Seven years of surprises in Cuenca: Part 1

Dec 9, 2017 | 10 comments

Author’s note: This is the first of two articles. Part 1 recounts Newbie surprises when my wife Deborah and I first moved to Cuenca in 2010. Part 2 enumerates Good, Bad and Ugly surprises experienced since then. Bear in mind, all you Cuenca Old Timers, Newbies and Wannabees, that surprises are subjective, so your perceptions may well differ from mine. Just saying…

Text and photos by Gil Castle

All that follows was extracted from a blog I wrote a few months after moving to Cuenca. As is true of many Gringos, possibly I contracted a case of Newbie Euphoria (similar symptoms to Rose-Colored Glasstitus). Then again, perhaps not, because I bear no scars and the described surprises feel genuine to this day.

Lots and lots of children – all truly adorable!

In Ecuador children are everywhere, indeed appearing to constitute a good one-fourth of the population. Somehow having lots of children around is gratifying, even reassuring, and certainly they are fun to watch.  All the better, the people of Ecuador generally and the children specifically are remarkably attractive – all to varying degrees mostly a mixture of Indigenous and Spanish heritage, with a few hundred thousand blacks.  The photos were taken during various pre-Christmas parades:

Mercados and new foods

Cuenca has numerous mercados – city block size buildings containing innumerable vendors selling local fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese, etc. As you’ll see in the photos below, the diversity is astounding, including many types of fruits, vegetables, and potatoes we never heard of previously but certainly enjoy now!  (Ecuador has the highest biological diversity in the world, as measured by the number of unique flora and fauna species found in a square kilometer.) Unusual, colorful spices abound, as do whole cooked pigs, which are very popular.

Strolling through history

Cuenca was relatively isolated until the mid-20th Century, when the first paved road finally connected the city to the outside world. Not surprisingly, Cuenca’s historic center city (El Centro) is very much a pedestrian-friendly, intact Spanish colonial empire city, well deserving of its UNESCO World Cultural Heritage designation. Every street is architecturally distinctive and delightful to explore, from the outside facades to the interior courtyards.

Amazing clouds and storms

Cuenca enjoys a unique and wondrous combination of tropical and mountain weather, resulting in an amazing, rapidly changing aerial panorama of sunshine, clouds, and rain storms. The photos below are typical of almost any day in Cuenca. Brilliant blue skies comingle with huge white clouds which in turn coexist with the type of black thunderheads that Dorothy and Toto may well have seen just before the tornado hit. The sunsets are much like those that vacationers anticipate when escaping to Hawaii, the Caribbean, or other exotic tropical resorts.

Year-round dancing in the streets

If a week has gone by when Deborah and I did not see at least one parade, festival, dancing exhibit, or other demonstration of pure joy of life, I can’t remember when.  The weeks before and after Christmas are certainly highlights of the religious cum cultural calendar. Another is Carnival, characterized by several days of everyone throwing water balloons – or entire buckets of water – at anyone else within range. I’m very much reminded of India, with its uncountable holidays, celebrations, and other joyful events.

[Editorial Aside: Though not referenced in the original blog, check out the CuencaHighLife article entitled “World’s 10 happiest countries are in Latin America; Ecuador ranks third” at https://cuencahighlife.com/top-10-happiest-countries-in-the-world-are-in-latin-america-ecuador-ranks-third/].

In the photos below, almost all taken at events we just happened to stumble upon, you’ll get a glimmer of Ecuador’s cultural diversity and enthusiasm.

Old and new, side by side

“Old and New” refers to both to lifestyles and corresponding apparel. In any random sample of Cuenca pedestrians one sees centuries-old clothing styles intermixed with blue jeans and Grateful Dead T-shirts, often in the same family!  Of course, one also sees men in suits, ladies in tailored dresses, and other fashionable clothes popular worldwide. A wide variety of Panama Hats – actually invented in Ecuador and a major industry in Cuenca – are common on Gringos, but not so much on the rest of the population.

And more …

A mother is trying to lift her two toddlers up the high steps of a public bus, and instantly complete strangers gladly help her out.

Whenever even mere acquaintances meet on the street, kisses on the check are inevitable – a tradition gladly, even eagerly adopted by us Gringos with each other as well as with our Ecuadorian friends!

Ecuadorians and Gringos are remarkably quick to adopt newcomers into the tribe.

Cuenca is very clean, thanks to an army of street cleaners.

Except for the roughly one mile square, historic El Centro, farm animals can be seen – certainly heard – pretty much everywhere else in Cuenca.  Within a several hundred yards radius of our high-rise home live a dozen cows, sheep, goats, chickens, etc.  Having farm critters for neighbors is not only novel and attention grabbing, but also strangely calming, like watching waves on a beach…something in our DNA no doubt.

So many experiences/ surprises still pending… For example, per the first two photos below, Deborah and I haven’t yet been able even to figure out what all the food vendors are offering, much less conduct comprehensive taste tests. Further, Cuenca is known as a shopping mecca because it has a zillion small shops, and exploring even a fraction of them will take a fair amount of time.  In the final photo, a typical street scene (along Calle Larga for the map minded), each of the open doorways is a different shop – a bakery, video store, grocery, furniture shop, hardware store, pharmacy, attorney’s office, etc.  Capitalism and entrepreneurship are alive and well in Ecuador!

The bottom line

When asked why she became a humorist, Erma Bombeck told this story:  One day she was going about her daily routine as a middle-aged suburban housewife when her daughter asked “Mommy, what will you be doing in 20 years?” She thought to herself, “This is Tuesday, laundry day, so I suppose that’s what I’ll be doing.” It was an Aha Moment, because then and there she decided she wanted to do more with her life than just the laundry.

Likewise, our coming to Cuenca!
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Gil and Deborah moved to Cuenca from California in October 2010. They love living here, vacationing internationally, and pursuing their principal Retirement Projects. Deborah’s RP is getting a “Ph.D.” in Sewing (all but dissertation). Gil’s RP is a website he created — www.CitiesBeautiful.org — which explores all that people find beautiful about 25 cities worldwide. (Photo: Shelley Reeves)

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