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 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 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.
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.
The biggest market in town is just down the street, and while it took some time, we’ve got a decent handle on which are our favorite stalls and who doesn’t rip off the gringos. We still stick out like sore thumbs because we’re 4 inches above the average height, but we’re getting better at being confident and nondescript. All the same, we do get rolled from time to time. A dollar for 3 pears? Fuck you, Abuelita, I don’t give a shit if yours are the best in the market.