No plan needed
I’ll begin with possibly the only less-than-perfect part of the day. The rooster with a broken internal clock that was living directly outside the bedroom. Previously, it was my belief that roosters begin to crow at first light. This rooster disagreed. So, after being awoken at least an hour before sunrise, and listening to the cock-a-doodle-do for a couple hours, Rhonda and I fell back asleep until 8:30. After a quick run through our morning readiness routine, we walked out the door with no set agenda – the days that usually turn out best. We had yet to experience bus travel in Loja, so decided to give it a try. Two blocks of walking led us to a parada and we promptly hopped on the next bus for 30¢ each. We had no idea where the bus was going, but it was going in the right direction as we would soon discover. We spent less than two minutes on the bus before spotting a huge Saturday farmer’s market. The bus driver yelled at us as we hopped off the bus. We replied with an excited no entiendo! as we disembarked. Presumably, the bus driver was calling us crazy for spending that much money and only going a few blocks. No importa!
It was clear that this weekend market was an important event for local buyers and sellers. There was a huge amount of activity as people came to do their grocery shopping at the seemingly endless line of tents and stalls. People left with large bags, or even suitcases, full of everything from fish that had been dried and salted, to chicken feet, strawberries, bananas, or a pile of amazing exotic fruits. Almost immediately we found a stall selling bowls of ceviche for the very reasonable price of $1. The small white Styrofoam bowl was filled with a thin citrus brine along with chunks of fish and red onion. It was nearly impossible to avoid spilling as the bowl was full to the top and there was a nonstop procession of people crowding through the narrow alleys. Each spoonful of the lime-rich broth gave us a divine mixture of flavors. Our appetites, fully whetted, led us to a bustling area where we found ourselves in front of a large pan full of crackling oil and wonderfully browned fried goodness. We watched as the dark-skinned man grabbed a ball of a yellowish mixture with a consistency somewhere between dough and thick gravy.
He deftly shaped the substance into something resembling a miniature football. Before dropping it into the popping oil, he added a type of shredded meat to the middle and sealed it back up. After several sizzling minutes submerged in oil, he scooped the football out and broke it open to reveal the cooked meat nestled among the fried dough. At this point his associate, a short besmocked woman, took it from him and added a shredded veggie, a mysterious sauce, and finally an unidentifiable paste. We had no idea what it was, but we ordered two right away. During the wait we partially uncovered what the mystery items were. The yellowish batter was a plantain dough, the meat was fish, the shredded veggie was probably lettuce or cabbage, the mystery sauce was peanut sauce, and the unidentifiable paste remained unidentified. We topped it off with freshly squeezed lime and proceeded to dig in. The combination of flavors only improved as we got deeper into it.
I proceeded to make a huge mess of myself much to the entertainment of the locals watching. The lady had to break repeatedly from her job of filling the fried treats to keep handing me napkins, as a wonderfully unique slurry of sauces dripped from my hands and chin. After devouring this work of art, we paid the $2 and continued on our way. Soon after, we succumbed to the temptation of a giant bag of richly red strawberries. Another $1.50 poorer, and we continued on our way.
Our day was only just beginning as we eventually found our way out of the chaos of the market and into a quiet coffee shop a few meandering blocks away. We sat at a small outside table with two lattes, accompanied by big bowl of fresh pineapple and watermelon. After relaxing and reflecting on our great morning thus far, we headed out to parts unknown. Fifteen minutes later we decided it was time to refuel and ducked into another cozy shop. We indulged in a large glass of fresh mora (blackberry) juice along with more coffee. Fully recharged and eager to continue the adventure we bid buenos dias to the man behind the counter.
I typically shave my head every few days, but I am also an advocate of packing light, which means the razor stays at home. With five days of hair growth, it was time for a trim. Although we didn’t realize this until we walked past a peluquiero. The shop was a hip, urban locale. One not necessarily catering to 40-year old gringos. Undeterred, we entered to the soundtrack of Ecuadorean hip-hop music. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the Spanish we had been learning was inadequate for clearly explaining a hair cut and beard trim. A few attempts at sign language and very creative use of Spanish gave us reasonable confidence that the young man wielding a straight razor more or less knew what we wanted. With steady hands, he began to work.
Knowing that the bill was likely to be around five bucks, I was shocked at how much time and precision he gave to my haircut. There was no hint of a rush in his practiced strokes even after his significant other and hija came to the shop. A full forty-five minutes went by before he was complete. After tip, the total charge was $6. And not a single drop of blood had been shed.
Now, despite having the neatest hair and beard of my life, I went hat shopping. Here it is important to mention that the Ecuadorean midday sun is incredibly strong. Even though the temperature was in the low 70s, the oblique angle of the sun’s rays to the earth’s surface means a quick sunburn for skin not accustomed to its strength. And a freshly shaved head at the equator is a mockery to the Incan sun god, Inti. Taunting him to do his worst. Showing humility to his power, I bought a hat.
The eventful morning earned us an afternoon siesta. We returned to our rented apartment and promptly fell asleep. Politely, the rooster kept to himself during this time. Awaking refreshed, we began to plan for dinner. Google thoughtfully recommended a restaurant named Riscomar and out the door we went again. Ten minutes and a taxi ride later, we walked into the restaurant and were immediately greeted by an extremely friendly camarero. He showed us to a table next to a window overlooking the street. A stick of incense burned cloyingly on the windowsill. A man standing outside noticed the smoke rising towards our table and motioned for the server to move the incense. We smiled and waved thankfully to the man outside. We hypothesized he might be the owner since he was so observant and intent on making our stay pleasant.
We ordered a mojito and a Cuba libre and began to study the menu. The server asked if we wanted the English version, to which I replied “No gracias, pero puedo leer en español”. Since no day is truly complete without a second serving of ceviche, we ordered some more. We were soon slurping away at shellfish cooked only in citrus juices. We ate one clam that tasted a bit fishy (I’ll leave it up to you if a pun was intended) which had us soon googling what sort of illness we might fall victim to. (Spoiler alert: we were fine) Rhonda decided that her mojito was too strong so, reluctantly, I was forced to drink it along with my Cuba libre. After ordering my second mojito I soon learned the word ebrio from our server as I mimed being drunk while accidentally spilling my drink onto my bbq ribs. Rhonda, showing reckless self-abandon after having a possibly bad clam, ordered an entire entrée of shellfish. I continued on with my earlier eating habits and made a complete mess of myself. Two trips to the bathroom to wash my hands later, I was feeling quite good. Despite my belly being full, the three rum drinks had me pleasantly buzzed.
Our server asked we would like him to hail a taxi for us. We affirmed that one was needed, and he disappeared outside. Returning only moments later, he informed us that the owner of the restaurant would drive us home because no taxi had driven by. We greeted Daniel, who spoke very little English, and hopped into his SUV – Rhonda in the front and me in the back next to an empty baby seat. Despite none of us being fluent in the other’s language, we had a wonderful conversation about our families, where we had traveled to, how long he had owned the restaurant and how strong the rum was there. Coincidentally, he pointed out his house as we drove past which was within a quarter mile of where we were staying. As we exited his car, we told him “ahora tenemos un amigo en Loja”. A short time later we dozed off while replaying warm memories from our day with no plan.