21 Feb Inside Markets : Another Reason We Should Travel
You don’t truly appreciate a situation until you have lived through it, until you have been forced to survive it.
The thing I love most about travel is that it forces you to experience life without the filters and the comforts we are used to. This gives you an appreciation for the immense differences between cultures.
There is an important realization that happens when standing in the middle of a street market in a second or third world country. As you stand there, sucking fresh squeezed juice from a thin plastic bag, you take a second to look around. You observe the children running from stall to stall, exchanging goods between vendors. Someone is inevitably walking around with a basket in hand, offering cigarettes, gum, and candy to anyone that looks like an outsider. You focus on the water behind the market, it’s beautiful this time of day. You admire the scenery and for a brief second you fantasize about living here. Spending each day in front of this beautiful backdrop selling local fruits under the warm sunshine.
Your eyes move along the edge of the water and land on a group of small fishing boats. Perfectly weathered, their paint is pale and faded. You watch as the local fisherman pull nets from the water. Hundreds of fish squirming as they are pulled from their homes. Crabs climbing on top of each other, sticking their claws through the openings, reaching for anything. A few skillful flips of tattered rope and the nets are cinched into bags. They are thrown onto the littered street. Bags heaped on bags. You watch as the fish struggle to survive. The crabs try to escape, try to squeeze themselves out of the tiny holes. The fishermen, desperately trying not to lose any of their hard work, take no breaks. Their sun beaten faces and rough fingers grasping ropes and strings, hoisting squirming bundles over their backs.
These sopping wet bags are quickly relocated to the street vendor that is now responsible for turning them into cash for their family. A man or woman frantically–yet methodically–pulls the fish from their netting and places them side-by-side on slanted display along the street. A young boy scrapes ice from a large block hidden in a communal freezer to throw on top of the fresh catch. Ice is a luxury here. It is used meticulously and carefully. You watch as each fish slowly stops moving, it’s tail finally giving in to the lack of water and the frigid ice bath.
You look back at the fisherman, winding up cords and wiping his brow as he prepares to push off for another day at sea. Large piles of fish are still sitting on the street, waiting to be placed in their open-casket display case. You start to appreciate the process and the life that has been fatally chosen for your consumption. You feel a sadness in your chest for the men that work long hours in the unrelenting sun. You feel a connection to the locals who’s lives are immediately impacted by each sale of freshly caught crab or squid. You think about the children that spend their days at the markets learning the family business. These families that survive off of the few cents made from each sale. You sit front-row at this mundanely common play, but you feel something now. You’ve witnessed the behind-the-scenes rituals of what it means to be a fisherman, a family that sells the day’s catch at street markets, a local in Kep, Cambodia.
That’s the thing about traveling, you get to experience how the real world works. Western markets detach you from this slightly heartbreaking reality. They put strategically placed barriers between consumer and the struggle. All you see is a Windexed glass display case with green leaves of kale and frayed streamers of seaweed separating the halibut from the tuna. The daily struggle is lost in air-conditioned grocery stores. The over-worked fishermen are replaced by a well curated icebox. Here, the price is per pound, not per meaningful exchange.
My favorite part of traveling–the kind that leads you blindly into second and third world countries–is that it forcefully offers these sobering view points. You are ruthlessly exposed to the delicate and extreme acts of daily life, the ones that we get so perfectly pre-packaged here at home.