Everyone in Cuenca, Ecuador knows me as The Gringo Gordo (The Fat American). They could just as easily call me The Tall American. I am a head taller than almost everyone. They could call me The Blond American or The Rich American. I would prefer they call me The Strong American, The Good American, or The Fair American.
My fatness seems to be what they focus on.
They don’t say it behind my back. They say it as if it were a title of honor. Anytime I carefully fold myself into a taxi slightly bigger than a suitcase, I can usually expect to hear, “Oh, Señor, you are so tall and so fat!” in admiration.
Once, after directing me to the fifth floor, a receptionist winked and said, “Maybe you should take the stairs. The elevator is only big enough for four skinny Ecuadorians.” I was alone.
In their culture being fat is good. After generations of worrying if you will be able to feed your children tomorrow, wanting to have a little extra weight is not a bad goal. They realize that obesity is not the ideal, but they would rather have the luxury of worrying about the consequences of excess than scarcity. They are like Tevia in Fiddler on the Roof, who, after hearing money is a curse, said, “May the Lord smite me with it. And may I never recover.
“May the Lord smite me with it. And may I never recover.”
— Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof
Some have always called me The Gringo Gordo, but the day my title became official has become a legend in the market. I needed to go to the market to “buy some bananas.”
I love the market. It has a life of its own. You don’t just stroll through the market as you would a mall. It is like an exotic expedition: pyramids of polished fruits; winding jungle-like trails with animal entrails, lingerie, and blankets hanging down like vines; chunks of ice floating like icebergs in glass barrels filled with tropical fruit drinks sweating in the sun; meadows of fresh flowers, herbs and spices; shish kabobs sizzling over charcoal; a cacophony of aromas beckoning in languages foreign to your nose; streams of brightly dressed people pulsing like life blood through the body of the market.
I blend in at the market like a white elephant blends in with a herd of horses. The attention I get in the market is like the attention a silicone-enhanced, blond bombshell gets wearing a bikini to a church picnic. When I enter the market only a few stare openly, but everyone is aware of where I am and what I’m doing. It’s good for my ego, and like the bombshell, I mistakenly assume all the attention represents admiration and respect.
At one side of the market is an ancient looking scale. The oiled surface of the worn iron platform glistens in the tropical sun like the moist skin of its ancient owner, Jose. For a few coins you can weigh a crate of bananas, yourself, or anything you like.
When we first moved to Ecuador, we did not have a house scale. After a month or two my pants were feeling loose. Melodie, my wife, said it was because hand-washed, line-dried clothes, like their owners, tend to loosen up a little more than their machine-handled American counterparts. At that time we decided it was cheaper to hire a maid who worked for a dollar a day than it was to buy a washer and dryer.
I was sure I had lost weight, or at least I told Melodie I was sure. I wanted to weigh myself but not with Melodie around. So, I had planned this solo trip to the market.
The morning sun seemed to arrive at the market just when I did. It’s rays burned slanted golden bars through the fragrant steam rising from the food stalls.
I didn’t go directly to the scale. I meandered through the vegetable section, then through the dried beans.
I finally ended, looking at some bananas at a stall right next to the scale.
There were two people in line waiting for the scale: a small bent man with a sack of potatoes who reminded me of the Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Quasimodo and a stately indigenous woman wearing a billowy pleated, red felt skirt and holding a large bowl heaping with fresh cheese. I self-consciously stood in line behind them. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a mother lowering her crate of mandarin oranges. She nudged her daughter and pointed towards me as if to say, “This should be good. The Gringo Gordo is at the scale.”
As soon as it became apparent that I was waiting to be weighed, the two in front of me stepped aside and let me go first. This was more out curiosity than out of courtesy.
Jose, the owner of the scale, was aware that everyone in the market had shifted in order to have a good view of his scale. He bowed slightly and waved me graciously onto his scale as if he had been inviting royalty into his home. “Would you like to be weighed in pounds or kilos?” he asked, a little too loudly.
“Or toneladas (tons)?” quipped Quasimodo, who was now sitting on his sack of potatoes. There was a wave of snickers from the growing number of people who were pretending not to watch.
“Pounds,” I said quietly.
“I will weigh The Gringo Gordo in pounds,” Jose announced officially.
With great deliberation Jose placed the large weight on the 150-pound mark and then ceremoniously slid the small weight from 0-50. The balance arm stayed up! There was a ripple of comments as everyone realized The Gringo Gordo weighed more than 200 pounds.
Jose slid the small weight back to zero, placed the large one on the 200, gently shook his hands, blew on his sweaty fingers, and slowly slid the small weight from 0-50 again. The balance arm stayed up yet again. A collective gasp filled the market followed by excited chatter.
Jose held up his hands to silence the anxious crowd. He returned the small weight to 0 and placed the large weight on 250. With a wave he invited Quasimodo to get off his sack of potatoes and act as a witness. Quasimodo immediately understood his role and stood by Jose’s side.
Trying to stand as straight as he could, Quasimodo watched as Jose slid the small weight carefully across the balance arm. As he passed 25 the balance arm lowered a bit and everyone seemed to hold their breath as Jose carefully tapped the weight to 27, then back to 25, then finally to 26. The balance arm was suspended exactly in the middle. Jose looked questioningly at Quasimodo who gave his nod of approval. Coming around to the front of the scale and raising his arms like a circus barker, Jose called out in his finest announcer’s voice, “The Gringo Gordo weighs 276 pounds!”
The crowd erupted in hoots, laughs, and applause. The old man slapped me on the back. A tiny shoe-shine boy was patting my stomach. I was a celebrity. I pulled out a coin to pay. Jose refused saying, “Free today! You are the fattest man I have ever weighed.”
I went home and announced to my wife and kids that I was a hero. I had lost 15 pounds.