Faces of El Alto Market

30 Jan, 2013 | Niall Flynn; Joel Balsam

Culture, Social issues, Urban living and Lifestyle

If the end of the world arrives on December 21, as the Mayans predicted, two things will survive: cockroaches and the Feria de El Alto. Every Sunday and Thursday, thousands flock to one of South America’s largest flea markets and encounter everything: from pigs and ’80s retro American football jackets to snakes and minibuses, all for a fraction of the price that they’d be in the US or UK.

Photo: Joel Balsam

Walking down the streets of La Paz, the pasty white face of a gringo can turn more than a few heads. So, when we walked through Bolivia’s largest and most chaotic market, a place where many Pacenos themselves say they would never go, we felt like circus freaks.

The feria predates the formal founding of the city of El Alto, which was merely a suburb of La Paz until its incorporation in 1987. But in 1960, the feria was nothing more than a simple apple market, home to a handful of stalls in a quiet town on the altiplano. It has since expanded to an estimated 10,000 vendors across dozens of city blocks, covering a vast twenty-five square kilometres.

Thieves run rampant through the busy market, so hold on tight to your belongings, unless you want to involuntarily donate an iPod to the feria fund like we did. In fact, it is probably safer if you stay home and play ‘Guess Who’ Faces de El Alto—The Game. To play, simply read about five vendors we met on our recent outing and try to match them with their products. Stumped? Follow the trusty hints at the bottom of each vendor bio.

Happy El Alto Games! May the odds be ever in your favour!

a) Hardwareb) Jumpers c) Key

d) Gameboy e) Donkey Milk f) Matches

Photos: Joel Balsam

1) Eduardo

3 Use   Eduardo   Joel

'I want to be a doctor', says the confident 11-year-old who is manning a stall alone. That ambition makes his parents proud. Every Sunday (and Thursdays, if he doesn’t have to go to school), Eduardo works at the feria while his parents sell the same products on the other side of the market. So you think 11 is too young to work in the feria? Well, Eduardo has worked there since he was 5. 

Hint: You’ll find his products, but you won’t find a shop like Eduardo’s anywhere in the global North. And, in such an impoverished city, most might find that Eduardo’s products are rather useless. Still, Eduardo claims he makes around 300 bolivianos a week, with his most popular product going for 25 bolivianos.

2) Tiffania

6 Use   Tiffania Better  Joel

Even beneath her heavy hat, Tiffania’s face and piercing brown eyes are hypnotising. At just 16 years old, there is something about her innocence that makes us uneasy. Tiffania was one of very few vendors happy to talk to us. Six months working in the feria hasn’t depleted her enthusiasm, something can’t be said for many of the older vendors. Every single day, she and her mother trek to a different market—a job Tiffania sees herself doing for the rest of her life. Their products arrive in South America from Germany and China. Due to Bolivia’s landlocked status, their products are obtained from the Chilean port of Iquique—in addition to a monthly trip to the Peruvian-Bolivian border.

Hint: Tiffania’s products are probably the most practical and reliable of all.

3) The Cholita

2 Use   Donkey Lady   Joel

In a muddy patch on the side of the feria, a stern and serious old cholita, reluctant to give her name, does not mince words for small talk or descriptions. 'How is the product?' we ask. 'Normal', she replies. 'Is it hard to work in the Feria?' 'Normal', she responds again while quickly ushering us away. Her hard-working suppliers are only employed for two or three years before she gets rid of them, but they don’t really seem to mind.

Hint: At 5 bolivianos a pop, her product boasts positive effects for many aspects of health and well-being, including curing pneumonia. You never know until you try it. We did.

4) The Salesgirls 

5 Use   Phos. Girl   Joel

We stumble upon three young girls. One is small, quiet and afraid. The second is shy, but does the talking. The last is cheeky and mischievous. 'What is it for?' we ask while pointing at the product. Making a whistling sound and an explosion with their mouths, they said 'Jueguitos!’ Clearly, we weren’t going to buy the product for cooking like many of the cholita homemakers were. The girls immediately picked up on this and made the new sales pitch, just for us gringos. There is something scarily entrepreneurial about three young girls having a better marketing strategy than most adults. Embellishing on the quality of their product, the cheeky girl claimed that they personally travelled to Brazil to pick up the goods, even when the box clearly stated the product was not legal to sell in that country.

Hint: The product is used for cooking.

5) Guzman

4 Use   Guzman   Joel

A 70 year old man sits on a chair in front of a heap of . . . unusual antiques. You would be a miracle worker if you could get any of these products to work. Still, Guzman urged us to move on quickly to allow for more potential buyers—as if anybody was buying anything at Guzman’s stall. Guzman is rather new to the feria, having only worked there for five years. He used to be a construction worker, but too many years on the job ruined his back and forced him to change his occupation. The result? He now sits by the old abandoned railway line in El Alto with his dusty collection of..

Hint: Junk.

6) Cecilia

1 Use   Cecelia 2

Cecilia has worked at the feria for thirty years, even before the city of El Alto existed. Back then the feria, she claims, was no more than ten stalls. Now look at it. Cecilia quickly fast-tracked to becoming our Bolivian mother. Instead of us asking her the questions, she was the interrogator: 'Where are you from?’ 'Did you arrive here by boat?’ 'Where have you been in Bolivia?' And on. Her questions came with a genuine sense of curiosity, accompanied by a nervous giggle. As if worried about our view of Bolivia from what we saw at the feria, she proclaimed, 'Bolivia is not like Africa, you know.’ That was her way of defending the country she loves.

Hint: Her products were some of the most popular in the market. And after doing some research, her stuff looked like it passed the quality—and affordability—test.

Answers: 1 - C; 2 - A; 3 - E; 4 - F; 5 - D; 6 - B


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