By Robert Bradley
I am a fresh resident of Cuenca, only three month on. I’d like to share with you a snapshot of my early days and the people who influenced my first impression.
I arranged housing a month or so prior to my arrival. I chose the Cuenca Inn, a classic “casa patrimonial” that is lovingly appointed with local handmade furniture that immediately puts even the weariest traveler at rest. I appreciated the fully stocked kitchen best of all. Fortunately for me, the avocado and fig trees in the spacious side yard provided me with a most satisfying “first taste” of Cuenca.
After two days rest, it was time to get out and about. I read that the city’s heart is beautiful, and I wanted to see for myself.
What an understatement!
From the very first moment I entered “El Centro” I was mesmerized. The graceful buildings stand like sentries watching over those they are sworn to protect. They are decked out in their finest attire of wrought iron balconies holding terra cotta pots overflowing with blooms of every sort The graceful facades of the buildings create a mosaic of styles that fit seamlessly into a unified expression of artful design. The entire downtown is an architectural masterpiece. It is designed to provide both shelter and commerce while intertwined with pedestrian-friendly plazas and courtyards that inspire a deep appreciation for living space that is thoughtful, practical, and gorgeous. This truly magnificent district has inspired generations of people to recognize that community is not the making of a moment, but rather is a pentimento of successive standards and examples of creative expression layered through the centuries.
Getting around town is easy. And wild..
There are taxis everywhere. Raise your hand any time of day or night and watch for the blink of lights signaling, “We see you and we are on the way”. Taxis will take you anywhere you want to go. I read prior to arriving here to be wary of taxi drivers who forget to turn on their meter, and then try to charge you an exorbitant price. Instead, I found every driver to be helpful, if not always sure of your requested destination. On a number of occasions I needed to use my GPS app on my tablet to assist the driver in finding where I want to go. I no longer leave home without it. Taxis are inexpensive, averaging $2.50. But, keep in mind that the minimum charge is $1.50. I learned that after I stiffed some poor guy out of $.25.
Taxis and traffic are fast here. It is reminiscent of salmon runs heading upstream. The swirling current of cars, trucks, buses and taxis seems to push every driver to their limit all the while honking and dodging and jockeying for position. They swim around each other, pedestrians, potholes and obstructions in ways and a speed I would never consider. The traffic circles serve as eddies that slow the frenzied pace just long enough for each driver to maneuver into the smallest possible space left open for them — and maneuver they must. Others are waiting. And honking. And honking some more. I always get where I wish to go safely — shaken and stirred and thinking a cocktail might be a good idea about now.
I use taxis only when I must. I greatly prefer the buses. At first glance, buses seem almost out of place, and time. These lumbering blue whales surge down the roadway spouting plumes of black diesel smoke and demanding all else make way for them.
But it is not the buses themselves that I am so fond of. It is what is harbored inside. The daily commuters, students and the folks whose families have relied on the buses for generations to get them where they want to go. They are the heart and soul of what I love about Cuenca. It is their stories that inspire me.
I was on a bus. At a bus stop a young mother packing a tiny baby and a big basket struggled to get aboard. Seemingly, without thought or concern, the young mother placed her child in the outreached hands of an unknown passenger who then passed the baby on to the lap of another as a third grabbed the too large basket. Now the basket, baby and mom were all aboard. The basket was placed in a cubbyhole, the baby was returned to his, or her, mother and all the while the bus is sounding its horn and spouting a mist of fumes as it pushed its way into the river of traffic. There were no cries from the baby or worries from the mom. Everyone just did their small part to assist in this moment during a typical day.
I was on a bus. Because the cobblestone streets can be very rough, the ride can be a bit rough as well. When the bus pulled away from the curb it lurched in a particularly rough manner and an elderly man struggled to maintain his balance and pitched forward. I stretched out my arm and grabbed him. There was no tension or restraint of any kind as I caught him, he simply melted into my arms. As I briefly cradled him, he looked at me with his soft brown eyes and said, “Muchas gracias, senor”. I felt we were brief but dear friends comforting one another.
I was waiting for a bus. Quite unsure of navigating the many routes offered to me, I asked a woman standing nearby if by any chance she spoke English.
“Yes, a little,” she replied.
I said, “My name is Roberto and I am brand new to Cuenca. Which bus should I take to get to El Centro?”
“Oh, take number 5 or 22. It stops right here. Do you know where to look for the number on the bus?”
I assured her I could see them clearly and thanked her.
It was just then that her bus arrived and she along with her young son boarded and away they went to wherever they were headed.
The next day, I was at the same location waiting for the #5 or #22 bus when I heard someone calling, “ Roberto! Roberto!” My name is so common I assumed it was not for me, but I was wrong.
It was the woman from the day before calling out to me. As she approached, she pulled a torn piece of paper from her purse, saying,
“Roberto! How are you? Did you find your way yesterday? I told my husband about our conversation and he told me that when I see you again to be sure to give you our email address so we can answer any other questions you may have.”
Our “conversation” of the day before took all of ten seconds. The kindness of their offer will last a lifetime.
Welcome to Cuenca.
For more about riding the bus in Cuenca, click here.