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The Pandemic Has Reminded Me How Much I Love Local Markets

All Photos Courtesy Of Apeksha Bhateja

In the era of Amazon deliveries, Mapusa Market in Goa is still a local favorite.

It was a busy scene at Goa’s Mapusa Market. A backstep here and a duck there, with state-run buses screeching to a stop in the parking lot. Lines of people, armed with shopping bags, descended and marched to the intense market where hundreds of vendors bagged fresh produce for sellers who had come from all parts of Goa, India.

My friend, who moved to Goa in October, had been making weekly visits to the market to buy fruits, veggies, spices, breads, and local Goan staples (coconut jaggery, coconut vinegar, cashew, kokum, pork sausage, and amaranth). She efficiently led the way, stopping periodically to pick sweet potatoes, buy pineapples, smell cinnamon sticks, and look for tin boxes to store grains. She had already learned the lefts and rights, ins and outs, the fluid dance of locals on a time-bound mission.

Located around 30 minutes from the capital city, Panjim, Mapusa Market was built in 1961. Map means “to measure” and sa means “fill up,” which is fitting. Every day, the narrow lanes see waves of locals on foot. They fill up the veggies hall that showcase Mario Miranda’s cartoons on the walls (he was a famous cartoonist based in Goa).

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In the hall opposite where the fish market is located, the catch of the day was on full display and the floor was slightly slick from water. “My brother goes fishing in the morning and I sell it here,” a fish seller told me as I snapped photos of the huge fish in a typical touristy fashion and repeated local names after him that I promptly forgot. We discussed Delhi’s politics for a bit before I moved on to the adjacent baskets of mackerels, prawns, and crabs. Other sellers weren’t as amused and forthcoming, given the nuisance of a wide-eyed traveler (that, too, was from Delhi). 

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Goa’s economy depends on tourism, but the state was out of bounds for many months. When travel started, locals objected to it, with cases rising and rules being flouted. The state can’t handle a big burden of cases with just 805 hospital beds reserved for COVID-19 patients. Once restrictions (like mandatory COVID-19 negative test) were lifted, there were campaigns online to cancel a popular year-end event.

Predictably, the pandemic completely shut down the market, but it eventually opened to 30% capacity, 50% capacity, and by October, it was back to pre-pandemic level. Of course, even the thinned crowds in the morning showed respect for masks, even if they were sometimes fixed on the chin, or with the nose poking out.

Mapusa isn’t a flea market with artists selling bead bracelets and bands entertaining crowds with music—the Goan vibe that tourists normally crave. This is a salt-of-the-earth, old-school, no-nonsense market for locals. Yet, it’s listed on travel websites as a must-visit. Its colors and vibrancy must reflect what travelers love about India. And, the Friday Mapusa Market with even more sellers, is a bigger celebration of a daily activity. 

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It’s hard to miss the social aspect of the maze-like Mapusa. As a regular, you know the spots, you know the vendors, you interact with the same people. Sellers share tea in the morning and ask each other’s help when they need to render change. Families come together to shop and some stop to say hello to each other. It’s unlikely that locals will glamorize an everyday, mundane experience like shopping for staples, but I romanticized the market that is Goa’s lifeline, especially after a year of minimal social contact and maximum distancing.

For an Indian, bazaars are not a novelty. I have grown up haggling with shopkeepers and buying staples at kirana (grocery) stores. But even before the pandemic, the city pushed the memory of traditional markets to the back of my mind; the convenience of air-conditioned supermarkets in malls, multi-level parking, and two-hour online delivery is too hard to resist.

Mapusa brought back memories of walking on crumbling lanes as a child, clutching my mom’s hand on congested labyrinths, insisting on getting cotton candy, samosas, or chuski (India’s version of fruity ice cone), and later, a McDonalds swirl—because that was all I was interested in while she shopped. As my world grew bigger, those rickshaw rides in cramped gallis (alleys) lay buried somewhere, no longer needed or relevant. 

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At Mapusa, the adventure was reimagined. There was joy in finding something new in a market that’s so expansive that it’s difficult to cover all of it in one visit—much like the delight of a child on her exploration. I was still looking out for the famous potter’s market after three trips in a fortnight, but one morning, we followed the aroma of freshly-baked goods mingled with spices and chutneys to find stacks of poee (local bread) and other breads in a center stage. A quick decision about bread, and five seconds later it was wrapped up, tied up, in the bag.

Rows and rows of shops were left undiscovered, from clothes to jewelry to electronics to toys. Every time we made it inside an old bakery, they were already out of chicken sandwiches but offered a few pieces of beef croquettes, another specialty. A break in my stride came when the herby, aromatic smell of biryani reached me; someone was going to enjoy a great lunch in a hole-in-the-wall eatery that I couldn’t see.

The world has changed so much in the last one year and the idea of travel with it. In another lifetime, a local market wouldn’t have inspired so many feelings—it’s just a market, after all. It’s possible that I appreciated it more because we have been cooped up at home for so long. And here I was, touching, smelling, looking, traveling. There was a freedom, not just in movement, but also of the mind. With the possibility that life as I knew it didn’t make sense anymore came the acceptance that there are new ways to experience the world and reimagine the humblest routines of life.

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