Sunday, January 30, 2011

Light fingers

"Where are you from?" The stall keeper addressed us in English as he stepped away from his small display of fruit and vegetables to intercept to us as we walked towards the exit of Santiago's Central Market.

America, my friend replied in Spanish.

"And you too?" The man turned to me.


It was a terse answer and one which the stall owner responded to by turning back to my friend and bombarding him with questions: What was he doing in Chile? Had he travelled around much? Did he like it? Did he know what all the fruits at his stall all were? Had he pushed to know my own origins, he might have realised that I was liable to possess an innately suspicious nature of any stranger talking to me that meant while he was busy distracting my friend, my own attention had remained firmly fixed on his friend.  

While Santiago is considered a very safe city in terms of violent crime, pick-pocketing is rife. Two of my friends had previously had possessions depart their person via the aid of light fingered passers-by, while another had worked in a store where even the close circuit TV cameras had not been able to halt the shop lifting. The Central Market, with its close packed stalls and narrow lanes, had to be a prime pick-pocketing location.

The market itself had been quite something. Fruits and vegetables poured from boxes stacked in stalls that had included chunks of pumpkin, cactus fruit, corn the width of your bicep, multiple types of avocado and small orange potatoes. Next door to the produce was the meat market; a long covered alleyway where you could buy raw chicken hearts by the scoop. At the far end of this, we had ducked past two workers man-handling a cow carcass to enter the fish market where open containers now displayed octopus, huge flaps from the top of squid and shrimp between a further 80 stands offering seafood dishes to the public.

Photographs were frowned upon in the meat market, possibly over concerns surrounding hygiene standards, although it had all appeared clean and fresh to me. Cats and dogs did wander freely through the produce aisles though, in the hope of a treat or comfortable resting spot.

Chileans, I discovered, love dogs. However, they don't seem keen in caring for them long-term, resulting in a large stray population of canines in every place I visited. Neutering your pet is also apparently an appalling concept, so inevitably the problem is self-perpetuating. At first I found this slightly alarming. If necessary, kicking off a vicious feral cat would not be too hard a task but an attacking dog is quite another matter. The animals though, seem to be friendly and well fed with decent looking coats implying a fairly high standard of living despite their owner-less status.

And thinking of owner-less statuses, back at the market stall my wallet was apparently considering another home. My eyes followed the red-shirted young man who had previously been talking with the stall keeper before the latter had leaped to engage us in conversation. He appeared seemingly uninterested in our chat, but casually stepped away in a path that would take him right behind us and close to the rucksack I had on my back.

As it happened, he was going to be disappointed however this went down. My wallet and phone were in a zipped compartment within the bag, so dipping one hand into the main pouch would cause me to part with nothing other than my sun screen.

I needed my sun screen :|

Turning, I kept the man in view as he sauntered across the aisle to start talking to the opposite stall owner. We didn't make eye contact, but my gaze remained pinned on his person. Eventually, my friend managed to disengage himself from the conversation and we left the market.

"I don't know what that was about," he said to me as we went to find a freshly squeezed juice. "The questions were very random."

Humph. I should have stolen a melon.

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