Empalme is a little town on the southern side of Guaymas where we often go looking for birds. I remember the first time I heard its name which by the sound of it had to be something exotic, like “rest in the shade of a coconut palm while soft tropical breezes cool your fevered brow.” Or “place where the Aztecs came to worship the sea gods.” Well, you can imagine the letdown I had when I actually went and translated the term and came up with “train junction.” It’s only fair, since trains and the train yard represent the main thing you see when you drive through town, starting with the giant parked train at the far side of the causeway and the line that crosses MX15 where I’ve almost been crushed on a couple of occasions. Trains are what Empalme is all about.
Although as a little city, it’s kind of nice – neighborhoods made up of tiny houses in bright colors, their bare dirt front yards trimly kept with a couple of potted plants and maybe a lemon tree or two. Many of the roads are paved, and a lot of them are not. There is no lack of stray dogs of the variety Canus Mexicanus, plain brown with skinny bodies, pointed ears and black points, a living representation of what happens when random dogs are crossbred back to the point where they represent their hunting dog ancestors that roamed the African plains 8 million years ago. We used to drive the back roads of Empalme on our return from the town dump, a seemingly endless stretch of garbage flanking the road from San Jose de Guaymas and the one guaranteed place to find Cattle Egrets in their natural habitat, neck deep in torn plastic garbage bags. Another modern example of an African species normally found picking ticks off Water Buffalo.
Today though birds were not on the agenda, rather it was time to acquaint ourselves with the little known but locally famous Empalme Sunday Market. We’d been told about by our Canadian friends who spend months down here in the winter, looking for things like this. The directions were general, “drive across the causeway, turn left at the train and start looking to the right until you see a lot of people and cars. Park and go in.” Well, as it often turns out the truth of it is both accurate and wildly off. We followed the route to the letter, did see a lot of cars and people and then struggled mightily for a place to park our oversized car, finally finding a spot many blocks away in front of a combination bicycle store, pirate CD shop that was blasting Norteña as I pulled in to the curb. You never know if the car will be there when you come back, based on whether parking is allowed. Yellow curbs clearly mean “no” but white ones are hard to tell since they’re not often white. I got in close and locked it up. Looking around for a landmark that would lead us back, we figured the two story purple Santa Fe Supermercado tower would do just fine.
From the looks of it, the market knows no bounds. People had set up small booths selling all kinds of things from Bibles to clothes to baseball mitts on just about every clear inch of sidewalk. Restaurants spilled out of their confines too, with plastic tables and chairs and big grills under white tents taking up the rest of the available parking. Music was playing in a conflicting cacophony from just about every direction, and the smell of grilling beef and sewer added to the authenticity. Every sense was being employed, including the one that prevents one from stepping off some missing piece of the raised sidewalk and taking a header into the street. It looks as though the typical Sunday in Empalme involves going to church and then sitting down a favorite street-side temporary restaurant for a breakfast of asada tacos and freshly squeezed orange juice. Not terribly different than Sunday morning in the back streets of Sevilla although that involved a lot more beer, women in high heels and men with white Tommy Hillfiger sweaters tied around their necks.
Crossing the main drag, we went up a street choked with pickup trucks and blocked by three bright red ambulances, their purpose not readily clear. From here the layout of the market was clear – a long narrow lane with tents on each side, along a wall that seemed to delineate some sort of public space, judging from the bronze busts of Mexican heroes that appeared about every 25 meters. I’ll mention at this point that we’ve been to some interesting markets in our day, from the superb Panjiayaun Market in Beijing to the largest in Europe, El Rastro, our all-time favorite. This one was quite a bit downscale, a crazy three-way combination of food court, swap meet and used furniture. While all three of these markets offered endless amounts of used clothing, this one came up short in the area of antiquities and art. And like all of them, it was mobbed and the navigation was hampered by people stopping to visit in the middle of the flow, not quite getting the idea that it only works if you keep moving. Not nearly the crush of El Rastro, but plenty crowded in its own right and lacking all the chain smokers.
Deciding go up one way and down the back, we took a right turn and waded into the crowd. Much like the stalls out on the street, just about everything you could imagine was on display. Bicycles, a meat slicer from a deli, a power washer. On the left, a typical Sonoran cowboy was using a microphone to invite shoppers to purchase something from his table of 8GB thumb drives, no doubt straight off the counterfeit ship from China. ”Memoria, memoria” was his refrain, interjecting some technical lingo every once in a while.
Moving along, we walked slowly past the food tents where every manner of fried thing was on offer, including chichiarrones the size of knit leg warmers. Up ahead we spotted something we had to have – churros – being freshly cooked in a small stand. We got in line and watched as the cooker turned the capstan on the back of a cylinder, perhaps 4 inches in diameter, and full of dough, dispensing little three inch segments, sliced off with his spatula, into a big stainless steel cauldron of clear, fresh and very hot oil. He’d let them boil for 30 seconds or so before scooping up a big pile and tossing it into a glass enclosed box where his wife would roll them in sugar and serve them up in white paper lunch bags. He asked me what I wanted and I said “an order.” He replied “20 or 50 peso order” and figuring that even I have a limit to how much hot fresh fried dough I can eat, answered “20.”
“20 dollars or 20 pesos?” was his comeback and he laughed when I told him that no one could eat 20 dollars’ worth of churros. She bagged them up, handed them over and we went on, enjoying them immensely.
With one end in sight, we turned around and started back, stopping at one tent where something caught our eye. Maybe 10 years ago, someone in New Mexico organized a bunch of local artists into a charity effort called “Trail of the Painted Ponies.” Each artist painted a life-sized fiberglass horse according to their artistic vision and the lot of them were eventually auctioned. That program spawned similar efforts country-wide, some using horses, others cows and even pigs. Someone else got the brilliant idea of making them more widely accessible and began producing smaller, shelf-sized versions in the $40-$100 range depending on the complexity. From there, a second product line was born, “Horse of Different Color” and today they can be found in gift shops everywhere, and especially in Albuquerque Old Town.
Well, right there on the table was a Horse of a Different Color, ironically named “Mexican Folk Art.” And not a bad one to boot. We stared at it for a bit, MLW finally picking it up and checking for the brand stamp and serial number which it had. I asked how much, 30 pesos was the answer (about $2 at the current rate) and the deal was instantly done. A bargain for sure.
Getting close to the end, we next stopped at a stall where a guy was selling what appeared to be metal-art poinsettias. They turned out to be plastic, but they also turned out to be 80 pesos ($5) so one of those was quickly added to our haul. Not bad, $7 lighter for a couple of nice mementos.
As with every place like this, one starts to glaze over after the endless banquet of the same things. On our way to an exit, we stopped to admire a big table of blue jeans bearing an exact replica of the Levi label but with Bogi in place of the correct brand.
Our car was still there when we found our way back to it, and getting out of town was a lot easier than getting in even though the busyness in the street had not abated at all. What a great Sunday morning, a bit of a cultural experience, some fun curios and of course, churros.