A beef mouth hangs open on the market stall, face, head, body no longer attached to the gaping lips and protruding teeth, the cheek insides lined with rows of gill-like furs, part of cow anatomy I truthfully never consider before this visual affront.
The sight of the solitary cow muzzle slows us down, putrid, churning even my belly despite this being the umpteenth local market I walk, the countless time I see dead animal hanging next to fresh produce, people walking to and fro.
Then, we practically lurch forward.
Hands clasped over mouth, even my eyeballs–and, they’re old pros at this point in the shock-and-awe game–grow wide in disbelief: Before us is a stack of the same faceless cow muzzles, grey-brown with the color of death, a pyramid of teeth, lips, gums, and cheeks, nostrils big and black.
Regretfully, we are too stunned to photograph the scene, caught in a no man’s land of wanting to simultaneously hurry past to forget, forget, forget! and slow to a crawl to absorb it all, equally stupefied at what one possibly does with cow muzzle yet fascinated by what using every part of the animal actually looks like.
I turn to face Graham, for the minute we step into the hangar, I know this will not be his scene, tight alleys of vendors and market stalls, all packed with people. Long before we make it to the back rows of food stalls and stacks of muzzle, I see his body clench his midline, claustrophobia and disgust a slow boil sure to peak at any given moment.
By now, Graham is ready to jump out of his skin, and I, too, admittedly, lose my appetite and could stand a dose of fresh air. He shoots me the Jack Nickolson look, somewhere between The Shining and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I know it’s only a matter of time before my Cracker implodes into a pile of cultural overload.
We are at the Mercado de San Pedro, burning through our morning before railing up to Aguas Calientes for–ta da!–Machu Picchu tomorrow. Legitimately in need of a few tidbits for lunch and hiking fare, we head to Cusco’s main market to satisfy our lunch pails and curiosities.
Already at the entrance, the square overflows with activity, Peruvian ladies selling everything from dried armadillos to palm frond prayers, goods fanned around them, and we dive into the depths of the covered marketplace. Inside, we happily stumble upon the row of clothing and souvenir vendors, face-to-face with a correctly-sized, blue striped alpaca sweater for Graham, arms and body long enough to cover a tall man in a short land.
For me, this is totally awesome, and I take in the sights and activity and smells and hustle and bustle like a kid in a candy store. With all types and slabs of meat and seeds and nuts and fruits and veggies and breads and potatoes and sweets around us, I fixate on the mounds of neon fish eggs the Peruvians covet in small and large doses. We are literally hundreds of miles from the ocean and equally far from a large body of water, yet the presence of aquarian life defies the odds and recalls lessons from my undergraduate anthropology classes–archaeological forays into how the SouthWest Native Americans meet at Pueblo Bonito to trade desert delicacies for smidgens of dried shellfish, the nutrients offered by seafood revered even in places theoretically completely divorced from its bounty.
So, to see it here, Peruvian ladies buying up equal parts fish and fish eggs and crustacean wows, a testament to it being both la semana sacrada and to seafood’s importance in human nutrition the world over.
No time to marvel in the cultural implications of the San Pedro Market, though, as I see Graham’s eyes reflect cultural overload back at me, he feeling the same sense of dépaysement I feel in India and at the Beijing market, and yep, we reach the boiling point–
“I want to go home,” my big man expresses, and I feel him, as Peru is the most foreign of all the countries we visit together thus far, and really, it’s the little things that unravel and disorient.
Graham looks a mixture of horror and disgust, and all there is to do is beeline it to an early lunch for a breather, a bite at a place that could very well be home–Jack’s.
On the way, we pass another market, and I bite my tongue.
Not now, I tell my inner curious cat.