We’ve attacked our last few days in Cuenca with newfound vigor. There’s a sense of urgency, and we’re making great strides in organization and communication as writing partners. We’re becoming a solid team. While there are definitely some kinks to be ironed out, the fact that we’re cheerleaders for each other cannot be overstated. Even when there’s not active encouragement happening, just seeing someone else pour themselves into work is inspiring. It’s impossible to not feel the tug of the current we’re swimming in.
After dusting off some poetry and writing some new pieces, I submitted a few to literary magazines. I’ll admit to not having high hopes. I have a folder in my filing cabinet with a small sheaf of rejections from over a decade ago. The old line was that I would someday wallpaper my office with them. I may still do that, but to have enough to cover the walls of that future command center, I’ll have to step my game up. The biggest part of that is being prepared to be hurt. Hopefully, my skin is significantly thicker than my junior counterpart’s.
The rapidity with which our time in Ecuador was dwindling jolted us to action. With so much of Cuenca still unexplored and the weather finally cooperating, we set off to uncover as much of the city as we could cram into our last two weeks. Much like Pittsburgh, the city sits at the confluence of three rivers. We had spent a fair share of time meandering along the banks of Rio Tomebamba, following its winding shores Eastward from our neighborhood of El Batán to the colonial plazas of the Centro Histórico. However, Rio Yanuncay to our South still lay entirely unscouted.
We mapped a route along the thoroughfare of Avenida de las Americas, past the provocatively named Parque el Dragón. The park inhabited one of those small, triangular plots formed by the perpendicular junction of three streets, but what it lacked in size it made up for in personality. The perimeter was enclosed by a gate, currently locked, but the dragon was most certainly in. A police officer stationed at the corner took minimal interest in the two gringos gawking at what must have seemed to him a tame spectacle. Our appearance either lacked the sign of malicious intent or athletic ability, and once satisfied we wouldn’t be jumping the fence he went back to ignoring us.
The namesake dragon held court in the center of the park, a hulk of twisted steel oxidized red with time. A mosaic of colored glass gave it the appearance of scales. Its curled tail bore spikes like shark fins and formed a halo around the beast’s head. Ecuador is unabashedly Catholic, and the iconic image of the Virgin Mary encircled by a golden nimbus had clearly impressed upon the sculptor.
The dragon was situated at the center of a small pool. The artist had inhabited its watery realm with a conch shell, a whale, and a frog. Their assembly in the same biosphere struck me as being unlikely, but it seemed a minor detail to dwell on given I had already accepted the presence of a dragon. The whale and the shell went unnoticed, but the frog had garnered the creature’s attentions. The dragon was staring it down, mouth agape, where a stream of water would somewhat ironically be spewing from its unfurled tongue, had the fountain been turned on. The frog was doing a good job of holding its own, all things considered.
We came upon the river and veered to follow it Westward toward the Andes. We passed a simple park with an archaic playground set, the type that taught kids how to swing without getting your skin caught where the chain meets the seat and sit on a see-saw in shorts without getting burned. Here the neighborhoods were sparse, more suburban. Homogenous condos lay empty, in the final throes of their construction. The neighborhood lacked the lived-in tumult of El Batán.
A large boulder had been papered over with political posters which read, “No a la consulta del traidor Lenin” a reference to current president, Lenin Moreno, and his political distancing from the Alianza PAIS party. Moreno had served under his predecessor, Rafael Correa, as vice president for six years. With Correa stepping down, he had presented himself as the new leader of the Citizens’ Revolution, the movement Correa built. This promise to continue the work Correa started helped him to eke out a win in a very close presidential election. Now he was actively moving away from the party’s tenets, the ones the majority of Ecuadorians had understood he would uphold when they voted for him.
I believe humans to be more nuanced than stereotypes allow for, but to label Latin people as having a flair for the dramatic is an understatement. Rightfully upset citizens said Moreno had “perpetrated an electoral fraud” by deceiving the people as to his intentions and had “incurred an embezzlement of the trust placed in him by the citizenship that made him president.” The previous month, Alianza PAIS had ousted him from the party, and though Moreno retains the title of President, he has lost the backing of their majority in the National Assembly.
The sun usually falls behind the Andes by mid-afternoon, backlighting them in a way that has yet to dull for me over our few months here. Of course, the people of Cuenca just go about their day, their splendid shadow of a skyline as commonplace as any city to its inhabitants. Shafts found their way through the treeline to the river, lighting rocky shores that were much like those of Rio Tomebamba. A marshy island lay between the banks, and across it, untroubled cows grazed in unattended pastures.
We began to make our way home, pausing for a moment at the light to give a ranch hand and his cows the right of way. Small haciendas climbed the hilltop to our left trailing back toward the dirt roads outside of El Batán. Businesses lined the right of the road, and outside one we encountered our second dragon of the day. We strolled through neighborhoods, stopping to admire some flowers, or a restaurant, or the artful way a brick wall crumbled.
Along with building a head of steam in terms of production and inspiration, our Spanish has continued to improve. As the days go on, there are considerably more moments where I find myself leaping before I look, blurting out phrases and answers that are at least passable. It’s thrilling to find yourself thinking in a new language, even dreaming in it at times. After we become conversant in Spanish, I want to try my hand at Portuguese and Japanese. I’d like to be slightly better prepared for our future adventures than our Spanish practice left us.
More importantly, after seeing so many bellicose white expats not even attempting to speak Spanish, I’d like to create as much distance as I can between myself and that particular brand of terrible. It’s an incredibly bad look, and certainly not the way into the hearts and minds of the people whose country you’re actively colonizing. I may not be able to speak Spanish very well yet, but I can certainly read the face of someone who is over it.
There’s great energy between the two of us, and as we explore the city by day and hammer away at the keyboard by night, I am suffused with the notion that this is exactly what we should be doing. All of the little seeds we’re planting, some of them are bound to sprout. We’ve already secured a few clients here and there. Nothing flashy, but definitely the type of encouragement two greenhorns need. To celebrate, we made sure to treat ourselves. We went to a downtown restaurant known for its cuy, something I had been dying to try since seeing it on Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods, years ago.
The improvements in my Spanish have bred confidence. I no longer feel overwhelmed by the prospect of short conversations and am relying less on reading people’s body language for cues. My own movements have changed as well. I’ve begun to grow comfortable here, no longer shrinking myself down in an attempt to get by unnoticed.
J and I are both reluctantly responsible. While we both appreciate getting our way, we’re equally eager to relinquish our control when the burden starts to wear thin. Usually, this results in me handling planning and minutiae in the morning, leaving J to take over in the afternoon. With our departure day approaching fast, we had been pulling double duty, crowding our schedules with writing sessions around excursions around the city and I had developed a case of stress insomnia. So while I’ll admit the cuy debacle occurred on my watch, I never really should have been in charge.
I had been up all night, but we wanted to make sure to try cuy, roasted guinea pig, before restaurants shut down for Christmas break. Guajibamba was said to offer the best. We had made our way along the river park, following Rio Tomebamba downtown. Lunch service was winding down as we entered a warm room with Spanish-style archways and a skylight over its entirety.
I had prepared some lines, basic pleasantries, to use in situations where one might freeze. Given my recent conversational success rate, I was unconcerned at being tasked with asking for a table for two. However, I never got to utter my request. We were greeted by a waitress whose rapid pace would have been hard for me to decipher on my best days. She was animated, seemingly concerned, asking questions I couldn’t follow. When I tried to start over by asking for a table I couldn’t remember the words.
Eventually, J realized relieving me of my reigns would not be insulting, but an act of mercy given my current state. He gently moved me aside and chatted with the waitress, completing the simple chore. With the pressure removed, I began to grasp bits and pieces, something about how they were out of cuy, or maybe were out but would have more in a couple hours. She showed us to our seats, left us with menus, and hurried back into the kitchen. J looked over his shoulder to make sure she was gone, leaned in and said, “What the hell was that?”
After a car-crash of horrible Spanish at the door, we were given a table. During the mangled conversation, we were mostly able to piece together that they were out of cuy for the day or weekend, or maybe there was one or two in the kitchen. Once we had rebooted our Spanish, we double-checked, and it seemed I would not be experiencing the gustatory adventure I had been hoping for. Thankfully, the restaurant was not lacking in other amazing options. The food was rustic, simple and flavorful. We were even treated to a bit of a show, as a man who must have called ahead given the cellphone glued to his ear, ravished a platter of cuy as his wife and daughter looked on. It smelled heavenly, and someday, I hope to be that exultant diner, licking bones and fingers clean.