By Jeremiah Reardon
My wife Belinda and I watched the New Year fireworks set off in Cuenca, shifting from our apartment’s kitchen terrace to the living room window. Like other recent city events since the pandemic lockdown in March, the fireworks felt diminished. The display went on for half the time of last year’s, equally divided between the old year and the new. And, with only half the excitement, we slept earlier.
Before sunrise, I awoke to look outside. A mist had crept into the Sierra highland valley, a basin (cuenca) which had become blanketed by clouds. At first glance, it had appeared as smoke from the pyrotechnics. Awake by mid-morning and anxious to greet the New Year, I departed from Condominio Santa Rosa to walk south in the direction of Turi. Over the holidays in the evening, Turi’s parish church with its high steeple took advantage of its elevated point within this basin, aglow with blue and white lights like a sapphire set off with diamonds.
When we lived in Monterey, California, I drove or climbed up Jacks Peak in the county park, a thousand feet above sea level. It offered an awesome panorama of downtown, including Fisherman’s Wharf and its endless bay dotted with fishing boats and whale-watch tours. Today, I’m lucky to have so close at hand a short hike to Turi to get a similar perspective of Cuenca.
I wore a light jacket to keep warm, and a facemask, as required by the Emergency Operations Committee, slipping it off when alone. Hardly anyone ventured outdoors. Avenida Solano with its grass median supporting fountains and statues of city fathers dominates the neighborhood. It terminates at Rio Yanuncay. On a corner lot on the river’s far side men in shorts played volleyball. Spectators sat under tall eucalyptus trees. Some drank from bottles, others from glasses. It felt like a 4th of July picnic.
Within a couple of blocks, the smaller Rio Tarqui flowed under a bridge. Once across, I turned onto an alleyway which accessed side streets, homes and new construction. It ended in a cul-de-sac connected to steps. A family descended and the father and I exchanged greetings, “Feliz nuevo ano!” His two little girls paused to look back for their big brother who hustled to catch up.
At a landing, I leaned against the handrail to take in the view. I imagined the kind of picture I’d get as I looked west where Cajas National Park at fifteen thousand feet arose ghostlike. In contrast, morning mist made the cityscape stand out in sharp detail and vibrant color. Between two residences my path terminated at the limited-access autopista.
To the southwest stood a concrete pedestrian overpass, straddling the highway ahead of a traffic circle featuring a metal sculpture. Once across, I began my climb to Turi on its turnoff. Infrequent traffic meant easier going. Soon, I lined up directly with the church at the first of over 450 steps in a parklike setting; it amounts to walking the stairs of a 30-story building.
Masked visitors descended the switchback trail. Singles like myself followed by couples and groups, they’d arrived earlier to enjoy the views. Unlike them, I had to stop and catch my breath. On landings I sat on a bench facing my hometown. Cuenca’s awe-inspiring size made me appreciate Belinda’s and my good fortune to deal with the pandemic in harmony with its orderly citizens.
Nearing the end of the trail after struggling upward, faint sounds arose like a chant by Turi spirits. I’d heard similar sounds when hiking on Cajas Mountain trails. My heart would be racing to compensate for low oxygen levels. “This may be the big one, Jerry,” I’d think while bent over burning legs to catch my breath. At such moments of vulnerability, spirit voices emerged to calm my fear.
At the trail’s zenith on the right, an amphitheater with circular stone and concrete steps offered dramatic views of the valley. Adjacent to this public space was a restaurant with a patio outfitted with large speakers on which played music. Mystery solved!
The main street was crowded with celebrants patronizing souvenir shops and restaurants. A yellow double decker bus which toured from Cuenca’s central plaza had halted alongside the parish church. The faithful made the sign of the cross as they passed its white-washed façade and open doors.
I paused at a metal-sided vendor’s stand to greet the saleslady. “Feliz nuevo ano!” I hailed her. She looked up while helping a customer and smiled in recognition. A couple of years ago on an evening hike to Turi, my eyeglasses had slipped out of my jacket. Recalling how I had eaten takeout next to the stand, I hiked back the following day to ask for them. Just happy to connect with the item’s owner, she at first resisted my tip of appreciation.
After a half-hour’s visit, I descended the steps and recrossed the autopista by stepping over its median’s guardrail. I walked north past a restaurant, closed shops and office buildings. Approaching a highway exit, I encountered a sportily-dressed pedestrian. Wearing a New York Yankees cap, the young man stopped to speak with me. Lost in his rapid Spanish, I eventually understood that he here to see his father. “How do I get to El Centro?” he asked.
“You take this turn in the direction of downtown,” I told him while pointing. “It’s four kilometers.”
“Gracias,” he cheerily replied as he turned to go.
Under a canopy of eucalyptuses another group of volleyball players had gathered along Rio Tarqui. Tethered by ropes, cows grazed along its linear parkway. In a half hour I’d be home. My New Year Day’s walk had put in perspective how I felt about living with these people whom Belinda and I love and admire. Compared to stories told by family and friends about polarized attitudes in the States, we feel safe.
We haven’t suffered like so many others due to our social security checks. Enduring three months of 2 p.m. curfews which began in March, we continued to pay Ligia, our cleaning lady, while she locked down with her family of five. Since she resumed work in June, sometimes assisted by Jose, her talented but under-employed husband, we’ve doubled her wages.
I make sure to have change at hand for street beggars, especially when accompanied by children. From my two years as a Soup Kitchen volunteer, I learned how many walked from Venezuela to seek healthcare as well as to escape impoverishment. Once the San Francisco Church closed in March, only a handful of our expats are required to accept donations and distribute bags of food to the needy.
Blessed to be in good health, Belinda and I consider our move here eight years ago one of the best decisions we could’ve made. How could we ever imagined how life-threatening it would have been to remain in California? And even as we await the dispersal of vaccines, we’ll take our chances here, thank you!
Photos by By Jeremiah Reardon