Street Vendors in Copacabana, Brazil - Logical or Illogical?

by Mdomseattle on February 3, 2012

Let's start this off with an exercise in word associations. I will write some words and you think of the first thing that comes to mind. Ready, Go:


Did anyone say Onion?
What about Potato? 

Next word: 


Who thought lemon?

Now let's look at these words in a Brazilian setting, because the associations that people make would be quite different from those that Americans make.

When you go to the store looking for an item, you generally go to the section of the store that has similar things or things that complement the item you are looking for.  In U.S. supermarkets or farmers'
markets, when you are looking for garlic, you would probably go to the section that has potatoes, onions, or other root vegetables, or perhaps to the spices section.

If you were looking for limes or lemons, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to think that they would be next to the other citrus fruits or sold at a fruit stand. And if you were going to buy some envelopes, your initial thought might be to look near the paper, school supplies, or books section of a store. Right?

I realized once arriving in Brazil that my gut reactions often lose validity in a foreign country. Generally, things make sense to my American train of thought, but then, every so often, I hit a roadblock
of cultural logic. In Brazil, many people, maybe even most people, go to weekly outdoor markets to buy fruit and veggies, eggs and cheese, poultry and meat and small kitchen implements. Although it is generally
true that fruit is sold with fruit, veggies with veggies, and meat with poultry and eggs, I began to realize that there was some logic that made absolutely no sense to me, and therefore, it was impossible
for me to find where things were located.

In Brazil, heads of garlic and bags of cut and peeled garlic cloves are ALWAYS sold alongside bags of limes and bags of passion fruit. What? Huh? Let me say that again. Garlic, for Brazilians, is associated with passion fruit and limes, not with onions.  In fact I have gone to several of the weekly open-air markets around the area, and I have never seen garlic being sold by any of the regular produce stands. It is always sold by men who roam the market carrying boxes filled with garlic and sacks of 6 limes or 3 passion fruits. Logically, stationary vendors never sell limes or passion fruit either.

Why do Brazilians sell these three products together? Is it because all three are light and easy to carry?  Because they certainly do not combine to make food. I was being pestered by a lime vendor today. He was saying that I should buy some limes because they are so cheap. Couldn't I buy just one bag? I asked him why I should buy them, what I should do with them.

I was thinking that maybe I had missed the reason why limes are so widely sold here. There are few lime-based main dishes, so the only uses I can think of would be for making juice, garnishing other beverages or foods, or making desserts. I eagerly awaited the lime-seller's reply, wishing for some flash of insight into Brazilian culture, hoping to learn some new recipe that I could show off upon my return to the States.

His reply?  "You could put them in a fruit bowl and they would look pretty." Thanks Lime-Man.

Rio's streets overflow with (mostly illegal) vendors who almost always sell the same combinations of products. The plethora of food vendors sell everything from caramel corn to tapioca pancakes to boiled
cornmeal wrapped in corn husks - salty or sweet, your choice - to fresh churros filled with dulce de leche.  Others sell pirated video games, computer programs, DVDs and CDs - 1 for $5 Reais or 3 for $10
Reais (USD$5). People walk along the beach all day, every day, selling a wide selection of beach clothing, bikinis, henna tattoos, shrimp-on-a-stick, empanadas (2-inch chicken pot pies), acai fruit
smoothies, cheese-on-a-stick toasted to order on a portable grill ...pretty much, if you can carry it, it is sold on the beach.  But beyond these three categories of vendors, you have a whole other category of "everyday stuff" vendors. Some sell household stuff like outlet extenders, batteries and combs. Others have women's underwear, nightgowns and shirts, or zippered plastic cosmetic bags, purses and

Out of all the vendors I have seen on the street, though, my personal favorite is the woman who sells the following combination of objects: single airmail envelopes, cardboard nail files, and thread. Envelopes, nail files, and thread?  Huh? This is another combo that stumps me almost as much as garlic, limes and passion fruit. Who sat down one day and thought that they could make a lot of money selling
these three things together? I pass by this woman 4 times per week and I always look at her, hoping that her logic will eventually become clear to me.

It may never become clear to me, because I am not Brazilian. But I will continue to hunt for obscure combinations of street vendor products in hopes that one day someone will tell me why they go

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