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You pick up the sweater with an appraising eye. It might be the right size, it might be a little small, it’s tough to tell unless you try it on. “How much?” the hopeful vendor asks in English: you get the impression he could ask you the same question in Spanish, Quichua, German, French, and possibly even Swahili. You lift your gaze from the sweater in your hands to the rest of the items in the stall. The back wall is hung with hand-woven wool tapestries, every color of earth and sky, geometric designs, landscapes, animals and fish. In front of you, finely embroidered white blouses hang from the stall’s frame on twisted coat hangers. On the table between you and the vendor, neatly folded and stacked scarves, shawls, sweaters, hats, bags, and ponchos await your attention. To the right is another stall, another hopeful vendor, another pile of sweaters: to the left, the same. The sun is bright overhead, tourists and beggars jostle you on their way past, and you can smell the greasy pork and fish being cooked two blocks away in the food market. The sights and smells, sun and sounds swirl dizzyingly in your mind: looking back at the sweater, you feel a profound sense of surrealism. You ask yourself: “Where am I?”


The Otavalo market is an experience best appreciated with all the senses, if you can keep them from being overloaded. Colors dazzle the eyes, sounds and smells assault you from all sides, and the things you touch often have startling textures, from soft-as-a-cloud alpaca teddy bears to rough woolen tapestries to cold soapstone sculptures.


During the Spanish colonial period, the natives of Otavalo—about two hours north of Quito—became very skilled with textiles, and over the years the Spanish, followed after independence by powerful Ecuadorian families, began setting up factories to produce and sell the sweaters, blankets, rugs and more, produced by the industrious locals. In recent times, the Otavalo natives have organized the market themselves and now keep their profits, making them the wealthiest native ethnic group in Ecuador (if not all of South America).


The market has been a tradition for over 100 years in Otavalo: Saturday is the best day to go, when hundreds of vendors set up stalls over an area encompassing roughly ten blocks, but the vendors have learned that tourists don’t only come on Saturday, and you can find vendors and stores on any day of the week. It’s not just for textiles: you’ll find jewelry, wood carvings, watercolor paintings and more. It is the largest market in Ecuador, and one of the largest in the world. It attracts visitors from around the globe: listen closely and you may hear Japanese, English, German and a dozen other languages.


You decide to buy the sweater and begin negotiating at $14. You thought you wouldn’t like the bargain game—what sort of store has no price tags?—But you find that it’s sort of fun, this battle of wits with the vendor, a game of give and take, bluffs and tricks. In the end, you’re the proud owner of a wool sweater that cost you $10, and you’re feeling pretty good about it. You turn and look down the block: more stalls, as far as you can see. Behind you, the same. Time to resume the hunt again … maybe a scarf this time, or a chess set for your nephew, or a shawl for mom …

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