Sunday, 17 January 2016


Why walk a round trip of several kilometres to the city's hypermarket when there's more ethnic colour to be found just around the corner?

I would like to claim research, serendipity and exercise. A chance to measure the incursion of the 'global grazers' and the other trans-national emporiumists. A chance to find some new story or at least a new set of street arts. A chance to stretch some muscles that haven't been exercised whilst granny-grinding an Ecuadorean hill. Only the real reason is more prosaic.

The Forager wants to see what is available, what is possible. Because when small town foraging, you need to be able to recognise the dusty objects buried in the rafters, set deep within the murky depths of the market stall. There's never any self-service, just like there's never any price tag.

Mall del Rio was just like the many that we've checked out. It's morning, an empty silence of polished marble, a clamouring contrast to the manic confusion of the narrow colonial streets across town. An emptiness filled with expectant designer boutiques, imported sports trainers, luxury car lottery salesmen and empty massage chairs. Off to one side is the 'grazers' food-court', there to capture the cinema-goer, where local brands try to outstare the likes of Ronald and The Colonel. All offering overpriced fast-food with a side of chilli. But what we're here for is placed at the rear.

Couture for the well dressed lady dog.

The food author Michael Pollen's advice is to walk the outer reaches of a supermarket, avoid the centre and only choose items that which your grandmother would recognise. (Advice that will, for some, need recalibration, adding a Great to the Gran.) We ignore his maxim in the interest of pure research, and stroll up and down every aisle. It was worth it.

Of course there were stories and a narrative on a nation to be found. Where else would you expect to buy a twenty gallon stainless steel milk churn or non-slip auto clutch pedal pads, frilly-laced dog dresses or a 50 tonne bottle jack? Who knew that I might need them?

Our wanderings determine that salt has a sell-by date four months after I start to draw my pension, that flour can be purchased in pretty pastel patterned cotton sacks, that rice comes in six grades, that diet rusks are called 'toasts of air' and that we could buy a 10kg bag of either boiled sweets or sweet biscuits. We now know that there is little point in searching for tinned evaporated milk, (our Peruvian treat) or powdered cheese. But of much greater significance, there's shelves filled with ground coffee, which translates as a significant amount of time can now be devoted to assessment and tasting. We had gathered intelligence that there was a shop that specialised in coffee tastings, it figured high on our to-do list. Closed for the holidays. Just like the German bakery whose anticipation and promise had sustained us up that last big climb before we descended on town.

These wanders take time, the packaging's font is Spanified Minuscule. The forager has to re-perch her specs for each perusal. Having noted that, Ecuador has enacted 'traffic light' warnings for grease, salt, and sugar. Which does help in choosing for the dire warned red-lit carbs and calories.

She selects a salami, it has claims to artisanality, "better take two then", more importantly; it's got three artery clogging stop lights. We can always counter the vascular damage with 'healthy' bacillus infused yogurt.

As we walked across town, it became apparent from the accents which were surrounding us that there was a significant visitor and expat population of European and, in particular North American citizens. One of that's catered for by the bags of anaemic bagels, Nestle iced tea, Aunt Jemima's pancake mix and Hershey chocolate bars. Then for all those on an all inclusive expenses trip or a newly cleared mortgag, there's Nutella.

We then progress upstairs, hoping to reach the DIY and find a bottle of benzine or a can of alcohol. (For stove cooking purposes!) only to be waylaid by the toy shop. Passing shelf upon shelf stuffed with the next great mercantile event of the year: Giant Teddy Bear for St. Valentine. From there to the ranked regimen of China-built cycles branded as 'Relax' and 'Still Man'. Oxymoronic, if you assume these bikes are intended for the city's narrow cobbled streets with their impatient taxis. Or simply a metaphor for my protracted progress up an Ecuadorean hillside. Like the weird and wonderful inscriptions on the tee-shirts that barely conceal the over-endowed mannequins that are propped outside every ladies clothing shop, you have to wonder; to which random lexical search engine they turned.

The morning progresses. Slowly the store fills with shoppers and a conundrum. I turn down breakfast cereal canyon and find an Andean family, all three generations of ladies in traditional dress. I shouldn't be surprised: after all, I'm in their country, yet I especially notice them, where I wouldn't if they were outside on the other side of the street. Is it the juxtaposition of westernised shopping mall and this family, the same comparison, the same alienisim, as the gringo cyclists in the local market place? For our ethnicity seems to require the appropriate back-cloth to enable us to blend in, to be comfortable on a stage. Is this the real reason we've walked all the way across the city? The chance to wallow in a milieu, in a familiar, comprehensible place. A mild sedative from the concentration of abroad. It would appear that we still require that dilution to culture shock, even after all this time.

Satiated with our successful retail research, I'm ready to head back to the other world, to collect some ciclo-radical graffiti I saw in the distance, to stride out down the trail beside the river. When serendipity steps in. To understand our incredulous amazement, you need to know one incontrovertible fact; the 'shoe-shine boy' is always, without exception, male. Yet there before us is a 'shoe-shine' lady. Not one, but two 'shoe-shine' ladies. Like the incursions of the mall into Andean retailing, am I witnessing the imminent death of Latino machismo.