La Vega Lovalledor – City of Fruit

La Vega Lovalledor – City of Fruit
By Stephen F. Rose

(May 28, 2004) The Vega Lovalledor is roughly the size of an airport runway, cleared out and stacked with crates upon crates of fruits and vegetables. The central, roofed produce market is surrounded by vendors selling everything from tripe to dog food.

The hub of the market is the produce area, organized into rows, or rather streets, each one large enough to drive a truck through. Each street basically features one specialty: the tomatoes yield to lemons which yield to apples.

The potatoes, on the other hand, constitute their own community. Five and ten pound sacks of potatoes occupy an area larger than the average supermarket, on the periphery of the market. Crates and bags of potatoes reach forty feet into the air.

Wandering through this shanty-town of fruit precipitates sensory overload. One hears the gears of the market economy churning as vendors and clients bicker over the prices of fifty pounds of quinces. Aji peppers arranged according to color glow in the dark with their radiant reds, oranges, greens and yellows. The smell of freshly cut cilantro and ripe oranges can be quite overwhelming.

In this market, a five pound bag of juice oranges was quoted to me at 1500 pesos, a little over two dollars. A bag of potatoes of the same size, weighing about twice as much, was valued at the same price. It is easy to understand how every street vendor in greater Santiago finds it possible to turn a profit with suppliers like these.

The Vega also provides opportunities for the shopper who is not looking to supply an entire prison with squash. In the center of the produce enclave, a row of vendors sell every fruit imaginable (and some unimaginable, like avocados the size of volleyballs) by the kilo as well as individually.

The fall season is now ending in the southern hemisphere, so the apples, quinces, parsimmons and pears are outstanding right now. Oranges, grapefruits and other winter fruits are beginning to show promise. In the summertime, the Vega would feature a different selection of seasonal goodies: one could expect to see peaches, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, cherries and papayas during North American winters.

The other side of the sensory wonder of the place is the pervasive. To get to the market, one rides through neighborhoods with dilapidated buildings and deserted lots, homeless people and stray dogs. It is not uncommon to see one-legged, one-armed and blind men lying down in the shade in the market, begging. Stray dogs are everywhere, and the faces of homeless and disabled people of all ages can be upsetting. It is unadvisable to walk around speaking English or flashing pictures. The Lonely Planet includes no mention of this market.

That being said, there is a very amiable feeling to the Vega. The men playing soccer in the middle of a street of pears seemed are laughing and smiling. Towards the back of the market, rows of fruit break down into a giant parking lot, where smaller vendors sell their harvest of carrots or celery out of the backs of their trucks. One gets the feeling that they all know each other well, as they pass their afternoons trying to stay out of the sun, gossiping, and perhaps selling or trading some of the veggies they brought.

It costs 1000 pesos, almost two dollars, to drive into the market. This is the preferred method for street vendors, restaurant owners and institutional shoppers, who really are buying fifty pound bags of onions. Taxis drive through the market loaded with tomatoes or pears, their payload tied to the roof. The market is free to the pedestrian.

Walking the streets of the city of fruit can be a surreal experience. It is the only market of its kind in Chile, at least ten times the size of Santiago’s second biggest market, La Vega Chica in the Recoleta area.

Confronted with mountains of beautiful produce, I wonder if Chile isn’t some kind of Eden, where every seed thrown out the window of a speeding bus becomes a tree. The evidence of the fecundity of the Chilean soil stacked in front of me, I turn around to see homeless men begging for food. The Vega Lovalledor juxtaposes bounty and scarcity. Somewhere on the spectrum of pity, fear, awe and delight, each visitor must decide where to fall.