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 when 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 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.
The kitchen is a no-fly zone, where space to craft a punch or charcuterie spread has to be carefully usurped at the margins of the vast empire. The best time to sneak in is when my father is updating his tabulation of butter used thus far. A true student of the tradition of Julia Child, he delights in giving us a painfully honest breakdown of precisely how the sausage was made, as waistlines strain against belts. The only time I had ever missed my family’s Thanksgiving before was to share a Turducken with a friend who was stranded and alone under house arrest. Now, thousands of miles from Cleveland in Ecuador, the reality of the glamorous traveler’s life came with a complimentary jar of maraschino cherries.
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.
As you near the western outskirts of Cuenca, the failing and occasionally absent sidewalks reaffirm the notion that this is indeed a city, but it’s decidedly different than anything back home. A quarter-mile from the mid-level apartment buildings of our block, the mountains suddenly loom larger and the dense houses give way to larger haciendas with massive gardens. Livestock lounges in the shade, woodsmoke permeates the air, and the proud crow of roosters echoes in the alleys. The sidewalks eventually disappear completely, and grass grows wild and thick in the mountain breeze.
We doubled back to experience the museum from its entrance. A throne was exhibited near the doorway, the crest of its backrest punctuated by miniature skulls. A doll of a baby lay beneath a grate in a coffin-shaped opening in the floor. There was a guillotine, two bone chandeliers, a number of statues contorted with pained expressions. It was like if the witch who tried to eat Hansel and Gretel made folk art.
We stopped off at the bodega for beers, which resulted in the minus part of the transactions for the day, but we were nonetheless successful in our mission of acquiring alcohol. The shop owner’s patience for our linguistic fumbling isn’t an issue, but her line of questioning tends to throw us for a loop. As I’ve been learning Spanish, I’ve built scenarios in my head as mental exercises. I can understand extensive directions to the bathroom, how to find the police, what day a restaurant opens, where the parrot’s pants are located, and any number of things that almost never take place in daily life. It’s the regional turns on common phrases that throw us completely. Sometimes deciphering how much change we need to harvest for our purchases is avoided by handing over a fiver and crossing our fingers. Just like anywhere else, convenience stores are breezy affairs, and $2.75 in clipped English in a 7-11 translates in an Ecuadorian bodega to “what the hell did she just say oh god I’m so nervous I don’t want to fuck this up oh shit her eyes are boring a hole into my skull and waiting for an answer fuck fuckity fuck fuck” and so on.
Ernesto, our host’s brother, had left us with the casual warning after retrieving us from the airport. Now just five days later we were dismissing his advice in order to partake in the festivities of Cuenca’s Independence Day. Cuenca, named for the hometown of Spanish explorer Gil Ramírez Dávalos, was founded in 1557. However, it was not until November 3, 1820 that it would declare its independence from Spain, joining Guayaquil and Quito as one of the capitals of Ecuador’s three provinces. Despite the date exclusively commemorating the independence of Cuenca, as Ecuador’s third largest city, it is a holiday that is celebrated throughout the country.