In the last post, I promised to tell you what the Body of Christ has to do with homemade Mallomars. And I will, in just a moment. But first, I want you to think about how you orient yourself when walking or driving around a new town: Perhaps you look at a map. Perhaps you have a smartphone and look at a maps GPS app. Perhaps you get directions from a local. You probably keep your bearings by looking at landmarks, such as the open sky over a nearby ocean or lake, or a nearby mountain or tall building. In the afternoon, you know the sun is in the west, and in the morning it’s in the east. If you live in North America, you also probably know instinctively that, around noon, the sun is in the south.
Now, let me tell you how that worked for us our first week or two: All the travel websites, books, and blogs, caution about crime in Latin America. Ecuador is one of the lowest crime Latin American countries, and Cuenca is one of the lowest crime cities in Ecuador, but even so, sources caution you to avoid going out at night, avoid dangling your purse, keep valuables in zippered pockets, avoid wearing flashy jewelry, and avoid waving your smartphone around like thief bait. That last point is particularly germane in Ecuador, where the government imposes high import tariffs on all imported manufactured items. The concept behind this, I think, is that Presidente Correa wants Ecuador to develop its own manufacturing base. It’s quite plain that Ecuador is far from being ready to build electronic items like computers and smartphones, though, so these items are quite pricey and highly coveted.
Steve and I felt the natural apprehension one feels in a place where one stands out. We are both quite fat (which labels us as being from the US as effectively as though we were walking around in Old Glory T-shirts), both quite Caucasian, and Steve had waist-length grey hair. One of our first walks, I murmured to Steve, “I feel like a goldfish in a tank full of sharks.” We didn’t know where to look, how to place our feet, or how to blend with the flow of foot traffic on the crowded sidewalks. It was awkward, and our fear of being victimized was always niggling at the back of our minds. So, we kept our iPhones zipped safely into pockets. This meant that, before we went anywhere, we’d pull it up on our GPS app while still in the apartment or hotel lobby, and our discussion would be something like this: “OK, we want to turn left, towards the river, and go six blocks, then turn right and go four blocks. Left six blocks, right four blocks. Left six, right four…” Then we’d go out, forgetting the hotel had both a door that faced south and a door that faced west, turn left, walk six blocks, turn right, go four blocks, and find that there was nothing like the place we were looking for anywhere in the vicinity. I was greatly disoriented by the fact that the sun at noon here is ever so slightly in the north rather than the south. The city is in a bowl, so the mountains are in all directions, and the river is too narrow to orient by unless you can actually see it. So, we’d huddle like scared little mice in the doorway of some shop, shielding the smartphone like high school students sneaking a cigarette, and try to figure out how we went wrong. It didn’t help that all the streets are named after political figures unfamiliar to us (some of whom have the same last names but different first names), or after important dates in Ecuadorian history which as of yet mean nothing to us.
One night, after we’d been here about ten days, we decided we were tired of all the delicious comida tipica (typical Ecuadorian food) we’d been eating, and we just wanted a cheesy, chewy, American-style pizza. The highest-ranked pizza place on the American travel pages was a place called Fabiano’s, so off we went. It was less than half a mile. But we got lost. We did our mouse huddle and counted off blocks again. We got where we thought it should be, but still no pizza place. Repeated the process. We had walked a mile and a half, hungry, and it was getting dark. This last attempt had landed us at a little plaza with some benches, so we sat down and huddled over the phone, glancing around suspiciously every so often like spies or drug dealers, and thought we knew where Fabiano’s was. We agreed to make one last attempt…three blocks this way, four blocks that way. And: no Fabiano’s.
“Let’s just go back to the plaza and hail a cab,” I said.
“OK, let’s go right here.”
“No, I think we should retrace our steps to go back to the plaza”
“It’s all the same, and this will be a little shorter because we won’t have to cut across the corner of the plaza.”
I was skeptical. “What if there’s a church or school and the street doesn’t go through?” Even so, I was capitulating and walking in the direction he’d indicated.
“Well, then we can do as you said and retrace,” he offered.
“Or,” I said, glancing up at the drab wooden sign over the narrow, set-back doorway next to us, “we could just go to Fabiano’s.” He looked up, and sure enough, there we were. So, we did.
The pizza was pretty close to what we were used to in the States, and it satisfied our cheese cravings (although that much of the local Ecuadorian cheese, processed a little differently than what we’re used to, doesn’t agree with my guts for some reason. But that was something I found out later that night, and I will spare you the details). We boxed up our leftovers, and again per the guidebooks, asked the cashier to call us a taxi (there have been some robberies by rogue cabbies in the past, so at night it’s considered safest to use a radio dispatched cab).
The taxi came, and we climbed in. He drove a block or two as I told him where we were going. “Conoce Hotel los Balcones? Gaspar Sangurima y Presidente Borrero?”
The cabbie grimaced. “Los Balcones? No! No! No! El trafico!”
“Pero, necesitamos ir alli.” (But, we need to go there). I was looking around, realizing I now didn’t know where we were, it was dark, and I was starting to panic.
“No.” The driver stopped the cab and motioned us to get out, “Es Corpus Christi. El trafico esta muy malo. No puedo.” (It’s Corpus Christi. The traffic is very bad. I can’t.) Now Steve realized what was going on and he started to panic, too.
“Un dolar mas?” I offered, which was all he wanted, and off we went. He was totally right about the traffic. The narrow mesh of streets in el Centro was packed to the point of gridlock, yellow-vested policia at corners trying to maintain traffic flow with varying success, people streaming from all directions, families with strollers, young couples holding hands, gaggles of teenagers, women in skintight jeans and high heeled boots, all headed towards Parque Calderon, the park a few blocks from our apartment hotel. Firecrackers randomly punctuated the night, setting dogs to barking. I debarked from the taxi first, and the driver shook Steve down for another extra 60 cents, but we were quite relieved to walk into the hotel lobby. Paolo greeted us and asked, “Oh, did you just come back from Corpus Christi?” with a big grin on his face. “Oh, no, we got caught in the traffic! We had no idea about Corpus Christi! It’s crazy out there! What is it?”
It turns out that Corpus Christi, meaning the Body of Christ, is a Catholic liturgical feast. The Roman Catholic church has a special processional, or parade, which the Pope participates in, on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday, to celebrate the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of communion. However, the people of Ecuador have taken that feast and transformed it into a week-long street festival. In many ways, Ecuador reminds me of my ancestral country, Ireland, and this is one of those ways: Ecuador is a Catholic country, like Ireland, but the Catholicism was imposed by colonial rule, also like Ireland. The people had a vibrant pagan folk religion prior to Catholicism, and so they just adapted their indigenous religion to the Catholic liturgical calendar.
The solemn papal processional has become in Cuenca a series of noisy, colorful parades, each church in town trying to outdo the others, and nightly fireworks displays on the central square, each one also reflecting the devotion of its church sponsor.
Another critical part of the Corpus Christi celebration is the sale of sweets. The street alongside each cathedral is lined with stalls selling a variety of goodies. The spectacle evokes the mercados with their colorful fruits, but is not nearly as healthful! We tried a few, sugar fiends that we are, and all were delicious. There were buttery little pastries, cream horns, jelly rings, coconut macaroons, raw sugar embedded with peanuts, but there was one which just made us laugh when we bit into it. Chocolate covered, the inside was marshmallow cream, and it was on a circle of crumbly cookie. We each took a bite of it, and then I realized what we were eating: “This is a Mallomar!” It took us back to our childhoods, just as the festival sweets quite apparently took the locals back to their childhoods, with moms and dads as well as wizened cholas and distinguished-looking patriarchs in suitcoats and fedoras lighting up with glee at the sight.
The next day, we went on a tourist bus around the city.
It was a grey and drizzly morning, so we had the entire bus to ourselves and I got to ask lots of questions of our bilingual tour guide, a lovely young university student: is it rude to call the ladies in traditional hats and skirts cholas? (No) Are we actually on the Pan American Highway (which runs along the spine of the entire Andes mountain range)? (Yes) What are those orange flowers called? (Sosa or Poet’s Eyes). We wended our way up a steep road of switchbacks to the Reina de Cisne (Queen of the Swan) shrine, a former abbey now converted into a tourist attraction with steep steps up to a spectacular view of the city. I gamely struggled up the stony stairs with my gimpy knee. The view was spectacular. I felt amazed at the beauty of our new mountain home.
We were introduced at the gift shop at the top to a hot toddy known as conelazo, sweet fruit juice spiked with the local firewater aguardiente: just the thing for the cool, misty weather up here at altitude.
By Saturday, the third night of the the festival, the general tone was a little less raucous and the crowds were not quite so intense, so we ventured into the park at night to see the fireworks. The parades wended their way through the narrow streets, accompanied by dancing youths in Devil costumes who cavorted with ease, stopping now and then for a photo with someone. They wound up with one contingent from each of the night’s four parishes along each side of the square park.
Odd-looking framework structures which had been tucked under eaves and inside alleys were quickly carried out and fitted together to make pyramidal towers, 25 or 30 feet high, festooned with fuses and studded with fireworks: spinners mounted on little cartwheels which spun themselves, high-power roman candles, and strings of firecrackers. Bands played all around the square.
We sat on a bench next to a dapper abuelo who introduced himself, between displays, as Joe Castillo, there with his wife Ines and some young people who seemed to be their children and their spouses. One of the women had a toddler asleep on her shoulder, and the baby slept peacefully through the bands (think mariachi) and the booms. Senor Castillo was patient with my bad Spanish and told me he’d lived in Cuenca all his life. I told him he was lucky to live in such a beautiful place, and he told me we were welcome to his city and he hoped we’d enjoy living here. I felt something within me unclench, and I realized that we were silly to be so fearful all the time. Once the towers were lit, we were amazed!
People stood within 20 feet of them, snapping photos or just allowing themselves to be mesmerized by the enchanting pyrotechnics. No one was hurt, even when the mortars fired big fireworks into the sky over the square. The intensity of having the fireworks so close, the music, the costumes, and all the smiling, happy, friendly people lit an answering glow in my heart.
We lay in bed, tired enough to sleep despite the firecrackers and music still drifting across the tiny courtyard and into the open window from the streets outside, holding hands. I murmured, “I like it here. I’m glad we came.”
Next post: Meeting Wild Skies; Trouble in paradise.