“This is a safe neighborhood, but a few blocks over, between here and downtown, maybe don’t walk through there at night.” As a woman and a traveler, I make sure to be aware of my surroundings. Still, the words carried weight when spoken by a local.
Ernesto, our host’s brother, had left us with the casual warning after retrieving us from the airport. Now just five days later we were dismissing his advice in order to partake in the festivities of Cuenca’s Independence Day. Cuenca, named for the hometown of Spanish explorer Gil Ramírez Dávalos, was founded in 1557. However, it was not until November 3, 1820 that it would declare its independence from Spain, joining Guayaquil and Quito as one of the capitals of Ecuador’s three provinces. Despite the date exclusively commemorating the independence of Cuenca, as Ecuador’s third largest city, it is a holiday that is celebrated throughout the country.
After a long afternoon of goofing off and/or studying, we walked towards downtown along Rio Tomebamba. Along the way, we passed neighbors playing volleyball in the closed court of the houses across the street. Further down, a group of boys playing soccer. A ball came loose and rolled in our direction, headed for the street. I was able to scoop it up and hand it off to one of the kids, getting a shy gracias from the boy and a niza guardia from a passing pickup truck, three teens in the bed.
The sky was shifting into shades of pink, clouds breaking over the crests of the mountains. After a short walk down the river, we had arrived at the edge of the impromptu marketplace. We stopped at a postres stall and bought marzipan, Latin marzipan, made with peanut pastes and topped with a candied clove. It was a fantastic treat.
We walked along the river, hard acorns crunching underfoot. We smelled the fútbol stadium before we saw it, that rancid smell of rubber and sweat that reminded me of watching my dad’s soccer tournaments as a child. It was Friday night and the hum of the crowd was electric, punctuated by the squeaks of sneakers on the varnished gymnasium floor. A large share of Cuencanos own motorbikes and a gathering of cyclists had formed outside the corner liquor store. We wondered aloud if the men were prompted by the celebration, or if this was merely their weekly ritual.
We had loosely planned to stop by the Belgian brasserie we had seen on our explorations, but as we rose over the hill the smell of charred meat wafted up to distract us. In the square, on the landing, and all along both sides of Rio Tomebamba were vendors selling their wares. There were empanadas and tacos, but more prevalently, hamburgers and hot dogs. A stall serving tragic looking pizza adjoined another with the now ubiquitous meringue cones we had seen at the market. Cuencanos love their sweets, and there were plenty available. Carts pushed through the crowd with caramel apples and cotton candy. Ecuador supplies 60% of the world’s cacao, and we watched as skilled chocolatiers crafted elaborate treats to add to their teeming displays.
J and I have often joked about being old even as children, citing our mutual love for marzipan as a glaring example. I adored the box of miniatures, dyed to resemble fruit, that my father would bring home. A confectioner with similar, prominently displayed sweets stopped us in our tracks. A stunted conversation bore us seven of the assorted fruit-shaped bonbons, slightly granular with notes of baking spice, a flavor both strange and familiar.
I had assumed to see the typical sort of trash one finds hawked at holiday markets and county fairs, but the vendors were true craftspeople. We were immediately impressed by the quality of the leather belts and wallets, woven blankets and sweaters, honey, pottery, and soap. Vitners were selling their locally-made wine, but given our experience with the “rum” and the regional predilection towards sweetness, we were hesitant to throw down.
I returned from a table set with exquisitely beaded necklaces empty-handed, surprising J with my restraint. Though they were exceptional, they weren’t really my style. A coworker once observed that all of my jewelry could serve a dual purpose as a weapon. When everything you procure is one more thing to carry, you become much more discerning about adding another trinket to your load.
The strains of music weaved between the buildings and shoulders of the crowd before us. As we explored, walking down the stairs of a plaza, we watched a mural come to life before our eyes. A contingent of painters was creating a scene of flowers with a large bumblebee. The artists nodded in time to a punk band that was absolutely slaying it on the first landing of the stairs. Their attendant fans were appropriately sullen and grungy. It was a taste of home, the haze of cigarette and weed smoke took us back to Gooski’s in Polish Hill. The only thing stopping these cats from slamming PBRs and running the pool table was geography. The patience of our old bartender, Timmy, would have lasted longer than ours, and we kept on down into the square.
Much like Pittsburgh, Cuenca’s levels are traversed through switchbacks and lengthy staircases. We were surprised to come upon a solid punk band playing on one of the landings of a particularly ceaseless length of steps. The Cuencano cool kids were decked out in leather jackets and sooty eyeliner. My loose, blue jeans and bare face were marmish in comparison, an attempt at modesty that had worked too well, leaving me embarrassed.
White nouveau hippies had lain out glass pipes and leather cord jewelry on blankets on the landing below. The word expat denotes a certain class (one we consciously omit when we speak of immigrants), the insinuation often being that they are people whose professions take them to exotic locales or who work remotely. While not entirely untrue, there are many ways to be an expat, each with its own price of entrance. It is not uncommon for young people to backpack, opting for cheap accommodations and paying their way with savings or through the sale of such crafts. Others find work teaching English or as farmhands through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network. Some are retirees, like those that inhabit the expansive compounds in our neighborhood of El Batán. They buy cheap plots in developing nations then build private parks and guard stations and houses encircled by electric fences, their Direct TV dishes beacons of their foreignness.
Parents danced with their children on the stairs, merchants hawked crystals and incense. It truly was like being back in Polish Hill. These people were cut from the same cloth as those that marched in the May Day Parade. These were the same people that spend significant time outside. These were the same people that made all my visits to the local city pool, aka The Polish Hill Country Club, the relaxing and body-positive oasis it always is.
The base of the stairs opened onto a square. The stage featured an older gentleman crooning over a salsa band, and they had gathered a sizable audience. We watched a grandmother spinning a young boy in time to the rhythm. A girl at nearby stall shook with emotion as her parents presented her with a tiny, wooden guitar. Some boys had commandeered a bench for a lightsaber battle. Another walked up to J, handing him a stick with some goo. We declined, unsure whether it was an offering or a request to relieve him of his trash.
We wandered past a fire juggler, through aisles of paintings which had been set up in the nearby park. The sound of El Cóndor Pasa being played on a pan flute pierced through the whirr of the festivities. I recalled my ignorance as a young New Yorker, thinking the subway buskers were playing Simon & Garfunkel’s “If I Could” to appeal to the tastes of their American audience. It would be years before I realized they were playing the Andean folk music of their heritage, popularized by the Peruvian composer Daniel Alomía Robles and co-opted by the American duo.
Street art plastered on the walls of the park pavilion
The full moon hung low in the sky, suspended just above the illuminated hilltop churches. I was finding that living 8400ft above sea level has a way of making the sky look low. Ernesto’s warning still tug at me, and I suggested heading back while the streets were still full of revelers.
A headache was forming, whether from altitude or dehydration, and I was taxed from the exertion of communicating solely in a foreign tongue. Though my fatigue couldn’t shake me of my easy contentment. I had been struck by the communal atmosphere, the inclusiveness of the celebration. Surrounded by the collective warmth, it had permeated. I recalled another of Ernesto’s remarks. Driving along Avenida de Las Américas that first morning, he had shared that Cuena was more of a neighborhood than a city, that, “Cuencanos all know each other.”
In front of the main stage, it was a feel-good mob of families, dancing along to a local singer. By the end of a row of stalls, there was a man slowly weaving a sonic tapestry on a wooden flute. We spent our walk practicing our Spanish and taking in the sights. Despite an earlier impulse to stay home, we were glad for the fresh air and experience. We’re going to like it in Cuenca.