27 March 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 14: The Things They Sell on Avenida Abancay

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

Location: Lima, Peru
Today's telling detail: the bathroom scale

Nearly every sidewalk square on Avenida Abancay has its own vendor. They squat and stoop and kneel and sit against the beat-up brick walls that form the back edge of the sidewalk, the dividing line between official and unofficial commerce, although neither seems to be doing much business today.

The street vendors bend their legs, pull them to their chests, trying not to steal space from their displays, which are already perilously close to being trampled by the endless, dense, frenzied stream of humanity passing by inches away. Trying not to impose. This isn't their first choice, sitting out here. But you have to do something. Their wares are spread on folded blankets or swatches of cloth or panels carefully, pridefully torn from cardboard boxes. The arrangements are neat, tight lines for knockoff luxury goods--watches, bracelets--or anything of which there is plenty; haphazard strewing where there are few items to offer. Perhaps increased surface area will draw more customers. Anyway, it feels better this way. You have to pretend, for your own self-worth, even if no one else even acknowledges your existence as you sit there trying to sell whatever it is you have.

The things they sell on Avenida Abancay are things that are easily carried on buses or on foot. Aside from portability, anything goes.

A burly man has set out his wares on a paint-spattered drop-cloth: wrenches and tape measures, all different sizes, all carefully organized. He looks like he just came from a construction site, wearing worn, baggy jeans and clear safety goggles, which shield his downward, stoic, squinted gaze.

A man with the appearance and bearing of a down-on-his-luck aristocrat--hair in tight curls, fingers long and uncalloused, gestures subtly theatrical--has a wooden box full of metal corkscrews in clear plastic wrappers. Unlike his typically-silent colleagues, he keeps trying to strike up conversation with passersby, his expression puppy-dog-hopeful. I don't understand his words, but I imagine them to be: "All your fine wines at home deserve a fine corkscrew to open them! Buy now, before they're all gone!" No one buys; no one stops.

A rotund woman with a scowl and jet-black hair in a high bun sits on a plastic stool with a basket at her feet. It's filled with little jars of white cream. To make your skin clearer. To make your skin softer. To make your skin lighter.

Other vendors have filled their tiny piece of real estate with reading glasses, with batteries, with small padlocks that look like they could be broken with a finger-flick--but together, for now, for this one person, carry the weight of the world.

They sell services on Avenida Abancay. A lanky young man in fashionable clothes made with cheap fabric stands by a small cart. He holds a digital camera; a small printer sits on the cart, which is covered with examples of his service: passport photos. A few people stop to chat with him, eddying the foot traffic, which is simultaneously pinched in from the other side by an arriving minibus. A bouncer-looking man leans out the side of the minibus, holding a sign with the vehicle's destination, then hops down to the sidewalk, yells the destination a couple of times, and twirls his sign. We're here, all aboard, let's keep moving.

The crowd keeps moving.

The air is thick, particulated. Lima's famous panza de burro grey--"belly of the donkey"--from the ubiquitous fog takes on an extra dirty-donkey-ish tinge. All those vehicles, as dense and focused as the humans on the sidewalk. This mass of humanity. A woman wearing an orange jumpsuit and a dust mask pushes a broom against the prevailing tide of foot traffic, Sisyphus as sidewalk-sweeper.

An empty plastic step stool sits next to a liter jug full of brackish water with a scattering of rose petals floating at the top. A small sign next to the jug reads "Asesoramiento tarot y espiritual."

They sell food on the Avenida Abancay, and it is these vendors who have the best business and, not coincidentally, the broadest smiles. If you sell food, you typically set up on the street side of the sidewalk.

Quechua man with a large knife, just a few ticks short of a machete, slices a pineapple--juicy, succulent, a Pure Platonic Yellow devoid of any other colors.

From wicker baskets, they sell tamales and alfajores; from small carts they sell freshly-griddled hamburgers, freshly-fried churros, freshly-roasted maize, its kernels like gleaming marbles. They sell chicken on skewers and nuts in bags. And every block, several people, often of Chinese extraction, have set up carts with a large, see-through container full of quail eggs on one side and a sizzling pan of oil on the other. 

The smells are not quite omnipresent--there's too much frenzy here for anything, even an odor, to linger for long--but come at you in regular waves as you walk down Avenida Abancay, a metronome of scents. 

A block or two down from the area of peak density--although there are still plenty of people here--a woman stands in the doorway of a vacant storefront. She is perfectly upright, not a trace of a hunch, even though she has a baby strapped to her back. She is Quechua, in the traditional attire, including a bowler hat and an intricately woven shawl with a pattern that is variations on a theme of red. The baby wears a knit chullo hat, blue, the ear flaps brushing its shoulders. The woman looks slightly lost and baffled by her circumstances, her eyes haunted and wide. She seems on the verge of crying but fighting to maintain her composure--for her potential customers, for her child, for herself.  

In her hand, she holds a bag of individually-wrapped green apple hard candies, similar to Jolly Ranchers. This is what she sells on Avenida Abancay, one or two or a handful at a time. 

At her feet is a bathroom scale, worn and rusted, the glass over the dial scratched and foggy, although not so much that you can't read the numbers--not so much that she can't squat down, her back still perfectly straight, and carefully shake out some candies, letting them scatter across the surface, and estimate the weight by tracking the red pointer's almost imperceptible progress from 0 to 1. Not so much that she can't tell you her fair price and make the sale. 

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