All of J’s pens had exploded on the flight over, a fact conveniently learned while attempting to fill out forms at customs. We had chosen to venture West on our walk, away from Cuenca’s Centro Histórico, and spotting a papeleria seemed like providence in our search to find replacements. Shopping in any new city comes with challenges, but those hurdles are compounded when touring places where big-box drugstores and Targets have yet to infiltrate. The simple task of buying pens can force you to acknowledge that you’re basically a helpless receptacle for food. Our excitement at discovering the store was quickly derailed upon finding it seemed geared towards children’s school supplies, but we were able to find a J a few implements free from glitter or racecar embellishments.
A nursery occupied a busy corner lot, its tables teeming with full blooms in Cuenca’s balmy 70-degree winter. We peeked into a sterilely adorned cafe the next street over, arousing the suspicions of a security guard who came over to ask our intentions. His polite questions, delivered in English, confirmed our assumptions as to the demographic of its clientele.
We were confronted by an unassuming panaderia, but as we had committed to sampling as many of the ubiquitous bakeries as possible, we felt obligated to try something. We entered into the mother of all panaderias – a panaderia jackpot. Baskets of pastry formed ascending rows to the ceiling, lining the length of the dim shop. A cooling rack in the center forced traffic to fork around it, an island of sheet pans piled with warm pastry. J bought us two croissants to eat on our walk, and a few more to stuff in my purse for later. Elated by the discovery, I realized I may be setting a poor precedent, giving J the impression placating me had become as easy as procuring baked goods.
We woke up early, took care of a few things that rely on the tether of the internet, and studied a bit before heading out to explore. We headed West and further out towards the edge of the city. Before we left the confines of El Batán, we fumbled at acquiring some pens for an empty sketchbook and grabbed a snack at a panaderia. Much to my embarrassment, it’s moments like these where I find it difficult to remember what life was like before Amazon, even before the hiss and squeal of a dial-up modem. As we walked the streets, we investigated some restaurants we might check out later. We greatly enjoy cooking at home, so who knows if we’ll actually get around to treating ourselves much, though Cuenca is certainly not lacking in culinary appeal.
The lure of native dishes and curiosities like cuy (roasted guinea pig!) is strong, but the ability to fend for ourselves is pure novelty. Every meal, after years of life in the service industry, is a treat, no matter how humble. Our dining experiences outside our apartment have all been lovely, but for two service industry veterans, being able to sit down across from each other after cooking in accordance with our fancy – nothing can compare. Going out to eat is a well-traveled road, no matter the country. Meal planning and grocery shopping are not activities restaurant workers are often known for. Any meal not devoured over a garbage can in a famished panic is a five-star affair. For us, relaxing and cooking for your partner is the true exotic experience.
We climbed westward, the steady incline proving taxing in the combination of afternoon sun and elevation. The change in scenery was immediate. A cow lay indolently in a yard to our right, just steps from the busy traffic circle at the edge of the block. Skewers of meat courted the dollars of hungry customers, roasting on spits set into the doorways of houses along the road. A half mile from our apartment on bustling Avenida General Escandón, people were hunched over the gardens of colonial haciendas.
Interspersed with the plots of corn and cabbage were a myriad of restaurants with whitewashed walls and heavy wooden doors. I tended bar at a Cuban restaurant in New York, and lechon, suckling pig spit-roasted until its skin is red and crisp, was a guest favorite. A large banner with the familiar image hung outside of one establishment, and it took me a moment to piece together the fact that no pig, however suckling, would fit so completely on a dinner plate.
I smelled the charring wood before rounding the corner. A rooster held court atop a lit pile of sticks as smoke billowed behind. A collarless dog trotted along the road to our right. Set against the backdrop of the Andes Mountains, it was hard to remember we were inside a city, and I was reminded of how New York’s Central Park was not so distantly farmland.
With the afternoon waning, we headed back to the apartment. A gazebo containing a large wooden cross, a shrine of sorts, sat on the hillside overlooking the city. Across the street, two kids flirted, pressed against the chainlink fence of the Iglesia de Cristo del Consuelo. Furtively, they leaned in. Cuenca is conservative, a Catholic city. It doesn’t comfortably fit into Western stereotypes of sensual Latin culture. Their PDA was the first I had seen since arriving in the city, a testament to the intensity of youthful emotions.
The hair hung heavy with the smell of paint from a pair of men working atop ladders refreshing the signage of an automotive shop. Civil servants collected refuse along the sidewalks. Again I was struck by how the people here seem so invested in improving their community. As a visitor, it’s hard to know if this is all part of the plan of Ecuador’s new leadership, an attempt to become more desirable to tourists. But perhaps what we know of the political situation makes us more conscious of these small repairs, coloring our perception. Maybe this is just Cuencanos going about their daily lives, lives in which there is always something that needs tending.
As you near the western outskirts of Cuenca, the failing and occasionally absent sidewalks reaffirm the notion that this is indeed a city, but it’s decidedly different than anything back home. A quarter-mile from the mid-level apartment buildings of our block, the mountains suddenly loom larger and the dense houses give way to larger haciendas with massive gardens. Livestock lounges in the shade, woodsmoke permeates the air, and the proud crow of roosters echoes in the alleys. The sidewalks eventually disappear completely, and grass grows wild and thick in the mountain breeze.
Cuenca is well-lived in, but not wrapped in the trappings of a typical US city. The current President, Lenin Moreno, seeks to make the cities more accessible, believing that this will bring in tourist dollars. Locals have other opinions on what will help the Ecuadorian economy continue to grow, and it’s generally not ramped curbs. The city infrastructure is peaceful and purposeful if not user-friendly, unless it’s the traffic, which is a more improvisational affair.
In places where buildings jut into the street, leading pedestrians onto the road, boulders from the rivers, painted in yellows, reds, and whites have been placed as barriers for safety. While accessibility is important, it’s unlikely that your average cart-bound North American Walmart shopper could find Ecuador on a map, let alone desire to go there. While it’s not our country, it seems to us after reading a few articles on the subject that the allocation of funds seems focused on putting elements such as commuter trains and wheelchair ramps before creating a non-gig, non-tourist-based economy. As land is snatched up by relatively wealthy and eager gringo baby boomers in Cuenca and elsewhere in the country, it’s more than fair to say that Ecuadorians want an assurance they have the ultimate accessibility; a bright future in their own country. The buzzing high electric fences of gated communities and large and often foreign-owned houses are a painful counterpoint to the laughter of the games of volleyball and soccer played in open back alleyways, parks and courtyards.
Our Spanish slowly improves as does our confidence, even when dealing with protective local dogs. The evenings are consumed with resume rewrites, cover letters and looking for freelance gigs, listening to music and slowly digesting the meal we made for each other.