By Robert Bradley
I have been living in Cuenca for nearly four months. Here is a snapshot of what I have encountered, so if you are new in town or planning on joining us, these are four things I feel you can reasonably expect.
1. Expect that you will be engulfed by the kindness of strangers.
I am constantly awestruck by Cuencanos’ sense of “do unto others” as a way of life. My favorite example, only because it is the most recent, is this:
I fell the other day.
I was in the flower market taking photographs of the candies and pastry being readied for the feast of Corpus Christi, and tripped over a small barricade and careened towards a pile of just-emptied candy and pastry boxes.
It was odd; as I lost my balance I recalled the last time I fell. Actually, I re-lived it. I wanted to recreate an Aikido exercise I learned long ago — the same one I used the last time I fell. Twisting as I descended, and grabbing my camera tight to my chest, I corkscrewed myself into a soft landing celebrated by puffs of powdered sugar squeezed from the exhausted boxes that saved me.
The sound of my crashing caught the attention of many shoppers. The result was typically Ecuadorian.
Twelve folks rushed over to help. Of that number:
Five people felt every bone in my body checking to see if I was injured.
Another five pushed and pulled as they struggled to get me to my feet
The final two pointed out to me the barricade I tripped over and reminded me, repeatedly, to watch where I am going in the future.
Every person was genuinely concerned for my well-being. I believe you can expect the same.
I have read that Ecuadorians will sometimes promise what they cannot deliver. You will hear, “Don’t worry! I’ll be there, right on time, and will install your new liver in under an hour!” But alas, it does not come to pass. The desire to be of service sometimes exceeds their ability to perform, but I find no fault — and certainly no frustration in their unattainable offer.
Truly, it is the thought that counts and I have found that in times of real crisis, when you need immediate help, Ecuadorians are there for you.
2. You can expect the weather to change.
Monday began as a cloud-covered morning that held every indication of unrelenting rain certain to join us shortly. So, it should come as no surprise that glorious sunny skies barged in with glaring finality. I fumbled around with my umbrella, camera, and sweater all day long. Tuesday was different. An unannounced express train of clouds barreled into town, spilling monsoons from which no person or thing could escape. I was caught unawares and slogged my way home wearing squeaky canvas shoes that squirted a trail of my misery with every step.
On Wednesday, I was more prepared. I had a small umbrella tucked into my satchel for the rain and a hat to protect my bald head from high elevation sunburn.
The weather in Cuenca is always changing.You can expect to have your perfect weather day nearly every day, just not all day — some days are highlighted by brief sprinkles and gentle breezes, others by thunderous downpours that overflow creeks and sidewalks. But when the sun retires, and the early evening grows, it is common to remark, “My, it was a beautiful day.”
3. You can expect to be dazzled.
The sheer range of beauty is so compelling and ever-present it is impossible to take it all in. One quickly learns to be “out and about” as much as possible to see as much as possible, because there is always something wondrous right around the corner. Expect to be awestruck. Expect to lose direction and wander along streets that have no signs identifying them. Time and the weather washed them away years ago yet they have never been replaced because they are no longer needed. The names are chiseled into the collective memory.
Expect to get lost … and that is a good thing. Cuenca is a walking city. Wear solid and sensible shoes. And bring a camera.
You can rely on the trumpet of car horns and street traffic to give way to much softer melodies echoing across centuries. Listen! They resonate still, and influence the pace and spirit of the people who have called this place home and woven themselves into its fabric over generations.
Stand before and run your hands on the pink marble blocks of the Humiliation Cross in front of San Sebastian Church. Consider, if you had committed a crime, what it would mean be marched there. To be tied there, to the base of this cross, and then to suffer the withering punishment administered by your community for your misdeeds. Imagine the redemption that follows. Ponder the meanings of suffering and sanctity. Be in this place and all that it bares witness. Wonder on the beauty of shards of light piercing the ascending clouds overlooking the plaza.
It is dazzling..
4. Expect magic.
Now, I expect some cranky old dude who has been here for a spell will try to throw shade with, “What do you know? Just let me tell you a thing or two…” but I’m just sayin’.
I have been here for four months and I can promise you this:
I have yet to meet a single person who does not like Cuenca. Most use the word love. Every single person I have met has a story of some serendipitous event that benefitted them greatly and I believe it. Cuenca is magical.
If you can embrace a changing tide, strive to be productive, and insert yourself into this fascinating and complex culture, you will thrive.
Photos by Robert Bradley.