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PEDESTRIAN PERSPECTIVES

Centro Histórico Street View, Cuenca, Ecuador
Exploring the side streets of the Centro Histórico

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.

Museo de Historia de la Medicina, Cuenca, Ecuador
The outer wall of the Museo de Historia de la Medicina

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.

Graffiti Wall
One person’s defaced is another’s improved.

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.

Cuencan Street Art
Nothing to see here.

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.

Graffiti, Cuenca, Ecuador
An illustrated tour through an artist’s nightmare

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.

Jodoco Belgian Brews Cuenca, Ecuador
Jodoco Belgian Brews in Plaza de San Sebastián

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.

Homemade Platanos, Cuenca, Ecuador
Platanos, pears, strawberries, and radishes are better than the sum of their parts.

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.   

Steep Hillside, Cuenca, Ecuador
Watch out for that first step.

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.

Bodhi Burger Smashburger
The In-N-Out of the South (America)

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.

Graffiti Grill, Cuenca, Ecuador
“If I could call it a drink, call it a smile on the rocks”

 

25 thoughts on “PEDESTRIAN PERSPECTIVES Leave a comment

    • I love that response! Before writing about our travels, I would almost never talk about the trips I went on. It felt like it would be too hard to distill my thoughts about a place into a blurb short enough to keep people entertained. Writing has helped to reframe a lot of what we’ve gotten to experience, and it’s been exciting to see the tangible growth in understanding and ability. Thank you for the kind words! I’m glad the piece resonated with you.

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  1. Starting this comment by laughing at myself first, I had to Google where Cuenca was before I could keep on reading this literary travel piece. I especially liked your observation on the use of public spaces and other comparisons with America. Not sure if I interpreted it the way I was supposed to, but I hope so😂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You have a great writing style. I truly felt like I was sitting with you sipping beer watching this dance class unfold in front of us. I too have often compared common spaces in other countries to those in America, wishing that America would adopt some of this casual style as well. Thanks for the great share!

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    • Thanks for the lovely compliment! I think there are some cities in America that do a decent job of utilizing their public spaces. New Orleans comes to mind. But I think we’re all a bit programmed to look at walking as a failure, instead of an opportunity here. Personally, I’d rather meet in a park than a coffee shop anyday.

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  3. I have heard Cuenca is the city to go in Ecuador. A lot of people prefer it over Quito. There are so many things that make the city unique. I feel like you with respect to how people socialize in open places. It is not something you see in the United States often. But, in other countries, it is normal. I think that I why I enjoy traveling to places where people still enjoy each other’s company.

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    • We definitely felt this sense of community there, despite it being a significantly-sized city of 350,000. I’m not used to seeing that sort of camaraderie in the U.S. outside of sporting events.

      If you go to Cuenca, you’ll definitely get a sense that the people all know and care about eachother – and you’ll see some of the most striking sunsets I’ve been privileged enough to witness.

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    • Thanks so much! It was interesting to see how it compared stylistically to what we were used to seeing in the states. I think it’s true that there’s a heightened interest in being emotive in one’s art in South America, as well as an embracing of the fantastical.

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  4. Love that you included the video of the dancing! Makes you feel like you are actually part of the story. Love the way you compiled this post, it’s more personal than how you see most blogs!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. After figuring out Cuenca is Ecuador, I’m even more intrigued about visiting. Your street art photos are amazing. From your descriptions, it sounds like you really had a great time. Fun dancing moments 🙂 A great read.

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  6. I must admit, I had no idea where Cuenca was, but now I’m very much educated. Such a great read and I love the street art. Even though some feel its destroying property, I think some individuals are really talented and it’s great art to see around the world.

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    • I can understand why people would be annoyed by kids tagging their property, but much of what we saw was done in a way that was respectful, and clearly sanctioned. Though we’re inclined to appreciate the character a well-done piece lends a building or neighborhood, even if it’s not entirely legal.

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