December 2011

La Cancha - The Insult and the Explanation

One of the most commonly cited objectives of first world travellers is ‘experiencing other cultures’; “I just want to see what life is like for people less fortunate than me”. The inherent problem with this attitude is the assumption that people with less stuff than you are automatically ‘less fortunate’. Well, who knows really, but I checked out La Cancha to see if I couldn’t shed some light..

By: Aidan Jones
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Adelaine – Australia

Vendor in Street
Photo: Ximena Noya

La Cancha is the biggest marketplace in Cochabamba by a long stretch. Long before I got a chance to check it out for myself I was bombarded with information and questions about the city’s centre of fresh produce, cheap clothes and pirated media – independent first impressions are hard to make when every local wants to give me the rundown on their beloved markets. Harder still though, is my current task of communicating, without offense, my true opinion of the place – passing judgment without feeling like I’m spitting in the face of the proud locals. I want to say something right now; La Cancha is an awesome place and I honestly wish there were something even slightly like it in my home town. The following words, however, are as accurate a representation of my first impressions of La Cancha that I can give. Alright, are we cool? Disclaimer is done, game on.

I want to use the word ‘dirty’. It feels like by coming out with my legitimate first impression so bluntly I am somehow taking a condescending tone towards this city and its inhabitants, but why should I dance around the obvious?– trying to escape the filthy black truth stuck to the bottom of my shoe. The truth is this; La Cancha is a dirty place. The streets are black and gritty. The rising smells from beneath are both frequent and assaulting. Stray dogs roam the streets and after flipping through a crate full of pirated DVDs my hands were covered in an unidentified brownish dust... For those expecting a trip to the supermarket complete with polished floors and air conditioning, think again. Sometimes in life though, the intrepid traveller comes across situations where he must ‘deal with it’ – this is one of those situations. Hold onto your wallets, we’re going in.

I want to say something right now; La Cancha is an awesome place and I honestly wish there were something even slightly like it in my home town.

Like I said, my first impressions of La Cancha were derived mainly from local sightseeing tips and info as early as my first day in Cochabamba. “Need some new shoes? I’ll take you to La Cancha tomorrow.” “Want to come grocery shopping at 5am? We’re going to La Cancha.” “Watch out for the food in La Cancha… your feeble Australian stomach will tremble before our South American spices.” Thanks everyone, but nothing beats first-hand experience.

The first time I visited La Cancha was on a Monday, not one of the busier market days but I could have been convinced otherwise. – the loosely defined streets teemed with life. Foreign smells, enticing one second and nauseating the next, entered areas of my nose I had only heard about on the discovery channel. One quick piece of advice; do not bend down. I made this rookie mistake early on in my shopping experience and was punished mercilessly by the thick, rising odour of… well let me put it this way. What I smelled was not the fault of the store owners, nor could the blame be placed on the patrons – La Cancha and the surrounding streets are notoriously vacant at night time and as such, are often an unfortunate hotspot for, here it is… drunk people going toilet in the street. You have been warned. My nose having been hastily quarantined, my remaining four senses enjoyed full reign over their exciting new world. (well, three senses actually, touch is not really paramount here as the wise traveller knows to politely keep his hands to himself)

There are few police to be seen patrolling the streets of La Cancha, and I get the feeling that for the ones that are, there are fewer laws to be enforced. The market’s unclean exterior is definitely a negative effect of this chaotic, self-governing lawlessness, but if we dwell on the negative then we are liable to completely miss the point. Endless choice and phenomenal value lays hidden in tiny shops and narrow alleys, waiting for the persistent shopper curious enough to find them. Whilst western shopping districts are plastered with name brand logos and fit-inducing lights to steal the consumer’s attention, La Cancha’s merchants have no recognisable symbols or trademarks to appeal to. The refreshing lack of invasively bright lights and that ominous, capitalistic glow of western shopping malls did not go unappreciated. Brightly coloured sheets and drapings adorn each tiny clothing store while owners exhibit their wares with high volume and low apprehension.

No market would be complete without the ever present music. I always find that in such a busy environment, sounds seem to jump out of the crowds without warning and suddenly you find yourself dancing in the street getting honked and yelled at by a micro driver... but maybe that’s just me? After a few hours the horns became too much and I could feel myself becoming disoriented – like I’d seen the same street food cart one too many times. I went home, but La Cancha and I were not done yet.

Cancha, La Pampa market

I came back around a week later on a Wednesday (one of the two busier market days, the other being Saturday) to satisfy my childish curiosity for the apparently more dangerous time in the unruly marketplace – I’d been warned against it, so naturally I had to go. I’ve been told that my darker complexion and propensity to avoid excessive personal hygiene gives me an advantage over other travellers when trying to remain inconspicuous – so long as I can keep my mouth shut. As the sun faded away the daylight was replaced by the omnipresent glow of streetlights that, like the elusive background music, were camouflaged so well by the crowds and cluttered sidewalks the light might as well have been rising up out of the floor. Slowly the crowds began to thin and disperse. Cars reclaimed the evening streets.

I’ve heard plenty of mugging stories from fellow travellers – stolen phones and iPods – so I kept a steady vigil for potential thugs or pickpockets from the time the sun disappeared from sight. I must say though; I was almost a little disappointed with the lack of criminal attention I received. I know that’s a ridiculously stupid thing to say, in fact, I’ll partially take it back; I love my phone and I’m very glad I haven’t been mugged as yet… but some part of me really does want to experience the sinister side of this chaotic little world first-hand.

I don’t know what I expected from the night time in La Cancha. Constant warnings from locals and travellers alike had painted a picture of a twilight dystopia where gangs of thugs stalk the streets and police are shot on sight. This imagined world directed by Ridley Scott was not to be though, and ultimately, I felt pretty safe. I guess I just trust that most people are generally out to do good things most of the time – or at least that most people aren’t out to do bad things. When you are surrounded by hundreds of normal people on the street, all going about their daily shopping in one of the busiest markets in Bolivia, it’s hard to imagine that the world, and human nature, is sinister enough to allow visible criminal acts to be ignored. People may be willing to betray innate morality for personal gain, but they are seldom both depraved and audacious enough to do so in the company of strangers.

I’ve said all of the bad words before – ‘messy’, ‘filthy’, ‘grimy’, ‘rank’ – all of the words that I have been warned will offend those waiting to be offended. The point that I think is in danger of being missed though, is that I genuinely like La Cancha. I like it, not in spite of these characteristics, but because of them. No amount of adjectives and apologies can distract from offense if you want it, but really, why search out negative feelings for the sake of it? Perhaps it is my western longing for surprise, borne of a world where safety is a law and innovation has a handbook, or perhaps it is my childish naivety that draws me to the no-holds-barred streets of La Cancha, but for whatever reason, I don’t see ‘dirty’ as an insult here – despite the negative connotations.

Luis Zilveti “Del Otro Lado del Espejo”

“Creation is always a quest. It is a self demand for more,” Luis Zilveti says. This Bolivian painter who settled in Paris since 1970 was in Cochabamba last October with his art exhibition, ‘Del OtroLado del Espejo’ organized by the Centro Pedagogico y Cultural Simon I. Patiño.

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