I had decided against going to Cuenca, but then Vince told me he had just arranged a ride with his neighbor, Oswaldo, in the back of a vegetable truck leaving Saraguro at 4 AM the next day. He was heading there in search of a turkey chick, and had plans to fatten that bird for a home-style feast come Thanksgiving in the jungle. Turkeys are somewhat rare in Ecuador, but Oswaldo was bound for one of the larger markets in Cuenca, and it had been reported anything could be found there, save the homemade shotguns sold much further north in Saquisili.
Sights, sounds, movements, scents, colors and textures weave a detailed tapestry of sensory stimulation at these epicenters of commerce culture. Fruits, vegetables and fresh flowers, poultry, piglets, calves and cuyes, the Andean delicacy known as the guinea pig in the states, would be in abundant supply. Resembling an extraordinarily large hamster, these high-strung rodents are not kept as pets, but eaten on special occasions. The meaty hind legs and crispy little feet are quite tasty. Red meat, pork, and fish, puppies and kittens, pirated digital media and clothing, honey, butter, herbs and grains, pots and pans, and a slew of natural and not so natural remedies for any number of maladies would all be on proud display.
The snake oil salesmen are particularly interesting. Wearing headdresses synthetic feathers, they actually pitch a product called ‘manteca de culebra’, or snake oil. According to these costumed healers, their product cures anything from kidney infections to poor eyesight and impotence. Perhaps the power of medicine really does rest in faith of its curative properties, but given its North American cultural connotation of fraud, guys hawking snake oil never failed to make me laugh.
The amount of diversity in Ecuador is staggering, and as people come from great distance on the weekend to buy, sell and trade necessities, I hoped to experience the whole of its pulsing swirl. The journey there would be cold, but the idea of hurtling through the Andes in the back of a lumbering truck belching smoke and filled with empty crates, boxes, pallets, and feed sacks was too much to resist. Plus, it would save me a Lincoln on a bus ticket, which could then be spent on two or three good meals in the big city. I agreed to meet Vince at his place shortly after sundown and headed home for my hat, jacket, camera, and ipod.
Vince lived in the neighboring barrio of Tuncarta in a real nice two story, freshly painted house. The only drawback was the fat gap between his walls and roof. Whereas such a design might have been perfectly acceptable, desirable even, on the coast, the Sierran altitude ensured not a draft but an icy chill at night. In fact, the wind didn't have to howl, a purring breeze made that place feel like an igloo, and I was two jackets deep before we even left the house.
4 o'clock crept close, we gathered our bags and when we got to the door, Rue, Vince's pup was already there. She didn't have anything to carry, nor did she have to be coerced. You see, whereas we often found ourselves in vexing situations due to perceived cultural incongruities, dogs stand blissfully outside the realm of do's and don'ts depending on where you are. There are no norms, no relativistic pitfalls, no language barriers, and any dog anywhere slobbers, bounds and howls to ride in a truck. Rue was clearly not going to be the first exception to such a fundamental article in canine creed.