Adventures in Cuy Farming

As parents, we strive to keep our kids safe and prevent them from doing stupid things that might cause them harm.  In part, this is accomplished, we naively think, by serving as positive role models as we sagely impart various important parenting rules.  We also, and this is part of what I call the “parenting paradox”, strive to prevent them from ever finding out about all the stupid things we did when we were their age.

For example, we don’t want them hearing our friends reminiscing with us about long ago antics.  “Hey Kev, remember when we used to go off into the woods and crawl through storm sewers, pretending we were spelunkers?”  Although this is true, I’d prefer to think of this as more a sad commentary on the state of outdoor adventure activities in Philadelphia.  Or, “Hey, remember when you had too much to drink at that party in Fred’s basement and you mistakenly brushed your teeth with Bengay before going home?”  I’m sure any of you parents reading this have similar stories (at least I hope I’m not the only one).

Anyway, I think that “never hitch hike”, if not #1 on the parenting rules list, has got to be very high up there.  “The dangerous stranger” is a recommended theme story in Parenting 101.  I have been contemplating this as I get close to the start of my attempted thru hike on the Appalachian Trail.   Everything I’ve read indicates that getting rides from complete strangers to and from trail towns is close to a necessity.

Anyway, this brings me to today’s question: Why did my wife and I accept a ride from two complete strangers while we were visiting rural Ecuador earlier this year?  Can I convince you that it was practice for hiking the AT?  I’d like to think that I had a legitimate reason rather than chalking it up as an irrational, impulsive act.  But regardless of my justification, the reality is that when a quad cab pickup pulled to the side of the road outside of Giron and the driver asked if we wanted a ride back into town, I said yes.  The appropriate parenting aphorism here is: “Don’t do what I do, do what I say”.  We were tired, it had started to rain, it was only one more kilometer before we’d be in town, he had on a Cruz Rojas (Red Cross) jacket.  I have lots of excuses.  What can I say?  Bottom line – we got in the truck and off we went.

Things started to shift around a bit almost immediately.  Instead of a ride back to Giron, 1 km away, they offered to drive us all the way back to our hotel in Cuenca (40 km away).  We again said “yes” (actually “si”).  I had become greedy – this would avoid a 1 hour and 45 minute bus ride.  The couple in the truck seemed nice enough (let’s call them Jose and Blanca) but the conversation, between their limited English and our rudimentary Spanish, was both basic and intermittent.  As we approached the outskirts of Cuenca we came to a second decision point –Jose allegedly needed to drop Blanca off in the town of Paute.  Did we want to come with them?  “Paute is a lovely place, we can show it to you” – at least this is what I believe they conveyed to my wife, in Spanish.  Without knowing that Paute was 40 km from Cuenca (in the opposite direction from Giron) we said, again, “yes”.

Time passes and we get to Paute.  I’m wondering when we’ll drop off Blanca so we can get back to Cuenca.  But now even more time passes, and it seems clear that Jose has a different agenda than I have sketched out in my mind.  I say “seems” because that agenda is never actually outlined either in English or Spanish.  We stop at a street vendor and Jose treats us to local sugar cane (another parenting rule bites the dust: “never eat food from street vendors in rural South American communities”).  We pass through Paute and now are on a one lane dirt road winding steeply up into the mountains.  I look out the left side of the car and make two key observations: a) Ecuador’s DOT has not installed a guard rail on this “road” and b) it is a long frikkin’ way down to the valley, very far below.  Also worthy of further consideration: Blanca has not yet been dropped off.  When (and where) exactly will this happen?

Silence falls in the truck.  I turn to my wife and whisper (I hope) “are we being kidnapped?”  I don’t get a response, which troubles me.  I was hoping that she would just lie and say “no”.  I muse to myself “okay, so will our decomposed bodies ever be discovered and identified way out here?  It would be nice for our (now) adult children to have some closure.”  Eventually (and I emphasize the “eventually”) we reach what turns out to be Blanca’s mommy’s orchard.  I know this because this is what I hear Blanca exclaim as we approach an older woman carrying a basket of fruit towards a barn.  Two more women show up, also carrying baskets of fruit.  I surmise that these are Blanca’s aunts.  Ergo, we are on the family farm.  This is reinforced when I am given an empty basket and, with hand gestures, asked to go out into the orchard to pick fruit.  Here is irony – I, an American, am south of the border, serving, albeit briefly, as an itinerant farm worker?  But, I’m very conscientious and fill my basket with plums before returning to the barn (I want that ride back to our hotel in Cuenca).

Jose proudly shows us Mommy’s stable which is filled with … guinea pigs (cuy).  I get more nervous.  These are not being raised to sell to PetSmart.  My wife explains that, back in the US, guinea pigs are “mascotas” (pets).  But, Jose doesn’t buy it.  He just smiles and says “muy rico” (translation: “very tasty”).  I think several things to myself: a) why did I say yes to the ride? and b) will we ever get back to frikkin’ Cuenca?  I also say a brief but sincere prayer that we will not be invited to a cuy roast (corollary parenting rule: “don’t eat pets”).  I consider possible explanations for my daughters, who had guinea pig mascotas.  “Well, at least we didn’t go to a Labrador retriever roast” (they also had one of those for a pet).  After some consideration, I conclude this will probably not be considered an effective defense.  But, it turns out to be irrelevant – no cuy roast happens.

Finally, we leave the farm but, instead of dropping Blanca off with Mommy, Mommy climbs into the back seat with my wife and I.   What did Jose tell my wife originally anyway?  Also, the truck bed is now filled with the fruit we just picked.  Is the next stop a market to sell the fruit?  My Spanish is definitely not up to hawking fruit in rural Ecuador.  Four hours after getting picked up outside of Giron, we start heading back, I think, I hope, to Cuenca.  But passing through Paute, Jose pulls over, again, runs up to a street vendor cooking something on a grill (please don’t let it be roast cuy) and brings a bag back to the car.  It is indeed “muy rico” but fortunately not cuy, instead it is “tortilla de choclo”.

Five hours after accepting a 1 km lift into Giron, we are dropped off in Cuenca.  We thank Jose for the great tour of Paute, their wonderful hospitality, and hug Blanca and Mommy good bye.  We also wish them well at the fruit market the next day.

As we walk back to our hotel I’m left pondering:  “when I get off the AT to pick up my mail drop in Waynesboro, do I REALLY want to hitchhike, I’m not sure if I can afford the extra time that involves.”

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