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 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.
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.
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.
Anything worth doing is worth doing right, and arguing done right is an exhausting endeavor. Both a bit spent, we made our way to Luke’s Inside Out to indulge in the restorative powers of beer and sandwiches. Luke’s is an unassuming food truck parked between a bar and a cafe. You can have your meal delivered to either bookending establishment. Its menu is small, specializing in sandwiches that are reworked versions of Italian and Asian classics.