In a cloud of diesel exhaust and dust, the vendor boarded the hot and crowded bus carrying his goods on a tray attached to an old guitar strap he had slung around his neck. The long brown fingers of his right hand held colorful peso bills, carefully folded to stick up proudly like the tail of some exotic bird. In his other hand, he carried small plastic bags, some filled with warm Coke and others with peanuts. But my eyes were drawn to the open-weave basket on his head. It appeared to be filled with rocks.
He raised his eyebrows as if encouraged by my attention. Hopeful for a sale, the vendor carefully lowered the basket down to my eyes with his money hand.
“Balut,” he said with pride. I peered at the objects nestled in his basket and cringed. Half-a-dozen gray-green eggs nestled carefully inside. At the pointed end of each egg, a penny-sized piece of shell had been pulled away , creating a jagged opening through which I could see bloody veins stretching out like highways across a gelatinous mass inside.
Gritting my teeth, I glanced across the aisle at the toothless Filipina woman next to the window. She had been the vendor’s first customer. Carefully, with ancient, clawed fingers, she cupped one of the duck eggs in her hands. She peeled the brittle shell half-way down, revealing the form of a duckling perfectly curled inside the boiled membrane. Head tucked to one side, webbed feet pressed against the oval form, the bird looked as if it was sleeping.
The old woman sprinkled the egg with coarse sea salt. Instantly, it glittered with liquid, transparent liquid that oozed up and ran down where the salt drew it out. Then quickly, fiercely, the woman sank her teeth into the bird’s flesh, loudly slurping the juices and crunching the bones. She ate the head, feet, and body of the fully incubated bird with childish delight.
I sat transfixed, unable to avert my gaze though my stomach twisted and curled like the road beneath the bus. I could not even turn away when she began to spit the bird’s feathers out of her mouth and onto the floor. Suddenly, she thrust her forefinger and thumb between her lips and withdrew a small, pointed object. It was the duck’s beak. With apparent satisfaction, she settled back into her seat and began to use it to pick her decaying teeth.
The vendor had been patient enough until now. He nudged me with his elbow and extended his open palm, in which rested another heavy, gray-green egg. Through his smiling, hospitable teeth he said in accented English, “Now you.”