A City Awakes

May 26, 2009
By Mateus Marques BRONZE, Belem, Other
Mateus Marques BRONZE, Belem, Other
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

We are in the Ver-o-Peso Market which is the largest outdoor market in Latin America and completed 380 years of existence this year. This is Belém, a city located at the mouth of the Amazon River. Dawn's relative stillness is pleasantly interrupted by the distant steady rhythm of a little motored boat coming from an island across the bay. Other small boats join the first solitary one and make their way through the darkness to the sleeping city. The little boats' glittering lights draw nearer and nearer to the dock as the soothing splish-splash of water against the boat's hulls fuse with the increasingly noticeable engine sounds. Men leap out of their cramped boats onto the pier and begin the task of unloading them in a surprisingly quiet fashion as if they were afraid of disturbing those still sleeping.

Fish of many different kinds, some curious, others flamboyantly beautiful, are carried from the fishing vessels to a large, 18th century building, the fish market, which was prefabricated out of iron in England and is therefore known as the Mercado de Ferro (Iron Market). Large straw baskets filled with açai [asa'i] (dark purple berries from a palm tree indigenous to the Amazon) are displayed on the pier and are auctioned off to eager buyers who spare no efforts in order to be heard and make their early rising worthwhile. Slowly the baskets begin to disappear as the men who purchased them pile them onto their heads and walk off in different directions. The towering fruit baskets rise over the gathered crowds and seem to compete with the Iron Markets' shingled pinnacles which pierce the dawning sky.

The Ver-o-Peso Market has the ability of overwhelming a visitor. Walking among the booths set up under tarp tents, I notice the astonishing riches of this blessed part of the world. While I gazed around, perhaps with a confused expression on my face, I was suddenly startled by a merchant in a tent to my left who called out suddenly inviting those passing by to purchase the straw baskets and shrimp traps which hung in clusters from his tent's cross beams. Clay pots with indigenous designs capture my attention as I glance at the neighboring booth. I continue walking but soon stop suddenly because of the sweet , spicy smell my nose detects in a series of curious sniffs. I look around searching for the source of such captivating aromas, and I soon find it. Hundreds of little glass bottles linked together with string hang down like a curtain from both sides of the display. I draw nearer to the bottles and discover them to be perfume flasks containing naturally produced fragrances made out of tropical herbs. Between the two curtains of perfume flasks, different kinds of herbs are displayed; they seem to have been picked recently for they are still crisp and fresh.

Next, I make my way to one of the tents selling tropical fruits. Here the true meaning of exotic fruits can be discovered. Fruits that only grow in this part of the world and that very few people are familiar with, decorate the booth like ornaments of many different shapes and colors. Some fruits like the star fruit, passion fruit, cacao, and the coconut can be more easily identified by a visitor from another part of the world. The great majority of the other fruits, however, are so unique that they seem to have brought from a planet in a whole different galaxy. Inga, know as ice cream bean in English, is a long pod resembling a vine. Inside the pod are seeds coated by a white, fleshy pulp which some people think tastes like vanilla. There is a pile of large, brown, velvety fruits called cupuaçu [cupuassu] to one side of the display table. The cupuaçu is a relative of the cacao, and like the cacao it has a hard “shell” which contains the seeds and the pulp. In addition to the açai, other fruits from palm trees are also commercialized here such as the buriti which could easily fool someone for being some sort of craft made by a talented local craftsman. The buriti is a round fruit; what draws attention to it is it's outermost shell which is composed of tinny burgundy-colored triangular scales.

Lunch hour approaches and as it does people slowly make their way to the booths that sell food. I walk up to one of these booths and take a seat on a tall wood stool by the counter. Discreetly I look around to see what the people seated beside me are eating. An elderly man eats out of a deep plate without looking up or pausing. The food in his plate does not look very appetizing; it is maniçoba, a dish of indigenous origins like many other dishes offered here. It is made with ground manioc leaves and different kinds of meat. The ground manioc leaves are boiled for a week in order to eliminate the poisonous toxins the fresh leaf contains. A lady siting at my other side gently picks a rosy shrimp out of a cuia (a bowl made out of a gourd) with a wooden double toothed fork. I look over into her cuia out of the corner of my eye to inspect what she is eating. This dish is called tacaca and a yellow liquid called tucupi (a broth made out of the manioc root) appears to be the dominant ingredient of this dish. In the tucupi are two other important ingredients: the shrimp that was mentioned earlier and jambú, an erb that is boiled along with the tucupi. The curious thing about the jambú leaf is that it has analgesic properties so when one chews on it his mouth will become partially numb and tingly; eating it is quite a neat experience. I realize I'm being observed. Between me and the lady whose dish I had been studying is a little girl looking up at me who I had not noticed. On her lap is a cuia in which the juice extracted from açai berries are mixed with tapioca pearls. I smile at her attempting to be polite. After a short delay, the girl's hesitant, uncertain expression gave way to a beautiful açai-stained smile.

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