The neighborhoods in Cuenca are like home, but in an alternate universe. The houses are walled off, some with buzzing electrical wire lining the top, others with green and clear shards of glass from soda bottles. The people, however, are friendly, and everywhere. I’ve already seen some of my new neighbors more than my previous ones in Polish Hill, and I lived there for 3 years. There are dogs on the streets, dogs behind the walls. The ones secured scare me more than the ones roaming around. There’s a lot of strange inversions happening.
I am actually relieved by Cuenca’s rainy afternoons. It’s a pleasure to watch the street dogs out the window as they bark after busses, defending their domain. I am prone to making up stories to amuse myself, and I have decided that two of the mutts are brothers. They are the last dogs one could possibly conceive of to be strays. They are ridiculous animals – smallish and playful with white, curly hair. The thought of them doing anything more than sitting on the laps of rich old ladies seems absurd.
After traveling for two months without so much as a week in any single place, it’s nice to have an excuse to take a lazy day hanging around the apartment. Our clothes are unpacked, our toiletries placed in their respective drawers. It feels good to have a home base, even temporarily.
Which doesn’t mean we’ve given up our adventurous spirits. At the very least, hunger has made exploring El Batán, our neighborhood, a necessity. A trip to the local bodega for a couple of cervezas (and other necessities) proved fruitful, though the fact that I kept asking for a dozen eggs in a country that uses the metric system incited some confused looks. While I recognize refrigeration of eggs as unnecessary, I was still momentarily surprised to see them stored out in the open.
America’s obsession with temperature control, pasteurization, and sell by dates have done a bang-up job of indoctrinating consumers with an irrational fear of raw animal products. It reminded me of buying the most incredible eggs from the Amish vendors at the farmer’s market in Pittsburgh. They would always remove the eggs from a cooler, set back from the table; an act performed solely to convey to us city dwellers that the eggs were being held at the cool temperature we deemed necessary to prevent spoilage – by people who don’t use refrigeration.
Despite my remedial Spanish and the shop owner’s impressive level of intoxication, eggs were eventually procured. A number of failed attempts with a calculator required his wife be disrupted from whatever work she was performing in the back. She was unamused by his sloppy incompetence. Some things are the same everywhere.
We live in El Batán, which is on the West edge of town. Rather than fully explore or delve into the history of the section of town, we sought out the comforts in short order. The market, convenience stores, liquor stores and supermarket were quickly in our mental GPS. It’s interesting to see how much necessity triggers changes in memory patterns. Humans are significantly more adaptable than they give each other credit for. In scouts, a kid was raw cookie dough his first camping trip, but by the time we were done with him, he had carved something out of wood. His ass was still cookie dough, but after a few trips, he was either an asset or that weird kid no one wanted to tent with.
We’re probably still the weird kids at this point. Even when we aren’t, we’ll still stick out like sore thumbs, especially in places like Ecuador. Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador, is by no means small or especially provincial, but the average height of gringos immediately sets us in a distinct and highly visible light. Everyone in town we’ve met thus far is nothing but lovely, if occasionally annoyed by our lack of ability with the language. Even after a few days, we’ve noticed subtleties of language between the Spanish of Cuencanos and Mexican Spanish we’re learning and the Americanized Spanglish we heard throughout the Southwest and on into San Diego.
Our height betrays us a little, exposing us as the foreigners we are. Being Ecuador’s third largest city, I had assumed a cosmopolitan, if conservative (Ecuador is very much a Catholic country), style of dress. The indigenous women perform their chores in lush velvet, pleated skirts with embellished hems of embroidery and sequins. They impossibly sling sacks of rice on their backs without disturbing the woven, straw hats that rest delicately atop their twin plaits. Conversely, locals of mixed ancestry dress casually in skinny jeans and tennis shoes. I immediately took notice of the lack of makeup and adornment, and though I am not someone who often wears sneakers, they have become my uniform here.
The locals are all also wearing sweaters. Like anything else, it’s relative. Part of our decision to come to Ecuador was to bypass the brutal winters of the Northeast. Though Cuenca’s proximity to the equator spares it a true winter, it is the rainy season, and temperatures are at their coolest. This translates to days in the upper 60’s and nights in the lower 50’s. J’s propensity for leaving the house in t-shirts has Maya, the woman who runs the shop downstairs, panicked for his health. Her pleas to put on a jacket are adorably earnest, like an overprotective grandmother.
We’re working at Spanish. It’s always going to be work because both of us expect our vocabulary to be able to strike like hawks. It’s frustrating to not have it at our beck and call, though it upsets me more than Y. Flapping around like turkeys is all part of the territory. Our initial interactions with locals alternate have been between a goofball reel and sloppy communication. As fumbling as some of our attempts are, bad communication is generally better than no communication at all.
Like most anywhere outside the United States, people here are reluctant to rid themselves of things just because they are no longer new. This results in a shocking number of older cars on the road, many in pristine condition. There’s something undeniably charming about the smooth curves of the classic pickups darting about. It also seems that Nissan was able to unload its full inventory of Datsuns on the region. Watching families drive by with children stacked on laps is also reminiscent of my 80’s upbringing, when children freely sat in the front and car seats were exclusively for babies.
If and when we take a return trip here, bringing some party guests will be necessary. While we didn’t come here on a drinking tour, thus far, the drinking aspect of Ecuador has been a small culture shock. I don’t think we can expect any bourbon, and I know I can forget about rye. Those categories in the liquor stores are either absent, dubious, or prohibitively costly. We’re not paying more than $13 dollars for a 750ml bottle of Patron Blanco, because ew, and certainly not $130.
The upside is that beer seems to be incredibly cheap, and it’s very much in the same straight-forward tradition of German-style lagers that Mexico favors. The local beers are definitely heartier than our Mexican favorites, but Pilsener, the preferred beer of the city, has found a happy home in our stomachs. I’m more than confident we’ll make do. We’re amenable to new modes of imbibing.
While my weather app assures me that it will undoubtedly be raining in Cuenca daily, the days are far from dreary. Often the storms are isolated to just one part of the valley, or roll quickly through, the clouds breaking in time to treat us to spectacular sunsets, the Andes Mountains silhouetted by the late sun’s gold and salmon beams.
To my delight, we learned in short order that trips to the market would be a regular occurrence. That’s how things are done here, as they are in much of the world. The forces of globalization are aggressive in trying to make the supermarket here look like one out of any North American city, and I was overjoyed to know that we could bypass that bag of bullshit, even if it means occasionally being taken for a ride by the locals. In the supermarket, canned goods cost three times as much as the same in the states, and we don’t even like canned peas. Luckily, many of the vendors sell them fresh-shelled. It’s something they do in their downtime, along with cleaning onions and picking hominy off of the cob.
Today we had tamarillos, an odd fruit that grows from short trees. It’s tart, with a malic acid sweetness behind it. The skin is tough, they’re shaped like small, pointed bombs though clearly are a member of the nightshade family. They taste like a crabapple, a lemon and a tomato had a baby, and it’s delicious. After our previous experience with the local liquor store and the “rum”, we found something a little closer to home. We also bought some aguardiente, which made us both happy, but we know we’ll have to find something more suitable or find other options. We have hungers and desires.