You don’t need to speak Spanish to understand that an old woman advancing toward you, fist shaking in the air, does not bode well for your situation. Cuenca has not been spared the infiltration of smartphones the rest of the world is currently battling, but Instagram never quite caught on here. Searches for Pittsburgh, a less populated city, will garner nearly five times the number of hashtags. In Cuenca, the sight of someone taking photos of daily life is enough to peg them as a foreigner, or at the very least, suspicious. Light skin tones don’t help.
The woman hobbled over to where I stood, phone out, poised to capture a particularly cocky rooster strutting beside her fence. Her adult son ran over to join her. There aren’t too many places in this world where people appreciate having some stranger take pictures of their property, and my apprehension at even attempting the shot affirmed I knew better.
The two were talking fast, but I mustered my most deferential waitress voice to apologize, explaining in faltering Spanish that the sky was beautiful, and as a foreigner, I meant to take a photograph of the clouds. Luckily, Cuenca’s rolling skies were cooperative (and Americans have a reputation for idiocy). With my lesson on exploiting other cultures learned, the white lie felt like the less embarrassing choice for everyone involved.
They laughed, J and I were relieved, and we were endowed with an earful of neighborhood gossip. Apparently, a white lawyer had been coming around to take photos of the adjoining auto body shop. He hoped to catch the owners in activities his client, also white, could use against them in an effort to take over their business. We had been initially mistaken for associates of the lawyer. My parents would have been so proud.
We plodded West towards Rio Tomebamba, floral vines spilling over the outer walls of the homes of El Batán’s expats in striking contradiction to the graffiti murals upon them. Some were little more than tags, but a haunting pair of eyes brought back literary tropes from Freshman English.
Junkyard watchdogs stood atop a rock mountain across from the riverbank, defending their gated domain from each passing Sunday stroller. Cows had ditched their predictable yards to meander the park’s greener pastures.
A pedestrian bridge separated us from a frog pond and I followed J onto its dilapidated frame. Halfway across, the bridge began swaying wildly and I scolded J for his juvenile antics. He insisted he hadn’t done anything to shake the structure and we fled as quickly as care would allow.
The pond proved underwhelming, an algae-infested mess whose inhabitants had likely met with an untimely end. However, a couple of drowsy cows across the shore captured our interest. Here the river became shallow and we hopped along the exposed rocks peeking up through its stream. Late afternoon rays pierced through the clouds, backlighting the bovine deities.
We let Rio Tomebamba pull us along its banks towards the Andes, its green, muscular hulks cutting into the bottom of the Westen sky. Like a lot of the public works in Cuenca, the enthusiasm is apparent, but the implementation isn’t quite all there. Just as the commuter rail line seemed to be on a perpetual pause, work on a riverside trail was in varying stages of completion. Parts of the trail were well-used, and a rickety bridge turned into a trust exercise for Y, who was convinced I was shaking it. I was not. Our time in Pittsburgh had spoiled us; while the Riverwalk there is far from complete, its various lengths have been some of my favorite urban hikes for years. Later, as our relationship blossomed, it became the first, second or third act in a wonderful night out for Y and I, or simply the stage itself for countless dates.
Growing up in Cleveland, I biked or strolled along Lake Erie and Rocky River, and occasionally the nicer and more Southerly parts of the Cuyahoga River. That’s not to say I didn’t spend time at the North end of the Cuyahoga, it’s just that the mouth of that river has hygiene issues. That section is the part that caught fire (multiple times), and try as the city of Cleveland may, there’s no amount of lipstick you can put on that pig to make it attractive. While there is a certain romance to flaming smokestacks, I prefer to be shaded under trees rather than rusted bridges.
When we considered where we wanted to go after the US, proximity to water was a high priority. The fact that Cuenca enjoys clean and fresh mountain water, unlike much of the rest of the country, was a huge plus. Cuenca’s riverwalks were a massive draw and one we took advantage of frequently.
Another bridge led us back across the river to the South bank where the roads turned to dirt. Daylight was unfurling from the landscape, retreating behind the mountains. The smell of roasting family dinners hung low across the valley as plumes of smoke sprouted upward to the Andean peaks. We came upon a large gazebo housing a wooden cross. These public shrines are dispersed throughout the city, though modern Cuencanos seem to regard them as largely decorative.
We ascended and the left side of the road fell off abruptly, exposing a patchwork of small haciendas below. I peered down at the same cows we had seen from across the river. Stone walls on our right struggled to hold back towering succulents, their disintegrating bricks biding time until they were rejoined with the earth.
Despite the prevalence of street dogs, cats are a rarity here. We fawned over a cautious kitten sprawled along some steps, but a canine guardian patrolling her perimeter convinced us not to hound her.
We wandered along the quiet farms, once again surrounded by serene pastures just steps past the city’s intense avenues. The blaze of the sun’s last gasp reflected in the windows of the colonial houses. Warily, I took a picture.
We took Rio Tomembamba as far west as Cuenca would allow. The final bridge cut sharply South, while the course of the river meandered into the forest and towards its headwaters upstream. We were well away from the city center, out among errant chickens and lazy cats, all roaming in the tall grass, watched over by scrappy canine defenders.
While some dogs in Cuenca are definitely pampered pets, many more, especially on the outskirts of town, are low-rent security guards that aren’t quite as precious as the hypoallergenic Labradoodles we’re confronted with in the states. We were reminded of this by more than a few hard-nosed hounds. They’re harmless, for the most part, but having an unsecured dog yell at you and slowly advance is a giant red flag in cities back home, and it’s hard to take it in stride.
However, the tranquil setting quickly brought us back to being present and not panicking. The gardens were cool and inviting in the purpling light, the sky overhead flowed with swaths of cotton candy and a slurry of peach, plum, raspberry, and mango. The air hung sweet and fragrant with herbs and wildflowers.
As exotic or dangerous as our explorations may seem to those who have not traveled much, a loud dog or three was the worst we ever faced on our free-wheeling strolls through town and into the foothills. Ecuador is no haven from violent crime (after all, where is?), but, like most other civilized nations on the planet, it’s nowhere near as trigger-happy as the United States.
It was Sunday, and on my regular call with my parents, the usual jokes were made about how dangerous it was in Ecuador. I had tried to nip these in the bud early on when we had first informed them of our plans to move South. Months later, after we had taken an altogether more dangerous cross-country trip through the US, the same jokes about the need to bring a gun were still proving to be anything but funny.
I realized that I had been letting the issue slide and that it wasn’t going to fix itself. Concern for loved ones is a very beautiful thing, but when it becomes overbearing or used as a vehicle to express ignorance, it’s something that needs to be addressed. I waited a day to cool off, pulled some research up and wrote a pointed email outlining that while my folks are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own set of facts.
There are plenty of ways to express affection, communicate that you miss someone, or even explore your own curiosity about other cultures without putting down an entire continent’s worth of people. My parents and I obviously don’t agree on everything, but we love each other enough to foster a mutual respect, and the subject was almost immediately and satisfactorily closed.
Making mistakes is part of being human, and I’m fortunate to have loving parents that raised me with the maturity to confront and solve issues, rather than sticking my head in the sand. I didn’t like drafting a righteously indignant email any more than my folks enjoyed reading it, but rather than allowing it to become a line in the sand, it became a new thread of understanding. Beautiful things don’t always feel beautiful immediately. Quite the opposite is often true, in fact. As humanity works at digging in its heels a little less and growing up a little more, it behooves us all to remember that we’re the ones who invited the elephants in the room to the party, and it’s rude to ignore party guests.