Some things that I have learned my first month in Cuenca:
- All traffic signs are only suggestions to be obeyed at the whim of the driver.
- Right-of-way belongs to either the bravest or the least attentive. Either way, the gene pool is constantly being upgraded.
- Potholes are more prevalent on the sidewalks than on the roads.
- Every Gringo in Cuenca is either an artist or is writing a book.
- Much like avoiding ex-lax and sleeping pills on the same night, introducing a juice diet while under the stress of moving to a new country should be eschewed.
- In a land in which my five-foot wife is considered tall, I look as though I suffer from a pituitary disease. I now know how Gulliver felt and as such, I keep a keen eye out to make sure a group of Ecuadorians are not following me with ropes and stakes. Ironically, in a land populated by homunculi the only things larger than me in Cuenca are the store mannequins.
- Adjectives like large and small are relative. When you are 4’10” and 98 pounds (don’t ask me how many kilograms that is), large means something quite different than when you are 6’2" and 255 pounds. By Ecuadorian standards I am actually the size of a small car.
- In the U.S. bed sheets are categorized by their thread counts. In Ecuador they are categorized by grit size. I believe our last apartment's sheets were between 150 and 220.
- “Curb your dog” has an entirely new meaning in Cuenca. At first I thought that an epidemic of foot drop syndrome was sweeping Ecuador. Now I know differently.
- Car alarms are as ubiquitous as they are useless. At any given time a half dozen or more can be heard belching out their cacophonous refrain while no one, including the police, gives them even the slightest consideration. Conclusion: the safest place in Cuenca for a fugitive is inside a stolen car with its alarm is blaring.
In the Panama City airport I asked a couple of policeman where I might find "una sopa de café” which I thought meant a cup of coffee. What I ended up asking them was where I could get some coffee soup. They chuckled amongst themselves and, with a dismissive look and wave of their hand indicating a general location somewhere far away from them, they were off.
In Cuenca I had a similar disquieting moment when I asked a young lady “Como se llama tu chica” which is “What is your girl's name.” Her answer was “Varon” (pronounced "Baron"). I complimented the mother on having named her daughter such a cute name. So I started to call the little girl Baron, thinking that was her name. Unfortunately, varon means boy in Spanish. It was not until after we disengaged and walked away that Linda informed me that what she had been trying to tell this Gringo was that her child was not a little girl, but a little boy. So unless this baby is going to star in the next Tarzan movie as Jane and Tarzan’s child, I got the name wrong. I can't imagine being here by myself and trying to get along with my limited Spanish.
Not having my own transportation is a bit of a drag as well. The good news is that the buses run everywhere for only 25 cents, and a cab ride any place in the city is maximum three dollars. We've been doing quite a bit of walking, so the first few days were tough on my body due to the fact I am carrying enough excess weight to make it appear as though I have a small Ecuadorian family living inside my shirt. It doesn’t help that all this sauntering is done at 8,300 feet above sea level. The rarefied air of the Andes has presented me with a bit of a challenge to engage in even the most commonplace of activities - like breathing! A short walk to the local mercado leaves me panting like a Saint Bernard on a hot day. Once I catch my breath I will write more.
I had to get away from my routine to fully appreciate my life when compared to life here for many of the Cuencanos. I am blessed from a material standpoint, yet I come up wanting in so many other areas.
At the risk of sounding paternalistic, I have observed a contentment in the lives of so many of the people we have met who have nothing from my value system, that is sorely lacking in my own. When I say nothing I mean just that: nothing! They are up at daybreak toting heavy bags of fruit and vegetables or bundles of clothing to their vendor stands, and they do not close sometimes until well after dark. I see women selling trinkets as they stroll around the city with a child on one arm and one or two children trailing behind them. They have never had a thought of how well their 401k is doing or what their retirement will look like. I'm sure their thoughts are centered on how they will feed their family today.
Since we've been here, I have had the pleasure to meet Senor Luis Diaz. He is a 94 year old man who has been shining shoes in the same spot for 62 years, eating a bowl of soup in front of a 4 foot by 4 foot box, where he lives. When I first shook his rough-hewn hand, I felt every one of the 62 years that his shoe shine business had inflicted upon it - a rough, hard, dirty productive hand that had never once in all those years been stretched forth seeking charity from others, but rather only extended to invite others to allow him to ply his trade.
His wife, who used to sit next to him as he shined shoes for every one of those 62 years, took a bad fall and is in some sort of home for the indigent where he visits her every day. He told us that he now has nothing. My world has been turned upside down as daily I see all these hardworking people trying to eke out a living.
In our haste to leave the temporary confines of the first apartment we rented as our landing spot, we jumped from the proverbial pot into the fire. The place we were renting was a newly refurbished condo with all the modern accouterments one would find in the USA. Not really what we were looking for though! We had something with more of a touch of the old Cuenca in mind.
What we found in the second apartment certainly had a touch of “old Cuenca”, but the emphasis was on old and not so much on Cuenca. There were no windows, the faucets leaked, the showers didn't drain, the upstairs neighbors either moved furniture every night or had their own personal bowling alley, the neighbors downstairs fornicated like rabbits and the lavanderia (Laundromat) below us belched salsa music all day. So you ask, "other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”
We are now happily ensconced in our third, but not final, apartment in 3 1/2 weeks. At the end of February, we will move into our new digs that overlook the busiest street in all of Cuenca. Virtually all of the roughly 365 parades they have here proceed past our balcony, so we will have the equivalent of sky-box seats for every one of these ostentatious cavalcades the city has to offer.
Today’s oblation is called the Dia De Los Innocentes parade. City officials expect about 1,000 to participate in the parade with another 25,000 watching along the route. Like many of Cuenca’s festivals, the Day of the Innocents was originally a religious celebration that, over the years, took on the trappings of carnival. The event is intended as a remembrance of King Herod’s death sentence ordered for all Israeli new-born boys after the birth of Christ. The event is celebrated throughout Latin American. Cuenca's version is reportedly the largest in Ecuador and includes a competition for the best costumes and skits, many with satirical, political and social commentary themes. The event is notable for the army of boys and young men parading in women’s clothes although it also includes women dressed as men and a wide variety of devils, clowns and historic and fictional characters. You won’t want to miss this one!
I'll see if I can get Linda to take some pictures and send them along in our next blog post. Til then, be happy!! Life is short and so are Ecuadorians!!!