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Expat Life

Cruzando el Puente

Alba and Viviana grew up together along the banks of the Río Yanuncay, west of Cuenca. Their meager casas were separated by five minutes of steep and broken path that passed near the river. Lives were simple yet difficult with hard work and long hours filling the days of all people, even children, in the area. Neither family had the where-with-all to own a string of dairy cows, much less a herd. Means for income was mostly relegated to coaxing cabbages and carrots from small plots of rocky soil adjacent to the families’ homes. Those harvests were then transported into Cuenca by whatever means available and sold on the streets or in local mercados.

As the years passed and both Alba and Viviana matured quickly. They were both married and with first children in their mid-teens. This was the nature of life in El Campo. Their husbands found what work they could as Alba and Viviana harvested vegetables and carried them to the market for sale. With babies at their breasts and baskets on their backs, they trudged up the steep path they had played on as young girls only a few years earlier. Every morning was the same, they gathered along Via-Soldados to catch the green bus into the city, deeply bent under their burdens.

Soon enough, the young sons and daughters of Alba and Viviana were helping with planting, harvesting and cooking. There wasn’t any responsibility unknown to these children. The children attended school a little more than half the time, which was far more education than Alba and Viviana had received. The children soon blossomed into young men and women and took their own mates. After all this time, Alba and Viviana still made their way to Mercado Feria Libre every morning. In the late afternoons, with baskets hopefully more empty than full, they boarded the bus in the city paying 25 cents for the long ride home. Past San Joquin and high into the Yanuncay Valley they rode home where more work waited for them.

After signaling the driver to stop by the row of eucalyptus that lined that part of the road, they gathered their belongings from under the bus and began their trek home by first crossing the Río Yanuncay. The covered bridge they used had been rebuilt on several occasions. During the last hundred years, tumultuous spring flood waters had torn it from it’s footings a dozen times. After crossing the splintered and warped wooden planks, they would then be greeted with friendly ground thumping tail wags by two dirty white dogs of their tiny barrio. It was on one of these afternoons that Alba, Viviana and I chanced to meet.

I was watching from a small patch of shade adjacent to the hard-packed dirt road. They had just finished their encounter with the two dogs and were nearing the path that would take them along the river and to their respective homes. Alba was bent over, her black shawl being used to keep her heavy basket in place. She had only a view of the ground and, as she swayed under load, her broad brimmed blue hat almost fell from her head. The brightly embroidered hem of Viviana’s traditional skirt sashayed to and fro as she tightly gripped her shouldered basket with one hand. The other hand held a small bag of eggs, they were the makings of supper that she had traded some of her vegetables for back at the Mercado. The smell of hot dust and eucalyptus filled the air equally. I stepped onto the road and into their lives with, “Hola, buenas tardes” rolling off my tongue. I didn’t stop Alba and Viviana to chat but joined in walking with them along the road and then, the narrow path. As we walked, Alba and Viviana recounted for me the simple story of their lives.

Please consider Alba and Viviana formally introduced. When you see them about town with their baskets of vegetables, pause a second and say “Hi,” just like I did. You’ll be richly rewarded for the moment of interchange. And, load up on some cabbages and carrots to lighten their load. That’ll help Alba keep her hat on while she’s headed home.

10 thoughts on “Cruzando el Puente

  1. excellent story Brian. I always wonder what the rest of the story is whenever I see these women selling their goods. I hope to meet you next time we are in Cuenca. We have been there 6 times! We just returned from a 6 week stay 3 weeks ago! Thanks for your great imagery and messaging.

    1. Hi Thom and thanks for stopping by with your kind comments. Look forward to meeting you then in a few months.

  2. Thank you for sharing a glimpse of the life of older Ecuadorean adults in and around Cuenca. Most, even artisans living in El Centro, work til their last days. Yes, I agree, get to know them by name and support their labor. Appreciate your story and the photograph that telegraphs much..

    1. Hi Wendy! Thank you for stopping by with your meaningful comments and kind words. It’s great to see other folks taking notice of their surroundings!

  3. Beautifully written Brian. I grew in Hungary, when it was still behind the “Iron Curtain”. Most summers I spent with my grand parents, where life was pretty much what you had illustrated in this story. It is a very hard life, and virtually impossible to “feel it” even if one can somewhat visualize it, though a skillful depiction like your essay. I also want to applaud you for your reverence and respect which you have attributed to these two women. Their life is simple, their academic education is limited, they may not even understand the word “syllogistic logic” in Spanish let alone English. Yet, their intrinsic wisdom (I.e. basic common sense), their genuine character, their rudimentary understanding of social interaction, I found both in the simple Hungarian villages as well is the more remote villages of the Yunguilla Valley, superseded the intellectual value of most of my professors at Ivy League grad schools. Thank you for sharing the story.

    1. Thank you Julius for drawing the interesting parallels between rural life in Hungary and here, in the Andean valleys. I also appreciate the values you have found in these rural people. I find them far past rewarding. We were just out by Nero today.

  4. Very much enjoyed this snapshot of life on the edge in Cuenca. I’ve been a culture aficionado since before I can remember and my daughter and I will be visiting Cuenca and the surrounding areas in the early fall 2018. Finally serious about continuing my Spanish studies, begun may years ago in high school and now a daily exercise, and like many others am considering retiring in Ecuador after 2020. Your writing makes me hopeful that real connections are possible.

    1. Hi Catherine! Sure those connections are here. Come in down and put your toes in the water, I think you’ll like it.

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