The market in Campinas, Brazil is a monument to free enterprise, smelling of sweat and smog and meat, and a virtual Mecca for entrepreneurs, hucksters, and profiteers beyond number. Their cries are a symphony, the bass lines of 200 songs from as many radios keeping the rhythm as well as any timpani.
My high school Spanish is little help in the best of times, and the noise makes the ever-demanding task of using Spanish to attempt to understand Portuguese impossible. It doesn’t matter too much. “Cuanto Custa” (“How much?”) seems to be all any of us need know.
The market itself is a wonder, a nether city with an overpass for sky and an ever-present haze for clouds. A voodoo shop and a lottery stand share the fast lane for a ceiling. Lines snake out of both each time I pass. Beggars and bankers stand shoulder-to-shoulder, equals in the eyes of spirits and probability.
Further into the market, the overpass gives way to tarps. Any semblance of organization fades away. Ramshackle booth after ramshackle booth, a labyrinth of weathered plywood and brightly colored signs stretches out before us
A pre-diluvial woman sells stuffed pastries called pastels. A young man next to her sells tools of all sorts in varying states of disrepair. A woman sells herself. Her smile is not much of a lie. The stoop of her shoulders and exhaustion in her eyes give her away. She doesn’t cry out, and she doesn’t feel like part of the crowd either, though she is no less in the middle of it than I. Nobody pays attention to her.
A kid who, except for his skin and his language, could have leapt from the pages of Oliver Twist charges us with a flier for Nike shoes with the swoosh on backwards. A tobacconist fights to out-hawk a man selling DVDs. Amidst the pornography and the Brazilian films, are copies of Spiderman 3. The man on the DVD jacket isn’t Tobey McGuire. Spiderman 3 had only been out for a month in the States when we left.
It seems that anything can be had under the overpass. Soccer jerseys are a steal at eight dollars each, and jewelry can be had by the fistful for the price of a movie ticket here.
The sea of knockoffs proves too much for the women who accompany my father and me. In what seemed a split second, all six of the women, none older than seventeen, scatter to the winds. Each carries more money than some of our fellow shoppers would see in a month. The better part of our spending money is in the safe at our hotel.
My father and I decide to split up. In that moment every one of my muscles tensed, my nostrils flared, and my brain was half-drowned in a sea of adrenaline. Ours is a very fragile sort of safety. Eventually, we find all of them again. They’re a bit conspicuous.
It’s a long walk back to our hotel.