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.
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.
Despite my remedial Spanish and the shop owner’s impressive level of intoxication, eggs were eventually procured. A number of failed attempts with a calculator required his wife be disrupted from whatever work she was performing in the back. She was unamused by his sloppy incompetence. Some things are the same everywhere.
Much like our old home, Pittsburgh, Cuenca has just over 300,000 residents, 3 rivers, and a surplus of bridges. Most of the similarities are what you would expect from any city of comparable size, and most of the differences are negligible. We can work on the language issue, and we’re pretty okay with being taller than most people. Our best stories happen when we’re off the map, and getting lost continues to be part of the fun. After a few months in Cuenca, we’ve created a list of some of the more notable differences between here and your average US city.