“To Los Frailes Beach???”
While downshifting a gear to a cruising pace, every three-wheeled rickshaw driver asked me the same question. While taking a tour of the coast in a spectacular dual toned rickshaw piqued my interest, what was more appealing was watching them go by. The plethora and odd arrangement of decals was mind boggling; dripping flames, cartoon characters, sports logos, marijuana leaves, Jesus heads, and batman-shaped windows, tinted in black plastic to hide the backseat passengers. A slight squint in the eyes and shake of the head was understood as a no thanks. It never hurts to ask I suppose.
No, today I couldn’t be distracted by water and beaches. I had my fun the day before, peering into the strange obsessive sex lives and ritualistic ways of blue footed boobies. These birds were more obsessed with mating than a class of high school boys. Where there was a female, a male was standing obnoxiously in front of her, flaunting his beautiful blue feet by raising one foot and then the other. The female didn’t seem to pay any attention; however she was beyond shallow, eventually choosing the male whose feet were the richest in azure hue. There were many duos between males involving lifting their sharp pointed bills toward the sky and blowing out a high pitched whistle, while outstretching their wings, frantically attempting to display their dominance.
I never saw a female pick a winner, but I did see many soon-to-be mothers incubating their eggs. This was interesting as well, as instead of laying her eggs in a nest, she would defecate in such extreme quantities, that essentially a nest was created of guano. This protected her eggs from bugs and made her nest visible from above.
Off in the ocean waters, you could see blue footed boobies dive bombing straight into the ocean, funneling through the water and devouring off-guard fish. As intense as they were, their lives were short lived. Dive bombing into the ocean blue slowly destroyed their eyesight, leading to an eventual heart-stopping suicide involving a cliff wall or tree.
Today was an unusual day. In the wee hours of the morning, Brad rolled out of bed without me, and ventured off to catch the early bus to Guayaquil in search of a brake master cylinder. For the second time since our trip started, Brad and I were separating for more than the length of an average 9 to 5 work day. This used to be the norm five days a week, now one day apart seemed like infinity. I was left to fend for myself on the beaches of Puerto Lopez.
Nervously, I set out to the market with a simple task for the day, a photographic challenge if you will. The challenge was given to me by a friend; take photos of cooks preparing their food. Easy enough, if you remove from the equation the part where I am shy and horrendous at the Spanish language.
Like many markets, it was a few blocks from the restaurantes turisticos, tour agencies and typical souvenir shops selling woven baskets, sarongs, and keychains. This one was a fabulous open air market, with a few messy but organized comedores. Under a tarped area, dozens of plastic tables and chairs were sprawled out, no clear distinction between one joint to the next except for what kind of salsa sat as the centerpiece. No chalkboards or menus identified the meal of the day; you just had to sit down and wait for the news. It didn’t really matter anyway, they were all nearly identical. Women were surrounded by pots and pans, pushing out food in courses: a brothy soup, then a typical plate of meat, rice, lentils, and plantain chips or patacones, and lastly a cup of juice.
Around the corner, under corrugated metal roofs, produce was sprawled out. Chamomile flowers were in bundles and women sat on buckets shelling peas, surrounded in a pyramid of colors.
One young shop worker, blinged out in t-shirt imprinted with a faux diamond necklace, flexed his biceps at me as I bought a bundle of spinach reminiscent of a pile of wilted weeds. While flashing a grin, he reported, “Spinach is very good for you. I eat it every day because it makes me VERY strong”. Yes, he looked just like the Latin American version of Popeye.
One of the things I love most about Latin Americans is their incredible creativity. If you can’t afford a fence, make a wall of tumbleweeds and branches to keep the sheep in. If you don’t have a car, chop a rusted out 40-year old bike in half and replace the front with a huge cart and two wheels. No need for handlebars, just grab the front of your cart and start the thigh burning motion of moving the mass forward. These utilitarian bikes (and motorcycles if you had the cash) were second in popularity to the rickshaws. They were loved and used for every perceivable task: delivering propane tanks, glass bottles, moving garbage, carrying people, and selling food. Each one was customized a bit in layout, but the food stands were generally half tabletop and half grill, sometimes with a fancy striped patio umbrella; for ambiance I would imagine.
As evening approached, I left the market with a bag full of food: chorizo, coconut balls, mashed balls of cooked plantain, fry bread filled with cheese, and a few pinches more of confidence than when I started the day. Task accomplished.
The following day, with my honey back at my side, we cruised on out of Ecuador and into Peru. As we wound through the mountains, I spotted a pig dressed as superman. He surely would have tripped on his plaid, baby blue cape if he was skipping along to a mud puddle. However he sat propped up on the table with his eyes closed next to a black charred wok, filled with delightfully juicy chunks of pork.
“I’ll have some pig please”.
The woman lifted the cape of the pig and sliced off a chunk of its back, scooped a few chunks of pork from the wok, and layered the plate with corn, pork, and onion. It was heaven, I promise.
As we continued down the road, I fed Brad like a baby, placing chunks of meat into his open mouth as he drove. As we continued on, my mind drifted to how at home you’d never find the food so exposed. Our meat is cut behind swinging closed doors, packaged in rectangular foam plates, wrapped in saran wrap and marked with an expiration date. On more than one occasion in Latin-America I’ve watched a family take the life of one of its livestock. To them, it was an occasion and a moment to celebrate their fortune, no foam rectangles or saran wrap in sight.
As we crossed into Peru, things got hectic fast. Nacho was like the white sheep being funneled down the killing chute, engulfed in a mass of pedestrians, rickshaws, carts, and stands.
The following day we were heat exhausted and starving, driving through the vast desert and nothingness of Northern Peru.
We spotted a comedor in the distance. As we sat down on the wooden bench, a single slab of jerky-like meat wavered in the air, hanging from a bare rusted wire strung up between two beams. Carne seca: it’s what’s for lunch.