It’s about 11:00 pm, I’m sitting in bed, listening to the frogs and toads singing outside, in one of the most beautiful and amazing places I’ve been.
The day started as most of them have this week, with Spanish classes. After lunch, Debby and I went to look for housing, investigating a nearby neighborhood which is traditionally the neighborhood of iron workers. This search for a house has been a bit frustrating, because Cuenca is not what we thought it would be. There is housing inside the historic old town, but it is pretty noisy in the old town, and it would be sort of like living in downtown Seattle. Outside the historic center, most of the housing stock is pretty new. Our homestay, for example, is a split level built in the 70’s. There are some Ecuadorian McMansions squeezed in between more traditional houses, which are probably only 50 years old. Anyway, it’s been frustrating, and we still don’t know where we will end up.
All week, our family has been talking about coming up to Susudel where they have a 2nd home. We haven’t heard too much about it, and we haven’t focused too much on it, because it didn’t seem all that certain that it would happen. At 1st, all the kids were going to come, but one by one, they dropped out, and so tonight it was only Jaime & Rita and the 4 of us. With so few, we all came up in Jaime’s pickup; Debby, Jaime & Rita in the front, and me and the girls in the back! This is probably the 1st time I’ve been in the back of a pickup since Peace Corps, and definitely a 1st for the girls. They were psyched! After an hour or so, it got dark, and cold, but we huddled together, and we were fine. Once we finally got out of the city lights, and the traffic, I realized it was the 1st fine I’d seen the stars at night, and (of course), the night sky is completely different than it is in Seattle – 0 degrees vs 47 degrees. Given all of the problems we had looking for a place, the drive up made me wonder if we should give up on Cuenca, and seek to live perhaps in a small pueblo nearby.
We finally arrived at their home in the dark, and it is a marvel – una maravilla. They started building it in 1991 and finished it about 5 years ago. It is made from all local materials – wood from eucalyptus trees (which are plentiful here, and smell wonderful), adobe and straw and tile roof, and hundreds of beautiful touches. It’s large – they have had as many as 140 people here to spend the night! There are rooms inside and outside, upstairs and downstairs. Even with the old world feel of it, the bathrooms were built with moderrn plumbing.
I knew the house was built on Jaime’s family’s land, but in fact, the town and the church in town, was built on his ancestor’s hacienda. The original hacienda house is now a national historical site. On Saturday, we climbed up to the cliffs behind the house. The trail led past many small adobe houses, and plots of land. Most had small irrigation ponds. The people who lived in the houses were all people who used to work for the hacienda owner. They lived on the land, but they owned nothing, and they owed the owner 3 or 4 days of work. On Sundays, they’d ring the church bell to call all the people together to give them their chores for the week. Sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s Ecuador passed an agrarian reform law, in which the haciendas were broken up and these peasants were given a plot of land on which to live and another which they could farm. As we climbed higher towards the top of the cliffs, we could see that basically, all the land we could see had been Jaime’s family’s hacienda. It was huge! I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that it was easily as big as all of Seattle, north of the ship canal.
When we got to the top, some cousins had brought up a small grill, charcoal and meat, and had a barbecue at the top of the mountain. We walked through eucalyptus groves and saw sheep, cows, chickens, and pigs grazing freely in the grass. In the evening, we had our first experience eating a specialty of Ecuador, “cuy”, or roasted guinea pig. It was tasty, if a little gamey. The girls wouldn’t eat it, as they couldn’t but help thinking of their friends pets, Lucy, Lollipop, Panda, Snickers, etc. The family made a fire outside to roast the pigs and you could see what pleasure they took in sharing this special meal with us. The party continued after dinner with drinks, story telling, and karaoke singing. We feel so fortunate to have found such a closely knit nuclear and extended family.
On Sunday we got a chance to go into the old hacienda church. It is rarely used any more for mass, and it is being restored. It is small and simple, but with some neat old murals painted directly on the walls.
I still need to learn more about this, but although Jaime isn’t upset on a personal level about losing his family’s land, he believes that the agrarian reform did mess the county up. Lot’s of the land that had been farmed under the hacienda system now lies fallow. Many people have left the county for the US, Spain and other places. I think there are a lot of different factors at play here, and I hope I’ll learn more about this during the year.