Cheeky… but not rude – local markets around the world

There is a real art, that so many school children around the world fail at every day, which is interacting with people in a way that is cheeky, but not rude. For that matter it’s not just school children, but many a drunk person who thinks that they are being charming and funny when in reality, those that can walk in a straight line see as clear as day that they’re are actually acting like dicks!

For those who don’t know the meaning of ‘cheeky’ or those who have never heard my interpretation of the word, I will explain what I mean: to be cheeky is to be rude but get away with it because the person who you are being rude to is amused by you.

You may wonder what I’m getting at with this post and I almost forgot myself for a second but I’ve been inspired to share my experiences at local markets that I have visited around the world where being cheeky can help you get a good price but being rude could possibly end in violence.

If you are from the UK like me then a trip to a local market can be a strange and quite possibly intimidating experience. We come from a world where the price is the price and it’s written clearly on signs and it’s been programmed into a computer that ensures that the correct price is paid and if the halfwit behind the counter failed at maths at school it doesn’t matter because the computer will also calculate the change that should be given.

Local markets are not like this. There is wiggle room where you can haggle what price you would like to pay and come to an agreement with the store owner. To be a successful haggler you have to have a knowledge of the value of the item you are purchasing. If you don’t then you run the risk of A: getting ripped off by the sometimes less than honest store owner or B: offering an absurdly low amount and offending the sometimes less than honest store owner which in some countries can end in a heated exchange.

Not all countries are the same in this matter and I still have so many to experience but here is some of what I know:

My most recent trip to a market, in a small town called Metepec, just South-West of Mexico City, was with my girlfriend and her mum. It was a quick and efficient weekly grocery shop for amazing fresh fruit and veg. The market happens every Monday and there isn’t really much haggling that happens between the honest local people who come across as friendly and hardworking. I wouldn’t even want to haggle when two huge,delicious pineapples cost just £1!

This experience was in stark contrast to the first and worse one I had at a local market in a different culture. This experience took place in Bodrum, Turkey. As soon as 3 friends and myself, in our early 20s stepped into the market we got swamped. I soon learned to rebel against my friendly nature and refuse to shake hands with stall owners as once they grab your hand they won’t let go until you have examined there range of Roy Band glasses and Gushi belts.

Fast-forward eight years or so and I walked through similar styles of market in Morocco, called Medinas, first in Fez and later Marrakech. The biggest difference was rather than a scared young English man – who walked around with one hand in his pocket and the other holding an empty can of coke so that nobody could grab him by the hand – I was a confident man that interacted with store owners with humor. ‘why do I need to buy a carpet if I don’t own a house’ I joked with one guy. He continued to try to sell me one for my mum or for my grandma but I didn’t feel as intimidated as I previously did in Turkey.

I am always intrigued walking around markets but don’t often buy anything, probably because I am useless at the haggling that I explained about or maybe I’m just tight! In Thailand however, I will admit to buying the occasional pair of dodgy glasses. Here I found another problem of the haggle. You must be prepared to pay the price that you get down to. Now I don’t remember the exact price that I paid for a pair of glasses (and also got a belt thrown in for free) but I do remember feeling slightly embarrassed at paying with a note with a larger value than the price that he originally asked for! Very poor etiquette!

The most intriguing market that I visited was in China. Now I don’t know what was going on around me and wouldn’t have purchased anything if I’d seen something that I wanted as there was barely any English spoken. But this wasn’t a problem as I don’t remember seeing a single thing that I wanted amongst the buckets filled with live toads, all types of fish, Octupus and eels! Fried insects and other… Shall we say, unique, snacks.

The last thing that sticks with me through these different experiences are the smells. The good, the bad and the strange. Through the hustle and bustle of hundreds of people in such a tight space you can jump from feeling hungry to feeling sick to your stomach in the space of a few yards. If you stop for food in a Moroccan Medina, for example, I’d advise standing still to eat because if you find yourself anywhere near the tanneries, where they treat animal hides in the street, I can assure you that you will quickly lose your appetite because of the stench!

Forests of fireflies – Tlaxcala

In an attempt to explore just a part of the wonders that Mexico has to offer, my girlfriend Karen and I left the busy capital: Mexico City and headed to the forests. First we visited Tlaxcala to see fireflies followed by an adrenaline filled trip to Xalapa where we did a zip-line tour and some white water rating (that I will write about in a later post).

Coming from the UK, such a small country, my definition of a long journey is very different to that of Karen. Buses, usually equipped with TVs showing movies in Spanish, run very frequently everywhere that I’ve visited in Mexico and usually provide a comfortable and affordable way to get around. As I believed that the 4 hour journey to Xalapa was a long way we decided to stop halfway in Tlaxcala. Tlaxcala is only a small colonial town so the buses don’t run so frequently and when we missed our scheduled 6am one, the journey ended up being longer than the original 4 hours as we went there via a nearby town called Puebla (where I visited later in my trip).

The trip, even with the detour, was worth while as after strolling around the churches and museum of the small picturesque town, we went on a tour to see fireflies in the forest. It was the reason that we went to Tlaxcala and it was an amazing experience.

We went on an extremely comfortable minibus with spacious seats and a big TV at the front along with about 10 other people. Our first stop, late afternoon, was to a plantation where they farmed Maguey Plants that are famous for producing tequila. But in this region the process that they use to harvest the plant produces another spirit called Pulque, one of two less famous cousins to tequila that I would taste (one time each as they are both bad) whilst in Mexico.

In the vast fields filled with the Maguey Plants, a local farmer showed us the method of collecting Aquamiel (honey water) from the centre of the big plant, around 3 litres in one go, by sucking through a tiny hole at the end of a big tube and cupping the end before decanting it into a larger container. I was not envious of the long process, carried out in Mexican heat whilst being careful to avoid snakes, spiders and scorpions.

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Inside the farmhouse we were given a history of the spirit and then had the opportunity to taste it in different forms. Without alcohol, with alcohol and in various flavours all had one thing in common. They were disgusting. With lingering bad tastes in my mouth, we made our way back to the minibus for an hour or so trip to the forest as the daylight began to fade.

After playing some slightly awkward ice breaker games and stretching, in preparation for an hour walk in the dark, with our young guide, we began walking away from the small restaurant, close to the tiny cabins that some people deicide to stay in. The evening was turning into night as we walked and we began seeing solitary fireflies flittering around us.

I still remember feeling pretty excited when I spotted the first fly, lazily floating around with its butt flashing on and off. For some reason, when it’s night time in a forest, it just feels right to whisper so there was very little noise as more and more flies began zigzagging around our heads. As the forest filled with flashing lights we each found a spot on the floor where we could watch as hundreds of the flies made the forest look magical for about 30 minutes before they slowly began disappearing. Like a nightclub, it started off with a  few that were keen to get out there, followed by a mad rush and as we walked back there were the last few, clinging on searching for a mate late on in the night.

It all seemed to happen all to quickly but I had a smile on my face from the moment that I saw the first fly in the forest. It was a truly magical experience that made me want to go and watch Disney movies for the rest of the night. I’d never heard of Tlaxcala before but I’m glad that I have now!

CDMX – Mexico City

Now I’m here, on my second visit to Mexico I feel especially bad for not finishing the write up from my trip almost a year ago!!

When I was here last I did two separate visits to Mexico City, first for a few days and then again right at the end of my 6 week trip, for a week.

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Mexico City, to me, felt a lot like any other big city in the world. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting but my perception of what Mexico: a ‘third world country’ should be like was wrong. The technology and shops are just as contemporary as anywhere else in the world but I guess things that separate it from other places are the way the government is run, how the education and health system works and a big gulf in the division of wealth.

I’m often asked if Mexico is a safe place to visit and I guess the reality is no it’s not. But by sticking to main areas and listening to advice of where not to go I never found myself in a situation that made me feel uncomfortable. The closest thing to crime I saw was a run-down-looking local man running (very slowly) away from a police officer, who didn’t look very interested in chasing him. The man fell over, picked himself back up and kept running, was nearly bitten by a stray dog, but kept running, he looked around to see that he wasn’t being followed but still he kept running in – slow motion.

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On that occasion my girlfriend Karen and I were visiting an area called Garibaldi. Admittedly, the 5 minute walk from the metro station is not the safest neighbourhood (which is where we saw the rogue runner) but the square itself is a tourist attraction and so quite safe.

It is a square where the famous mariachi bands play. In the Square itself there are lots of different bands, with their big instruments and extravagant clothing, roaming around looking for people to pay for a single song or two. Inside the bars and restaurants bands will entertain people that sit down to eat and drink and come and ask for tips and attempt to sell CDs containing their music. We listened to 4 or 5 different bands play on a square stage in the centre of the room as we sat and ate our meal. A very authentic and enjoyable experience.

Like any other big city there are plenty of activities to do. Whilst there, I visited museums, walked through a park that surrounded a castle that boasted great views of the city, I took an open top bus tour – that took most of the day to complete the three different lines – and went up a cell tower that took you above the sky line. Unfortunately, Mexico City is one of the more polluted cities in the world and the views were spoilt slightly by a layer of smog that makes seeing far into the distance difficult.

All over Mexico, even a year on, I find myself comparing prices to those in the UK with great surprise. To go to the cinema and get a large drink and popcorn I paid in the region of £5. And that’s for seats that are classed as ‘VIP’ in the UK. It is very rare to find a meal for much more than £10 including a drink and usually I’d be paying around £4 or £5. To get the metro anywhere in the city costs about 40 pence. But my favourite bargains whilst visiting Mexico City were my two trips to the 90,000 capacity Azteca Stadium.

In the UK, if I want to watch my brother play football, in the 7th tier of English football, alongside 100 or so other people, I pay £8. To watch, first Cruz Azul and then Club America – in a party like atmosphere with tireless staff walking up and down stairs with snacks, beers and even hot food on trays carried on their head – I paid around £5. The standard of play in the Mexican top division was not that great but the players are constantly running and you can see the passion amongst them. The atmosphere from the moment I got on the metro to the stadium until way after the final whistle was awesome.

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From Mexico City Karen and I went on two cultural trips an hour or so outside of the city. One was to a place called Xochimilco (pronounced Hochimilco), a place where you can pay to be ferried along a busy river way. The traffic included 100s of brightly coloured boats, with long tables under the shelter of a roof, captained by a local man at the back using a pole to propel the boat. Boats containing Mariachi bands offering their services also navigate the river and people selling snacks. On the banks you could find snacks, restaurants and souvenirs.

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Our other trip was to the extremely impressive ruins of Teotihuacan (tetiwacan). The ruins of Chichen Itza, near Cancun are the most famous due to a phenomenon which happens once a year that creates a shadow in the shape of a snake, but in my opinion the ruins of Teotihuacan are much more impressive. At the North End you can climb the pyramid of the moon (not quite all the way to the top) and have an amazing view along ‘The Avenue of the Dead’ that stretches for 2 kilometres and is 40 meters wide. All along the avenue are pyramids and temples including the biggest halfway along, the Pyramid of the Sun that you can climb all the way to the top.

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After a long day in the sun we were able to buy a nice meal for about £2 which, for me, is unthinkable at such a tourist destination! But that’s only because I’m constantly comparing to UK standards. As I touched on at the beginning of this, the wealth in Mexico is far from equally distributed. It can help give perspective and make me thankful for everything that I have.