Ecuadorians’ adoration of fairs and festivals is only surpassed by their devotion to Catholicism. Subscribing to the Catholic credo that there ain’t no party like a Jesús birthday party, these passions intersect in a three-month celebration around the Christmas holiday that exceeds the birthday week excesses of the most self-indulgent sorority girl. Cuenca is the heart of these festivities, upstaging the larger cities of Quito and Guayaquil to draw people from all across the Andes.
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.
Exhibits outlined Ecuador’s rich and varied cultural makeup, displaying the traditions and garb of the various ethnicities that comprise the country. The detailed skirts and peaked hats of the native women were explained, giving us new-found respect for the artistry and tenacity of the native traditions. It was a stark contrast to our experiences in the American Southwest, where the narrative is generally one of decimation and dissolution and traditions forever lost to the ether. Tribal masks were reminiscent of the artist Basquiat, famous for injecting African themes into his evocative graffiti-inspired style, forging a strange link between three continents with those same threads of universality waiting to be found in the museums of the world.
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.