I love the rag-tag, gritty, miserable looking circuses that travel the megalopolises and small towns and villages of Latin America. It’s been a while since we’ve seen one, but there’s one just down the street now. It’s called Circo Azteca. This was not Cirque du Soleil; in fact, it was the poorest circus I’ve ever seen, but entertaining nonetheless. My last few experiences in Latin American Circuses were better. I saw the Hermanos Gasca circus in Nicaragua, and became a participant when the Gaucho from Argentina decided I’d be the perfect candidate to demonstrate his skill with bolas, a traditional weapon consisting of two rock hard balls attached to the end of a leather strip, which are spun around at high speed. These he used to knock a cigarette out of my mouth, as they swung past my face within a hair’s breath of my nose.
We bought our tickets early, $2 each for front row seats. I guess you could equate the quality of the circus with the price of the tickets, though in my mind, this little flea circus “Circo Azteca” was just about as entertaining as the multi-media, overwhelm-your-senses Barnum & Bailey’s productions they do nowadays. They just didn’t have big screens, didn’t hold it in a major sports arena, and didn’t have massive lights, noise, and colors going on for $85 or more. They also held it in a vacant lot near the center of town. Next to the small sawmill on the lot they were growing some tomatoes among construction debris and trash-I found this little urban patch rather enterprising.
Since there is not a lot of internet access in private households (and not a lot of regulation) the traditional advertising vehicle was parked just out front, with loudspeaker securely attached to the roof. There are no police to stop you from blaring whatever message you’d like to from loudspeakers attached to your car, so this is a pretty frequent means of advertising throughout Ecuador.
Next to the trailer and parking area was the ticket window.
The floor was the grass of the vacant lot, and the seats were cheap patio chairs made of plastic like the kind you can pick up at your local Wal-Mart. The tent was full of holes and missing stitching in many places.
When we got inside just past the guy collecting our tickets, another man stopped us and told us we’d be undercharged and we needed to pay another $2. Wonderful customer service. We didn’t have much choice but to pay up; there wasn’t a manager or anyone to complain to. The whole circus might have had 15 employees in total.
There were only three main acts of any kind of major skill. These included a man who knotted himself up and down a giant sheet hanging from the circus tent, a girl who did all kinds of things with hula hoops, and a woman who balanced barbie dolls, umbrellas, and other things on her chin.
The whole show was 2 full hours, even though it started a half hour late. The circus clowns joked about planning to move on to Bogota, Colombia for their next show, but not having enough money to do so just yet. I can believe it.
Selling our products is a fine way to meet people and find other great products. There are a number of small artisan food producers in Quito and in other parts of Ecuador, and we have the good fortune of working with many of them. I’m going to try and profile some of the great people, and especially their products, during the next couple of months. We have met many of them during holiday bazars and at the mini “farmer’s market”, held at the house of a German family every Saturday from 9-2 in Tumbaco, just outside Quito.
Local food in Ecuador is not an oxymoronic term as it so often is in the US. This is one aspect of food in Ecuador that is taken for granted. Nearly everything fresh can be considered “local.” From Ipiales in the northernmost part of Ecuador at the Colombian border, to Huaquillas in the South at the Peruvian border, its 346.1 miles. If you’re in Quito, then your about 250 miles from Huaquillas and little more than 150 or so from Ipiales. So all your fresh produce is never more then 100-200 miles away, but in all likelihood it’s from a lot closer in, under 100 miles most of the time. The geographical variation makes it easy to get guanabana, passion fruit, and bananas from the coast or the Amazon, and highland staples like potatoes and carrots. But on to our foodie friends.
Regina Schimmele is one of the great people we’ve met, and she makes a number of fantastic goat cheeses. She’s German but has lived in Ecuador over ten years, and learned her cheese-making skills during a one-week course in Austria. She must have learned a lot in that one week, because her cheeses are spectacular.
The cheese are sold in several small stores in Quito and she is a regular, always at the Tumbaco Biormercado. She sells it under the “Black Forest” brand. Too bad it’s not for export because it would be a hot item.
Regina has her own flock of goats, but also buys milk from another local goat herder, and makes all the cheeses at her house. She also sells fresh oyster mushrooms from the amazon, a number or quinoa and amaranth products, hearts of palm from the family farm, and a few baked goods.
You can find all kinds of fresh produce and goodies you won’t find elsewhere; fennel, carrots, potatoes, a variety of lettuces, and herbs, rhubarb and rhubarb pie, fresh sauerkraut and breads, german bratwurst and other sausages, smoked salmon and trout, passion fruit preserves, and other good stuff.
There are no regulations to follow here, no standards to adhere to, but since it’s a private market and everything is fresh and homemade, it’s of the best quality. But let’s cover the cheeses for now.
The chevre with herbs, the 2 month or 3 month aged hard cheese, the goat cheese ricotta, or the brie, I can never decide which one to pick they are all so delicious. Whenever I can, I am over at Regina’s table munching on samples. I usually end up going home with at least two different kinds, and Regina likes to barter with me for our chocolate covered almonds. The chevre is a tangy, smooth cream cheese, best served when it’s soft and spreadable. It’s got chives, parsley, dill and a few other herbs mixed in, and some fresh garlic. My five year old son devours crack after cracker covered with it. The hard cheese is slighly sharp, nicely tangy. The ricotta is one of our favorites; I often get it half price because I don’t think a lot of people here know what to do with it so it’s not a big mover. We like to serve it mixed with a tomato and mushroom sauce over pasta. As it breaks up it clings nicely to the noodles and adds a farm-fresh cream flavor, heightening the tomatoes and accenting the mushrooms. Are you hungry yet?
Most of the year goes by without having to deal with too much corruption, but permit renewal is one period when I sometimes ask myself just why I put up with it. Every year around this time, we have to renew our health permit. It doesn’t matter that we already run a clean shop, abide by higher than normal hygiene, and do our best to make sure our products are safe and clean. The authorities are willing to recognize that. What they’re not willing to do is let anyone get away with being law abiding without paying a hefty fee, which is really all that matters to them.
This year, as usual, things have changed since last year. Instead of simply getting our health permit renewed, we now needed an inspection from the Fire Department. Last year we were supposed to have a fire department inspection, but in spite of contacting the fire department and setting up an appointment, they never showed up and never issued a permit.
But our “expediter” who is actually the same guy who issues the health permit from the Ministry of Healthy, insisted it was necessary that the inspection be carried out. He needed the inspection report from the FD before he could issue the permit.
After waiting several weeks, a man from the Fire Department showed up when we were out of town. This he made clear to us on his second visit; his motive for making this clear was cash. Since most government agencies don’t have budgets for things like transportation, it had cost him to come once and cost him again to come twice, and he insinuated that some kind of “compensation” should be given for having had to make two trips, since had to pay cab fare, or bus fare, to arrive.
During his inspection, he noted that we needed a 10 pound chemical powder fire extinguisher, in addition to the five pound one we already had, properly situated emergency evacuation lights, and smoke detectors in all four rooms of our workshop. He sat slowly making his notes and purposely forging an uncomfortable silence, obviously waiting for some offer of cash which would just make this all easily go away.
What he got was acceptance on our part to comply with the request, and no cash. He wasn’t happy about it. The form he left us noted what was needed; once we had put in place the requested items, then he or someone else would be back to re-inspect and have the form signed off on by the head of the fire department. But he didn’t really want to come back-he wanted the cash so he wouldn’t have the onerous burden of actually having to do his job.
We called our “expediter” at the Ministry and told him we had the inspection report. He told us straight-out we really didn’t need to actually comply with the requested items on the report. A copy of it sent over to him would suffice; my guess is he knows the fire department chief and would get it signed off on, probably sharing with the Chief a portion of the “fee” we pay him to get the permit issued.
At the same time, he sent us a form to sign off on stating that we would comply with the request in the Fire Department’s report within 90 days, and if we did not do so the Health Ministry had the right to revoke our permit. But of course, he is the Health Ministry, or at least he is the official in charge of enforcing the Health Ministry’s issuing of permits-so this form will probably just end up buried deep in some rusty file cabinet in some shadowy and dusty half-abandoned file storage closet in the Ministry. Ah, such is corruption!