He interrupted, “You guys American?”
I had rehearsed our order as I walked up to the counter, determined to sound proficient, if not conversational. Despite grueling daily study sessions and the assurances of one green cartoon owl, my fluency tended to dismantle itself when put on the spot. I had barely gotten past adding pepperoni when the pizzaiolo cut me off.
We had been excited to discover a pizza place so close to the apartment. Cuenca’s city limits, 8400 feet high in the Andes Mountains, have been successfully permeated by the same ubiquitous chains one would find in the US, but we’re not especially eager to spring for pizza best celebrated for its real-time tracking or bankroll racists who insist on being referred to as “Papa.”
The small storefront was perfunctory. A few rectangular Formica tables leading up to a small display case, manilla walls bare but for a slice-shaped clock which declared it to be “pizza time.” A group of twenty-somethings were seated at a table, focused on a television hanging above. A music video was playing, featuring a blond Hispanic child rapping about sunshine. It was absurdly optimistic and the twenty-somethings were engrossed in the trainwreck. Stupid is funny in any language.
The aesthetic reminded me of the grab and go, no-name dollar slice shops dotted throughout Manhattan and soon I learned why. The pizzaiolo was also the proprietor, and he divulged he had lived in New York for some time before moving to Italy to hone his craft. We exchanged travel bios and someone offered up the platitude about the world being small, then headed home to enjoy our meal. It was a satisfying slice.
Despite its isolated location, Cuenca’s many universities and status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site ensure a near-constant stream of visitors, both national and foreign. Its modest cost of living and use of the US dollar also make it an appealing destination for American expats and retirees. In a country with 50% underemployment, hospitality professionals know that catering to these travelers can be relatively lucrative. The result is a surprising number of people with some command of the English language for a city tucked away in the Andean foothills.
Cuenca’s large concentration of older expats seems to have filled their free time constructing a network of blogs expounding upon their experiences. They range in technological and grammatical skill, with some immigrants opting for a dual-language format while others prefer to write solely in their foreign tongue. Their subjects are diverse, covering community happenings, fish-out-of-water narratives, explorations of places of interest, and the occasional restaurant review. One such post helpfully suggests bringing a bun from home to substitute for the dry one being served with the hamburger at the recently-opened gastropub.
Ignorance and entitlement are unfortunately knit through a number of these sites, but there are a few respectful Americans aiming to promote cultural immersion. One such blog led me to discover an exhibition featuring local artists at the Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno. It being the final day before the exhibit was due to close, we decided to brave the indecisive skies, hoping the weather would hold.
Familiar graffiti figures were beginning to look like less of an art installation and more of a friendly neighbor as we settled into the grooves of interurban travel. It’s not quite the rapport we wanted to establish with the locals, but it’ll have to do for the meantime. At the very least, their expressions don’t change when we flub a sentence. It’s like having a conversation with a non-judgemental imaginary friend.
We trekked up the gradual incline, reaching the edge of the university campus, our feet scuffing on the octagonal and imprinted red tiles of the downtown sidewalks. We paused here and there to appreciate a shop window or the southerly view of the Andes, as clouds lazily swam by. Looking down, we watched people cross over Rio Tomebamba, heading further into the city as it spread out before us. Behind us, the narrow streets and shops huddled close, beckoning us with cool, shady lanes. We indulged our curiosity and cataloged wheat-pasted art, hastily written slogans, and a few cartoon animals, along with other new points of aesthetic interest.
Our walk was interrupted by a rogue sunshower, forcing us to momentarily take cover under an awning. It left the sky backlit by mauves and produced a rainbow which stretched out over the cobblestones of the Centro Histórico.
As we stepped into the museum we were greeted by a guard who informed us the exhibit had already been taken down. As part of the museum was being renovated, there wasn’t anything else on view. We decided to wander the plaza for a bit and left him to his superfluous existence.
Cuenca’s squares and courtyards are enchanting colonial affairs, mazes of foliage-lined walkways anchored by fountains and monuments to the republic’s military heroes. Catholicism being deeply-rooted in the culture’s history, there is usually a church or two punctuating the skyline. However, they are not pristine showpieces. Ecuador didn’t buy the couch just to cover it in plastic.
Plaza de San Sebastián is well-used. Wreathed by cozy cafes offering English menus at tourist mark-ups, it’s a place where Cuencanos still come to converse and congregate. Local children tire themselves with games of tag played round the fountain. Friends meet on benches nestled in shaded alcoves. There’s an undeniable feeling you’re in a neighborhood despite the ornamental dignity of the arrangement.
As Americans, we’re trained to presuppose convenience, knowing we’re only ever a Starbucks or McDonald’s distance from heeding nature’s call. Cuenca’s lack of public restrooms can require some thoughtful adjustments when planning an outing. Those that are available have stewards charged with collecting a fee. While the fare is never much, finding exact change can be more trouble than it’s worth.
The use of a restroom was the perfect excuse to investigate the pho whose scent wafted from a nearby storefront. We had prepared ourselves for the improbability of decent Asian dining options. I had steeled myself for a lack of appealing options overall. My maternal grandmother, raised in Quito, was notorious for her rendition of Spanish rice, a dish she reimagined by enhancing boiled white rice with a canned medley of chopped carrots and peas. Whether the creation was derived from her humble palate or an attempt at acclimating herself to her eventual residency in a retirement home, the bad taste it left me with for Ecuadorian cooking was literal.
Once again our attempts at ordering in Spanish were circumvented by our waiter. However, the inaccuracy of our order upon arrival revealed his English to be only marginally better than our Spanish. Regardless, the food was incredible, an unexpected treat, and two large bottles of Pilsener, Ecuador’s most crushable lager, did nothing to dampen our experience. The indulgence only set us back $13. The establishment, of course, lacked change for a $20.
The museum we wanted to go to was closed, the guard offering a shrug as far as its future hours, as it was the end of the current exhibition. Fair enough, as empty buildings are generally not that exciting. We turned and looked out across Plaza de San Sebastián, smiling with the knowledge that we were steps away from over a dozen restaurants. With one last look at the massive and ornate doors of the museum, we turned and walked into a pho restaurant, just across the square from Jodoco. This area of town, straddling the quieter Western parts, elevated over the river and sitting at the doorstep of downtown, is often our first destination before anything else. It’s a beautiful point of reference, and its increasing familiarity is comforting.
Our Spanish today was pretty awful, but we were saved by the fact that the restaurant was gringo-friendly and the staff spoke fluent English. The owner was from the US, and our meal came with the free entertainment of a series of arguments and exhortations culminating in a back-of-house meltdown. We dined largely in silence on the upstairs balcony, almost comforted by the story of the same old shit on a different day, now in a different country. We stopped at the liquor store on the way home, happy in the knowledge that any meltdown on our part would be strictly literary.