Getting the Hang of Thursdays

Danielle Livneh - Ecuador

January 4, 2013

Guamote has but one claim to fame. It is the only reason the small Ecuadorean town gets a sentence in “The Lonely Planet Travel Guide”, or receives any hits on Google. It attracts locals from all over the Southern Sierra, and even the occasional gringo. Every Thursday hundreds of vendors, buyers, and livestock inundate the streets of Guamote for the legendary market. Once a week, the otherwise dormant town awakes into a hectic spectacle. Thursdays are what literally put Guamote on the map in the tourist agencies of Ecuador.

My first Thursday in Guamote began promptly at the break of dawn when a spontaneous eruption of shrills jolted me awake. I stumbled to the window just in time to watch a herd of pigs parading down the cobblestone street, squealing with impressive urgency. Recognizing their cue, the town roosters joined in, which in turn prompted the dogs to add their howling to the choir. My host mother, picking up the baton, screamed “MUEVETE!” from downstairs. In a matter of minutes the entire town of Guamote, both animals and humans alike, was wide awake. With the sun still hiding shyly behind the mountains, the market day had begun.

For the next few hours people and animals continued to crowd into Guamote, the noise and energy levels increasing steadily. My host family rushed around the kitchen preparing lunches to be sold, shouting at each other to be heard over the external clamor. Chicken liver soup boiled on the stove, as pig intestine fried in a vat of popping oil. The unused chicken heads resting on the counter stared at me as I sat in a chair in the corner of the room. Unsure what to do with myself amongst the commotion, and silenced by my limited Spanish, I decided to play bystander.

As time passed and the chicken heads were cleared away, my shock lulled and I became antsy with curiosity. After all, I chose to take a gap year to experience a new culture. I practiced what I was going to tell my family in my head a couple times before I stood up and blurted out awkwardly, “voy a explorer.” I accepted their nods and smiles as permission, and grabbing my backpack, I adventured out into the chaos.

Once on the street a river of sheep, dogs, children and other shoppers swept me up, forcing me farther into the town. Women dressed in the traditional floor-length skirts, colorful shawls, and hard felt hats yelled at me in what I assumed was Kichwa, urging me to buy their cinnamon, strawberries, pork, and knockoff Hollister shirts. Men in bright red ponchos advertised coconut juice, belts, illegally copied movies, and toothpaste. Amongst the drone of Kichwa and Spanish I made out vendors calling my unofficial name, gringita but couldn’t determine where it came from. Bewildered, I let the crowd carry me further and further from my house.

Through what must have been some act of serendipity, I eventually found my way back to my family. With my senses exhausted from the barrage of stimuli, I went up to my room to rest. Taking my backpack off, I realized someone had opened it. With my heart racing, I frantically searched the pockets to make sure everything was there, only to find twenty dollars were missing.  Seconds later a putrid smell brought my attention to the remarkable amount of animal poop I had managed to carry inside with me. Feeling defeated and irate I cursed Thursday and the market it implied.

For the next few weeks I dreaded the arrival of the market. I blamed Thursdays for my stolen money, and the severe bags under my eyes. I refused to forgive Thursdays, and, as my friends can testify, committed to complaining about them at every chance I got. Gradually, however, my vendetta subsided. I realized no matter how much I pouted, the ancient markets of Guamote would continue to come each week. I ultimately understood that if Thursdays weren’t going to change (and they weren’t), then I must. And so I gave Thursdays another chance.

Three months and 11 markets later, I can proudly say I’ve gotten the hang of Thursdays. I gradually trained myself to go to bed at 7:30 on Wednesdays to neutralize the shock of the early next morning. The vendors no longer consider me a foreigner whom they can overcharge, but rather a guest that knows how to bargain like a local.  I’ve learned which alley is designated for the meat sellers, and where to buy the cheapest socks. I know to leave my valuables at home, and even how to spot a probable ladron. I make the juice for my family’s business, working alongside the chicken heads virtually unbothered. Sure, I’ve yet to master how to dodge the seemingly ubiquitous animal droppings, but I have avoided bringing it into the house again by implementing routine shoe checks. It took time, but I have learned to live harmoniously with Thursdays, to appreciate them, and maybe even to like them just un poquito.

Danielle Livneh