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Street Seller of Tangerines in Quito, Ecuador

Street Seller of Tangerines in Quito, Ecuador

Almost every day we try and buy fresh fruit. We usually stop at our local fruit seller around the corner from work-but if it’s too late in the day, she’s usually out of what we’re looking for. So instead, we opt for the second best option, though sometimes the cheaper one.

But we’re at the stop light, and the ubiquitous fruit lady or guy walking around with 10 packs of apples, pears, grapefruits, or this time of year, citrus, is just not anywhere to be seen.

We’re three, four, five cars deep in traffic, glancing in the mirror, hoping someone will appear. We’re actually hoping the light will¬†not change from green to red.

Boom, the light turns green, and we hope we don’t have to accelerate too fast, because just as the cars start to move, damn! The fruit lady (or guy appears). She’s juggling three or four sticks in her hands, with the mesh bags hanging from them, laden down with tangerines, mangos, or other tasty fruits.

But we’re obliged to move forward and keep the traffic going-even though it wouldn’t be out of place to hold it up to finish fruit shopping in the street!

It’s that time of year again in Quito. Citrus (and mango) season are in full swing and the streets are full of sellers offering 10 tangerines, 20-25 oranges, and 10-15 limes per dollar. Street shopping and stoplight service at your car are one of the limited pleasures of driving in Quito.

And you try not to make the traffic too much worse by being one of those drivers, finishing up your purchase, after the light turns green.

DSC02685

That’s a lot of lemons to schlep around!

While I have come and gone many times from the United States, and had many new realizations upon each of the comings and goings, I don’t know how I let this one slip by, it’s so blatantly obvious. With a fresh perspective after another year living abroad, I never realized just how pervasive tomatoes, potatoes, beef, and oil are in the diet of this country.

Tomatoes-the preferred form of eating them here seems to be in the liquid form-ketchup. Maybe it’s because so many of them have to be gassed first and shipped over the border from Mexico, making the “fresh” tomatoes here (unless you’re willing to pay top dollar for locally grown good ones, preferably of the heirloom variety) something akin to a slice of cardboard soaked in water, both in taste and appearance. I find jars of ketchup and ketchup pumps (a new thing, and probably a good one since those disposable foil envelopes are so messy) just about everywhere. Alas, the pumps do make it easier to eat more of the stuff, and it would be even easier if they didn’t give you those tiny “condiment cups”; but I’m not worried, I’m sure they’ll supersize those before too long so that you can bring a whole cup of the stuff to your table, instead of the tablespoon or so you can fit in the current size.

I’m not sure which goes with which; is that I’ll have some french fries with my ketchup, or some ketchup with my french fries? I can’t find a snack bar, deli, or casual eating place that doesn’t serve french fries or potato chips with just about everything. No wonder there’s an obesity epidemic going on! The oil doesn’t need mentioning.

And then of course the ubiquitous hamburger. Again, every snack bar/deli/casual eatery menu throughout at least the southern half of the state of California, and I’m sure a whole lot more of the territory, must have the same items on the menu. All I find are hamburgers, cheeseburgers, turkey sandwiches, turkey and swiss, ham and swiss, and combinations thereof. Pay a little more and you might find salmon, roast beef, fish and chips, and a few other menu items but most of them consist of something fried, something with potatoes, and a lot, a whole lot, of protein. Seems like McDonald’s might actually have more healthy choices than most of the places I have visited; at least you can get apple slices or salad-skip the dressing.

If there’s one thing I must admire about Ecuador is the ease with which one can eat a healthy meal and the low cost of produce. While eating “out” in Ecuador and dining on the standard fare of rice, potatoes, pork and corn is not exactly a nutritionist’s paradise, at least it’s all fresh and local and mostly not fried. I miss my pineapple, banana, mango, strawberry, blackberry or some combination thereof smoothy every morning, fresh vegetables and fish for lunch, hand-made fruit sorbets and ice creams which can be found in nearly every town in Ecuador, and avocados, fresh cheeses, fruits and chocolate for my evening snack. It’s hard to eat like this in the US if you don’t have an extremely generous budget and/or someone to help you do the shopping-but in the long run it will save you a lot in health and health care costs. Unfortunately, as this recent article points out, it will cost you more. Wake up America, and let’s put something else on the plate!

Headed south from Quito today to visit the towns of Saquisil√≠ and Pujil√≠. We were in search of handicrafts mainly, but since there¬īs literally almost zero info on the internet about market days, we arrived in Saquisil√≠ to find the crafts market only takes place on Thursdays. As is the usual routine most everywhere when we headed out into Ecuador¬īs unknown, we arrive at whatever town we¬īve chosen to go to, and just starting asking…”Where is the market?” or “Where can we find ____” fill in the blank-whatever it might be we’re looking for. Usually this leads to some interesting diversions….”go two blocks and turn left, it’s nearby.” Or “just keep going straight, you’ll be there soon,” which could mean anywhere from two minutes to 30 minutes or more. Does nearby and in 30 minutes mean near on a bicycle, a donkey, a horse, on foot, or by car? You can never tell, since country people’s definition of time and distance are often measured in units that we city people would rarely consider-or maybe even they are units we don’t know about!

Since there was nothing going in Saquisil√≠, we headed on to Pujil√≠. Both towns, by the way, are just a few miles north of the city of Latacunga, the first major city on the Panamerican highway you reach when heading south from Quito. In Pujil√≠, the open air market was on, one of the largest markets I¬īve seen in South America and a spectacle in its own right. Measuring probably two football fields and of course spilling out into the adjacent streets, the market offers up Ecuador’s bounty from all over the country…tangerines, lemons, limes, grapefruits, bell peppers, swiss chard, various types of potatoes and bananas. As well, there were all sorts of cooking going on…llapingachos (a potato cake colored with annatto or achiote) and cooked in lard and served with fried pork aka fritada, stews with crab and other seafood, cebiches, tripe, and other local dishes. Not just foods but pirated CDs of any kind, cheap trinkets, hair pins, nail clippers, and ever other type of junk from China are available. On one street a man with the voice and earnestness of street-corner preacher offered up a cure for every type of ailment, for the prostate, stomach, liver, arthritis, indigestion, while a crowd of people gathered around.

Market in Pujilí

Pujilí Market I really enjoyed seeing these obviously hand-crafted lollipops for sale, being carried around in a hand-made basket!

Candies in Pujilí

Already the obvious tourist no matter how much I might have tried to blend in (I didn’t try and even if I had it wouldn’t have worked), I carried my camera at torso height and shot pictures surreptitiously as best as I could, and managed to get a few good ones shown below. At one point we stopped to see two parakeets sitting atop a¬† wooden box with small drawers filled with different colored papers.

I had never seen this before-you pay the woman fifty cents, she asks you “Married? Single? Divorced?” and then picks up one of the birds and commands it to peck your hand, then speaks to it in all earnestness and utter seriousness telling the bird your condition and then ordering it back to the box. The bird then goes to one of the small drawers open in the box, and through its divine power picks up your “horoscope” or fortune, she plucks it from the bird’s beak and passes it on to you. When we first stopped, and I raised my camera, she covered the birds and said no pictures. On our return pass, we stopped and paid her and I took a few good shots while she wasn’t paying much attention.

Fortune Telling BIrd

On the return we stopped at Hosteria La Cienega for lunch, a 300 year old Hacienda with decent food and gardens.You can feel the oldness in the place, and there¬īs often a cool breeze and a spooky, haunted sort of empty feeling about the place. My Mother-in-law won¬īt stay there…says it¬īs too creepy! Maybe it¬īs the “Burundanga” trees all over, from which scopolamine can be removed, that makes you feel weird!

Burundanga-Scopolamine Tree

Hosteria Pinsaqui

There are also a lot of nice antiques on display inside, with great lighting.

Hosteria Pinsaqui

While some Asian products are available in major supermarkets here in Quito, there is still a dearth. And regularly, products will run out and you may not see them back on the shelves again for months. This irks me when I have a basic staple item-like Dijon Mustard-and it suddenly disappears. At the same time, it gets me motivated to make my own.

Scallions, napa cabbage, bok choy, and many other asian greens are not usually available in the market. But if you go to the open air markets in Quito, there are usually at least one or two Asian shops carrying these items and many more. Hoisin Sauce, Oyster Sauce, Soy Sauce, Sriracha and many other ingredients are readily available, including many types of Asian noodles as well. Often, the owners of these shops don’t even speak any Spanish, but may have an employee or two that does.

Last week I found the local shop carries wonton wrappers, hand made in the shop. Two kinds, one for frying and one for dumplings, were available. As well, fresh tofu, sesame oil and miso are available as well. It’s easy to think, upon first glance, that Quito is lacking in variety-but if you know where to look, you can find it.

After years of contemplating and examining what exactly is “local,”¬† specifically in relation to chocolate, I came to realize there is a big paradox going on here. As well, I have concluded that people who really and truly consider themselves hardcore “locavores”¬† in countries that are more than 20 degrees north or south of the equator wouldn’t eat chocolate at all. But they do, and that’s why this matters, at least a little bit! If you truly insisted on being a locavore, say, eating foods that originated from only within a 100 mile radius from your home,¬† then you’d have to give up a lot. In fact, many of us¬† might evens starve as many urban areas in the US are far larger than the agricultural space within a 100 mile radius around them can support. That aside, let’s continue with the matter at hand.

Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion, through my analysis of the issues regarding “locally”-made chocolate, that if you’re not local, it¬† does not help sell chocolate in the US. That’s why we closed up Aequare. I do think¬† that if we had had a store in the US, a mere geographical presence, a physical location, to sell from and to tell our story from, it would have helped our sales tremendously and may be made our story viable. But putting up a website these days, doing some marketing, and getting favorable blog reviews is just not enough. If you don’t have a massive marketing budget, most websites are akin to a billboard in the desert-hardly anyone can see it, let alone find it-and if they do, they’re¬† most likely to just keep on driving by.

It really comes down to this; do you want to spend your money on a product that is helping with local employment, contributing to economic activity in your backyard/neighborhood/town? Or, in the model we were trying to implement, would you rather support the “local” economy in a developing country, where the need for increased economic activity, livelihoods, and incomes is probably far greater than in your own backyard? The latter is just not compelling enough of a story for the average consumer.

Specifically, our aim was to produce chocolate in the country of origin, thereby helping create economic activity¬† in the local economy, while at the same time also contributing to economic activity in the country of sale…We wanted to add value in the country of origin-one of the major issues facing developing countries like Ecuador is that while resource rich, most of those resources, in the form of commodities, are shipped out of the country before being processed, and thus most of the added value is added in the developed world. Making this complicated concept clear to our customers¬†eluded us and probably completed eluded most consumers, and simply never got through.

The average consumer has a much easier time and is much more willing to immediately buy into the “Fair Trade” “Organic” or “RF Alliance” label immediately, rather than the whole idea of direct trade, “value added”¬† in the country of origin (a way too academic idea, I think, for most consumers, and one that requires too much explanation), which was the Aequare story. Another big problem is that unfortunately, I think many consumers in the US and Europe, for whatever reasons, associate FT or Organic or RF Alliance with premium quality, which is not the case at all, and the products are sometimese even inferior in taste and quality to conventionally grown products.

Is it better to by a chocolate product produced in the US, with chocolate made most likely made from either a US or European-based multinational, who buys beans on the international commodities market and then ships them to whatever country for processing? BTW, I have seen “Swiss” labeled chocolates, sold by Albert Uster, now being made in South Korea! And where was the chocolate processed? It is just this distorted, crazy movement of materials from one place to another that we were trying to avoid.

Another issue regarding local, and in our case, “single origin” as in only from Ecuador, and for that matter, only from some specific farms in Ecuador, is that there is little to no regulation (at least that I know of, please advise if I’m mistaken) about calling your chocolate product “single origin.” So you might have a bar with 70%, 60%, or even less beans from a single origin being mixed with beans from other parts of the world, and not even know it. Who controls this? Who regulates? It’s basically up to the manufacturer to prove where the beans in their “single origin” chocolate are coming from…if they can.

I think the best anyone can do, especially when it comes to chocolate, is to try and source as much of their materials for their final products (including packaging and services such as advertising, marketing, copywriting, etc) from nearby sources. But with the Internet, it’s hard to say if all this effort for local somehow has lost a great deal of meaning…

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Welcome to Destination Ecuador!

Welcome to Destination Ecuador! My family and I have been living in Ecuador for the last four and a half years. We’ve dealt with the worst kinds of red-tape, searched out or ended up making hard-to-find ingredients ourselves, imported equipment for making chocolate confections, learned the import-export business...Continue >>

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