The entire city is filled with street vendors. Its saturday, market day, and this is unlike anything I`ve ever seen. Vibrant booths further crowd the already clogged streets. Unlike the markets of Puerta Vallarta, Bangkok and Khatmandu, which are occupied by overly pushy salespeople slinging poorly made trinkets, fake Oakley sunglasses, three t-shirts for ten bucks, this market is filled with kind, generous Otavaleños selling quality goods at outstanding prices. The Wal-Mart motto. Or something like it, but this is no asphalt department store. Tupperware, Big Gulps, rayon, plastic. No. This is authenitc. The vendors wear traditional Otavalan garb: frilly, white silk blouses with flower embroidery, ankle length black dresses cinched tight around the waist, heelless sandals with toe pouches for the women. Dark slacks, blue wool ponchos, white collared shirts and leather boots with pointed toes for the men. They are cordial and accomodating, letting me try on an Alpaca sweater without obligation. When I tell them I am only looking, that I will be back next weekend, they are understanding, telling me they will be here every weekend, every Saturday, for eternity.

Everything costs fifteen dollars. Its like Costco where everything costs $5 even though, in reality, some things cost $7 and some cost $3. In the end, everything is $5. Here, its the rule of fifteens. Panama hats, leather satchels, silver and terquoise jewelry, dinnerwear, wool blankets, classical guitars, incense holders, Marlin bill swords, bull horn knives, striped knit pants, headresses, dreamcatchers, cubist art reproductions, cowboy hats, ponchos, pipes, carvings, baskets, sandals, pigs, cows, cats, dogs, papayas, mangoes, oranges, ice cream. I buy nothing, look at everything. Endless Christmas present possibilities. I`ll be here for a few weeks. No rush.

We have pasta for lunch. Bacon and cream sauce on spaghetti. Pesto spread on baguette. Pinapple juice. Popcorn. I`m way too full and try to walk it off. I duck into the doorway of the Spanish Institute, but its closed today. I stroll along the cobbled streets towards my host family`s house. Stares from children. You giant. They live only two blocks from the hostel in a pale blue edifice with wrought-iron railings and flowers on the balcony. I don`t knock, am too shy, will save that for tomorrow. I go back to the hostel and finish another book. I hope there is an exchange in town with some English titles. The sound of rainfall in the courtyard lulls me to sleep.

Dinner is sea bass in garlic sauce with rice and sliced tomatoes. Popcorn entrada. Tyler has a paradoxical addiction. His love for popcorn outweighs his pickiness for healthy, guality food. He orders another helping. Everything is salty. Ecuadorians seem to love salt. Dad would love Ecuador. My drink, a kyperinha, is made with aquardiente, the local sugar cane liquor, and is exceedingly strong. I figure we better keep this momentum going. After all, it is our last night together.

“How bout we go get a bottle of something and make drinks at the hostel,” suggests Nuria.
“Yeah, I`m down. Tequila preferably, or aquardiente,” I say.
“Some juice, a little lemon, ice, a deck of cards.”
“Exactly. Then we can go out to the bars later. I mean it is only seven o`clock. We gotta keep it going.”
“Yeah, I like that. Sounds good.”
“La cuenta, por favor.” This to to the waiter.

items are harder to find than originally anticipated. We settle on rum, the gold kind, and give the cashier a five. Ecuadorian liquor stores and Costco are twins. Juice is more difficult. All we can find is peach. Hairy, orange syrup too sweet for a pastry chef. Ice, it seems, does not exist here. Eventually, we choose lemonade from a cooler, grab a couple limes and mosey back to the hostal.
“I am so afraid of this,” says Tyler, holding the glass up to his eye.
“C´mon man, you`re such a softie.” This is now a constant joke between us.
He sips the drink and a frown protrudes from his lips. There are wrinkles between his eyebrows. Then, “Not bad, actually.”

I teach Tyler and Nuria a card game, which Nuria and I keep winning. The deck has fifty cards. Tyler is distraught. He drinks and re-pours with each consecutive loss. Other hostal goers meander by, rolling their eyes as they pass our sloppy coffee table, our laugh-filled revelry. By the time Tyler wins a game the bottle is three-quarters emtpy. Its 9:30. Time to extricate ourselves from this self-induced, anti-social, frankly pathetic stuppor. We venture out.

As we are about to head down the street towards the bars, I notice a cluster of people up the street. I hear music , traditional Andean music, all flutes and guitars and bass. Its the same song everyone knows, but we decide to investigate and are suprised by what we find. A dozen live Cuy (gineapigs) are hung from their hind legs over a long wooden pole that is carried at each end by a poncho-clad Otavaleño. There is another pole with the same cargo. Tiny paws scratch at the air as if the cuy are trying to scamper free, as if they are digging a hole in the void, but their feet are tied too tightly. Chubby bodies stretched by gravity. There are two other poles that contain a dozen chickens each. The chickens are more docile. Brain dead from the blood rush. Every so often, one of the chickens flaps it´s wings, but like the cuy, their bondage is too secure to escape from. The congregation starts to move down the street.

We march along beside the group. There must be at least fifty people involved. A line of cars, emergecy lights blinking, follows us. Music is playing the whole time, but the stand-up bass is being carried like a dead body between two men. At an intersection, the procession halts, but the music doesn`t stop. The band is at the center of a disc of people that is now rotating clockwise in the intersection. The epileptic cuy and comatose chickens form the edges of the circle. White felt hats, blue ponchos, black skirts, dancing. Without warning the direction of rotation changes. The pole carriers pivot on their heels. Everything spins. Lefty loosie. After a few minutes the group stops spinning and continues down the street in the direction of the Plaza.

We discover that it is a wedding celebration. This is the groom´s family and they are on the way to meet the bride and her family at the plaza where they will dance and feast. “Do you think this is the dowry?” asks Nuria. Two dozen cuy and two dozen chickens for the hand of your daughter. A woman walks by carrying a goose with an ivory ribbon tied around it´s neck. Quite a wedding.

We follow the brigade for a while, happy to be a part of the festivities, the only gringos in sight. Eventually, gnawing, alcohol-induced hunger forces a retreat. We are left in the dust of the beating sandals. Flutes are muffled in alleyways. Streetlights illuminate the stamped pavement. Yellow. This was better than any club, more fun than any dance party. I am glad that my last night with Tyler and Nuria is marked by the celebration of something that will last forever. I know that because of the grand experiences we have shared over the past two weeks that our friendship will do the same. It is so fitting.

We eat fresh made pita bread covered in hummus. The two-guitar band in the corner of this late-night venue plays “La Bamba” and Manu Chao covers. Everyone sings along. Cluttered voices among dim smoke figures. I look across the table at Tyler and Nuria and see that they are nodding their heads to the music.

One comment

  1. hey Leif, What a wonderful description of your day in Otavalo. I can just picture those guinea pigs hanging down. Your writing is delightful, like a painter with words. I look forward to hearing about when you meet your host family. Take careCarol


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