Thursday, June 14, 2012

living la vida cuenca

the "new" cathedral, built around 1885, downtown cuenca, ecuador.
after three weeks of laying on the beach in puerto lopez, ecuador we dragged our lazy butts out of our hammocks and made the seven hour bus journey up to cuenca, a spanish colonial city sitting at about 9,000 feet at the southern end of the "spine of the andes" that runs right through the country.

we actually stood on an ande. this trip continues to bring those kinds of moments. like "oh my god, we're floating on the irrawaddy river," or "holy cow, that's the black sea," or "check us out, we're actually crossing the mekong river," or "no way, you call this toilet paper?" moments of wonder.

so, back a few hundred years first: up here the spanish beat the incas in the 1550s (or somewhere around then, it depends on who you ask), and from what i understand, the incas were pissed. they'd just beaten the caƱari, a group of people who historically get the short end of the stick, and who put up quite a resistance to the great incan empire. just then, the spanish showed up, and we all know what happened next. ah well, today cuenca is a beautiful city with a lot of colonial architecture still intact and an extremely mellow way of life and a slow, lilting way of speaking spanish. and now here we are. history is easy!

overlooking the four rivers basin, otherwise known as cuenca, ecuador. that thing in the distance is a real ande.

we're still a little out of breath from the elevation but when people ask if we're ok we say, "oh yeah, we're just gasping at the architecture." i'm sure they're completely convinced. we got pretty lucky, too, as we're housesitting for a friend for one month and have the privilege of not only getting to know two very characterful bull terriers, but also living in an ecuadorian neighborhood, not a hotel in the tourist zone. not that we have anything against tourists! we happen to be a couple of them.   

things happen here that don't happen in our neighborhood back home. when we walk the dogs we pass people who just open their garage door, fire up a propane flame and roast a whole pig. then later in the evening, they put out plastic chairs and sell a dish of roasted pig with some potatoes or mote (big kernels of bland corn) and fried plaintains for a couple of dollars. or the woman who has been cooking on the street for 18 years. she just sets up a grill, fries some potatoes and grills kebabs of tripe and chicken. no health code, no safety code, nothing but great food. stray dogs everywhere. now that's not a bonus as it makes the walks with our two new canine friends a little more challenging, but ecuadorians have a very different mindset toward the ownership of dogs than americans. spaying? um, no. not even a concept. 

is there anyone who doesn't like ice cream?
it takes us about 15 minutes to get into "el centro," the center of old-town. cost of a bus ride? 25 cents! and in the center of town? history around every corner mixed with new restaurants mixed with old buildings mixed with catholicism leaking out of every crack in the pavement. and chola cuencanas, indigenous people of native american descent but specifically from the area around cuenca. they're selling everything from newspapers to vegetables to socks to empanadas to... well, everything. or they're grazing their cattle along the tomebamba river that runs through the city, or washing their clothes and laying them out to dry on the banks. and boy, it's confusing when you see them coming toward you. first you see the bright colors of their clothes and you think "what's a child doing in this crowd?" and then you realize, no, wait, that's a 4'5" woman in a skirt and a montecristi. walk it off, walk it off... or, sometimes, they're just hanging around eating ice cream like the rest of us.

4'5", tops. 

now, if you want to upset a native cuencan, and you shouldn't since they're some of the nicest people on the face of the planet (thank you, kind neighbor lady who pointed us toward the best chuzos in town!), call that hat they're wearing a "panama hat." 'cause it ain't.

the real, and full, name for that fine headgear is a "sombrero de paja toquilla," or "toquilla-straw hat." toquilla is actually a palm, but i'm no botanist, and 'montecristi' is a town in ecuador that's renowned for its fine weaving tradition going back more than 400 years.

remember that history lesson earlier? well, the spanish started exporting these through their port in panama and out to the rest of the world, so people called them "those panama hats." the winners write history. it's easy! 

well, we got a few more weeks here trying to live like locals. we'll report back.


  1. Totally gratified by the hat history. It's easy!

    1. ooo, "gratified." glad to be of service!


  2. Replies
    1. i love it! great pun. almost embarrassed that i hadn't thought of it myself. well played, indeed.