Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cuenca - Arrival and First Weekend

Our plane arrived in Cuenca about 3:00 on Saturday afternoon, after a cloudy (i.e., viewless) 45 minute flight from Quito.

What a sight greeted us when we arrived! The family with whom we will be spending the next couple of weeks, Jaime and Rita were there with flowers. Also at the airport was Jaime's sister Gladys; their daughter Maria Fernanda and her husband Jose (nickname - Pichi) and daughter Antonela (3 years old); their son Javier and his wife Maria del Mar, and their daughter Maria Gracia (2 years old). Missing was Rita and Jaime's other son, Javier, and his family, who is at the beach for a long weekend. It is Javier's kids who spend the afternoon with Rita.

We loaded all 8 of our suitcases into the back of the pickup, and headed to their home. (Traveling with so much luggage is a total pain, and not something we are used to doing.) We got to their home, unloaded and unpacked, and sat down for some before dinner conversation. We hadn't seen much of Cuenca yet, and what we had seen is quite a surprise for us. For example, Jaime and Rita's house is a split-level built in the 70s. What we were both expecting, from our experiences in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, was a fairly small, simple house, concrete floors. We were not expecting wall to wall carpeting and water that you can drink right from the tap!

After dinner they loaded us in the car, and gave us a tour of the historic downtown of Cuenca. We happened upon a celebration at a small church where they were lighting fireworks ("juegos pirotecnicos"), and they had music in the plaza in front of the church. They also set off some small hot air balloons - perhaps 3 feet in diameter, born aloft by some burning leaves that are attached to the center of bottom of the balloon. We went inside a small hallway, where some dancers in native outfits were waiting their turn to perform. A small indigenous women was serving hot shots of aquardiente flavored with cane sugar and cinnamon ("canelazo"). We finished the evening by driving up to a small chuch on a hill away from the historic center. There were many Cuencanos (citizens of Cuenca) up there, mostly young ones, enjoying the city lights. Young people in Cuenca are very fashionable. There is a definite presence of eyebrow piercings and tattoos - not as prevalent as in Seattle, but still quite noticeable.

Saturday night we had a wonderful sleep - the first one in a week, thanks to the rowdy hostel we stayed at in Quito. I didn't even mind the rooster waking me up at 5:00 am.

On Sunday, they took us to visit a nearby town - and again the whole family (minus the aunt) came with! A very interesting thing that we saw and talked about is the presence of many very large houses in some of the rural areas. They call them "residentes," and they are financed by the husbands who are working in another country - usually the US, but also Spain and Italy. Emigration is pretty prevalent in the rural areas around Cuenca, and it really changes the communities. My cousin Lynn, who we met in Quito a few days ago with her husband Nate, gave us a book called "La Chulla Vida," which is about this exact phenomenon, in this very area. It was written just a few years ago, by an anthropologist from Whitman College. I'm sure I'll blog more about this as I learn more.

We had lunch at this great place called El Barranco, which Pichi knew about because the owner was looking for a loan to develop the place further. It had a pool, which was great for the girls, who swam in their clothes, but for us it was also interesting, because we learned that business loans, as well as home mortgages in Ecuador, have an interest rate of 18 - 20%! Of course this is so discouraging to home ownership and small business development, and I'm sure I'll blog more about this as well, as I learn more.

Our family is not only incredibly warm and welcoming but they are also very well educated, well connected, and well traveled. Their daughter spent a year in Germany as an AFS student in the late 70's, one of only 2 girls to have ever gone to Europe from Cuenca. Their son-in-law went to grad school for 2 years in Cambridge, and he is the director of the provincial department of economic development. The parents have traveled to the US several times. They love to sit around after a meal and converse about everything from local customs to their favorite foods to politics to the importance of travel and accepting other cultures. They are understandably proud of their beautiful city and country and are so eager for us to see all that it has to offer. We feel that we have won the lottery in finding such a great family! Their hospitality is so genuine, so heartfelt. I continually get the sense that everyone has time for people and for conversation.

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