Monday, January 26, 2009

Riding the Porcelain Honda down the Avenue of Volcanoes

By Andrew

Compared with Buenos Aires, which is essentially a European city, Ecuador poses a worthy intestinal challenge. The food is exotically different, the hygiene rudimentary, and the water laced with hostile pathogens. Prominently displayed on the CDC fact sheet on Ecuador is a stark warning: "Do not eat food purchased from street vendors."

Being a stubborn family of limited imagination, we took this as a direct challenge. No sooner had we set down our luggage than we headed out the door on a gustatory tour of Rocafuerte Street.

We hadn't progressed more than 10 yards before we spied a vendor surrounded by a knot of laborers. Having finished a snack just 10 minutes earlier, Graham was understandably famished. He galloped across the street, peered into the vendor's pot, and uttered the one phrase that we have truly mastered: "Que es?" The answer, ceviche de chocho, helped us not a jot.

The pot was filled with what looked like mutant cannellini beans, while our knowledge of ceviche extended only to marinated, raw seafood. Raw. Street food. Sure, why not? The lady ladled some of the beans into a bowl, tossed them with a salsa of lime, cilantro, onion, and tomato, and topped it all with toasted kernels of corn. Only later did we learn that chocho is the bean of the Andean lupin. Whatever. It was very, very good.

At times, our family struggles with its table manners. When the food is both tasty and limited, however, it just gets plain ugly. Ravening dogs with a bratwurst make less noise than the snarling, snapping melee that ensued.

Pausing long enough to wipe some tomato off Katharine's ear, we zigged across the street to snag a couple of empanadas de viento, pastries that puff up like a balloon when they are fried. Topped with sugar and stuffed with a little queso tierno, they provided a delicious, greasy counter-balance to the acidic ceviche.

Back across Rocafuerte we went to the next vendor, who was tending a charcoal brazier. Wafting through the clear mountain air was the unmistakable aroma of grilled chicken feet. As owner of 30 chickens herself, Katharine is "the decider" on all matters fowl. She picked out the biggest patito, which was duly presented to her wrapped in a paper towel. Clutching this gnarled talon, she wandered down the street, nibbling absentmindedly. Dressed in her sober brown poncho, she looked like Madeline as conjured by Edgar Allen Poe. I half expected her to scratch her back with her snack.

Meanwhile, displaying admirable peripheral vision, Graham had flagged down a rotund indigenous woman laden with a huge tray of some sweet that resembled Great Stuff Foam Filler, albeit topped with raspberry sauce. It wasn't ice cream, it wasn't sabayon, it was... "Uno, por favor," said Graham, who at night dreams of waving fields of sugar cane. It was some kind of fluffy meringue, so sweet that I actually heard my molars scream.

We worked our way down Rocafuerte Street like pinballs, bouncing from one vendor to another, from one side of the street to the other: Pan chocolate, skewers of mystery meat, banana fritters, humitas (a type of tamale), on and on...

Just when it appeared we were losing steam, we chanced upon a juice joint that was cranking out freshly squeezed glasses of orange, pineapple, mango, passion fruit, carrot, coconut, plus a host of fruits we had never heard of. The first glass of maracuya was heaven, which prompted a second, followed by a glass of mango, then some carrot juice. After two months of all things beef, we wallowed in Ecuador's fruity goodness. In five minutes, we consumed more fruit than the average family consumes in a year. The quantity of fruit alone would have torpedoed the digestive tracts of most mortals, yet we pressed on.

During the course of our walk, Louise had spotted several vendors selling giant seed pods that were easily three feet long. Imagine a snap pea grown at Chernobyl and you get the picture. After a long discussion with the vendor that cast serious doubt on Louise's ability to work at the UN, we understood that we needed to break open the pod and suck on the seeds inside.

We spent the next half hour at home with knives, scissors, and various power tools before we cleaved our way through the pod's leathery hide. The black seeds, about the size of a New York cockroach, were couched in a feathery white fluff. Apparently, this was the good stuff. We each popped a seed into our mouths and sucked away. It wasn't bad--cotton candy meets vanilla pudding. Graham, Katharine, and I sucked one seed each, while Louise whomped into several more.

You have probably realized by now that our family has no business in a place like Las Vegas: We're not very good at playing the odds. In Russian roulette, for example, only one of six chambers is loaded with a bullet. In our street-food version of the game, we loaded our only chamber with a dozen culinary bullets. You do the math. From a hygiene perspective alone, we could just as easily have knelt and licked Rocafuerte Street.

It was only a matter of time before Houston was notified of a problem. And Louise, who is very competitive, had to be first. Between frequent trips to the bathroom, she reviewed her list of food suspects, eventually fingering the guaba seed pod, the only hermetically sealed food that we had consumed. Go figure.

Even if we hadn't hoovered up the better part of Rocafuerte Street, we knew this moment was coming. Before our trip began, Louise and I had pinpointed Ecuador as the country where our family would battle traveler's diarrhea, otherwise known as Delhi Belly, Montezuma's Revenge, or Abu's Blueberry Squishy. But we would sooner have stayed at home than not eat the local grub.

We did set some ground rules, however. Outside Quito (the water in the city is apparently fine), we employ the same street-food rules that we used on our year-long Africa trip: (1) Only eat where others are eating; (2) No raw salads; (3) No cooked foods that are cold; (4) No unboiled water.

If you're going to eat local foods, though, you have to face a simple fact: Sooner or later, you will end up riding the porcelain Honda.

Over the next three weeks, we devoured roasted pig, mote, and humitas while standing ankle deep in je ne sais quoi at the animal market in Otavalo; we wolfed down llapingachos and empanadas while admiring llamas at the sprawling market in Sasquisili; we sucked the snot-like innards from little fruits ripped from the banks of the Rio Pastasa as we rafted down the rapids; and we feasted on bowls of seafood ceviche in the Quito market, accompanied by huge glasses of batido made from babaco (a star fruit the size of a rugby ball). If locusts had suddenly ascended the Andean heights, we would have sneered at them as rank amateurs. Only bull-penis soup eluded us.

When explorer Alexander von Humboldt first saw Ecuador's central valley, sandwiched between the twin cordilleras of the Andes, he named it the Avenue of the Volcanoes, in honor of the eight active volcanoes whose snowy peaks loom on either side. If Al were to return today, he would be interested to find new volcanic activity in the valley itself, centered on a colonial house in Rocafuerte Street.

Yes, we have sometimes paid a price for our market munchies. At any given time over the past three weeks, at least one person in the family has suffered from seismic rumbles or lava flows.

Katharine, bless her heart, generally eschews the splashy explosions that garner all the media attention. She displays her seismic perturbations via side vents and fumaroles. Make no mistake, these can be as destructive as any Krakatoa-style event. You may have seen the National Geographic film about a lake in Africa where animals come to drink and then simply drop dead from the poisonous fumes. Watch carefully and you will see a cute little girl sitting by the lake, reading.

Generally, we have traveled around Ecuador by bus. With journeys averaging three to four hours and no bathroom on board, we have been forced to develop a contingency plan that goes beyond simple sphincter-clenching. We briefly toyed with the idea of going local after we watched a young boy poop in a shopping bag held by his mother. Since neither of us could agree on who would be left holding the bag, the idea was quietly dropped. Instead, at a predetermined emergency signal, we will simply shout "Bajo!", grab our bags, and exit the bus en masse. Buses run fairly frequently and we would rather wait a few minutes than be caught in a prolonged squeeze play.

Three of us (Louise excepted) recently experienced significant volcanic activity at the same time. Unhappily, it coincided with our stay at an ultra-green eco-lodge tucked away in the mountains. The food was vegetarian, everything was recycled, and the en suite toilets were "dry." A dry toilet is essentially a long drop, with one key difference: After each visit to the toilet, you shovel wood shavings (stored in a handy bucket by your side) on top of your work and walk away. The idea is that the toilet is an odor-free composter that saves water and provides a rich fertilizer for the inn's fruit trees.

When the earnest American inn-keeper built the toilets, he couldn't possibly have envisaged that Cotopaxi, Pinchincha, and Tungurahua would all be staying in the same room. By the end of the first day, the mound of wood shavings in our toilet would have led any sane person to suspect that a rabid beaver was loose down there.

As for the smell, the wood chips were about as useful as Lady Speedstick on a skunk. The maid simply stopped coming into our room; she left whatever we needed outside the door and then ran. I briefly considered torching our hut and asking for another room, but the inn was full.

If only the horror had ended there. A week earlier, we had made the mistake of instructing Graham and Katharine to monitor their stool for signs of blood, which can be a symptom of something serious. Unfortunately, every stray tomato skin now led to screams of horror and demands for parental inspection.

After two days, neither of us were inclined to go into that wood-chip nightmare without a full Haz-Mat suit. So when Graham called to us, we stared at each other aghast. Fortunately, Louise lost the coin toss. Seconds later, she came reeling out of the bathroom, fingers clawing at her eyes, her face frozen in a ghastly rictus. She fell onto the bed, adopting a pose eerily reminiscent of the bodies found at Pompeii, their horrified faces preserved forever in volcanic stone.

Graham's voice followed her out of the bathroom: "Mom, I think we need more wood chips."


CSDauer said...

Katherine should never ever ever forgive her Daddy for the "girl reading by the lake" crack. I'd say therapy bills in the high five figures await you.

Paul Orlando said...

Why Honda? I suggest calling it the Porcelain Pajero, after the Mitsubishi car of the same name. If there's confusion about the car that happens to be named after the Spanish word for bird you can explain that both cars and toilets don't fly. Or something like that. More wood chips!