The wash of a speeding two-ton, twenty wheeled semi trailer at ten paces can rock you back on your heels. It’s 90 degrees in the shade. You could fry an egg on the black asphalt. And there you are on the roadside hawking empanadas, sweets, avocados, fruit, water, or anything else you think has a prayer of selling today.
You’re one of the thousands of vendors who line the busy highways in central Chile every day. Some operate from a series of stalls on short pull offs. Some operate from a small shack a few paces from the road. Many set out hand painted signs in big black letters saying what and how much. Some work solo. Some in pairs, and some work with the whole family constellation.
Sooner or later, one of these vehicles is going to hit the brakes and pull over to buy what you're selling. Maybe it's this next car...or the next one...or the next one...or the next one...
Chilenos flock to the coast by the thousands during the summer. This is late January, equivalent to July in New England. Our VW Golf is doing 70 mph, heading north on Route 5, the meticulously maintained four-lane highway that runs up and down the spine of Chile.
There’s not much passenger rail service here (since Pinochet did away with trains during his tenure in office 1973-1990) and this perfectly level highway is full of massive semi trailers, commercial Pullman passenger buses, Citroens, Peugeots, Toyotas, and the occasional motorcycle that sounds like a honey bee on pure ethanol when it passes you doing eighty.
About a half hour before arriving at today’s destination, the sleepy Pacific seaside hamlet of Los Molles, the scrub scenery is blurring past, and we seem to be in the middle of nowhere.
Abruptly, the roadside comes alive. It appears that scores of vendors have been airdropped out of the blue and are on a mission. Every one of the vendors spread over the next ten miles is dressed in white. As soon as your vehicle appears as a dot on the horizon, they frantically wave white pom poms as if someone needs immediate medical attention.
"What’s going on here?" I ask my hosts Ricardo Ceriani and Susaan Straus.
"They’re selling dulces de La Ligua," Ricardo says.
I didn’t realize it but we were running the sweetest gauntlet in Chile. The town of La Ligua was miles away to the east. Lord knows how these vendors got here. There is no sign of car anywhere near any of the Frosties.
Ricardo slams on the brakes and pulls up in front of a tiny green and white sun canopy.
One of the two smiling women steps forward. With a delicate gesture, she removes a white towel from the top of a tan wicker basket and displays a collection of confections of several shapes and sizes.
"An assortment for my friend," he says, and hands the lady 2000 CLP (Chilean pesos). Using a plastic tong, she carefully fills a paper bag with goodies. I’m about to taste some of the most famous sweets in central Chile, Los Dulces de La Ligua (the sweets from La Ligua).
Wow, where to start! These are small, donut size goodies made with wafers and manjar (steamed condensed milk) covered in light as a cloud meringue, or cake and manjar topped generously with powdered sugar. At a bake sale in America, I can identify every item on the table. Not so here. The wafer and meringue sweets seem to weigh nothing and melt instantly in my mouth.
My favorite, I learn, is called a mantecados, a cone shaped baked treat filled with a paste of almonds and lard (don’t tell my PCP). My fingers are sticky and covered with powdered sugar within seconds.
Susaan says the sweets might be home made. Research that night reveals that there are nearly two dozen sweet making factories in La Ligua and a long history of how the sweets came to be associated with the small town miles away.
The presentation in a wicker basket is a tradition. The Public Health Service has issued an edict requiring acrylic boxes in favor of the traditional wicker but wicker carries the day today.
Photo courtesy comunidad.muchoviaje.com
The government requires the vendors to be licensed, and that they give receipts for each sale. The women will leave their positions when they’ve sold what they brought today. They may have made the items at home but more likely purchased from a local factory.
What drives roadside entrepreneurs like this? If I spoke fluent Spanish I might have learned the answer. Like many Americans, they may be doing this to supplement their income or they may be unemployed.
What is clear is that the oven like heat doesn’t deter them. All they have into this is their time and they’re willing to spend it any way they can to improve their economic situation. The beneficiaries today are motorists like us who buy their treats.
Photos by Paul Tamburello unless otherwise noted