A Surreal Bus Ride from Cuenca to Paute

I entered the Rio Paute bus at the Cuenca Terminal Terrestre at 4 o’clock after my women’s group luncheon. To my surprise the bus was full, all seats were taken. Or so it seemed. I was not going to get on, if I had to stand all the way to Paute. But the attendant waved me towards the back and sure enough there were two seats left in the last row next to the bathroom. I took the seat next to the bathroom, but worried how I would ever get to the front when all the other passengers along the way would get on and fill up the center aisle. By the time we took off from the terminal there were only four or five people standing in the aisle, not bad, but I knew that would not last long. A middle aged man squeezed into the seat between me and the young man hooked on to his smart phone. It was hot and things were getting cozy. I took off my jacket and sat back, my elegant lacy white blouse sticking to my body and exposing the skin of my arms. The bus was making good time and did not stop at every stop.

The man next to me started to nod off leaning closer into me. His arm was hot and I could feel his blood mixing with mine through our thin shirts. “Odd”, I thought, and wondered what his blood was telling mine or vice versa. Did his blood know I had had a couple of glasses of red wine with lunch? Did my blood know he had worked hard physically all day and that his blood was more oxygenated than mine? The heat of his arm distracted me from the occasional wafting smells from the bathroom. In a perverse way I was enjoying this communal experience.

Once out of Cuenca and on the Pan America Highway we picked up speed. I allowed the movements of the bus to lull my head back and forth, relaxing my muscles. Hmm, I thought, I could fall asleep wedged between the toilet and the man. Just as I was drifting off, the wind picked up and blasted through the bus, curtains were flapping and the weather changed from hot to cool, sweaters and jackets were going back on. I put on my red jacket and settled back in for another drift of nodding off.

However the sky was getting darker and darker and as we pulled out of the El Descanso canyon and crossed the bridge at the road construction site, it seemed as if we were floating in a grey fog. The hum of the bus was low and all I could see were the indigenous white hats looking outside at the weather change. It felt eery as if we were suspended in mid-air and floating in a parallel universe, waiting for something to happen. The bus slowed down little by little.

Then it stopped and the commotion started. “Policia”! A woman who had been standing made her way rapidly to the rear, desperately looking around. She repeated “Policia, molesta”. OK I got it, the police had stopped the bus, but why was she afraid? I watched as she squeezed between two seats where two indigenous women were seated, neither one of them making a single move. The woman, who looked like a domestic worker on her way home with a bag stuffed with medicines strapped around her shoulder, crouched down on her hunches at the feet of one of the seated women. What had she done, why was she hiding like that? The attendant rushed over and told her she could not be there. “Get up and get a seat” he told her. But there were no seats.

I finally understood what was going on. Everyone needed to be seated for the police.I saw the woman come towards me. Oh no, she is going to hide in the bathroom. If she did that the door would be sitting smack on my nose. I moved closer towards my hot man and he squeezed towards the kid next to him. The kid, still connected to his smartphone, barely moved, but we managed to create some space for the well-put together, sturdy woman to squeeze between me and the toilet. I was now sitting on the two edges of the seats, not very comfortable, but I was game for the moment. The bus slowly took off and in minutes those who were standing before were standing again as if nothing had happened. My woman pulled herself out of our vacuum packed body row and smiled at me, “gracias”. I stupidly said “gracias” too and we all laughed. A minute later the sun came out and we were all normal again, riding the bus to Paute.

A Bowl of Soup and a Pure Heart

“Go on; don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise men to the Divine.” 

― Ludwig van Beethoven

When I ask the woman at the Paute Domingo Mercado if her tomatoes were sprayed with “quimicos”, she promptly jams her thumb nail into one of the tomatoes.  “No”, she shakes her head and wags her finger sideways. The red juice and seeds spurt out over the ground in front of my feet. The tomato looks delicious.  She has hundreds of tomatoes and gives me a large black plastic bag full for fifty cents, tomatoes spilling out over the top.

I buy a huge bouquet of cedron, citrus branches, from a very old woman, wrinkled and shrunken with the most beautiful liquid eyes.  I put the cedron to my nose, inhale deeply and let out a delicious whooshing sound. She nods approvingly as I tuck the quarter in her extended gnarly hand. Her hand or perhaps her cedron touches a soft spot. I linger on the feeling.

Back in my open air kitchen of screen windows, where it can get as cold as 40 degrees in the winter time (for the Ecuadorian Andes that is cold), the sun has warmed up the glass roof above my head. I am cleaning out the refrigerator before putting in all the fresh vegetables I just bought. The vegetables are all over my kitchen counter as well as on the little round table in and around the geraniums and fuchsias I am growing.

My round table collage looks stunning with deep red small tomatoes, red and black clay bowls, my perfect deep purple eggplant on top of some old potatoes, shrunken yams, lemons from my garden, and long green bell peppers, all nestled into a woven straw basket.  The hot peppers, green and red, some fresh, some shriveled, are displayed in a narrow blue tray with delicately hand-painted flowers. Another basket holds the garlic bulbs with their dried yellow stems still attached and large pieces of fresh ginger.  Mixed in there is a Jamaica, dry now and dark red, almost black.  “This Jamaica flower makes tea good “por los riñónes”, the woman told me at the market.  She had shown me where the kidneys were, placing her dirt stained hands behind her back and rubbing her kidneys.

The idea of kidneys has taken a hold of me and I check the freezer to see if I still have a cow bone I can boil up into a bone marrow soup with the left over vegetables. Bone marrow is especially good for the kidneys.

Auguste Escoffier, the legendary French chef of the late 1800s advised any gourmet chef worth his salt to boil the bone for at least 7 hours.  This is where my impatience comes in, “ah certainly, 2 hours is enough, see, I can spoon the yellow gloppy bone marrow right out of the two cavities of the bone. It floats in the soup.  I decide to wait more, see what happens. I repeatedly check the soup to see if the broth has boiled down. Every half hour or so there is only an inch of liquid with distinct glistening rounds of fat and I have to add water. My modest Mabe Andes stove has its own rules about fires, nothing too subtle please, simmering is not part of her vocabulary.  I turn the burner off for a while and let it sit, cool off.

While tending my soup I am listening to classical music streaming from the Internet, but when the music unexpectedly changes its tempo I become hyper and am ready to give up on the broth, not good.  This soup takes patience, practice, concentrated effort.  I am six hours into it now…the fire under my soup is back on. I feel ready for a nap, I reach for the timer, but then scold myself that I have to bring focus to this mundane task, if I want this soup to be as delicious as I want it to be.  No timer.  Just stretch my legs on the bed for a little bit, keep my eyes open and nose ready.

At last my broth is done, I pour the contents through a colander, pick out the bone, toss the bone to the Weimaraner dog Bennie, who has come over to check out the smells in my kitchen. He is a big sloppy dog and one side of his lip hangs loosely over the bone in his mouth as he comes over to thank me, nudging his slime on my sleeve.  I squeeze out the vegetables to get their flavors into the soup. Later I learn I should not have done that if I had wanted a clear broth. Too late. I sift the broth one more time through a cheese cloth to catch most of the fat.  The broth is not clear, not totally pure, but tastes very good.  Next time when I make a clarified broth, no vegetables with the bones, and simmering heat only, lest too many impurities are released.  I may have to become more seasoned in the practice of patience or perhaps buy a new stove that can simmer.

“Fine, I can try putting in three egg whites and crumpled egg shells, perhaps they will absorb the impurities and fat.”  But I only have four eggs and I am not willing to give up my scrambled eggs for the morning.  “I can spare one.” As I stir in the egg white and shell, I can readily see that one egg is not enough, although the soup does look less cloudy.

At last I sit down with a fine glass of Chilean white wine, Sauvignon Blanc mixed with Semillon. On the deep blue woven table cloth, sits my bowl of soup. One sip of wine, rest, I carefully taste the soup, once, twice, delicious, DIVINE! I have done it! I made a divine soup with a nearly pure heart.

I can feel my pride sitting on top of my heart as I take another sip. I am vaguely aware this something extra does not sit so well.  I am a bit puffed up.  I recall what a Zen Buddhist Master Suzuki Roshi once said during the hay days of the late 60s in San Francisco: “if you see the Master coming, run the other way!

After a long day in the kitchen, in the early hours of the evening, the mountains turn into a misty fairy land as they do almost every night. I want to describe it as a Chinese watercolor painting, but that would give those mountains that puffed up “extra” they do not need. The lights down the Uzhupud valley heading towards Cuenca reflect a jewel box sliding lengthwise over the dark earth.