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Title: Be aware of the mustard trick Location: Cuenca, Ecuador
After a cup of coffee at my hostel, I went for a stroll around town. It was a beautiful morning, nice breeze, and people chatting on the street corners. Suddenly, a man tapped me on the shoulder and said in Spanish, "Sir, you have mustard all over the back of your pants." I turned and was surprised to see bright yellow mustard squirted all over the back of my legs. "Come over here. There is a bathroom here where you can clean up." His disingenuous offers only angered me more. The bastard took me for a fool. His ruse was so transparent. Every traveler knows the friendly stranger "let me help while my friends rob you" trick. My friend had warned me about it after his travels in Chile. I immediately grabbed him by the waist and threw him down. I grabbed the mustard device hidden behind his chair and squirted it in his face!
Actually, that did not happen. My retaliation was much more passive, I'm ashamed to say. My face became fiery red, like ketchup, and I managed to mutter, "I know you squirted mustard on my pants." That's it. It was awful.
So, I had to walk back to the hostel in disgrace, dripping of mustard, and change pants. I then did some breathing exercises and headed back out.
In one sense, I was lucky because while I was changing, the police were shooting tear gas at demonstrators in the main square. There seems to be strong and widespread opposition to the Tratado del Libre Comerco (Free Trade Agreement) that Bush is advocating. When talking politics with cuencanos, three names always come up: Che, Hugo Chavez, and Diego Maradona. Quite a trio! Anti-Americanism is strong and seems to be getting stronger. Most of the cuencanos I met, however, enjoyed discussing politics with me and showed great hospitality.
The rest of the day was wonderful. I ran into Buffalo and Claudin, again (the gringo trail is so narrow. everyone walking around with the same Lonely Planet in their hand), had lunch, took a salsa class, and met a fantastic group of people from all over the world. That night some friends and I went out for a couple drinks before practicing our new dance moves at the local salsateca.
As we walked down an eerily quiet street, two bastards (not the mustard bastard or the bastard child living near Laguna Quilatoa) came flying at us on a bike. We all scattered out of the way. I heard a "Tchhhhh" as they went by but thought nothing of it. Three seconds later, my eyes and lips felt like they were burning. They had pepper-sprayed us! It had been a direct hit. Of the eight of us, five were struggling to open our eyes, including me. Patricia had it the worst. I decided to head home, but the rest of the Cuenca crew, the good sports they were, went to the salsateca anyway, even though some of them felt like their faces were burning off. I went home and did some more breathing exercises.
Despite the petty crime, Cuenca has a wonderful charm. Good restaurants and funky bars are tucked into every corner, and unlike so many other touristy towns, Cuenca isn't divided into tourist and non-tourist sections. Everyone hangs out together. I liked it so much I stayed for eight days. I took more salsa classes, some Spanish immersion classes, and went hiking and biking in the Cajas National Park.
On Saturay I got an email from a friend in Guayaquil inviting me to spend Thanksgiving at the beach. I love Cuence, and I will be back, but I'm off to get some sun...