The day begins with the bed shaking us awake. Having lived in San Francisco, Rachel quickly identifies the rumble and roll as an earthquake and we later learn it hit 7.5 on the Richter, originating in northern Peru with minimal damage reported. We groggily realize we are in Cuenca. While we don’t know how often these tremblers occur here, we choose to believe it’s a propitious sign—that the earth is gently shaking things up just as we are.
We eat breakfast on the tiled patio of our Air BnB apartment, looking into the walled, grassy garden we share with the owners, who live upstairs. On the closest tree, three avocados hang temptingly from a high branch, but they are not yet ripe. The sun warms us and the sky is blue with white clouds on the horizon. Birds twitter, distant dogs bark, and we hear the rushing of a nearby river. We eat fresh mango, bought at a roadside stand (6 for $2) after leaving the airport in Guayaquil the day before. Our hosts’ enthusiastic dog, Pip, has already come down through the garden to greet us and roll over for belly rubs.
We arrived here the night before after a long day of travel from Miami. We felt lighter for having gotten our luggage down to one smallish checked bag and two carry-ons each, including my travel guitar (stuffed with socks and underwear) and a backpack for overnight hiking. We were met in Guayaquil by a genial young driver that Rachel had arranged for, which turned out to be a great decision. The main road to Cuenca was blocked by a rockslide, so we took an alternate route that was mostly a steeply climbing, twisty, two-lane road that passed through maybe a dozen villages and towns. It was packed with other cars, tractor-trailer trucks, buses, and overloaded pickups, all going wildly different rates of speed and passing each other on hairpin corners. As we passed up through the clouds and into deep fog, visibility dropped to near zero in places. Our driver handled it skillfully, taking chances but not extreme ones. We were tense, not knowing the road at all, but felt like he must know what he was doing. Had we chosen to rent a car, we would have been stuck behind all of these other vehicles for hours. Had we taken a bus, it would have added at least an hour to the drive, if not more.
The road leaving Guayaquil first passes across a large, modern bridge that crosses the Rio Guay, then cuts through shabby-looking shopping and industrial areas, and finally through the agricultural zone where mango trees, banana trees, sugar cane, cocoa trees, and rice paddies grow in abundance. So do the sellers of these goods, lined up along the street at ramshackle stands (and sometimes walking between stopped cars). Hundreds of them on both sides of the street for miles.
Cuenca lies 125 miles away from these sea-level flatlands in a valley at about 8,000 feet; the drive took us 4½ hours. I’m guessing we were up closer to 9,000 feet before heading down into Cuenca. So far we have both battled sporadic headaches, which may be related to altitude or to all the travel, but we are trying to stay hydrated while we adjust to the altitude. We also need to be vigilant about sunscreen given the intensity of the equatorial sun—and it is intense, even if officially it rarely gets above 80 degrees here. It’s especially noticeable when we move out of the cool shade and feel the sun pressing on our backs like an electric blanket set on high.
Rachel was able to converse passably with our driver on the way here; at best, I was able to catch a few phrases and kinda-sorta follow along, but not contribute. I was Google-translating road signs to increase my exposure to new words, but I have a lot of work to do to get along in Spanish. That started with reviewing my “supermarket” Spanish vocab before going grocery shopping (which I promptly forgot). Our four-hours-per-day of intensive one-on-one Spanish lessons begin this week, and not a moment too soon.
We decide to walk to a nearby supermarket to get some staples. Around the corner from our apartment we find the gravel riverwalk along Rio Yanuncay, one of four rivers that pass through Cuenca. Shaded by eucalyptus trees and well-used by local families, the riverwalk will, I expect, become a treasure for us as well. Then we wind our way through a neighborhood that has a mix of small tiendas (one-room stores) and other small businesses along with brick-, tile-, and stucco-fronted residences. The supermarket is like those we’ve been to in Mexico, and similar to supermarkets at home. It serves our needs to get started, but we think we will likely try to shop more at the little tiendas and open markets once we get more familiar with the area.
After we get back, we eat lunch in our sunny garden, admiring the flowers and vines, and prepare for a longer exploration of the riverwalk. This time we encounter unexpected detours, dead ends, and rough patches, but manage to stay alongside the river, its rapids gushing past rocks and through bridges. We’re told there had been some serious flooding shortly before we arrived, and we see a couple of washed out bridges as testament to that. But we persevere and make it to the Parque Paraiso, a large public park with recreational activities for kids, paddle boats, playing fields, green spaces, and walking trails, like a mash-up of Golden Gate, Central Park, and Boston’s Public Gardens. Sadly, our friend Olive the Duck does not find any Swan Boats to ride.
At the Parque, the Yanuncay intersects with another river, the Tomembamba, and we follow that one back until we intersect with Ave. Loja, our way home (conveniently marked by an ice cream shop that we sampled and will surely visit again). The rest of the walk follows narrow, stone sidewalks along city streets lined with small shops selling food, fruits and vegetables, snacks and drinks, as well as electronics, phone plans, even hardware.
This seems to be a city where the old and new mix seamlessly. At one point, we cross a small field beside a run-down stone building and nearly step on a pig skull lying in the grass! We turn the corner and see a pig (minus the head) on a spit, poking out of a wide doorway into the sidewalk, waiting to be roasted. Two doors down, a fully roasted pig (this one with head still attached) juts out of another wide doorway and two women carve what’s left of its haunches and flanks. A couple of blocks away from this scene is the white-tiled, glass-walled phone store (just like a Verizon or AT&T store in the US) where we go to initiate our Ecuadorian phone service.
It’s also a place where high mountains rise up on all sides, colonial cathedral domes stand at the ends of city streets, street art reflecting ancient traditions shares wall space with urban graffiti imagery, and pocket soccer fields fill tiny lots between two buildings. There are sleek, modern restaurants and sidewalk cookpots steaming tamales wrapped in banana leaves. There are Incan ruins, Spanish haciendas, curved-glass hotels, and red tiles on nearly every roof. We are beyond happy to be on this adventure, soaking up all we see and learning about ways of being in the world that are new to us.
One final note: despite the title of this post, we are not counting the days and promise not to post new things every day. (For those who ARE counting–and you know who you are–we know that there are more like 3,653 days in 10 years, counting leap years!) But after all of our preparations, on this particular day, we found ourselves waking up in another country at the start of what feels like the great wide open. And that felt worth sharing.