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Reflections on my first two years in Cuenca

My anniversary was February 28. I have lived in Cuenca for two years.

In this short span of time, I’ve had the pleasure of watching, and more importantly, contributing to a city that shimmers with enthusiasm, energy, and rapid transformation. I couldn’t be happier.

Nearly every neighborhood in El Centro has at least a couple of houses that are freshly painted, remodeled, or renovated. Downtown is slipcovered with a dozen blue and white striped curtains, holding back dust and debris while hiding surprises awaiting grand unveilings. Students are already waving and laughing as they ride the “fresh out of the box” Tranvia.

The City Museum re-opened after a million dollar investment just a month or so after I arrived. So, too the Mercado de 6 Novembre. I walked up there the other day to shop for groceries and to listen to a sextet that was rocking the house with bleating horns and a couple of backbeat heavy drummers pounding a rhythm deep enough to make my teeth vibrate.

The rain kept pace, contributing a downpour;  crystalline beads shimmering on tin roof cymbals.

The domes of the New Cathedral were returned to their original color and illuminated in a new way that is breathtaking.

Of course, we have a brand new San Francisco Plaza, a soccer field of stone, fewer vendors than before, and a feeling of being somehow lost in a place out of perspective to the surrounding buildings. It is too big.  It gives me a feeling of being lost on some Peruvian salt flat on a sunny afternoon in mid-July. When I first saw the finished plaza I figured I’d circumvent it… after I pack some hardtack and invite David Thompson to join me.

I haven’t climbed the new observation tower yet, it is on my list.

I figure if I have a meal in every new restaurant in Cuenca, I will live to 118. It will take me that long to waddle my way through them all. But, that isn’t all that is long. The 20% increase in automobile traffic in the last two years helps to create gridlock traffic on Sucre at 8 a.m., 2 p.m., and again at 6 p.m. A constant eddy of cars school together all day just outside the many roundabouts around town waiting for a split-second chance to join the flow of swirling traffic spinning away cars as fast as they enter.

Motorcycle sales in Cuenca are up 30% from 2018.

All of this excitement, youthful exuberance and jollity make Cuenca a wonderful place to live, work, and play. However, and of course, over time small irritations arise, be it negotiating the creekbed like sidewalk that ribbons Pres. Cordova, or riding on the No. 5  bus when it is nuts-to-butts crowded, and driven by someone who can best be described as a very early stage Mario Andretti clone. Fortunately, this is grist enough for some folks who have been patiently (or not so patiently) waiting for me.

Writing this column has encouraged a few folks to consistently comment on the ways and degrees I will ‘change my tune’ over time, and become disenchanted with the people, and impatient with the rituals of daily life in Cuenca. They imagine that I too will become angered by what they understand as ‘needless complexity’, and a hidebound culture unimpressed with the importance of hop-to-it Yankee know-how.

Nope.

I appreciate the ritual of greeting and conversation that precedes almost every transaction. And, I enjoy the slow pace that necessitates a 20-minute wait for coffee con leche. I am comfortable returning tomorrow for a part I needed last week, just as I am unconcerned that the milk might spoil or the flowers wilt.

It is folly to feel otherwise.

Ignoring the well-established preferences, protocol, and patience required to successfully thrive in Cuenca is buffoonery.  Worse yet, it hardens the factions needed to be successful against you. As we all know, Ecuadorians skirt confrontation at every turn. But, they keenly remember those who demand that their needs are more important than others, or must be met first.

The collective memory of the lash.  The stranglehold of domination. The centuries-old acceptance, if not encouragement to nick the boss, or smuggle trifles from “the man” remains intact.  All of this is endemic not only in Ecuadorian culture but in oppressed populations worldwide. It is a trifle we pay.  Gringo pricing.

And, to those who disagree, Go ahead and be pushy. Folks here won’t push back. Instead, they will remain steadfast, listening to an internal metronome, keeping time to time, ignoring the wails of childish impatience, and carrying on (for better, or worse) at a pace established a long, long time ago. It may be maddening to the “me generation”, that you just can’t get Yankee style service here, but that is just the way it is.

An obsession with time, preference, and productivity in the marketplace – even at the expense of family investment –  is and has always been a gringo thing.

It is a quality that the people of this land find rather uncivilized.