So it happens that I have come to find a certain fondness for one particular fruit stand over the rest. It certainly isn’t one anyone else would notice. Especially not in this region of Ecuador; where every imaginable dusty street corner is home to one. And then some. Fruit is everywhere here and I am in heaven. Bruising in a basket in any tienda window, carefully displayed beneath palapa stands on the highway, dangling from beneath umbrellas attached to bicycle carts, even bobbing to and fro in the back of makeshift pickup trucks. Fruit is life here. It is the essence on the wind, swirled up into the salty air, in a combination of nature’s most intoxicating perfume.
I have tried so many unimaginable fruits here, from furry to slimy, tiny to oversized, sour to sweet to bitter…and sometimes flavors and textures indescribable. Learning the crazy names of these edibles, is like trying to the learn riddles from Eve’s own book of garden debauchery. But, I try in my earnest, to impress the fruit keepers with my knowledge and love of all things grown around our home.
These guardians of the fruit, they have been the first set of ears, the first set of smiles, the first unwilling victims at my feeble attempts to speak Spanish. And so it goes, that they often tease me and taunt me and applaud me for my miserable sabotage. But, as my confidence grows, I dare to step out a bit further, guessing rather than asking, when I see a new one that I vaguely recognize.
This is where I get into trouble, as I am not the type that wears confidence well. I’m more like the monkey that hides behind a tree, hoping no one will notice me there. And when I’m caught eye to eye with the vendors, my cheeks swell up and turn pink. Yes, I am 33, and I still embarrass hopelessly easily.
But, this particular fruit stand is a quite a bit out of our way, considering we bypass at least a half a dozen others in pursuit of this one particular hut. A couple of girls run the place, and occasionally a young man is around too, I presume either a husband or brother. And if we stay around long enough, little toes poke out from the creaky bamboo door, followed by sparkling black eyes that peer up at me with curiousity. These people are so humble and so intoxicatingly happy. And it’s just this simple: they sell the best fruit in town.
These ladies wield a machete like something I could only imagine in a movie, tossing aside pieces of coconut and dropping in a straw, in one smooth sweep, as if nothing more significant that tucking their hair behind their ear. They stand on their tippy toes to reach the bananas at the very top of the bunch, only willing to share the most perfect gem. And they effortlessly run their fingers across the fruit; tap tap, tapping the skins, picking the perfect one. Ripe for today, tomorrow, or from yesterday (for juicing). It isn’t possible to lie, they wouldn’t dream of it, or likely even conceive of it. Only the best for everyone.
A few days ago, we took the short drive to pluck up a couple of bags of goodies, nature’s candy if I might. I soon spotted a pile of some of my Ecuadorian favorites, which I hadn’t seen in a while. The fuzzy grayish- brown skin makes me think of the innocent coat of seal pup. It is shaped like an acorn, only it’s the size of my palm. And inside, is the most divine stringy, fleshy, orange fruit that somehow smells just like corn silk and tastes a bit like squash.
I marched straight for it, hands in the air, declaring a need for half a dozen zapatos! And this pretty twenty-something Latina burst into the grandest smile I had ever seen, and I knew that she must be so proud of me. For she knew she has not taught me this word. But, no, I was wrong. I misjudged her pride for unfiltered candor. She quickly ducked her eyes beneath her lashes and tried to cover her smile with the tips of her fingers. But, her friend in the back round betrayed her, and soon enough their giggles filled the air around me as they struggled to compose their amusement. Finally, she quietly and shyly spoke to me, holding up the prized fruit. “No, Senora, No. Estas son ZAAAPPPOOOTTES, no Zapatos”.
Before the words left her mouth, I knew my mistake, and I couldn’t help but giggle, too, even if my cheeks blossomed as if I’d had too much sun. My friends, I had asked the fruit princess….for six shoes.