I watched helplessly as the coins tumbled down, slipping through the crevices between potatoes. Their pings signaled their arrival at the bucket’s bottom. I had been hasty, sorting through a handful of change in order to settle up for a bag of green beans. Now I stood embarrassed and unsure as to how to proceed.
I have a history of inelegance. Raised sidewalks are landmines to my shuffling pace, sending ripples up my person in a comical display. J and I joke about finally getting it over with when I inevitably spill on myself during a meal. For me, black clothing is not only fashion, but camouflage.
It was three coins. A quarter and two smaller ones I hadn’t been able to make out before they disappeared beneath the tubers. In the states, retrieving them would have been more trouble than they were worth, but while Ecuadorians use the American dollar as their currency, its value is significantly inflated this side of the equator. This is especially true for the indigenous people of the Andes, of which many of the stall owners were. To go digging through the produce would be crude, but leaving the money there was offensive. It was almost as much as the entire cost of our purchase.
The young woman working the stall dug through the pail and handed me back the coins with seemingly no intention of shaming me. The kindness was unexpected. Relieved, I fumbled through a thank you.
We went to the market and secured a week’s worth of groceries for around $15. The market is one of several examples around town of an amenity that is few and far between in the cities of the US. Growing up in Cleveland, I was spoiled by the West Side Market. It wasn’t until I explored more of the country that I truly understood how rare a gem it was.
The key to any open market is to do a pass or two through the stalls and stands, making note of attractive wares or friendly vendors. The combination of the two creates a Pavlovian response that’s tough to handle on an empty stomach; the hum of people, the kaleidoscope of smells and sounds, and the never-ending treasure hunt to find the best produce at the best price. Find a quiet place out of the big middle and the slow rush of people, settle on a strategy and then- fill your baskets to the brim.
Feria Libre’s bustle would be intimidating even were we not foggy from the previous evening’s aguardiente overindulgence. The market occupied more area than we had comprehended based on our brief walk through its fringes that first day. Its maze of rows seemed to lack any consistent order. Neither of us is particularly fond of shopping, and paired with a stunted command of the language, we were trying not be overwhelmed.
We had previously made a pilgrimage to the local Supermaxi to procure a pot and some staples. We crossed Rio Tomebamba, its banks vibrant, colored with people tending to laundry as their children whirled on the playground nearby. Past the curling streets of El Batán, just North of the neighborhood, the Supermaxi sat anchoring a very North American looking strip mall.
We had cased the scene, and the scene was expensive. That American brands would be provided at a premium was predictable, but many of the other markups exceeded our expectations. Frozen foods were twice their cost in America. Canned vegetables were more expensive than fresh. But the store’s liquor offerings were exceptionally outrageous. A bottle of Jose Cuervo had been priced at $35, a bottle of whiskey at $140. Hypnotiq radiated blue from behind a pane of locked glass. We wondered at how long it had been there, musing at its irrationally assigned value.
The market had been desolate but for a few gringos ambling about. A dour retiree stood in the checkout line clutching a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken. While we appreciated the Supermaxi’s convenient proximity, it was sterile and sad. The ample parking and neat, wide aisles contrasted with the messy city outside. Walking out into the night had felt like waking out of a dull dream. We were all too excited to trade future experiences for visits to the open-air market.
We stopped at a stall where a small woman held court over a sea of carbohydrates. Immense waxed bags were situated around her, filled with dry lentils, rice, beans, and every imaginable shape of semolina. She asked us where we were from as she doled out two kilos of pasta and I did my best to answer back in Spanish. Reaching for the words needed to construct a simple sentence was a humbling experience and I apologized for the tortured response delivered so slowly. Again, my struggle was waved away without apparent thought of having suffered an inconvenience.
Not wanting our lack of familiarity with the local produce to inhibit our cuisine, we decided to purchase some tomate dulce (also called tomate de arbol). As the name suggests, the aerial bomb shaped fruit grows on trees, and though it does slightly resemble a tomato, their relation ends there. The tough skin houses muscular flesh, similar to a mango, but with the delicate flavor and ripe acidity of a nectarine. We ate it raw, only to later find it to be most commonly consumed cooked into a jam or blended into juice with sugar and water.
We stopped at a panaderia, eager to reward the day’s efforts with pastry. Here we encountered a problem that was to become a regular issue for us. Change is not to be expected when dealing with businesses in Ecuador. It isn’t that they won’t give it, but that they rarely have the ability to break any bill larger than a dollar. Our chocolate empanadas came to thirty cents, but the register was unable to change the five dollar bill I had handed the cashier. With some effort, she was eventually able to find enough to accommodate the purchase, or close to it. Checking my coins I realized I had been shorted by a dime, but was too uncomfortable with my level of Spanish to attempt the depth of conversation needed to rectify the error.
The day was eye-opening and thrilling and humiliating and frenetic. I returned home eager to relieve myself of the weight of our haul and create some distance between myself and an afternoon of battered Spanish. I told J we would need to practice saying, “Disculpe, más despacio, por favor,” before our next trip to the market. We should commit the phrase to memory. Make it our mantra.
I give our interactions for the day a solid C-. People were friendly and eager to help. We shared smiles and laughter, despite our remedial language skills. Only a fraction of the market was explored and it was late in the day. We’re looking forward to digging deeper, as it encompasses a large and irregular city block. The colors and smells are amazing. The produce is incredible.
We bought some fresh rolls from a nearby panaderia and the bread is both rustic and refined – sort of like a rough and ready croissant. The Ecuadorians certainly love their sugar, but baked goods are not the questionably spongey and corn-syrup laced affairs you find in the supermarket aisles of the US. Goldilocks would be delighted at the level of sweetness.
We stopped off at the bodega for beers, which resulted in the minus part of the transactions for the day, but we were nonetheless successful in our mission of acquiring alcohol. The shop owner’s patience for our linguistic fumbling isn’t an issue, but her line of questioning tends to throw us for a loop. As I’ve been learning Spanish, I’ve built scenarios in my head as mental exercises. I can understand extensive directions to the bathroom, how to find the police, what day a restaurant opens, where the parrot’s pants are located, and any number of things that almost never take place in daily life.
It’s the regional turns on common phrases that throw us completely. Sometimes deciphering how much change we need to harvest for our purchases is avoided by handing over a fiver and crossing our fingers. Just like anywhere else, convenience stores are breezy affairs, and $2.75 in clipped English in a 7-11 translates in an Ecuadorian bodega to “what the hell did she just say oh god I’m so nervous I don’t want to fuck this up oh shit her eyes are boring a hole into my skull and waiting for an answer fuck fuckity fuck fuck” and so on.
While assigning letter grades to each of our excursions occurred organically, the expanding of our palates was intentional. J had suggested we purchase some new, unfamiliar fruit with each trip, and even before our moderate success with the tomate dulce, I was enthusiastic to broaden the experiment.
Our first day we had witnessed a toddler joyously cramming what I thought to be whole dates into her mouth. Our next market trip we procured a bag containing 50 or so of the small fruit for $1. Jambuls, as we learned they were called, are small and oblong in shape. The fruit is similar to that of a plum, its sweetness dependant on its stage of maturation.
Next, we tried granadillas, a fruit outwardly resembling an orange topped with a short stem. The firm shell must be cracked open, which can be done with one’s hands, to reveal black seeds suspended in a gelatinous purple goo. The seeds cling to a thick mottled pith and can be sucked out or removed with a spoon (for those of us that are prone to spills). The texture was like chia seed pudding, the seeds contributing a satisfying crunch, and the flavor was shockingly sweet, reminiscent of violet rock candy.
As our food stores depleted, I would become increasingly excited for a trip to the market and a chance to further explore Feria Libre. A magic feeling greeted us as we examined the bottom of the fruit bowl. The next short journey to the market was a sunny delight, and we grabbed everything we would need for the week for about $17. Our exchanges were a solid B/B-.
As our adventures in the city accumulate, the language barrier crumbles almost imperceptibly. The rewiring of our brains seems to have an effect on our communication skills across the board. Even on days that seem to drag, words and action flow across the page. Despite the looming language barrier, the relative isolation of Cuenca, and the fear of being outside of one’s comfort zone, I feel energized and creative. We’re both starting to find a rhythm to the work of writing and actually feeling like we’re making headway, rather than aimlessly banging away at the keyboard.
We tried other delicacies with similar success. Moras, an Andean strain of blackberries produced a tart shrub which we were able to incorporate with the aguardiente. But more surprising than any of the unusual flavors or textures was the presence of pits. As Americans, seeds and pits are bred out of our food, and modified more forcefully when the situation necessitates. During my restaurant career, I would have to alert guests to any pits in their dish. Seedless has become the expectation. And it isn’t only with produce that Americans are reluctant to work for their food. Wings and ribs are available boneless. We filet our fish, often removing the skin. We pluck the flesh from our turkeys, then reconstitute it into turkey-shaped salami to be sliced and packed into sandwiches. The jambul, its firm fruit tethered to an olive-like, central pit, could never compete in the American market against the banana or strawberry.
Bakeries are frequent sights in Cuenca; we have no less than six within two blocks of our apartment. On a recent walk we came across one we had missed and it puts all the other bakeries to shame. The quality and selection are staggering, and we’ve enjoyed discovering the anise or marmalade or salty cheese within each new find. We fill our basket with all manner of pastry, utterly ridiculous amounts of food, only to have our tab come to $3. We leave giddy, as though we’ve gotten away with something, and in a way, we have. The bakery does a robust business and has become a place we can depend on to change out our twenties. We tell ourselves it’s a convenient way to break our bills. You can justify a lot when traveling. In truth, our spoils never last us as long as they should. We don’t give A’s for effort.
I read a news article about a man from Mt. Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, beating his 4-month old to death, then another about the bizarre dissolution of a Pittsburgh restaurant delivery service and the owner’s public retaliation against former employees. I had mistaken feelings of doubt for homesickness, but I realized that those stories are largely emblematic of the ugliness and mediocrity I had largely chosen to ignore while living in Pittsburgh. To truly enjoy where you are, you have to strike a bargain with the place you live. Realists in the service industry will tell you that there is no perfect job. As wonderful as a place may be, there is no paradise, not as long as there are seasonal swells in beauty and temperature. After you leave those places you negotiated with, those bargains sometimes look a little crooked.
We are making this happen and it’s something I want to continue fighting for. I feel like I’ve given myself permission to do great things here in Cuenca, and wherever else we may roam. I am on pins and needles waiting to see if we want to make a go of it down here. I think I can only handle so many question marks. I need the catharsis of certainty, some roadsign for our travels.