At breast level, my aunt takes my hand and leads me to the bus stop. Her burlap-like skin chafes against my raw, blistered palm. She has invited me to go to El Centro, and although I’m not really sure why, the “say yes to all opportunities with discretion” attitude is prevailing.
As we take the 45 minute-long bus ride to Cuenca, dusk falls over el campo, the countryside. We’ve just finished work at El Ecoparque, specifically where mistreated animals are taken to, and in the best case scenarios, to be recuperated to return to their natural habitat. It is rewarding but duro. Hard. Physically exhausted, tired from this first week fighting the language barrier, and with the loud bus growling under us, we sit and watch out the window silently until the bus lights is too bright and the evening too dark that we are just staring at our dull reflections in the dark window.
In Cuenca, we get off in a square. The European-style architecture glows around us with the vibrant lights of the city, and people in street, club, and even business attire esta andando, are strolling. Tía sits on the lip of a tiny raised garden and buys a cafecito from a women selling dark coffee out of metal jugs sheathed in rainbow-striped plastic bags. She offers me one, but even smelling caffeinated beverages seems to get me all energized, so I decline. We sit and watch people pass. I still don’t know our purpose, but the earthy aroma of cafecitos and exotic perfume of the nearby flower market fill both my nose and my mind.
As if guided by some signal I don’t recognize, tía rises abruptly, still a half-inch of scalding cafecito in her plastic cup. “Come.”
We walk a block and stop in front of a restaurant. “Do you want to wait here or inside?” she asks me.
Again, she takes my hand and we enter. Below the hypnotizing flashing red and green strands of lights, the little tables are empty. Here in Ecuador, and especially in the cities, the standard is to eat late by, well, my standards.
At the back, we reach a large plastic sheet door. Tía knocks twice and murmurs what seems to be some type of password into the crack between the sheet and concrete wall. And after a moment’s pause, we slink inside.
It’s a kitchen, already hot in anticipation of orders soon to come. Huge pots hang above industrial burners and the air is laced with memories of sachipapas orders. The single chef, Carina, smiles broadly at us both and embraces tía, but keeps her potato-flecked palms at a distance. The two women talk rapidly as tía drags a lidded bin from under the sink to a chair sitting at the edge of the room. After grabbing a bowl, tía sits down in the chair once, then twice. Comfortable, she pops open the bin lid.
To the very brim is a dull tan slurry of food waste. Rice. Limp vegetables. Meats. Swollen French fries. But more overwhelming than the volume and array of scraps is the smell. The affronting odor is neither pleasant not unpleasant, but there is a distinct note of alcoholic fermentation.
And never pausing in conversation, tía begins to scoop the mix, using the bowl and her bare hands, into buckets and bags that had cradled her work clothes moments before.
Isn’t this unsanitary? Why this restaurant? I wish I hadn’t come. Why is she taking the scraps? Why is she using her hand? That really isn’t sanitary. Is this normal? Does this make the chef as uncomfortable as this makes me? I don’t understand.
My thoughts are boiling like the soups on the stove top. But somehow, amidst the monologue in my own head, I catch the critical word in the racing conversation: chancho.
This food is to feed tía’s pig.
After another thirty minutes of talking and scooping, waiters bustling in and out, I help tía carry the carefully sealed sacks to the bus stop, where we take bus #24 back to San Pedro. As I sat in my plastic seat, bouncing and sliding, I can’t help but feel disgusted. Disgusted with myself.
From an ecological standpoint, tía has gone above and beyond; using public transportation to bring back food that would have otherwise gone to the dump to feed her pig. From a perspective of resourcefulness, tía deserves an A++; it would be impossible for tía, a single women who lives by herself, to produce enough food waste to feed her pig by herself. So why was I so shocked?
Maybe because some weird personal concept dignity would prevent me from doing something so creative and resourceful. Maybe because, while I have seen how women often lack positions as strong, independent members of community here, my aunt has proven more strong and independent and brave than myself and many somehow “more independent” westerners I know. Maybe because I have shielded myself from understanding what it means to really make it work.
I admire and respect my tía beyond words. I struggle with how unintentionally judgmental I was. I am still processing my experience.
Tennyson wrote “I am a part of all that I have met” in Ulysses.
Please, let me become a shadow of tía. Let her become a part of me.
Note: I have since gone with tía twice more to collect food for her pigs. The judgmental tone I use throughout this piece is not intended to represent how I feel now, but the judgmental perspective I had before I took the time to listen and understand.