Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Polvos Azules

A day or so into Liz and the kids' trip - on the way, in fact, to the Centro- we stopped for an almost obligatory shopping excursion in Polvos Azules.

Polvos Azules owes its name, which means blue powders, to Colonial-era merchants who plied their trade on a street along the Rimac River next to where the Presidential Palaca now stands. After Independence the place name stuck though the blue powders market was long gone.

In time the area was made into a parking lot, which in turn was by the 1980s taken over by street merchants, encouraged in part by the mayor who wanted them off the streets. Thus, Polvos Azules became a warren of informal merchant stalls and peddlers, a magnet for petty criminals, and one of the busiest markets in all of Lima. The very same economic economic and social crises which had pushed so many into street sales pushed an even larger number to seek the bargains to be had in Polvos Azules, where almost anything could be found, from Chinese tweezers or ponytail holders, to sportswear, car parts, and stereos. Some of it was name-brand, some of it fake, some legitimate, some contraband, some stolen, some a mixture of all of the above, but all of it at dirt floor prices and handed over with a big dose of caveat emptor.

Eventually, however, City Hall decided that it wanted the merchants out of Polvos Azules as well. People had tired of years of mismanagement of the city and unkept promises to "reclaim" downtown. Moreover, Lima's historic downtown had been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and the presence of Polvos Azules and the pressure its tide of humanity put on the city centre were a bit of an embarrassment.

Faced with the threat of eviction, and after a number of fights with the police and a still-unsolved New Years Day fire, the merchants of Polvos Azules offered to buy the ground they were squatting on. The City declined and the merchants were obliged to look elsewhere, eventually finding an unused warehouse along the Paseo de la Republica.

In 1997, sixteen years after its founding, the street market of Polvos Azules moved indoors, its remaining 1500 merchants moving their shops with all their goods and the name Polvos Azules. The purchase went foul and years later they are still in court battling embezzlement, but together the merchants had resisted forcible eviction from the Centro, had raised the US$ 5 million to buy the property, had saved their market, and had reason to be proud. They celebrated the event with a parade and painted the building blue.

Today, Polvos Azules has a web site and a public relations department, but it is still a warren of small shops, spread over three floors and though not as wild and woolly as before it still has a slight air of wildness about it. It is a cacophony of sounds -reggaeton, cumbia, salsa, huayno, videogame sound effects, human voices- all competing for one's attention. A million smells -leather (real and fake), electronics, sweat- assault your senses, only to get worse at lunchtime.

Most importantly, it continues to offer bargains, and whether they like to admit it or not, people of every class pass through Polvos Azules at one time or another. There you can find shoes, clothes, Chinese MP3 players or TVs for a fraction of the price of a departments store, have the voltage changed on foreign appliances or your stereo repaired, you can buy cell phones, music CDs, game systems, even DVDs of films not yet released into theaters for a dollar apiece.

It is an experience, to be sure, and one we never miss out on during our visits to the city and this time was no exception. We came out with a repaired CD player, several pairs of new shoes, shoulder bags, and several counterfeit CDs which were so good that I thought they were legitimate but used ones until I found that the label had a different one printed on the reverse and the tracks are mislabeled when played on Windows Media Player. What did I say about about caveat emptor...?

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