The very word “mercado” conjures a host of ghosts for me; friendly specters weaving between my memories. If I close my eyes and breathe deeply, I can almost smell the achiote spice mixed with dead fish mixed with over-ripe fruit and sweat – the essence of the bustling sea of humanity that is the market. Some of my first memories of Mexico are in the market: wizened old women in colorful ipils dangling strings of tiny black pots from long sticks across their shoulders, young men with black eyes and tanned leather skin shouting the prices of their ware, like circus midway barkers, above the din. When I was small, it felt like I was swimming in the market, completely immersed from head to toe in a strange and fabulous world. My buoy in the water was my father’s head, a good foot taller than any of the other men, floating above the waves for my brother and I to follow. I don’t remember him ever paying much attention to me, or my location, but he never lost me and I always followed him.
The market is different from a height of 5’8” than it was from 3’7”. Now I float above it and my children swim; although Daddy, at 6’4” is still the buoy by far. When I dove into Merida’s mercado last week, it was with closed eyes and a deep breath, inhaling the scent memories from a lifetime ago. Still vibrant and so powerful that when I opened my eyes and the market ebbed and flowed around me, I expected to feel braids bouncing on my back and my brother’s hand in mine. Instead it was my daughter who had the braids and three boys were hanging off my skirt. They swam with wide eyes through this new world as I happily paddled along down memory lane.
By the third day in the market, they were getting brave. Hannah had discovered that the bright pink and white layered coconut gelatin (that miraculously stays solid in ninety degree heat) was her favorite; she was on the lookout for it at every stand. The boys stared wide eyed at the mounds of fruit and dried chilies stacked higher than their heads, and shouted excitedly at the skinned cow’s head propped jauntily on the corner of the beef seller’s table – how else is one supposed to know which meat is being sold? We purchased tough as nails corn on the cob, sprinkled with chili and lime which Gabe, the toothless wonder, found it impossible to gnaw the kernels off. We ate it sitting on crates stacked behind the huge bags of onions near the bathroom, much to the amusement of the ladies selling spice on the edge of the row nearest us.
The children mowed their way through a half kilo of hot, fresh corn tortillas wrapped in half of a brown paper bag purchased from sweet faced ladies, who loved to show them how to knead the corn meal mash, and then let them watch the tortilla machine punch and grill the dough. We sat down on overturned five-gallon buckets and ordered pollo pibil and carne asada alongside the Mexican workmen who had stopped in for lunch. This was a source of continual amusement to the local folks who, evidently were not used to seeing American families outside their usual haven of the resort strip in Cancun.
My offspring quickly became experts at picking the potentially dangerous lettuce and tomato off their tostadas. They learned to order their own agua purificada. They purchased tops, sling shots, dress fabric and huaraches (Mayan sandals with tire tread soles). They accepted free bananas from benevolent abuelas and more than once, we were stopped for several minutes while a sweet old woman would lift her hands to the sky, pray over us some unintelligible blessing in Mayan, pinch the kids cheeks, pat the baby’s head and send us off with her love. It was all fun and games, until Gabe had to go to the bathroom.
In spite of our diligent removal of all things fresh from our food, and our strict adhesion to the “cook, boil, peel” rule of gut bug avoidance, we contracted “la turista” a.k.a. “Montezuma’s Revenge” a.k.a. travelers diarrhea. All ten of us. By day three of six kids and four adults vying for two hotel bathrooms, our friend Mrs. Klekar, coined the phrase of the remainder of the trip: “I’m DONE with the poop” – followed closely by Ezra’s loud declaration (in public, of course) “I’m pooping to DEATH.”
Needless to say, when some child cried out with a stomach cramp, we ran full speed for the nearest bano, rifled as quickly as possible for the requisite two pesos necessary to purchase three squares of toilet paper, and a pass from the attendant to use the facilities (but not to flush, as the Klekars discovered, there was another person to be paid for that honor). This was the moment that led us to our brush with tragedy – the longest twenty minutes of my life.
The market at Merida is four square blocks (that’s the main market, there are two other smaller ones within a block) and two stories high. The stalls are packed like sardines, no bigger than eight feet wide. The only way to walk through is to be swept along with the tide. When you are lost, find an exit, ask a policeman which street you are on and which direction you need to go to find Calle 65 (the main drag).
We were somewhere between the arts and crafts area and the meat market bordering fruits and veggies on one side, when Gabe made the announcement, “I have to GO!” With a quick query to the grandma selling pineapples, we made off for the far corner of the building housing the bathroom. Thirty seconds into the urgent trek, I count heads (something I’ve been doing every thirty seconds for a week and a half). I come up one short. I count again. Still one short. I scream to my husband, he counts. Still one short. Which one? Elisha. We stop and look frantically, call out for him. No answer. We still can’t see him. He’s lost. In a fraction of a second a thousand thoughts ran through my head as I abandoned my husband and children next to a table full of chili peppers and retraced our steps at an all out run, yelling for my baby. Nothing. He was gone.
It's one thing to casually order meals for ten or translate the difference between quality of hammocks for friends in the market. It is entirely another thing to have your heart in your throat, tears in your eyes and be trying to find your five-year-old in a suddenly foreign market in your third language. “Have you seen a boy, a very small boy, blond hair, red shirt, multi colored shorts? He’s lost!” Big worried eyes and heads shaking no all around me. I ran, shouted in English for Elisha, shouted in Spanish for the worried looking Mexican mamas who had all come out of their booths to help me look. Then it hit me that I’d left the rest of my family without a translator next to an unidentifiable pepper booth, adrift in the sea. Suddenly the verse about the shepherd leaving his herd of sheep to find the one little lost lamb became real to me. So this is how Jesus felt about us.
More running. More shouting. No baby. Finally two little grandmas were tugging my sleeve: “The policia” they were saying, “At the end of the block, go to the police.” I took off at an all out run. I must have looked funny to those for whom this market was home. A big, white woman, skirt gathered around her knees, running, searching for a kid whose name they could not pronounce. Finally, the policeman. “Cuántos años viejos son él?” “He’s five”. “Qué color es su camisa?” His shirt is red. “Y sus pantalones?” “His pants are tie dyed?: you know, multi-colores?”
The radios crackled, my head began to swim as my world shrank and the market grew to an enormously, overwhelmingly big place. I had to search for a little blond needle in a haystack. I covered my face with my hands and tried to breathe. The air was thick and I had to work to get it into my lungs. Just as my head began to swim and the enormity of the loss began to settle over me, the crowd around me parted and a stout little man in a sweaty green T-shirt burst forth and shouted through panting breaths, ”Tenemos a su hijo.” “What?!” “Tenemos a su hijo, venga conmigo!”
Off we ran, me looking at him with watery eyes, not sure I’d understood; he smiling reassuringly and pointing, trying to keep up with my long legs and frantic mama run. Around the corner, down the block, nearly the whole length of the market past the fruit, not quite to the meat, we ran. I heard the howl before I saw the boy. A little Mayan mama selling outdated American T-shirts had seen him walking alone and crying. She’d noticed us the day before. Some things don’t need translating. She grabbed my baby and held him against his vigorously wriggling will until the man in green found me. There he was, safe and sound, and sobbing loudly. “I yooked up and you were GONE!” he choked, between sobs. “Next time I’m gonna hang on to your skirt better!” Good idea.
I hoisted him up in my arms and felt our hearts beating together, a mile a minute. We headed back towards the center of the market where my abandoned husband and three children were waiting with wide eyes and worried faces. We were greeted with cheers and words of blessing as the vendors patted my arm and his head. It had been a community effort, and I’m sure provided dinner conversation around many a table in Merida that night. In spite of the twenty minute delay, which seemed like a day and a half, Gabe made it to the bathroom where Elisha and I sat down and had one more good cry for the sake of our nerves. I am now confirmed in my practice of dressing the children alike until they are twenty (my little quip about it making them easier to find has real meaning now). My practice of tagging them with name, rank, serial number and address when we are off the hill was my only consolation and a point of hope in the midst of a terrifying ordeal.
We spent another two days enjoying the market, buying vanilla for friends back home, eating coconut candy and tortillas, and smiling for a million pictures that Daddy took. Through it all, there was one small boy who stuck unusually close, one Mama who resolved to count heads every fifteen seconds instead of thirty, and one new ghost who will forever haunt the shadows of that market for both of them.
Read more about a family living life adventurously at World Wide Edventure.