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Expat Life

The musical mosaic of a city at work

By Robert Bradley

Cuenca is a musical city.

Within a five block radius of my home there are two saddlers, at least three cabinetmakers, a couple tailors, a few jewelers, a thriving farmers market, more bakeries than I can count and twice as many restaurants.

People are busy cobbling shoes, repairing refrigerators and upgrading computers. A shop up the street sells artisan crafts from the surrounding villages, in another, a tradesman hammers tin into toys for children and watering cans for gardeners while a neighboring artist carves and paints traditional icons. A couple have a shop a few doors up from from my place. They specialize in alterations, their sewing machines are treadles.

This symphonic orchestra of brushstrokes, tapping, clamping, cooking, peddling, winding, ripping, and fine tuning that resonates from the shops of Cuencano tradespeople underscores the deep rooted harmony of craftsmanship that resonates throughout the city.

Cuencanos reject the illusion that we live in a disposable world. Things have value here that go well beyond the newly soldered copper coils or another chip upgrade. It is an understanding of responsibility and care for all things because what we have is finite, should never be taken for granted, and must be preserved for as long as possible.

This determined allegiance to authenticity defines a culture that honors preservation, ritual and tradition with the same fierceness it holds for love of family.

It is the making of a grand opera.

I sat in San Sebastian Plaza very early one morning listening for one last echo from the crowds of the long ago bullring that occupied the space, or any tarrying remnants of wailing supplication swirling in a black mass around the humiliation cross. I listened to the purling water of the Tomebamba mimicking the warbling voices of women who once gathered there to wash clothes. They kept time to the river by slapping rocks with cotton and alpaca.

​T​he mantra of treadle sewing machines and tapping of the tinsmiths​ have taken their place, but the bassline​ is the same. K​eeping time.

​T​his ​timeless ​rhythm of Cuenca. It is a song you cannot end.

Occasionally, I’ll note the baritone coughing, caterpillar blue buses, or the chirp of someone selling tanks of gas.

The soundscape always includes fluttering wings and leaves, frail carts with jostling bottles, children just out of school, taxis in the brass section and kettle drums before a cloudburst:

​I​t is all here. The songs are sung across generations, a father handing his son a small hammer, a mother ​and ​daughter​ threading a needle​.

The soundtrack of this city, scented with roses, deserves deep contemplation of its complexity and beauty. That is why I photograph this place nearly every day. I am anxious to mine the exposed veins. And that is why I write this blog, I am enchanted.

11 thoughts on “The musical mosaic of a city at work

  1. Robert Bradley, before I moved to a very small town in one of Ecuadors amazing cloud forests, I lived in Cuenca. Your piece describes beyond anything else I’ve read the Cuenca I knew and loved. The culture you speak of pervades all of Ecuador so that my heart sings in this country as never before, and the city of Cuenca personifies it like no other place I know of. How you captured its beauty with words!

  2. Your writing is so vivid that I can hear this music all the way to Canada. Both your writing and your photography help to preserve my memories of the time I lived in Cuenca. Thank you.

  3. I’ll add this to the collection of reasons that I really admire what CHL brings to us on a regular basis. Poets capture emotions and in this piece, I dare say that the writing is poetic. As I read through it, I re-experienced many of the emotions that the sounds you reference have always elicited in me as I experience(d) them myself. Nice work here. Thank you, you have added to my day.

  4. You bring out the beauty and uniqueness with your pictures and words. As always, uplifting and informative. A great combination!

  5. A bit late to the party, Robert, but better late than never. Nice writing! We are away from Cuenca at the moment and sadly for the foreseeable future, too. Worse luck!
    Good pictures. You are braver than I about taking pictures of people. I always hate sticking a camera in a Cuencano’s face, even with a con permiso. Plan to read more of your columns since I’ve now found them.
    Also think that the repair it before you throw it away (shoes, baggage, just about anything) is a throwback to an earlier day in the states – and charming. Cheers!

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