Apparently This Matters: The Column
"Obvio que escogió el blanco."
"What did she say?"
"She said, 'Of course he chose the white one.'"
My girlfriend had translated the Spanish of a little old lady in the small mountain town of Caraz, Peru - about eight hours north of Lima. I had just sentenced a guinea pig to death. The white one.
In the Andean regions of South America, guinea pig is seen as a delicacy. They call it cuy. Conversely, in the United States, guinea pig is seen as a mildly entertaining starter pet. We called ours Sam.
Which makes the fact that I had just ordered the execution of a guinea pig that much more disturbing. Our family used to have one. And now, years later on a different continent, I was sending Sam's distant cousin into a deep fryer.
I felt a little guilty. The little old lady didn't seem to care.
I'm reminded of this particular story - which I'll return to in a moment - after recently stumbling on an article where I learned that in Switzerland it's illegal to own just one guinea pig. According to law, all guinea pigs must have a buddy.
To be fair, it's probably not a well-enforced law. The likelihood of a smartly-planned, highly-organized guinea pig police raid seems rather low. Busting corrupt FIFA officials comes first.
But it's still sort of fun and cute to know that the Swiss government cares so dearly about the mental health of these furry, social animals. Clearly, life must be pretty good when two of your nation's top priorities are the welfare of guinea pigs and the general availability of chocolate.
"Sven, we're out of fudge."
"But do we have two guinea pigs?"
"Then we'll be OK."
Of course, Switzerland's two-guinea-pigs-at-a-time law begs the question: What happens when one dies?
(Not in the cosmic sense. Obviously, all dead guinea pigs go to heaven.)
But, from a legal standpoint, what do you do when one of your guinea pigs eventually passes away?
Do you simply enter into a never-ending cycle of replacing your old dead guinea pig with a fresh new one, only to have the fresh new one become old and dead, and eventually replaced by another fresh new guinea pig?
Like some sort of sick, twisted M.C. Escher mortality joke.
So, to help with this particularly vexing logic puzzle, there exists in Switzerland - for real - guinea pig rental services, where owners can literally rent a second guinea pig to be a life companion to their surviving guinea pig. And the rental can later be returned to the guinea pig farm after days, weeks, or even years.
You know. As needed.
Such services don't exist in Peru. Andean guinea pigs might very well go to heaven, but they also go to the small intestine.
Which brings us back to Caraz in December 2013, when I informed our mountain guide that I hoped to try a traditional cuy dish.
It was time to eat a damn guinea pig!
(Though, I hadn't yet set my focus on a white one, necessarily. Just a guinea pig. In general.)
However, obtaining one was actually more difficult than I thought it would be. In fact, it sort of felt like a drug deal.
After spending the day hiking around nearby lakes and mountains, our guide drove us back through town and stopped at two places he thought might have cuy. Neither of them did.
Finally, we stopped at a third location. Our guide told us to wait in the car as he, this time, walked down a long dusty path that led around to the back of a building. Minutes later, he re-emerged from the bend and waved me and Carolina to follow him.
We'd scored some guinea pig.
The path led to a basic, rugged brick house with dirt floors, and, inside, we met the aforementioned little old lady who, mind you, could not have been any more adorable. At least for a ruthless guinea pig killer.
She soon walked us to a cramped room in the back where, against the wall, we found a small cage with guinea pigs - maybe six or seven.
They didn't seem overly excited to be there. Unlike the dog and the chicken who both appeared relatively happy and more or less free to just roam around the house.
The guinea pigs were political prisoners. Thus, to this day I still write the whole thing off, morally, as a mercy killing.
"Which one do you want?" she asked me in Spanish.
I wasn't prepared to choose. But, on the other hand, I like documenting my travels. So, using the only bit of sound logic I could muster, I quickly determined that the white guinea pig might be easier to identify in photographs.
"That one, " I said, pointing at my dinner.
"Obvio que escogió el blanco."
The lady told us to come back in an hour when everything would be ready. And I appreciated not having to actually watch the execution. I'm a carnivore. But the guilty, self-loathing type.
An hour later we drove back, and, by then, it was dark. We had to use head torches to light the path leading to the house. But our meal was prepared and waiting in a bag. One deep fried guinea pig and a bunch of potatoes.
Finally, we arrived back at our hostel and sat in the dining room to enjoy our food. Carolina with her potatoes. And me with my heavily deep fried guinea pig.
The white one.
It was golden brown now, and I picked at it in a disheartened attempt to find some actual meat. I'm sort of a picky eater to begin with, so this dinner was a crapshoot from the start.
Thus, I was fully prepared for my disappointment.
The taste of the cuy was similar to rabbit, I suppose. But very greasy. And hardly worth the effort or the cost - which I believe was the equivalent of about $20.
After only a few bites, I decided my adventure with guinea pig was over. I would eat potatoes for the rest of the night. Yet, at the same time, I desperately didn't want to waste my food.
Especially a delicacy.
I asked Carolina - who is Peruvian - if it would be rude or weird to offer my leavings for the staff of the hostel. She explained that a free cuy would be more than welcome.
So I ate potatoes, and the staff happily devoured the rest of my meal. When they were done, it was literally just a pile of tiny bones. They'd sucked it clean, leaving only skeletal remains of my guinea pig.
The white one.