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TO MARKET, TO MARKET

During the early Spanish colonization of Mexico, Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote, "In three days we obtained more than six hundred axes and were well satisfied, thinking they were made of debased gold. The Indians were equally content with their glass beads, but it was a poor bargain for both, as the axes turned out to be copper and the beads were worthless."

Bargaining still goes on in Mexico. But now part of the reward is the market itself _ the excitement of a carnival; the color of a Diego Rivera mural.

Activity begins early when vintage pickups _ loaded with squawking chickens, squealing pigs and garden produce _ clatter along the cobblestone streets, their drivers jockeying for places to unload. Burros wait patiently under the jacaranda trees, scrawny gray legs beneath mountains of wicker chairs, clay pots and twig brooms. Musicians ride up, bass viols and guitars precariously balanced on their bicycle handlebars. Then come balloon vendors, puppeteers, shoeshine boys.

You won't have any trouble finding the market places, for usually they are located in or near the town plaza. When they aren't, anyone you meet will be able to point you toward el mercado. Market day is often the highlight of the week throughout Mexico, with every village and many larger cities setting aside one, two or more days for the celebration of commerce.

And each market offers a different experience.

At the bustling Saturday market in Oaxaca, you can buy everything you might (or might not) ever need. Huge mounds of shoelaces bask like tiny snakes in the sun. Garlands of red, green and yellow chiles are festooned above piles of cheap rayon underwear in the popular 1930s color called tea rose. Machetes, stilettos, embroidered blouses, huarache sandals and baskets share the makeshift stalls with the black and green glazed pottery for which the region is famous.

But even more fascinating than the merchandise are the merchants and their customers: Tehuana women in white petticoats and brightly colored skirts; Mixe wearing coiled black yarn headdresses and full-length tunics of greenish-gray; Yalalog women with crosses on heavy hand-wrought silver chains dressing up their white cotton huipiles.

The Patzcuaro market, located in the 16th-century colonial town on the shore of one of Mexico's loveliest mountain lakes, is presided over by Tarascan women in voluminous pleated skirts of homespun. An amazing array of rebozos, copper plates and pitchers and papier mache figures are for sale at the lowest prices you'll find for those items. You can buy hand-carved boxes and lacquered plates at bargain prices, too.

Taxco's Sunday market spills down narrow hillside streets from the magnificent church of San Sebastian and Santa Prisca. All along the twisting walkways women sit on blankets, selling primitive cloth dolls, tinwork and hand-hammered silver.

The market at Jocotepec, in the state of Michoacan, features leather goods _ belts and billfolds at one-third of U.S. prices.

Mexican handicrafts date back to the pre-Spanish years, but with the Spanish conquest, new materials and techniques led to expanded art forms. Whole villages specialize in a particular craft. There are towns of violin- or guitar-makers, of master weavers, of silversmiths and potters. The crafts you'll be able to buy at the lowest prices are those which are made in or near the village where they are sold.

With El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead, which is actually observed two days _ Nov. 1 and 2), a macabre assortment of merchandise appears. Blending an important pre-conquest feast day and the Christian All Souls Day, the holiday is celebrated with tinsel- and sequin-decorated sugar and chocolate skulls, candy gravestones and miniature coffins from which death peers out whenever a string is pulled.

Christmas brings pinatas and playthings _ tiny tea sets and wicker doll furniture, brightly painted wooden animals, tin soldiers and spinning tops.

Though the kinds of crafts vary with the region and season, it's those elements common to all Mexican markets which give them the flavor of fiesta. Music is everywhere, from mandolins, marimba groups, etc. The music isn't always good, but it is always there.

At every market there is one entertainer-merchant who is sure to draw the crowds. She looks like one of Macbeth's witches. But instead of one large pot, dozens of small clay ones surround her as she sits on a blanket. In the pots are desiccated lizards, chicken heads, powders and potions guaranteed to cure everything from thin blood to unsatisfactory love life.

Despite the enchantment of the marketplace, be wary of eating its food vendors' temptations. Pushcarts brimming with mangoes and pineapples carved into fanciful flowers; fresh oysters in the shells; cobs of yellow corn roasting on a grill become almost irresistible. But because of our North American stomachs, it's wise to forgo these pleasures and eat instead at restaurants and hotel dining rooms.

Freelance writer Connie Emerson lives in Reno, Nev.

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