Fourth Year Anniversary of Living in Cuenca, Ecuador
I cannot believe that with this week of March 9th, I am celebrating my glorious and fortuitous fourth anniversary of my permanent arrival in the splendidly auspicious city of Cuenca, Ecuador. I know that first sentence reads pretentiously. Nonetheless, I am in a whoop, whoop, whoopie mood; and I want to shout it from the spectacular Andes mountain tops and have this joyous moment resonate throughout the entire world!
My adventure began with the initial discovery of Cuenca in December of 2009, and then followed by an exploratory month from early July through the first week in August in 2010. I recently perused my only other anniversary post which I wrote at the odd 19th month stage of my life in Cuenca. Surprisingly, almost all of what I posted at the 19th month stage is just as true for me about changes taking place in Cuenca then as they are today. If you would like to read that post, since I don’t plan to rehash the changes I observed at that time, you can click here.
When I first arrived in Cuenca, I had described it as reminding me of life in the U.S. in the 1950’s, especially when I was living in the Italian neighborhood of my grandparents as a young boy. Older expats who were in their 70’s at that time thought that for them it was reminiscent of life in the U.S. in the 1940’s. I would not say that either perspective is true just four years later. So much continues to change.
The thing about third world countries is that they don’t have to go through the evolutionary process of the industrial nations to reach a new peak of modernity. Technology makes it possible to leap-frog decades in catching up with the older industrialized nations. Cuenca is somewhere today between the 70’s and the 90’s, and in some respects as with cell phone technology as one example, Cuenca is contemporary, as such technology for the masses did not exist even twenty years ago in the world. The city of Cuenca is no third world status today. If people want to really experience traditional Ecuador, they need to do so in the small towns and rural areas of the country. Better come quickly, because everything due to new highways and mass communications is changing the society very rapidly.
Today, the simple life continues to dissipate in Cuenca. I am not sure why it has happened, but I can’t recall the last time I have seen an ice cream vendor peddle down the streets selling his wares from his hot-ice freezer, with its colorful umbrella that protected him from the equatorial sun. Maybe one has to go to a place like Parque Madre or wait for a festival to see the ice cream man bicycle his wears as a sight that only yesterday was so common on the streets of Cuenca, and such a common site during my own American childhood.
Life in Cuenca for better or worse continues to become increasingly regulated. The young hippies who once brought color to the square at Parque Calderon as they spread their wares out in front of Tutto Freddo’s ice cream parlor and Ramipampa Restaurant and who were as much an attraction for the tourists were forced by municipal officials to abandon the sidewalks. Hippies are resilient, as some have re-stationed themselves along the escalantes in the Calle Larga area. The hippies were not the only group in Cuenca affected by new municipal regulations. The indigenous in their colorful dress selling their fruits and vegetables up and down the streets of El Centro from their equally colorful wheelbarrows have also been barred, and now appear primarily around the Mercado of 9th de Agosto and the other mini-malls in the city.
Noise ordinances have been implemented and tightened. I am conflicted about many of these new ordinances. When I first arrived in Cuenca, the city and neighborhoods were alive with Latin music. Parties were going on all night, and that meant the partiers were singing through the night as well in some cases until noon the next day. I truly loved being enveloped in a Latin culture, even if on some nights I had to close my windows and crank up my white noise machine when I retired to bed around 1:00 a.m. The people seemed so happy and warm. Such partying at least outside is rare now. On one hand, I miss that excitement and the feeling I was in another culture. Now except for the dogs, oh and our local rooster, the nights are quiet. Maybe this is something many of the Cuecanos wanted. Maybe, the quietude is forced on them. I don’t know. I don’t know who the impetus is behind all these regulations. I do know that peace and quiet are appreciated, but I also know that Cuenca is not the same lively town it was four years ago, when the vincendarios or barrios (neighborhoods) were alive when I arrived. It just seems to me to be another indication of the homogenization of cultures around the world into the same bland conformity of behavior, and the need to squeeze everything into a gentrified upper-middle class standard of behavior and appearance.
Driving was absolutely crazy four years ago. Pedestrians had absolutely no rights. The drivers were truly “kings of the road”. Today, and rightly so, drivers are a great deal more respectful of pedestrians. Speeding has increasingly been minimized as well. As a city with barely a traffic light four years ago, Cuenca officials now continue to frequently add them. Patrol cars were almost nonexistent four years ago, that’s not the case today. Very strict traffic laws will usually find a speedster over a fifteen mile limit doing jail time. Jail time in Ecuador means you better have family or close friends who will bring you your meals and bedding and toiletries. Some expats still complain about “the crazy drivers in Cuenca”, but only expats from small town America can make such claims today as seemingly viable from their experiences.
I miss the young people who would gather drinking every Friday and Saturday nights in the LaTaberna liquor store parking lots. They always appeared to be having a blast, and when I walked by, they would often invite me to join them in their not so sober yet endearing manner of join the camaraderie. I never did, but they, from what I observed, never appeared to cause the security guard any problems that he couldn’t handle. Yet when the party was over, someone had to drive home. Designated drivers? I don’t know if there were any or not.
Kids and pets would ride in open pickup trucks, and young people would be seen riding by holding on to the sides of cars and trucks as well. Imagine seeing some dude horizontally hanging on the outside of a pickup truck. Such sights are rare to see today, as more regulations curtail such activities, and fines are very stiff. I can’t recall if seat belts are required to be worn in Cuenca, or whether attempts are made to enforce such laws. Taxis which contain functional rear seat-belts certainly are rare. Seeing small children and babies in the front without a car seat or protection has been common. All of these behaviors were common in the states back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s as well.
I haven’t seen a herdsman herd his goats of about thirty down the street since 2011. Chickens, ducks, and roosters that would saunter about on the sidewalks of El Centro in front of family homes and in front yards are unfortunately a thing of the past. (It just wouldn't be dignified, just wouldn't be dignified to see barn animals on the streets of classy Cuenca in this modern day and age. Geeez!)
Tiendas selling cell phones were ubiquitous back in 2011, but most Cuencanos didn’t have the phones. Now it’s like everybody has them, no matter what their station-in-life. There are still computer stores with public phone booths and public computers, but even their numbers are dwindling as more people have personal home and cell phone access to the Internet.
When I arrived in Cuenca, guns and really big guns (Hell, I don't know anything about different types of guns,) were strapped across the chests of security guards positioned in front of commercial buildings, banks, and in hotels and condo buildings. The elimination of these guns strapped across the chest or their reduction to small side pistols was probably due to the Chamber of Commerce feeling such sights were not exactly a tourist friendly confidence builder in the safety of the city. I must admit that I never saw anything like it except when I toured red China in the 1970's were military were stationed every fifty feet in Beiging with a rifle. Quite frankly, it was dramatic overkill in a city of very low-rate and generally petty-type crimes.
Sometimes after living in a culture for a time, it is easy not to pay attention to things that once seemed novel. I will need to become more cognizant of whether women especially the indigenous are still wrapping their babies and toddlers close to them in what was a very frequent sight such a short time ago, or if baby buggies and strollers are usurping another tradition in Cuenca. Only once all last year did I see a teen walking down the street with his arm around his mother's shoulder, which was another fairly and endearing sight that has bit the dust in Cuenca. Nor what use to be a very common site of men hugging one another in greeting is far less prevalent today. For me it is sad to see so much of Latin culture become increasingly Anglicized at least in Cuenca.
Unfortunately from my perspective, traffic continues to get heavier on the streets of Cuenca, and can really tie things up on many roadways into El Centro and other outlying streets. I don’t see this getting any better as long as the middle class continue to expand. Whether a car is needed or not, the imitation of the Norte Americano life-style requires a car as proof of one’s middle-class status, and demonstrate keeping up with the Joneses”, or maybe I should say in Ecuador of “keeping up with the Alvarados”. Parking in Chicago now costs thirty dollars a day. Rates like that would quickly cure the traffic problem in Cuenca, and guarantee plentiful passengers for the new tren via to open in about a year.
Traffic hasn’t been helped by the inordinate amount of road construction taking place. The building of the tren via across the town, the widening of Ordonez-Lasso west of Hotel Oro Verde, and many other streets and bridges under construction are certainly adding to traffic head-aches. Delays and frustration can aggravate. However, the taxi drivers don’t mind the extra fare in longer detours around construction, and they for the most part have the patience of saints. I am just so glad I don’t need to own a car in Cuenca. I would go crazy driving in stop-and-go traffic, especially all day long like the taxi drivers.
Inge and Donna – Dog Bitches
There are expat women who are known as the “Happy Dog Bitches”. This group of ladies devote their time to raising funds for Happy Dogs in Cuenca, which spades and neuters large numbers of dogs each year. They have been quite successful. However, what is very mysterious is that all the dogs that were running the streets along the river and most everywhere else have for the most part disappeared over-night. Dog disappearance doesn’t just happen from spading and neutering, but nobody is talking. “Beam me up, Scotty.” Maybe. Yet, I do miss all those dogs. They never bothered me. They didn’t run in packs except at nights, and only protected their territory. Once walked out of the range of their master's homes, the dogs ceased and desisted with their barking. To see two dozen doggies lying on their sides, basking in the sun along the medians on Avenida Solano, resting by day, so they could keep the humans awake by night was just another one of those touches that increasingly disappears from why some of us came to Ecuador in the first place, to experience something different, to experience life differently from what existed back home.
For better or worse, things change. They always will. Nothing stays the same for very long. Each of us has a benchmark for how we remember the past and all the various people and instances of life who at one time or another where a part of our lives, and each benchmark varies dependent upon the age of life’s participants.
Four years of living in Cuenca with my friends gives us history and collectively shared memories. I still love Cuenca as much now as I did when I arrived. I still love as much now the views of the mountains that surround me. I never tire of the magnificent panoramic visions, awesome depths of layered peaks, and colors of cloud formations particularly at sunset; which I disappointingly never could truly capture through the eye of the lens of my camera. I still marvel at the sound of the Rio Tomebama especially after a heavy rain as it cascades against the many rocks in the river creating a thunderous sound like the drumming of the spirited ancestors of the indigenous. More so now than ever, I revel in the beauty of the green belts along the rivers, and the sky line as I walk or take a taxi along Avenida Doce de Abril. The taxi driver worries about the traffic, while I can focus on the view of the Tomebama, the parks along the banks of the river, and the beautiful colonial architecture of the buildings upon the bluff above the river. I still love the smell of the foods cooking in the open markets and prepared by the vendors who populate the street. The meats on a stick that youngsters and adults grasp from the released hands of the vendors as the broiling comes to perfection; the corn, the humitas, the tamales, the empanadas—all waiting for a taker. I love the sounds of Spanish as I walk along the streets; the families with their young children on a Sunday afternoon stroll, who are able to enjoy a tranquil day from work without any great expense, and the enticing scents and colors of the veritable splash of flowers in the Santa Carmen flower market.
I very much continue to enjoy my many expat and Cuencano friends. Some of whom are a part of my life briefly, and others who have been a part of my life since our arrivals. Friends also provide many small yet memorable surprises in life. A lady friend who prepared for me the most exquisite salmon dish I have ever tasted. A friend who just today made for me fantastic home-made sour dough bread; and whoever thought that it would be in Cuenca, Ecuador where for the first time I would hear of and experience eating Dutch babies. No wonder the Dutch are losing population when they eat their young! All kidding aside, this dish made from simple eggs, a small amount of flour, honey, generous amounts of melted butter, and a dusting of powder sugar was a marvel. How did so little in ingredients arise to such a major dish, and provide so much taste? Frequently there are good times and surprises with life in Cuenca.
If at times, some of these many experiences become commonplace; inevitably, the time comes about once again where I see, hear, and experience with new eyes and new ears. I remember once again why I love Cuenca, and why I came to make this wonderful city in the Andes my home. That no matter what the ups and downs in my life, I still have Cuenca to see me through and buoy me up. I am truly fortunate that I am in this place, at this time, and I continue on this journey to see what the next four years of discovery of myself and my life in Cuenca will unfold, and hopefully not unravel, as we both continue to grow and change together.