Recalling the first impressions of Cuenca that have stood the test of time

Jan 10, 2021 | 7 comments

I’ve spun so many yarns about Cuenca to friends over the years that the tales are now woven together like an old sweater fitted by repetition and patches of lint like woolly lichen. Considering all of the changes we have been through of late, it seemed like a good time to revisit some of my earliest impressions to gauge what is indelible, and what lessons I have learned.

I know this to be true: my heart will forever be stitched with love for the kindness of strangers, the tapestry of stately buildings, copse of trees sheltering sublime plazas, and the clouds, those vast grey ships of the sun. The lesson I learned is this: the fragile landscape of Cuenca requires daily attention.

I learned this too; the whole world is fragile and is in need of our attention.

I posted a rough draft of the following column in 2017. I was a ‘freshy’ then who was enchanted. It is now January 2021…

My flight from the U.S. was just that; a flight from the United States of America because it was no longer the United States; it resembled Turkmenistan. Civility and decorum were being mugged with accusations and innuendos by officials who cared not that children were being slaughtered wholesale in high schools, and the saintly, cut down in places of worship like chattel.

The violence foisted on society was terrifying, and not at all what I dreamed to be my future — so I changed my dream, and my future, by pulling up stakes and moving to a land more like home. I wanted to live out my days immersed in a cultural landscape that mirrored my memories and coaxed my dreams. And, that is why I chose Cuenca.

Spring 2017

I moved to Cuenca nearly four months ago. Here are my first snapshots. If you are new in town or planning on joining us, these are some things I feel you can reasonably expect.

  1. Expect that you will be embraced in the kindness of strangers.

I am constantly awestruck by Cuencanos’ sense of “do unto others” as a way of life. My favorite example, mainly because it is the most recent, is this:

I fell the other day.

While taking photographs of the floral arrangements and candies displayed in the flower market for the feast of Corpus Christi, I tripped over a small traffic barricade and careened into a pile of just-emptied pastry boxes.

I twisted as I fell, corkscrewing myself into a soft landing celebrated by a large gush of powdered sugar squeezed from the exhausted boxes that saved me.

The sound of my crashing caught the attention of shoppers. The result was typically Ecuadorian.

Twelve folks rushed over to help. Of that number five people felt every inch of my body checking to see if I was bleeding, had broken anything, or showed obvious signs of injury while another five pushed and pulled as they struggled to get me to my feet. None of this interrupted the final two who pointed out to me the barricade I tripped over while reminding me, repeatedly, to watch where I was walking in the future.

Every person was genuinely concerned for my well-being. I believe you can expect the same.

Occasionally Ecuadorians will promise what they cannot deliver. You will hear, “Don’t worry! My cousin and I will be here, 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.

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.

  1. You can expect the weather to change.

Monday morning greeted us with a soggy blanket of unrelenting rain. So, it should have come as no surprise when glorious sunny skies barge in with glaring finality by mid-day. I fumbled around with my umbrella and sweater until well into the evening. 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 evening goes to work, it is not uncommon to hear the remark, “My, it was a lovely day.”

  1. 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 weather chipped them away years ago but they have never been replaced because they are no longer needed. The names are chiseled into the collective memory of generations.

Expect to get lost … and that is a good thing. Cuenca is a walking city. Wear sensible shoes.

If you walk a single block away from the “principales,” the brassy car horns and street traffic will give way to much softer melodies echoing across centuries. Listen!  A young boy is called home because it is late and dinner is waiting, a dad greets his children as he returns from work at the hardware store, someone is reminded to pick up three rolls from the baker since soon he will be closing. The songs of life resonates still; it is the spirit of a people who have called this place home and woven themselves into its fabric since forever.

Stand before the pink marble blocks of the Humiliation Cross in front of San Sebastian Church. There was a time when if you committed a crime, you would be marched here and tied to the base of the cross to suffer the withering punishment administered by your community for your misdeeds. Imagine your remorse. Imagine the redemption that follows. Ponder the meaning of suffering and sanctity. Wonder on the shards of light piercing the clouds overlooking the plaza.

  1. Expect magic.

Now, I expect some cranky old dude who has been here for a spell will try to throw shade on me, “What do you know? Just let me tell you a thing or two…”

Yeah, whatever.

I have been here for four months and I can tell 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.

I’m betting that if you can embrace a changing tide, strive to be productive, and insert yourself whole-heartedly into this fascinating and complex culture, you will find your home here in the high Andes of Ecuador.

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