At the end of the last post, our hotelier had managed to cram two fat gringos, ten suitcases, and a cat into a medium-sized SUV in what I termed el milagro de las maletas. Our ride to the hotel through darkened streets was covered by a fog of fatigue, but I recall that the driver pulled over and tried to get us to transfer to his son’s car so we could be more comfortable while he drove ahead with our bags (he’d called on his cell phone to ask his son to help). I knew we were only halfway through the 10-minute ride, so we refused, “No es necesario, gracias.” It was the first of many encounters where I was able, with my broken Spanish, to make my meaning clear, but the social implications were not plain to me. Would I offend the driver? His son? Was there some other reason I didn’t understand for him to offer this? When we got to the hotel, the beautiful Boutique Hotel los Balcones in Cuenca, Azuay, Ecuador, we were greeted by Paolo, in English. We were arriving on May 30, so the 2-bedroom apartment we had reserved for June, July, and August was not ready. Our luggage was stashed in the downstairs office, and we were placed in a third-floor room in this old colonial building with no elevator. Did I mention that Cuenca is located at an altitude of 8,300 feet? We huffed and puffed up the stairs, stopping at each landing to catch our breath, and finally collapsed on the beautiful satin bedspread in our ornately hand-ornamented room. We spent the next day more-or-less resting and allowing our bodies to adapt to the thinner air, breakfasting on the hotel’s glass-enclosed top floor and savoring the gorgeous view of the tiled roofs, glorious cathedrals, and narrow bustling
streets of our newly adopted home. Tapioca was also breathing hard, and showed no interest in moving around much, either.
By evening, our apartment was ready. Two bedrooms, each laminate floored, with a sizable modular closet and dresser, and one bathroom upstairs. Unlike the hotel room, which had a luxurious bathroom with European jets in the shower, the bathroom was basic but modern. Downstairs, a huge room, all tiled, with sofas and chairs, dining room table, well-equipped kitchen with granite countertops and steel appliances, and in one corner behind a half wall, a modern HE washer and a clothesline. “But,” Paolo explained, “out in the yard is a dryer which you can use any time after 6:00 p.m.” It is a nice big dryer, in a little shed steps from our front door.
El Mercado: We shuffled, still only partially adapted to the altitude, down the street to the Mercado 9 de Octubre, an open-air indigenous market. The sensory experience of one of these Mercados is overwhelming! Three stories, perhaps half an acre, packed with stands selling fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, juices, fresh and prepared meats, eggs, fish, every kind of fresh food you could imagine. The local people think of Americans as wealthy, so haggling only brings the price down slightly. But the prices still are very reasonable, even with the “gringo tax.” A bag of limes for $1.00, ten eggs for $1.00 (and this is one of those little things that trip you up mentally: they sell eggs by tens, and the refrigerator in the apartment has an egg storage tray with ten hollows). At one point, we went to buy a pint of honey, sold in little plastic containers, and asked, “Cuanto?” How much? “Dos dolares.” We paid with a $10 bill, marking us right away, as most local people keep a pocket full of $1 coins and singles. The chola (traditionally-dressed indigenous woman) gave us back $7.50. When we turned around, she actually argued with us. Well, it wasn’t much of an argument, with my limited Spanish and her lack of English, but “No. Cincuenta mas. No es corecto!” repeated stubbornly a few times, and Steve (who is not so short by contrast with Ecuadorians) holding his hand out, got us another fifty-cent piece. Hrrmmpph. Do they think we’re stupid? Anyway, we walked away with a whole chicken, fruit, eggs, butter, salt, honey, and vegetables for under $15. Another $13 got us a quart of Ron Abuelo Añejo, a smooth Ecuadorian rum. We stopped at a little tienda to see about cat food. Cans of the local cat food, Felix, ran $3.00! Sticker shock! They did sell some dry food called Michiu, which looks just like Friskies dry food, out of a barrel by the pound, so we bought a pound…well, un medio kilo. We trundled back to our apartment, proud of having negotiated our first grocery shopping trip in a strange city in a foreign language. Steve decapitated our dinner and we were all set!
The next day we stopped in a little panaderia a few doors down from our hotel and picked out some rolls at 15 and 25 cents, totaling $1.30 altogether. I also grabbed a bottle of Pepsi out of a cooler to mix with the rum. The shy little teenager behind the counter said, “dos veinte cinco” as I handed her $1.30. She shook her head, “Hay falta.” I was about to puff myself up and make a scene about how they couldn’t take advantage of me just because I was a foreigner, but then I remembered the Pepsi. My embarrassment at that point completely wiped out my ability to think of any words in a foreign language. All I could do is point to the Pepsi, point to my forehead, and say, “Lo siento. Lo siento.” (I’m sorry. I’m sorry). This is one thing I didn’t anticipate about trying to function in a language I know only moderately. Emotions apparently affect one’s ability to pull up vocabulary, at least in my case!
Some impressions of the streets of Cuenca from those first days: The children here are absolutely fearless and absolutely innocent. They range far ahead of their parents, climb the railings and play in the fountains at the parks, smile at strangers. One day we took a walk down to the river Tomebamba,
which has a very nice promenade along both sides of it. It was a fine sunny day, and the park was crowded. A toddler girl was following her daddy, big eyes staring at us. I smiled and waved at her, “Hola.” To my surprise, the dad not only encouraged her to say, “Buenos dias” to complete strangers, but coaxed her to “dale el mano” (shake hands), which she did. Even teenagers and tweens seem gentler, with little sarcasm in their banter. Many of them carry cell phones (this is the 21st Century), but I have not seen one kid walking along in a slouch, absorbed in his or her phone.
Many things are in disrepair. From cracks and holes in the sidewalks (watch where you step!), to crumbling facades of beautiful colonial buildings (admittedly, many of them hundreds of years old), to kludged plumbing and wiring that would certainly not meet US building codes, there were a lot of pauses. There is no doubt, despite the economic miracle that globalization has worked on the developing world in the last 20 years, there is still a gap. The average income in Ecuador is only around $12,000. Yet, the signs of development are everywhere: restoration of older buildings, the new apartment high-rises sprouting up, the presence of internet cabinas and cellular vendors on every calle, the spiffy running shoes and sleek coats and sweaters sported by many working folk in the street.
People seem by and large relaxed and happy. Smiles are everywhere. Groups of teens in the parks, families together savoring the equatorial sunshine on park benches, women walking arm in arm with shopping bags dangling from their hands: all are smiling. It’s a good antidote to the anxiety of things like: WHERE DO YOU BUY ICE TRAYS AND CLOTHES HANGERS? They are not to be found in the mercados or the tiendas. They are not found in the little stores which have signs saying “plasticos”. We took a taxi to the Supermaxi, a supermarket comparable to a Publix or Krogers back in the US (with US prices to match), but no ice trays or clothes hangers. Felix is $2.80 there.
Things took a turn for the worse: On Day Six, my 15-year-old cat, Tapioca, curls up in her bed and refuses to eat. Her eyes are goopy and her nose is warm and dry. We stretched out the four cans of US canned food we brought, mixing it with the local dry food, but we started her on Felix two days before she got sick. Is it the strange food? A reaction to her pre-travel vaccines? What to do? Paolo’s cousin is a vet, but I hate to call a vet on a false alarm. But what if I brought her all this way only to kill her? Research reveals that her symptoms match an upper respiratory infection, what humans would consider a head cold. This animal has lived her whole life at sea level, in the humidity of North Florida. Steve and I have been feeling sinus-y, with dried out nasal passages, in the high, dry air. So I run scalding hot water on a washrag and hold it over her face (she does NOT enjoy this!). After a few repetitions of this, she seems to feel better and goes down to the kitchen and eats. A few more rounds of this over the next few days, and she seems good as new! From now on, she gets locked in the bathroom with me while I take my steamy morning shower.
Next post: What does the body of Christ have to do with homemade Mallomars?