Even though we had spent months planning our big adventure and dedicated entire days during the trip to managing logistics, our last day in the United States was a scrambled blur. Our final day in San Diego was spent entirely on planning, packing and again making sacrifices to the Garbage Gods. We shipped off the bulk of our camping supplies and set to work on the feng shui of our luggage. As a final treat, we went to Underbelly, relishing the last ramen we would see for a while. At 3:15am, groggy after a few fitful hours of sleep, we were still feverishly packing, our cab due within the hour. It promised to be an incredibly long day.
J was nudging me awake, “Y, the car is going to be here in two hours.” My thoughts thick and fuzzy with the previous night’s indulgence, it took a few seconds to register that I had slept through my alarm. I had hoped to get in a workout before 28 hours of cabs and airports and cramped flights. I sighed, took a swig from the tea-filled water bottle, and started packing.
I have become a good packer, but it’s a skill developed out of necessity. Each time I move I set aside a bottle of wine, a reward to take the edge off once the boxes have been unloaded. We had one good bottle of red left from the stores we had brought. I carefully wrapped it in a garbage bag and towel. A bottle of shampoo in the outer compartment of my suitcase once exploded in transit. I claimed a sudsy mess of a bag belching bubbles from the carousel of Ben Gurion Airport. I eyed the padded straps of a small backpack sitting in the discard pile, swag from J’s bartender days. I placed the bottle inside and buried it in my rolled up wardrobe, topping it with a mound of makeshift tampon packing peanuts for good measure. The bag was certain to be overweight, but the deed was done.
It was still dark as we made our way to the ticketing agent, and not just outside. The main lights of the airport had yet to be turned on, leaving the terminal dim (to the appreciation of my rearing hangover). The ticketing agent looked like a child just woken from a nap. “The e-reader isn’t recognizing my passport or credit card.” I handed her my documents. She dutifully checked us in, placing bag after bag on the conveyer belt behind her. She came to my behemoth of a bag. At fourteen pounds over, the bag would incur a fee, but the system wasn’t allowing her to process it. After 30 minutes of being rerouted between departments, she informed me that the overweight fee would be $75 – times each of our three flights.
I took the bag back and opened it on the floor of the terminal, prepared to make some tough decisions. I found the backpack and removed the wine. “Start with shoes,” she suggested. Twenty frantic minutes, and one scolding from a sour old stranger later, I had crammed exactly fourteen pounds of books, shoes, jewelry, and random nonessentials into the bag I’d be stuck wearing for the next day.
We did our best to keep each other’s spirits up. J brought back a bag of jellybeans from an excursion during a layover at Dallas-Fort Worth. If we couldn’t be well-rested we would push through fueled purely by sugar. A dragging overnight layover at Quito was made more brutal by the 50-degree breeze blowing through a broken automatic door. Our attempts join the masses asleep on the hard chairs was fruitless, but at least we weren’t the gringo having a meltdown in the middle over a gate change. The sun rose, revealing the Andes encircling the city, and our energy was renewed.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and there’s always a better way to get from point A to point B. The flights were fine, the layovers monotonous. Towards the end, the 8 hours of waiting in the Quito airport felt like a slow death sentence. Our only saving grace was that we had safely entered the country, all bags intact, only incurring three or four exploding pens as we muddled our way through customs. We’ll never wait in the Quito airport like that again. A return trip, especially one with our feline teammate in tow, will involve a night’s sleep in Quito and the quick, 45-minute flight to Cuenca in the morning. Any return will see us significantly more adapted to our surroundings, but for our first go at it, we were grateful our AirBnB host had arranged to pick us up at the Cuenca airport. We were given a quick tour of the city, a rundown of the apartment, and a generous helping of fresh fruit.
Our host’s brother was generous enough to pick us up from the airport. He told us about Cuenca as we made our way through the city, pointing out the grocery store, bus stop, and useful landmarks. He insisted on helping us carry our bags up to the apartment, and utterly exhausted, we obliged. Before leaving us to fend for ourselves he brought fresh fruit and water and we thanked him for his kindness. He had spent six years on Long Island and said he was glad for the chance to practice his English.
I was struck, when I could again think coherently, by how exceptional that idea was. One of the great differences between Americans and people the world over are that we don’t prioritize learning other languages. Across the globe, people use their proximity to foreign languages as an occasion to improve their fluency, while in America, we chastise non-English speakers for not knowing ours. Much like with music, mastering a language promotes seeing things from a different perspective, literally forming new connections within the mind of the learner. The American general population’s desire to willfully remove themselves from presented opportunities to understand another language, let alone be insulted by them, seems an audacious act of senselessness. I look forward to dreaming in Spanish.
After two months of travel, we had finished one journey to begin another, but sleep held priority over any starry-eyed visions of roaming the streets. We slept for a solid 8 hours, waking up around dinner time. I called my parents, who greeted our safe arrival with a tinge of resignation in their voices. I am 1000% certain expecting a visit from them in South America will lead to sad trombone noises, as their 13-year-old track record with Pittsburgh, only two hours away from Cleveland, was shoddy at best. All the more reason to culture good habits and strong communication, the cornerstone of any healthy relationship.
Y and I celebrated our first night with the last bottle of wine from our once mighty liquor stores and enjoyed a fruit salad I threw together, settling in to binge Stranger Things. We slowly relaxed, unpacking things here and there, glad to have a home, albeit a placeholder for whatever the future brings. We slept hard that night but were out of the door around 11 the next morning to explore. We opted to circuit the city’s largest farmer’s market and then delve deeper into the city itself. The market is massive, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The whirl of activity, the selection, the tiny little girl sucking and chewing on dates through a plastic bag, seemingly unsupervised. There are dogs peacefully roaming, some pets, some just travelers. Crossing the roads is sometimes a challenging adventure, and I was definitely nearly flattened by a bus.
Cuenca sits 8400 feet above sea level, cradled in the Andes Mountains. The elevation can cause dizziness and shortness of breath in some, but having spent a good portion of our road trip in the Colorado Plateau seemed to have softened the blow. Rested and renewed we set off to explore the city. Fragrant pineapple, served on sticks, wafted from carts in the bustling open-air market. We slipped clumsily between stalls of grain, vegetables, and hanging poultry. Eggs and pork left out at temperature were a jarring contrast to the world of refrigeration and pasteurization we had left. Women sold ice cream cones topped with scoops of some pastel sweet, and I paused in the aisle attempting to discern the nature of the fluffy treat (meringue). J pulled me aside just as a hunched man brusquely barreled by, a 50lb sack of rice on his back.
We continued toward Cuenca’s Centro Histórico, soaking up the culture block by block. Ecuador chose not to murder or exile its indigenous people, and so the traditional and modern intersect in ways that can be hard to grasp for a North American. Small shacks stand adjacent to gated compounds with electric fences. Native women weave between slightly taller people, their brightly-hued embellished skirts punctuating a sea of skinny jeans and sneakers. Vendors hock shelled peas and strawberries from wheelbarrows propped outside stores selling cell phones. The city’s ancient ruins and stunning churches have earned it a place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but pollution has left its three rivers biological dead zones.
Cuenca is peaceful and abuzz with activity. Construction sites pepper the blocks, while artisans and craftspeople work in small, dim shops, welders assemble stainless steel appliances, grocers deliberately peel produce in between sales. We walked by Universidad de Cuenca and took in the view, appreciating the muscular hills and mountains that wreathe the city. Further on, we walked in the shadows of massive and fantastic churches bordering a gorgeous plaza. There’s no shortage of beautiful, open spaces here. For lunch, we stopped at a gringo-sympathetic restaurant where I officially began my struggle with Spanish. Crawling as a mode of communication, at least at first, will be difficult, but I was able to use what feeble grasp on the language I have to make a joke with the server. When he asked after our desire for postres, I replied, “No, no, soy gordo!” No dessert for me.
Cuenca’s position in the foothills makes it a city of layers. We climbed a long stairwell, past graffiti, and cafes, to the Plazoleta Cruz del Vado. The charming plaza is circled by museums, shops, multi-level houses, and craftsmen’s studios. A prominent statue depicts Ecuador’s version of a greasy pole contest and a large cross sits sheltered in a gazebo of sorts, providing protection to travelers. However, its real draw is a balcony offering panoramic views of the new city and the towering peaks of the Andes Mountains behind it. Our plans for staying in Cuenca were undetermined. We gazed out onto the red tile rooftops and allowed the city to make a case for itself.
Parque Calderón is the center of the Centro Histórico, and indeed the city itself. A statue of the park’s namesake, hometown hero Abdón Calderón, sits at the center of lofty pines and palms. Legend says Calderón, at the age of 18, received as many as fourteen wounds in the Battle of Pichincha (securing the independence of the future provinces of Ecuador), but held strong. He would die of his wounds days later, purportedly uttering the last words, “I can die happy, because my country is free.”
The park is flanked by an impressive domed courthouse and a number of ornate churches. Vendors sell rosaries and candles to the many pilgrims who come to attend mass in the marble-adorned Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, the most visited cathedral in Latin America. Mosaic maps of the old city, billowing flags, and boutique restaurants line the square, creating an enchanting narrative for the city’s tourists. A large flower market sits across the street. Admirers of the Pittsburgh Steelers, of which we are not (I prefer my sports heroes a little less rapey), insist that their vehement fandom has bred Steeler’s bars in every nation. Amidst all the old-world charm, we spotted a man donning a signature black and gold sweatshirt and laughed at their ability to follow us across continents.
We headed back towards home along Rio Tomebamba, a boulder-strewn ribbon of oasis, one of three in the city. A few of the nearby stores were likely candidates for supplies, and my verbal transactions were slightly better than the first. One of our last stops was for bread at a nearby panaderia, the shopkeeper allowing us to interrupt his exchange with the police while he filled out a complaint. The police are a highly visible presence, passing by our block on patrol at night every hour or so, but during the day they are seemingly everywhere, on bikes, motorcycles and on foot. Some of the banks have security armed with shotguns and bulletproof vests. We were warned about one section of town as far as traveling at night, which is one we walked through on our first foray, as it’s in between us and many of the places we want to go. It looks like the Hill or parts of the Strip District back in Pittsburgh, or the nicer parts of the worse parts of East Cleveland. The type of neighborhood that represents risks I’m no stranger to, but not ones I’ll be taking in Cuenca anytime soon, if at all.
We wandered back along the Rio Tomebamba. Despite its sullied waters, the river brought a cool breeze laced with sweet eucalyptus. We stopped for supplies. Tired and overwhelmed, we bought pasta, oil, eggs, lentils, rum, and dish soap. It was a useless combination for fashioning an actual meal together, making the rum all the more practical.
Our final stop was for eggs at the small shop downstairs, the exchange again sharpening our meager skills. These first few days will be led by studying Spanish, cooking and settling in. Our apartment was spacious and fully appointed, and we had access to the rooftop as well. We organized the kitchen and fully unloaded our bags, happy to have them out of sight for the next two months. While it’s certainly premature to decide if this is indeed the home we were looking for, we’re thrilled to be here and excited for the new adventure.