The indigenous woman held up a clump of dirt and cocked her arm back. She hissed something in Quichua, the Incan language which sounded most akin to Parseltongue, then raised her arm higher.
I didn’t understand, the moment before I was laughing as the herd of sheep approached and Savannah pounced around them as though playing with another dog.
The Incan woman, who’s wrinkles had wrinkles and was missing most of her teeth, snarled at me. She spoke again, and again I couldn’t understand.
“What?” I said in Spanish.
Quichua was already a sharp language but she sharpened it further as though she were spitting darts at me.
Her harshness left me stunned. I must have done something for this woman to be so upset, but I didn’t know what. Perhaps she didn’t want Savannah scaring her herd. Perhaps it was the photos that were bothering her.
Either way, the herd of sheep passed in front of me and made their way down the grass path. The woman turned her back to me and muttered to herself as she followed her animals. I took a few more pictures then shrugged when I turned back to Savannah.
“What a frump.”
Savannah’s eyes were tracing the descending sheep.
I put my camera away then pulled off the brake of my cart and continued my trudge up the mountain.
An hour before I realized I missed my turn off the Pan-American, when I doubled back I decided to take a shortcut I’d found on Google Maps. The shortcut was paved for about hundred meters, had dirt tracks for the next hundred meters, then was all grass for a mile.
It was a bucolic detour, the grass was thick and my cart sunk into it, hills rolled to the sky on either side of me. I was at nine thousand feet elevation and sweating. At points the shortcut was a forty-five degree climb. I drew in oxygen-sparse breaths for strength.
After stopping and starting for forty minutes the grass met asphalt and I could finally let relax.
The road continued upward, but on pavement the walking was easier. After a few miles I came to a small town of cinderblock houses. Up the stairs of a house was a boy manning a rotisserie. The rotisserie was big, ten-pronged, with air sizzling out of the roasting guinea pigs making their rounds.
I turned my cart then parked it beside the house. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and had yet to try the Ecuadorian/Peruvian delicacy of guinea pig.
“How much?” I asked the boy of about twelve.
“Ten, but they’ll be a little while.”
“That’s alright. I’ll wait.”
Ten dollars was an exorbitant amount for lunch, but wanted to try guinea pig at some point and they wouldn’t be getting any cheaper.
I took Savannah and we went inside the single room. I sat at one of the three plastic tables. The place was dirty; chairs knocked over, I could taste dust in the air, and my table still had grease on it from the last guinea pig. However, the uncleanliness wasn’t such that I gave serious thought to leaving, a little uncleanliness was merely a sign of how off the beaten path the place was. Some places were nice, others weren’t. I was in a place was that wasn’t.
The mother came in an orange apron and took over for the boy turning the rotisserie. She leaned in to look at me then turned back to her product.
The family was Incan. The mother ordered her son in Quichua to clean up, but when the boy’s friend’s came he spoke to them in Spanish.
I waited for twenty-five minutes, wondering sometimes if I was being ignored. Other than when the mother first glanced at me she hadn’t made eye contact, even when she came inside to retrieve the chair beside me.
Eventually though the boy came in and told me the guinea pig was ready. I went outside to retrieve it.
“Twelve,” said the mother.
“Twelve? He told me it was ten.”
My northeastern blood boiled rapidly. She was marking the price up twenty percent because I was a gringo. I thought of cursing at the woman then storming off righteously.
However, before I could explode in a fit, the woman acquiesced and said, “Okay, ten.”
I was still pissed, but her acquiescence calmed me enough that I said, “Fine.”
The traveler in me took over and told me to get on with it – I was in Ecuador, not New Jersey. I paid.
The woman butchered the guinea pig and placed the unappetizing thing with its bubbling brown skin on a plastic plate.
I sat at the table without a fork or knife. When I called out to the boy he brought me a knife so dull it was about as useful as a cardboard box. The guinea pig’s skin was thick and stretchy like leather. Without utensils I turned the little beast on its back then dug into it with my hands. The creature’s burnt away eyes seemed to stare at the wall in frozen sorrow while its two front teeth jutted upward like a pale hand from a grave.
The only way to the meat was by ruthlessly ripping the skin and twisting joints until an arm fell free. The meat was dark, salty and gamey. Of course it tasted like chicken, but there was so much less meat than a chicken and ligaments seemed to find their way into every bit making the meat far chewier than chicken as well.
For ten minutes I battled the delicacy and once I came out of it I looked down at my plate to a massacre of tiny bones. I didn’t feel remorseful or sorry for the little thing, it gave me a better connection with my food than any grocery store steak, but I was unsatisfied. So much hype around the guinea pig and that was it? I’d take chicken or fish or beef over it any day, and for a quarter the price.