As our time in Cuenca was drawing to a close, we made sure to range farther out in our explorations, finding new public markets and plazas. We burned through memory space on our phones the way people used to chew through film, collecting countless moments around us like a security blanket. We ogled the Old World architecture looming over the buzz of modern downtown crowds.
Our routes became more diverse. A thirst compelled us to survey as much of the city as our last few days would allow. We sought out new courses to our usual destinations, diverging from the now familiar paths. Each unexplored walkway followed, each curious bridge crossed, was an attempt to absorb more of Cuenca, and we savored the last morsels of a meal consumed too quickly.
The commanding facade of the Museo de Historia de la Medicina rose from behind a high wall of brick along an uninvestigated stretch of Avenida 12 de Abril. The converted former medical college’s gates stood ajar, allowing us to peer across its front garden into the arched marble entryway. Directly beside the grand structure stood a wall strewn with graffiti. We lingered there inspecting the display, our interest creating a spectacle of its own for the drivers stuck in the avenue’s rush hour traffic.
For them, we were the ones out of place, two gringos staring at a marred wall. Cuenca’s dichotomy of modern and classical, of conservative and rebellious, so unexpected to us, was an an all too mundane part of life for its citizens. Their love for the city had settled and grown comfortable, the recollection of its charms reserved for special occasions. But we were barely acquainted with this place, learning its quirks and becoming ever more intrigued by each discovery into its complicated nature.
A bridge traversed Rio Tomebamba, ending in a stairwell abutted by tall buildings. The structures shaded the corridor, cloistering it from the commotion of Paseo 3 de Noviembre mere steps away. Here the artwork continued. Murals depicted artisans forging the metal crafts the city is heralded for. Window grates morphed into gaping mouths. Cartoonish characters negotiated a hallucinatory nightmare of convoluted mazes. We ascended onto Calle Larga, its traffic shattering the stillness of our dream like a morning alarm.
One evening, we sat outside Jodoco, slowly sipping beer and watching as a dance class assembled on the steps of the church. The last gasps of dusk settled into evening, and the instructors commenced to steppin’ while the class greeted each other and latecomers alike.
In the states, the use of public spaces largely still seems to be a novelty or an echo of a simpler time. Yoga in the park is just so much whimsy, but in the rest of the world, people still convene, and more importantly, socialize, in open spaces. This is a mode of life forever closed off from those that live in that vacuous sprawl of American suburbia, miles away by car from a park or cafe, rather than a short and energizing walk.
The people assembling had only garnered mild interest as we soaked in the evening between slugs of beer. Our attentions were fixated on the sticky thickness of the air against our skin, the temporary relief afforded by each cold swallow. In a few days, we would be affronted by Cleveland’s very real winter, and the goosebumps teasing my arms wouldn’t dissipate so easily.
It was the clothing that first attracted my notice. A crowd had gathered, dressed in sneakers and sweatpants. Athleisure is not a trend here. The fashion sensibility of Cuencanos is still deeply rooted in the city’s traditional Catholic heritage. An informally dressed mass congregated in front of a colonial cathedral looks suspicious, or like tourists.
People around the world do not possess the same squeamishness with child labor that Americans do. Children are expected to contribute, to help with the chores, the family business, and the rearing of siblings. As the progeny of immigrants, my own adolescence was punctuated by weekends spent seducing the bloated feet of middle-aged women into bargain footwear at my parents’ store. Even still, watching a prepubescent girl lead an entire plaza in jazzercise on a Friday night is a startling scene.
The music blared, a pop song featuring a salsa rhythm. I watched with a mixture of disdain and guilt. There is something offensive about being subjected to people exercising when you’re working at getting drunk. I was reminded of closing up after nights spent bartending, stumbling into the blue light of morning, pulling down the grates as commuters hurried to work.
There is a presumption that the Latin community possesses a skill for dancing, a stereotype proven true at every gathering I can recall from my youth. However, the assembly seemed an unusually uncoordinated grouping. Their loping efforts at grace were what diplomatic people might refer to as brave, and my annoyance transformed into an awed fascination.
Even as we giggled at the dubious rhythm of some of the attendants, we marveled at how alive the plaza was. The music boomed out across the space, while children laughed as they darted in and out of the heavy shade of the gently swaying trees. Couples rested on benches, allowing their dogs to drag their leashes as they socialized with each other.
As our time in Cuenca was meant to be used in restructuring our careers, we had agreed to enjoy the city while adhering to a modicum of frugality. The impressive offerings at Feria Libre left us perfectly satisfied by a homemade meal of platanos and Pilsener. When we did treat ourselves, it was with the intention of indulging in authentic, Ecuadorian fare.
That said, Cuenca is a city of over 350,000 inhabitants. Its restaurants cater to far more than the occasional mote pillo craving. The pervasive presence of stalls hawking hot dogs is a testament to the local affection for “American” fare.
We had passed a burger joint on our walks to and from the Centro Histórico. The restaurant had a 50s diner aesthetic that my Jersey upbringing would have made difficult to pass up, even had the aroma emanating been less enticing. With just hours left in our stay, we decided to satiate our curiosity and our appetites. We approached the eatery along the edge of the cliff where it jut out over the city, providing spectacular views of the Andes. A man sat dangling his legs off the ledge of the severe drop-off, relishing an ice cream cone. We squeezed past in pursuit of our own delicacy and I marveled at the wreckless trust with which he ignored our intrusion.
For one of our last date nights in Cuenca, we sampled Bodhi Burger, a franchise devoted to American-style smash burgers. Seared to perfection, topped with an onion jam and a secret sauce, the burgers positively glowed from the tray as we sat down. The sun was drifting behind the Andes, and we clinked our bottles of Pilsener together before demolishing any of the negativity from the day with the embodiment of comfort.
Bearden’s, a hallowed Cleveland institution, was waiting for us just a few days away with its own gloriously greasy, yet familiar, offerings, but here on a tiny back patio in Cuenca, watching the sparse streetlights on the distant foothills come to light as the day slowly died, it was difficult to remember a time when I was happier.