Buy a pig, try on a poncho, bet on a cock!

Trip Start Sep 09, 2006
Trip End Aug 18, 2010

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Although we spent only 2 days in this city close to the Colombian border, we saw and experienced enough to fill a week. Otavalo, situated in a gorgeous valley, is a largely indigenous town, in a beautiful region surrounded by the volcanic peaks of Imbabura, Cotacachi, and Mojanda.  Its claim to fame, one of the largest indigenous markets in South America.

In the 15th century, Spanish overseers forced weavers in the town of Otavalo into sweatshops, making them produce fine fabrics for the overseas trade. Today, the Spanish oppression has been lifted, but the town, in the rugged lake district northeast of Quito, remains world-famous for its textiles. Indeed, on Saturdays, Otavalo's popular market is alive with crowds of shoppers eying the brightly-colored fabrics.

The Animal Market
We started the morning off bright and early at 6:15am to see the Saturday Animal Market where large quantities of pigs, sheep, and cows were being bartered and purchased.  All under the backdrop of two high volcanic peaks, Cotocachi and Imbabura (called the two lovers), it was definitely a sight to remember.  Little bundles of 6-7 piglets tied by a rope tether, squealing in high pitched tones as pigs do, fluffy sheep of all sizes ba-a-a-a ing, and bulls and cows moo-ing as if in conversation with each other.  We even saw a gigantic "heifer" (pig) that was burdened with enormous testicles, and was set to be sold at a whopping $250!  We also discovered the values of sheep: $60 and pigs ($20-$40).


The Artisan Market
Otavalo is well known for its expansive Saturday market centered in the town´s Plaza del Poncho.  Surrounding side streets jammed with sellers, the main square was transformed and covered with stalls selling clothing, including ponchos, shawls, toques, traditional dress catered to Otavalenos, musical instruments, handbags, hammocks, trinkets, masks, wood carvings and jewelery.  All sellers would repeatedly echo the phrase "A la orden" as we strolled by their stalls, signifying "I´m at your service".  We also passed by the gigantic food market, and watched delicious blackberries being sold by the gigantic basket!  Otavalenos were decked out in their traditional garb, men wearing calf length white pants, blue ponchos, and sporting a long single plait down their backs, and women wearing intricately designed blouses, with long skirts and interesting head scarfs.  We were even lucky enough to find a gift for ourselves as we settled on the purchase of a beautiful wood carving of a mask that represented Mother Earth, (or Pacha Mama in the indigenous Quitoa language).

Mysteriously, at night, we noticed that the entire town was completely cleared of any market traces, almost as if the hustle and bustle of the day didn´t really exist. The streets that were once alive with bargaining and chaos, were now empty, metal frameworks were dismantled, and the rain had cleared away all the rubbish left behind by the weekly business. 

The COCK Fight
Images of roosters cockle-doodle-dooing to wake you up in the morning instantly fade away when you enter this strange event held every Saturday after the market in Otavalo.  A professional arena with a red carpet center ring, complete with scoreboard, lights and bells, and audience seats in a circle.  We were among few other tourists, and mainly sleazy looking men that had had a bit to drink, and seemed to crave victory for their rooster.  It was certainly not an event for the faint-hearted.

First, the Sizing Up.  Roosters and their owners gather around a back room table, sizing up each other´s prized birds, stroking their feathers, weighing them, and deciding which two will fight next.    

Second, the Weaponizing.  The selected duo are brought to a back room where a stump is cut in each of their back feet.  Next a plastic cap is placed over the stump, and a razor sharp blade disinfected over a candle is placed on the cap.  Then, a colored ribbon is wrapped around the rooster´s new weapon.

Third, the Teasing.  Two cock masters warm up the roosters by breathing on them, and walking them around the ring.  They are then enticed and agitated by being flung at each other to rile them up.  The crowd helps by making kissing sounds and encouraging the cock that they placed a bet on.

Fourth, the Fight.  The roosters are let loose to battle it out till the end in the ring.  With a show of testosterone, their necks and feathers puff out and they jump at each other, knowingly or unknowingly clawing the other with the weapons on their feet.  The crowd becomes alive with cheering for "Go Red Foot" or "Come on White Foot", and shouts "One More!" or "Just like that!".   The Referee moderates the time clock, and the fight is over when the he picks up the felled bird, testing its strength to see if it can stand on its own two feet.  Ghastly! A winner is then declared, and the loser is taken, blood dripping on the floor, to a closed cage to live out its final moments.

It was a strange, gruesome, and cruel event, and although it was an eye opening cultural experience, we are pretty sure we won't be buying tickets for another one.

The Andean Band
Otavalo is also known for its Inca-influenced traditional music and musicians. After the Cock fight, we joined a couple of travellers and headed to a nearby nightclub in the main square.  A rustic bar with a log-cabin type feel to it, it featured an Indigenous Andean band  with strumming guitars and pan flutes.   The rhythm of the dance moves was almost Celtic, and a festive atmosphere filled the room and its patrons as they let off their market day steam.   Couples danced to indigenous beats with pride, and we wondered why our Native Americans in Canada don´t promote such an outward culture. 

And that brought us to the end of a single day in Otavalo.  Certainly, we felt, that if you try to fit all that into one day at home, you´d probably need a week to recover!  Out here, it´s all in a day´s travel.
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