal with the vegetable man to trade her fruits for his produce.

As I wait for Lita to open the trunk, I peer into the market. Its prison-like barred doors are open but it’s impossible to see what lies inside. From the outside, the entrances look like dark tunnels into another dimension. In many ways, they are.

“Hurry up, child, we’ve got more errands to run.”

I lift the bright red plastic basket full of fruits that I always thought only grew in Lita’s house – mimbre fruit, loquat fruit and rose apples, among others – and we walk toward the market, a microcosmos with a tacit constitution respected by most. It takes some time for our eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, but we manage to navigate the dark entrance without tripping over anything or anyone in the crowded aisles. After the world materializes around us, I begin to take in the scene in what I believe was once a military barrack, its current occupants still much like soldiers fighting the common enemy of Poverty.

Colourful booths overstocked with everything from produce to piñatas paint the landscape. Merchants swatting away flies with newspapers, customers negotiating, and children running barefoot over floors covered in wastewater from butcher shops and fishery booths bring the landscape to life. The murmur of bartering and the confluence of music and radio announcers bounce between the four walls. It’s disorienting, but it’s a thrilling change from the rustling leaves, songbirds, and church bells of my town.

My mother will be furious to know I was here… again. She only harps on the dangers of San Salvador. Maybe it would comfort her to see heads bowing in recognition of Lita as we navigate these teeming corridors. I believe Lita’s sheer stature and the sacred mantle of the Virgin Mary dissuade anyone from directing any malice towards us. At five foot ten, my grandmother towers well over the average population, but it’s perhaps her heavy build that most accentuates her presence. She was nurtured on hearty Italian and Salvadoran meals and has maintained this high-carbohydrate diet her whole life. Her muscles are well developed from years of cultivating coffee, kneading dough, driving a car without power steering, and making the sign of the cross. She strides with long decisive steps and has taken enough pilgrimages around the world and hikes around our property that she can outwalk a young person such as myself.

The ridges of the basket where the pieces have been assembled stick out and hurt my hands.

“Stop complaining or I’ll give you something to complain about,” Lita warns.

I use my shoulder to wipe off a moustache of sweat beads and try not to groan anymore.

We follow the memorized path through the labyrinth of merchants and finally reach the vegetable man’s unpretentious dominion of garlic-braid curtains and shelved crops, exchanging greetings. He surveys the basket and uses his fat fingers to test the merchandise. As always, he is pleased. The transaction begins. For each fruit that is removed, a vegetable is put in to take its place during this unassuming ritual of humble abundance where the basket remains always full.

“Can I please have two quarters?” I ask Lita.

She reaches into her Jean Naté-perfumed purse, circumventing her rosary, calculator, red lipstick and wallet, and produces a coin pouch without interrupting her routine. The man scribbles notes legible only to him on his old Tweety bird-covered notebook, as Lita dictates “Four onions for the bag of rose apples. Two garlic heads for the mimbre fruit…”

She gives me a dollar in quarters and says, “Get me two cheese pupusas. With loroco flowers, mind you!”

“Always!” I reply, as I walk away with my riches and start conjuring the taste of the loroco vine buds – a melding of flavours of artichoke and asparagus, blessed by the aromatic attributes of a flower.

I’m only halfway down the aisle and already merchants have called me all sorts of endearing names, each one more flattering than the last. For a moment I forget these are supplications in disguise, and get lost in the thought that there’s nothing like a Salvadoran marketplace to bolster one’s confidence and ease one’s loneliness.

At the end of the corridor, there’s a tired man in a straw hat and a carefully ironed cream-coloured shirt that used to be white. It’s worn thin yet appears heavy from the way it hangs from his bones. Harsh conditions have prematurely weathered his skin. Maybe that’s why he irons his shirts with such care. He only wears the creases he cannot control. At the head of the corridor there’s another man. His skin still smooth, his shirt still white and thick, his vigour still undamaged. They walk past each other tipping their hats. A standard gesture of acknowledgement? Or a display of mutual respect for the man who once was and the man who will be?

I reach my destination, the most permanent establishment in the market, for it has been cemented in place. The others can be picked up and moved in a matter of minutes without leaving a trace, but there’s a special durability to this particular one – a testament to the importance of pupusas.

“Morning! Two cheese, and two beans and cheese. All of them with loroco, please.”

“Alright, princesa, take a seat. Won’t be long,” the woman promises as she takes my coins in the very hands with which she claps the pupusas into existence… and scratches her arms… and wipes off her sweat. Adds that special seasoning, Lita says.

The corn and rice flour discs on the griddle have started to puff up, and some of the cheese filling has found its way out, melting and burning around the pupusas. I sit on the cement bench next to another cream-coloured shirt and continue to observe the dynamics of this realm. The clapping of the cooks accentuates the rhythms of the market – a galloping pace. An older woman uses a broom to push a stray dog out of the way, as a man carries in two crates full of cabbages, and a young woman breastfeeds an infant while giving someone instructions with her free hand on where and how to hang a misspelled sign advertising artisanal ice cream.

Once my order is ready and rests at the bottom of a thin plastic bag, I make my way to the end of the building. I like to take the long way around to look at the makeup and clothing. I reach the adjacent corridor and spot men, young and old, playing cards on top of a plastic stool. Their presence carries a palpable sense of danger. They stop playing and look at me from head to toe, and then back up. I take a deep breath and continue walking with a borrowed confidence. I can feel their eyes on my body.

I wish I could shoo away their looks like flies. But like flies, they would stick around, wouldn’t they? I plan to walk by them pretending they aren’t there but as I get closer, I realize their skin is heavily inked with marks of gang allegiance. I change my course of action and turn my face toward them, bobbing my head in recognition. A level of fearful respect must be feigned with such people. They don’t deal well with being overlooked. It’s one of the articles in the tacit constitution. The men bob their head in reply although their eyes are still intrusive, and their smiles, still malicious.

I make my way back to Lita – back to safety – and find the basket full of vegetables. I explore it for a moment, trying to guess what she’ll instruct our cook, Maricarmen, to make with the ingredients. Hen stew? Stuffed peppers? Maybe if I’m lucky, she’ll make Salvadoran beef pastelitos. Lita and the vegetable man have agreed on the time and terms of their next meeting, so I place the pupusas inside the basket and lift it before Lita grows impatient with my daydreaming.

We retrace our steps through the labyrinth and walk toward the light, ready to return to the outside world. The guard is asleep again, unbothered by the cacophony around him. Lita shoos away a dog peeing on one of her tires and opens the trunk for me to place the goods inside. The slamming of the trunk wakes the guard, who instinctively places his hand on his holster and scouts his surroundings. He relaxes when he detects no threat and waves goodbye.

We open our doors and experience a reverse “oven door” effect, so we leave them open for a moment, waiting for the hot air to dissipate into the less extreme heat outside. We roll the windows down before closing the doors and I burn my skin on the metal tongue of the seatbelt while Lita struggles to keep her hands on the steering wheel for more than two seconds at a time. I’m about to push the cassette back in when a woman appears at my window, blistered by the sun and carrying a sleeping baby. She holds out  her palm and looks at us with imploring eyes. Lita shakes her head, starts rolling her window up and instructs me to do the same.

I offer the woman an apology as the windows muffle some of the chaos outside – the cumbia, the traffic, the begging. Cat Stevens drowns out the rest. I turn the air conditioning on and we drive away from the confusion and tangible sense of poverty… and although we’re not more than three minutes away from the market, already we’re in a completely different world. I don’t think much about the woman begging at my window a moment earlier until we drive over a gravelly patch on the road and the basket full of vegetables and pupusas rattles in the trunk, reminding me of our abundant blessings.

“Stop the music, young lady,” Lita orders. “We cover ourselves and our loved ones with the sacred mantle of the Virgin Mary.”