Vignettes of gratitude: Cuenca opens up, a ride on the tram, a hike in the Cajas, remembering Gaby

Nov 25, 2020 | 8 comments

Things to be thankful for … a walk in the Cajas Mountains.

By Jeremiah Reardon

Even under Covid-19 restrictions, how grateful to Cuenca are my wife Belinda and myself. With the Thanksgiving season upon us, I’d like to share moments of gratitude which we experienced the past year.

By the middle of June, the city government had lifted its “red light” 2 p.m. curfew.  On a day that we painted the kitchen, for lunch I opted to pick up takeout at Chifa Asia, nearby the stadium. Masked motorcycle-deliverymen awaited orders in the street. A table with alcohol spray blocked the doorway. “Thank you,” I told the woman as she handed me the package. She carefully sprayed bills and change.

Walking south on Avenida Solano, I watched for city buses, recently back in service. Few passengers rode on the red and white behemoths. Turning the corner at the Ital Deli, I ran into our friend Neal who hails from Seattle. We both wore masks. “Hey, how’re you doing?” I exclaimed.

“Fine, Jeremiah, thank you. I noticed you standing on the corner.”

“Yeah, Neal, I watched to see how many people used the buses.”

Cuenca’s new tram began operations in May.

“I’m grateful to see them running again,” Neal said. “That’s something that I’m working on during the lockdown, being grateful. Like, how fortunate I am to be accepted by the Ecuadorians during this crisis. They’re all so friendly.”

“You’re right about that, Neal. Especially, now, with businesses closed and people out of work.”

Under the “yellow light” 7 p.m. curfew, I relished the opportunity to “get the hell out of Dodge.” So, on a Sunday afternoon, I walked from our home to El Centro to board the newly-inaugurated tranvía, a red five-car train built at a great cost to the city. Trial runs for the conductors to practice driving the silent vehicle offered passengers free rides.

First, I took it west to the last stop in a commercial district along Avenida Las Americas. In minutes, it reversed to travel through downtown and past the airport to the last stop at Parque Industrial where I got off.

In order to get exercise I decided to exit the train and walk home. I’d explore neighborhoods I’d seen only from a bus or taxi. First I had to run a gauntlet of barking dogs in a park alongside the Milchichig River, a small stream with a pedestrian bridge. The presence of folks out enjoying the fine weather did nothing to deter two mixed poodles from their pursuit of me.

Once out of the park and relieved to have the pooches behind me, I took a street which climbed above the park. The setting sun changed the sky from rose to gray. I passed panaderias and tiendas open to the public till curfew. Restaurants still remained out of business.

City buses did not run on Sunday, adding to the tranquility I experienced on my walk. Also, provincial and city limit roadblocks reduced traffic flow. Sundays in Ecuador is time reserved for families. With churches closed, many gathered at their homes outside in the yard. People acknowledged me when I greeted them.

City buses are back on the street again.

I arrived home tired but happy to share with Belinda the good time that I had getting to know the city. I shared the gratitude I felt for our fellow citizens who endured the pandemic cooperatively and in good cheer.

Taking advantage of resumed bus service, I rode one to Sayausi on a fine Saturday. At its high-domed parish church I hailed a yellow cab. Heading into the Cajas Mountains, the driver dropped me at El Pedernal, a stony three-kilometer road leading past dairy farms to a national park entrance.

My hike from the highway paralleled the source of Cuenca’s Rio Tomebamba. “Hola,” I greeted fishermen on a covered wooden bridge. While they plied the shallow water in search of trout, their children played.

Thin air at over 10,000 feet altitude challenged my strength. Gnarled polylepis trees supporting plants on its branches got my attention. Butterflies darted at eye-level, hovering over red and yellow flowers. Water sprung from crevices on rock faces. I held out my plastic bottle to enjoy its freshness.

Rosy-cheeked indigenous farm workers and children without facemasks urged cows to lower pastures. Buenos tardes!” I shouted through mine. The herd’s musky odor saturated the air as it streamed past me. I waved my arms to keep a safe distance. Young ones had their own pastures.

The view from El Pedernal, heading toward Cajas National Park.

Laguna Llaviucu, the last of several park lakes aligned with an ancient Incan trail, marked the end of the road. Access to the park had been locked down due to the pandemic. Disappointed not to able to enjoy the rich flora and fauna of its trails, I felt rewarded just to experience the silent presence of towering mountains under beautiful skies.

Turning back to El Pedernal, I encountered a boy and his Siberian Huskie whom I’d greeted on an earlier hike. “What’s your dog’s name?” I asked.

“Max,” he replied shyly, brown eyes squinting in the afternoon sunlight.

“He’s a nice-looking dog,” I said.

“Max!” the boy cried out. I turned to see that Max had decided to follow me and wouldn’t return to his master.

My new friend Max.

As I treaded along the side of the stony road, Max would dart ahead and jump into dense bushes. After a romp, he’d rejoin me with a swagger. Tips of his white and gray coat bristled with moisture. “Go back,” I’d say while waving my arms. No such luck!

Together we crossed two wooden bridges over cascading waters. Max inspected the green riversides. I worried, What’ll I do once we reach the highway?

At the junction of the dirt road with the highway, a cyclist in elite biking gear dismounted to catch his breath. “How far is it to the national park?” he asked.

“Just a few kilometers,” I answered. “But the gate is closed due to the lockdown. This road has beautiful scenery approaching the park. Just be careful of the stony road,” I added while looking at the bike’s tires.

“OK, thank you,” he said while checking his guidebook.

“Max has followed me from his farm, just before the park gate. Will you please keep him with you?” I asked. “I’m afraid of him being hit by traffic.”

Polylepis trees line the way along El Pedernal.

“OK,” he agreed. I waved my thanks and parted company. To check on Max’s whereabouts, I’d glance back every ten steps or so till I was certain he was gone.

A roadside stand adjacent to the adobe home of an aged couple beckoned me with its shaded display of fresh fruit and vegetables. A cardboard sign read “Trucha”.

To keep her long-necked gander away from me, the mask-less wife tossed pebbles at it. “How much for the trout?” I asked while looking into my wallet.

“Two dollars a pound,” she replied.

“I’ll get three,” I said while handing over $6.

With five gasping trout in a plastic bag wriggling in my backpack, I flagged a taxi. In Sayausi, I transferred to a city bus to save money. Belinda greeted me at home as the sun set behind the Andes. Then, I cleaned the trout and, selecting a couple for dinner, helped cooked the meal, full of gratitude.

* * *

After an August hike in the Cajas, I joined Belinda at the home of a friend for dinner. Over a delicious meal of chicken and scalloped potatoes, our Cuencana friend Wilma related to us a femicide the day before in El Centro. “His own family reported him to the police,” emphasized Wilma, shocked at the severity of the crime.

Protesters demand justice for Gaby Leon.

The mother of two children, Gaby Leon had been strangled and suffocated by her ex-partner, according to Dario El Mercurio. So when Belinda and I encountered a rally for Gaby at the city’s justice center, we already understood why forty people gathered at the corner across from Parque Calderon.

Inside the imposing brown-stone structure a proceeding took place to determine whether the scoundrel should get released on bail! Supporters of Gaby held posters displaying her image, showing her “Mona Lisa” smile. Over a bullhorn a woman chanted, “Justicia para Gaby!” In response, others echoed her plea.

A couple of hours later when we passed by, a crowd still demonstrated, holding aloft purple and white posters while circling below the center’s windows. Belinda and I felt newfound respect for our fellow citizens for taking up Gaby’s case and honoring her life.

A couple of weeks later, I happened to walk past the Azuay Province Courthouse complex across from the Millenium Plaza. Another rally for Gaby marked the defendant’s court appearance. In late afternoon, about twenty people with purple and white posters stating “Justicia para Gaby” demonstrated for her and other victims of femicide. I felt a surge of respect as I walked past while acknowledging my gratitude for their witness.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!


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