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Thursday, 12 April 2007

Flea Market Pup

Written by Kip Sikora
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truckI 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.

Following a dimly lit descent to Oswaldo's place through cornfields and steep footpaths, we found his house dark and lifeless. We momentarily worried we were late and had somehow missed him, but then Vince asked the time. About four minutes after four, I said. Never, not once, in the history of Ecuador, had anybody been late four minutes after they were supposed to have arrived. Nothing happens on time in Ecuador. Tardiness is so ingrained in the culture that la hora Ecuatoriana' refers to the lax approach taken toward time. The Economist even referenced the expression in an article on Ecuadorian banana exportation, claiming the nonchalant attitude costs the country millions of dollars in lost contracts annually. Though equally improbable, perhaps they decided to leave early? Time, or rather the Ecuadorian perception of it, is nebulous, and although frustrating at times, like when 4 AM actually meant 5, it was equally refreshing having come from the overly time conscious culture of North America.

While we waited, I sat down in the dirt and made a cone shaped pile of sticks and little rocks, which Rue collided with in a spastic charge, scattering them across the porch. Vince found a rock and lit his first cigarette of the day. Although much maligned in the court of public opinion, the scent of second hand smoke on a cold morning is an odd source of transcendence in that it invokes images and visions on the canvas of my imagination. Thin bands of shape shifting smoke rose from the glowing tip of the burning tobacco, and passing through my nostrils, worked their chemical magic on whatever part of the brain links scent to sight. Images of a battlefield in the gray light of a foggy autumn sunrise appeared in my mind's eye. Trees, their branches bare, framed the morning fog in jagged forms, creating a monochromatic scene of abstract impressionism.

Walking the fine line between addiction and pleasure Vince took a final drag, tossed the butt into the dirt and mashed it out with his boot heel. Soon thereafter, the porch light flickered on and Oswaldo appeared. He introduced us to his wife and her mother, both of whom may have wondered why two gringos were voluntarily going to ride in the back of the truck all the way to Cuenca, but if they did, their placid faces revealed nothing.

Oswaldo climbed into the cab, his wife next to him on the bench seat and her mother on the far side, next to the passenger window. They all got in through the driver side, and walking around the front end of the truck, I understood why. The passenger door, slightly crooked and discolored, was sealed to the body of the truck by a thick vein of oxidized metal running along its borders. It had been welded shut. From the rear-view mirror dangled a small, homemade cross. It was simple, two twigs wrapped in twine to hold its form, but it was a genuine statement of faith. I constantly find myself wrestling with a perceived lack of purity in organized religion, but sincere gestures like that cross make me feel I am missing something in my skepticism. On the other hand, the glittery stickers and gaudy trinkets stuck to the bumpers and dashboard did not resonate with sincerity but a cheap commercialization of faith. They felt phony, like the chlorinated lazy river at a water park.

Vince and I climbed into the bed of the truck, took our places amongst the aforementioned cargo and the engine sputtered to life. The ride to Cuenca was uneventful. It was too loud, too early and too damn cold to talk, so I put on headphones and somehow fell asleep. The last thing I remember before dozing off was laughing about the lengths we had gone to save five bucks. When I woke, we were at the gates of the market, Rue was curled up inside Vince's jacket and I was covered in

We pulled into a side access lot, which was quickly filling with vehicular beasts of burden marked by the scars of lengthy service. Lumpish, hollow eyed ogres whose jagged rusty flesh, disfigured grills and snarling bumpers revealed the grueling reality of the road. Dangerously bald tires covered gnarled junkyard wheels, some attached with less than a full set of lug nuts. Bulldog-thick smoke stacks, dark with soot, rose skyward like caustic towers in a bleak industrial skyline. These anti-lungs coughed a final venomous cloud before coming to rest where they would remain until the close of the market that evening. Some would stay parked over night while others would begin the nocturnal crawl back to from where they came.

The dawn was a bluegrass shade of gray when we parted ways with Oswaldo. Cuenca sits in a slightly depressed valley, and the day was warming as we entered the market. It was an interesting time to be there because everybody was setting up shop. Movement. Men, women, little old ladies, even children were unloading trucks, heaving crates and large sacks of fruits and vegetables onto their shoulders, and hauling them off into the maze like interior of the market. We asked around where one might find turkey chicks and were led by a small, confident child into the maze of vendors.

The morning air smelled of dank, musty earth. It was the organic aroma of agricultural commerce, rich with reflection of the farming life. A life concerned not with things, but the cultivation of the earth. A life in which means to an end is not hours spent in a cubicle for the glory of glamorous status symbols, but seeds, soil and toil to ensure a good harvest to feed the mouths of family.

Crisscrossing the narrow walkways lined with vendors, we passed through the butcher market. Raw and uncensored, the immediacy of it grabbed me and I stopped to check out one of the many stalls. Blood and flesh scented the air. The slaughterhouse and the point of sale were one in the same; gone were the North American layers of insulation that sanitize and diffuse the grim aesthetic reality of what it means to be a carnivore.

meatIt was the smell of fresh death and it took me back to a day several months earlier during Peace Corps training when, for the first time in my life, I took an active part in the kill. I reasoned that, if I was going to eat meat, I had to participate in the entire process, not just the enjoyment of its cooked flavor. In one hand I took hold of a chicken by its neck and sawed across its tough throat with a serrated blade in the other. The bird gurgled and writhed. Blood flowed into an orange bucket on the ground. It dripped from the grooves of the blade, covering my hands. I had consciously taken a life. Although I did my best to give thanks for it and for the meat I would later eat, my mind darted from the blood, to the large dog standing near the bucket, anxiously awaiting its contents, to wondering what it would be like to die in such a manner. How pure was my gratitude if it was tarnished by lack of focus? I can't say for sure. What I do know is that the decision to slaughter my own meat that day was more symbolic than anything else, because although I have eaten animal flesh regularly since, I have not made it a point to slaughter my own. Not because killing was too much to handle, but because it is easier to buy meat wrapped neatly in plastic covered Styrofoam. Such are the walls of my own glass palace.

The breeze shifted direction, carrying the scent of blood, and my flashback, away with it, reinstating me in what was the moment. Working behind the counter were two men and a woman who, with a massive hatchet in her thick arms, butchered recently slaughtered livestock. A severed pig head sat on the counter next to a hanging scale, and next to that, was a small tail, apparently for sale. There is very little waste. Livestock represent a significant investment, and I really respected how people used the entire animal. I asked one of the guys how the curly appendage would be used and how much it cost. As he smiled, revealing a mouth full of jagged, brown teeth, a chunk of gristle fell from his cheek and into a small puddle of blood on the counter top. Soup, he said. 25 cents.

Two stalls down several ladies ran a comedor, or small restaurant. Zoning? Health codes? Hell no. At that point I had not been in Ecuador long enough to consider eating at the market, but later I came around and am oddly proud of having integrated to that degree. I learned that one way to really gain the respect of people is to eat whatever they offered. Nowhere does relativism thrive more than the taste buds, but eating what is shared by often very poor people means acknowledging a gesture of friendship. For example, grilled intestines: imagine slightly charred steak fat as bubble gum and you'll get an idea of its flavor and texture. Sure, it may leave you with explosive diarrhea, but it bridges the culture gap, builds trust and strengthens credibility.

Leaving the covered area that was the butcher market I walked outside into fresh air and saw Vince's 6'5" frame towering above several poultry pens and buckets filled with feed. It looked like he had found the turkeys. The large pens on the ground were filled with tiny chicks, ducks and cuyes. On a table, in a smaller cage, were more chicks, but also cats. That didn't seem like a good idea, but the lady running the show didn't see anything wrong with it. I still can't put my finger exactly on it, but something about keeping cats and chickens, predators and prey, in the same cage told me this lady may have a dog I would be interested in.

I asked her if she had any puppies and she reached down to grab a dirty rice sack. Untying the knot, she slung two black puppies from it and onto a table. Both were sad cases. They each looked around with confused, vacant eyes, but one was covered with ringworm and missing patches of fur. Clearly oblivious to the fact that he was on display, he flopped down, exposing a bloated stomach no doubt filled with worms and other parasites. Fleas milled about in what was left of his matted fur, and a crusty puss lined the bottom of his right eye. How much, I asked her. Twelve dollars. Twelve dollars? Look how sick he is, I said. You should pay me to take him or at least give him away.

Shopkeepers and artisans generally assume that gringos are wealthy tourists, and more often than not, they are right. However, since I was technically a resident of Ecuador, ostensibly working for the benefit of Ecuador, I didn't see myself as a tourist. I knew how much things were supposed to cost, and although paying a bit more at the market on account of this stereotype rarely bothered me, in this case, my understanding was stretched past its limit. Whereas price gouging was often subtle, say $1.25 versus $1.00 for a dozen apples, I knew that Ecuadorians rarely paid more than two dollars for a dog. From my point of view she was, at best, overcharging for damaged goods; she saw me as a rich tourist and told me so. Twelve dollars for a sick puppy? This gal was bold and seemed blatantly resentful of me. Fair enough, even logic and reason, especially the social manifestations of logic and reason, can be culturally relative.

We haggled a little more and she came down to ten, which was still too much. I tried to explain that the dog would probably end up dead if it weren't taken to a vet, but Ecuadorians have a remarkable ability to remain detached from animals and the humanitarian angle wasn't going to get me anywhere. I wasn't going to budge, so I thanked her and she scooped the pups back into the sack.

otisThat night I took some codeine cough syrup to nurse the burn of a nagging respiratory infection and dreamed about an orangutan falling out of a tree somewhere in Borneo. Perhaps it misjudged its leap from one branch to another. Perhaps the landing branch was rotted and weak. These things happen. Upon impact, the hairy brown body morphed into a black puddle, which soaked into the jungle floor. When I woke, I decided it was a sign I should buy the dog. I caught a taxi to the market and found the lady with the sack. Still covered in ringworm and still confused he tumbled onto the metal table. Picking him up by the scruff of his neck he yawned, and in wagging his tail, I became aware of a detail I had overlooked the day before. The tuft of white at the tip of his tail, the white socks on his feet and the inverted pentagonal white patch on his chest contrasted with his otherwise black fur, thus mirroring the color scheme of Saraguro traditional dress. In the end, I was hooked by the highly subjective interpretation of details and opiate induced dreams. After another round of haggling, she came down to a reasonable price; I paid five bucks for him and named him Otis.

Vince's turkeys, he ended up with four of them, didn't fare so well. Three starved to death and the survivor didn't exactly fatten up. All things considered, however, it probably made for a more accurate portrayal of that fabled first Thanksgiving. Despite the generous gifts from their Native American neighbors, Pilgrims, or rather their birds, didn't benefit from factory farm growth hormones.

Rue was lost while in the care of some neighbors in Tuncarta. Vince went to the states for a couple of weeks, and when he returned, she was gone.

Otis was a great dog, loyal to the point of co-dependency. I cured his ringworm with iodine and a bright yellow, sulfur based paste, which suffocated the fungus but left him with equally bright yellow spots where it had been applied. Eventually his fur grew back and he was no worse for the wear. I taught him to howl and to come to a whistle. If he was within an earshot, he came full bore until he found me. He woke me up two or three minutes on either side of 6:17 every morning, and came with me to the schools where I taught. Living alone in a remote village, in a mud house thousands of miles from home was intense, and never before had I felt the truth of ‘man’s best friend’ so acutely. The community came to associate me with his constant companionship, and like all good dogs, he saw me through dark hours of anxiety and loneliness.

Sure, he did the kinds of mischievous things all pups do. He was fond of cow hooves. Not the neatly packaged kind, but the freshly severed, bloody kind, and he had an uncanny knack for finding them. On three or four occasions he raided the neighbors cuy pen, feasting on cuyes and rabbits. Each time I paid them for their animals, and I pretended to be mad at him, but he knew it was an act. Each time they threatened to poison him, but I knew as long as I paid them for their loss it was an idle threat. One night he destroyed a beautifully handmade headdress given to my landlords as a gift by friends in the Amazon. There was no pretending that night, but bygones were soon bygones, and I did my best to forget about the luxuriously colored crown of rare feathers he had torn to pieces. My best memories, however, are the countless afternoons and miles we logged in the mountains behind my house.

It was during these treks that he acquired his most memorable nickname. He wasn't a swimmer, but streams, puddles and ditches filled with water really flipped his switch. Without warning he would take off as if shot from a cannon, plowing through mud, sand, cow patties, flimsy fences, whatever was in his path, to reach the water on the other side. His energy was boundless, unrefined, and such reckless abandonment eventually earned him the title of Andean Cannonball. Chasing sheep and harassing cattle also lit the cannonball fuse, but he learned to be cautious around livestock after several close encounters with hooves and horns.

taita danielI went to meet my mom in Quito and when I got back to Saraguro, my gut told me something was wrong when he didn't come bounding to the shrill call of the whistle. I set out on foot to look for him and, meeting one of my best friends in the road, was greeted with deflating news. Taita Daniel, forged by 70 years of hard living, told me Otis had been hit and killed by a car while I was away. I broke down in tears, and what amazed me was that he was crying as well. Not because of Otis, but in reaction to my sadness. I will never forget that.

I finished my time in Saraguro, but it wasn't quite the same without Otis. Though gone in physical form, the Andean Cannonball still roams the night. Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the sky for a reason, and it is perhaps there where his dog soul, along with countless others, dwells. He wasn't meant to leave the Andes and was perhaps reborn alongside 500-year-old trees in the realm of the cloud forest spirits. Maybe he went straight to Hell on account of killing those cuyes and floppy eared bunnies. Whatever the case may be, he was too loyal to be gone for good, and I know I will find him again one day, somewhere every bit as unlikely as a rice sack in Ecuador.

©Kip Sikora

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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