We rode in silence along the city’s Northern ridge. Our hands lightly clasped, but our eyes stayed fixed on the city, our stillness a permission allowing each other the space to savor our last few moments in our own way. For two months, we had been drinking Cuenca in. Our glasses had been all but emptied. We swirled the last lingering drops and took a final swig.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.