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  • Writer's pictureToby Elliott

Streets of Sucre

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

A haze of smog visible from miles away; gone is the fresh mountain air. Vicious dogs in the city outskirts try and bite my legs. Past the pungent rubbish dump, rubble piles, bus station and into the heart of the chaos.

Thronging crowds, horns blaring, street sellers shouting, colonial buildings, the scent of fried food hangs in the air. At the central plaza I sit on a bench amongst the leafy trees, towering palms and statues. It’s all a little overwhelming and I take some time to absorb everything.

Ten minutes later I reach the hostel Siete Patas, an oasis of calm with its shaded courtyard and my home for the next three weeks. The place where I will meet friends old and new, sip steaming dark coffee in the mornings, eat countless amazing dinners and enjoy cheap wine late into the cool evenings.

The Mercado Central - a hive of activity, an assault on the senses, here you can buy anything. Near the butcher stalls blood stains the floor as it trickles towards the drains, cuts of every kind of meat sit under the pale lighting attracting flies. Cow snouts, intestines, chicken feet and hearts, chunky legs hang on hooks and butchers hack away relentlessly at fresh meat.

A little further in and mountains of colourful vegetables dominate the landscape. More varieties of avocado than I knew existed. Juicy tomatoes and eye watering onions piled precariously high. As you walk past cries go up from the stall holders, all vying for attention and pushing their produce.

Dogs roam the market, enticed by the multitude of scents and rich pickings. They are shooed away by vigilant workers, but they’ll be back. The spice aisle holds perhaps the most alluring odours, mounds of various colours and varieties of spice blend together to sweetly perfume the air. Around the corner are the juice vendors; cranking out hundreds of glasses of fresh juice a day. Tourists and locals alike cluster around their stalls, slurping the delicious nectar through straws.

Upstairs is the food hall. At lunch time a cacophony of noise as hundreds of people perch at the long tables gourging themselves on the cheap multi course meals. Screeches and shouts from the cooks all battling for the throng of hungry customers. Jostle for room at table and gulp down a bowl of warm soup followed by a generous portion of spicy chicken and maize.

Rows of elegantly and extravagantly decorated cakes displayed proudly by their bakers. Sweet and enticing it’s a temptation difficult to resist. If you reach the market early enough there are deep baskets overflowing with doughy, oven warm bread and all manner of pastries.

Wrinkled old ladies stubbornly haggle the price with you before relenting with a smile for a reasonable offer. Heaps of eggs, and wheels of glossy cheese sweating in the rising temperatures. Brimming sacks of potatoes, some rolling away across the slick market floor.

Friends, acquaintances, neighbours, colleagues, competitors and strangers all meeting and conversing under the markets roof. A never ceasing hum of conversation soundtracks the day, loud promotions repeat in cycles and multiple sources of music blare through tinny blown-out speakers.

Outside the air is dense with fumes, mostly from the ancient buses that aggressively ply the congested streets. Mopeds, cars, garishly decorated taxis and overstuffed minibuses sit impatiently in the traffic. The light goes green - get out of the way! Accelerators hit the floor, all charging to make it through. It’s red again in an instant and a street entertainer makes his way through the rushing pedestrians. He starts his show, balancing one footed on a tightrope he hastily erected, spinning a melon on his nose and two balls on his fingers - years of practice and such little recognition.

Laughter and high pitched, excited conversation swells as the schools are released. They stuff themselves with sweets and babble between glugs of fizzy drinks. Swapping gossip and stories from the playground.

Businessmen rush to get some food before their lunch break is over, jostling through the crowds of dawdling children in uniforms. Old mamas with heavy blankets full of shopping patiently wait for the next bus to ferry them homeward.

Mobile phone repair shops, electronic stores with cheap tat from China, confusing piles of clothes on offer, stands of fake sunglasses, walls full of pirate DVDs and more pharmacies than make sense. Benches are home to a cast of regulars; elderly folk return day on day to sit and watch the show unfold, reminiscing on times past and chewing coca leaves.

Beggars line the sidewalks, undeniably the saddest aspect of the scene, hands held out cupped or an upturned hat collecting what they can. Old, upsettingly young, disabled, loners, families, downtrodden - all share a common desperate look in their eyes.

Just a couple of blocks away and things are a little less chaotic. Fancy banks line the street complete with stony faced armed guards. Cafes serve expensive cappuccinos. A few designer clothing stores hold bored looking shop attendants. Older Western tourists wander in and out of the more expensive hotels. Ice cream parlours and gourmet chocolate shops filled with loved up couples.

Over the street the plaza is always busy. Toddlers chase flocks of pigeons and climb the fountain. Carts sell buttery popcorn, and tempt children with garish balloons. A woman sweeps the square with a broad palm branch.

Come evening teenagers congregate to brakedance, spinning on their heads across the glossy floor while bassy beats pump from portable speakers. Smoke rises from the grills of burger vendors.

Late into the night the white and red lights of cars reflect in shop windows and the impatient horns continue.

Little by little life empties from the streets, people go home, the engines grow silent, shutters close, time to sleep - the whole cycle will repeat again tomorrow. In the empty streets under the light of a full moon the dogs begin to bray.


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