Selling onions at market won’t make you cry

21 Feb

Life can seem hard when you’ve been selling onions every Tuesday for forty years at Silvia market. The old couple with weather-beaten faces sat silently together staring in different directions into the distance. They were traditional countryfolk whose survival hinged on the cultivation of fruit and vegetables on their small farm for personal consumption and to sell here at Silvia’s bustling weekly market. They were Guambiano people from one of the small mountain villages of Pueblito, Guambia, La Campana and Caciques and are considered to be one of the most traditional indigenous groups in all of Colombia.


We took a bus from Popayan (departing from the terminal roughly every hour) and covered 53 kilometres to the village of Silvia. The journey took around 1.5 hours, climbing into a beautiful mountainous region. We arrived at around 10am to discover a hive of activity which had been in full swing since the early hours.


The main plaza was lined with colourful buses called Chivas waiting to take locals back to the surrounding villages once their market day shopping was complete. The buses were mighty fine looking beasts and must have been on the road since their creation in the 1920’s, but still going strong. Decorated with brightly painted motifs, the buses had no glass in the window frames and simple wooden benches accessed from the sides. Chivas were once everywhere in Colombia but have now disappeared from main roads and only a few hundred of them remain, connecting towns and villages on small back roads. They’re nicknamed ‘chicken buses’ as they carry not only people but supplies and farm animals alongside other passengers.


Hanging from the rear-view mirror we noticed all manner of religious paraphernalia and laughed saying it would take more than a picture of Jesus and some rosary beads to save them with their kamikaze driving! The shopping, ranging from sacks of rice to furniture, was loaded onto the roof of the bus and strapped down with ropes. We hoped they wouldn’t meet too many bumps in the road on the way home!


Locals sat around in the square enjoying the sunshine and catching up with neighbours they hadn’t seen for a while. Crowds gathered around a middle-aged man who seemed to be getting a few laughs with his combination of slap-stick comedy and magic tricks.


We were charmed by the locals who proudly displayed their traditional dress and spoke in their own language, none of which we could understand. In most indigenous communities we’ve seen in South America, it’s been just the women who remain very traditionally dressed while the men opt for more modern and comfortable attire such as shorts and t-shirts, but here both genders looked the part.


The women wore black, knee-length skirts with coloured lines, bright blue ponchos and bowler hats. The men wore long, wrap-around blue skirts with pink trim and accessories such as woven scarves and bags.


The best part of the outfits were black, ankle length stomping boots (similar to Doc Martins) which men and women alike wore. Some of the fashion conscious Guambianos had even bought brightly coloured laces to adorn their boots with, and it looked great – designer Jean Paul Gautier would approve. Traditions are often lost with younger generations but here even the teenagers chose to preserve their culture.


A small section of the market could be considered ‘touristy’, selling brightly coloured woollen ponchos or tea cosy style hats, but the main bulk of the market is for the locals where you can buy anything from discounted clothes to exotic fruits.


The fertile soil around Silvia is perfect for cultivating crops and we admired bowls of rainbow coloured beans and large sacks of earthy vegetables, especially the potatoes – we’d never realised they came in so many shapes, sizes and colours!

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We didn’t linger in the meat section with its live chickens and freshly dissected slabs of meat, but we did savour the aroma of coffee from the region being freshly ground.


We sampled some tasty fresh goats cheese from a side street stall and spread it on a crusty loaf, bought conveniently from the stall next door.


Even though the Colombian economy has been growing steadily over the last few years and now boasts one of the largest middle class populations in the whole of South America, there was no doubting that these poor indigenous farmers had it tough. Living on farms in remote villages, they work outside all day, every day, tending to crops and livestock, leading a hand to mouth existence.


Homes are basic stone shelters, many without electricity and modern comforts, and with simple indoor fires to keep warm during the cold winter evenings. The Guambians are very proud to have large families, sometimes boasting up to ten children, all of whom will sleep together in one or two rooms in the house. Children will rarely receive an education but are put to work around the farm as soon as they are old enough, to earn some extra money for the family to survive.


Despite the huge pressures they face, we saw many smiling faces and groups enjoying a few laughs together rather than complaining. Their daily needs were basic but not dissimilar to ours in the western world – to have shelter, to feed and clothe themselves and to look after their loved ones. Once again on this trip we felt grateful for what we have and a little embarrassed about some of the things we find to moan about in our daily life. We stared out of the bus window as it departed at around 2pm still desperate to see more of the local life. Silvia had seemed like a completely different world for us when we arrived in the small town but somehow, as we were leaving, we didn’t feel quite so different from this bowler hat wearing clan. Perhaps I’ll dig my old Doc Martin’s out what I get home…

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