After ten days of travel….which included two nights in hostels in Lima and Guayaquil, and many high, twisting, Andean miles on a double-decker bus, plus, two flights and an all-night airport sit-in, I arrived in Cuenca, Ecuador. Distances don’t look far on a map but because of the topography, are not at all rapid or easily-accomplished. But the buses and planes are modern and very comfortable…..except for a bus-propensity for loud sound on the movie entertainment system.
By now, I’ve spent four days in a new hostel just a short uphill walk from Cuenca’s historic Old Town Center, and I’m beginning to get my bearings…. mostly by getting lost. The streets are clearly named, but the tourist maps are truly squint-worthy and printed way too small for even younger eyes to read. Luckily, the river is a main feature and when turned around, I simply ask where the river is and figure things out pretty quickly.
The weather is very pleasant here and it truly feels like summer, even at our rather modest altitude of 2200 feet. So, I must take back all of my comments about Cuenca being way too chilly for my blood. It is a very welcoming city and I’m slowly discovering what the large numbers of American expats, living here, see in it. So far, I’ve only met two, just in passing on the street, but Pat, who has lived here for six years, showed me her beautiful, furnished, one-bedroom apartment right in the main part of the historic section, which she rents for $400 per month.
To qualify for such a find, one must be in a position to sign a six-month to a year lease; but she told me of an available nearby, furnished apartment that I could rent for $600 per month, without a lease. I have an appointment to examine it tomorrow because I could easily spend that much, or more, on private rooms ($20-$30 per night) in a hostel or hotel.
There is a very active expat community, which meets for various reasons throughout the week, most often right in this central, historic district, within walking distance of this apartment. Tuesdays, from 5 – 8 p.m., anybody who wants to attend meets at Di Bacco’s Restaurant for a meal, just like we did every Sunday noon in Montevideo, Uruguay. Then, there’s the Thursday luncheon meeting of Writers In Transition at the Carolina Book Store, where each writer reads ten-minute’s worth of their latest work and receives comments from the group. Friday is another drop-in, evening meal at a different restaurant. And who knows what else? Oh, a jazz spot, on another evening….and a 4th of July BBQ & Square Dance on July 5th, for which I already have my tickets….and my cowboy boots!
So far, I haven’t taken pictures but will have by the next blog. But, I expect to fit right into expat life in this lovely city and I plan to learn and report much more about the expat movement in general in all of these recommended countries. I’ve already seen that it is, indeed, much more economical here. Most dinners out are priced well under $10 per person. Cab fares are $1-2. A dorm bunk bed in a mixed-dorm is $9. A medical checkup is $15 by a U.S.-trained, English-speaking doctor. Ditto for a dental appointment.
The fact that retirees can live well here on a social security income is what brings us flocking to the handful of countries recommended by International Living Magazine for offshore retirement. Consider me your Roving Reporter.
I am so impressed with the colorful, Quechua-speaking, Andean women whom I see everywhere on the streets and in the markeplace of this lovely town of Cuenca (QUEN-ka). They work so hard and seem to be so dedicated to everything they do, that I figured out last night that they are truly Amazonian. First of all, it´s impossible to overlook them as their dress is so distinctive and colorful, particularly their most unusual skirts.
These are jewel-tones and the rather heavy wool is pleated into teeny, tiny pleats right at the waistline. As all women could figure out, this makes them very bulky around the tummy area. Then, the skirt hangs full but only to the knees, ending in a scalloped embroidered hemline. So, the whole skirt assembly bustles importantly, swinging from side to side as they briskly walk with a quick short series of steps. Their legs are often bare, revealing very muscular calves and their shoes are pretty no-nonsense. I was puzzled as to why many of their skirts rose so high in the back and dipped below (barely) the knee in front. Then, I realized that most of those women had fairly large bellies and preferred to pull the elastic waistline down a bit in front, rather than constrict their middle. It´s a perfectly acceptable adaptation. So much so, that I thought that was the standard fashion.
Above, they wear layers of blouses and sweaters, always topped off by a big woolen shawl, frequently holding a small child tightly pressed against their back. They like bright colors and big plaid patterns. Perched straight upright on their head is, most often, a white Panama hat with a dark band, covering their long black braid.
These women are busy and deliberate as they move purposefully about handling a great deal of the sales that go on in this city. Of course, there are regular shops and offices here as in every big city, but these women run the myriad booths on the streets and sidewalks and they are certainly in charge in the big indoor market which mostly caters to locals. Enormous piles of colorful fruit and vegetables can´t compete with all the dead, cut up animals and fish on opposite aisles. Nothing in moderation…everything in plenty. Aisles selling shoes just overflow with huge piles of pairs – womens´s, children´s, men´s….pick one up and find the mate.
What an education! I wandered about in this big market at lunch time and I think I´ll go eat there today just to get a taste. Seems like most of the cook´s customers are the women merchants who sometimes have a whole family squeezed into their narrow confines, sitting on the little floor space, eating bowls or rice, stew and vegetables. The little ones just patiently hang about, not making a fuss. This is surely how the trade is passed on from one generation to the next. That kid has been in on the business of the mother since way before birth and every day afterwards.
I wouldn´t be surprised to learn that theirs is a matriarchial society because these Mamas and Grandmamas certainly seem to run the show on every matter. Plus, their men don´t have a costume and just dress like any other man. They are there helping with the work, but you tend not to notice them because the women and children are so very interesting to watch. No one begs here and that´s quite a comment too.
Well, I´m off to find a few pairs of socks to replace the ones the sack-snatcher grabbed away last week in Quito. That left me with only two sets, both of which I have been wearing a whole lot in these cool days. Just now, theyre in the wash and won´t be ready till 4:30. This would explain why my backpack is sitting upon my sandal-clad feet in this internet where the door is left open. Life and laundry must go on, just like at home. So must haircutting and I took care of that yesterday at a very swishy salon.
But, the good news is that I´ve found a very comfortable, quiet hostel with a private room and a true hot water shower for $18 per night and I moved in yesterday. I have a free breakfast at the hostal and can eat my other meal hugely for about $6…or less at the marketplace. I think I´ll stay put here until next week and am now trying to figure out how I´ll get to Lima, Peru. I could fly for around $300 but I see that would require me to miss some of the sights in the northern part of that country. Must soon break out my Lonely Planet and do some studying.
Whew! This has been one of those weeks in which I ask myself why I do this. It`s been a hard three and a half days and I`m sure you might be wondering if someone should send in the troops. Nope! It`s just that cities here, even within the same country, are not easy to reach quickly. Very labor-intensive. But, I have arrived in a real beauty of a place and plan to stay for a few days, so you`ll be hearing more about Cuenca, Ecuador soon. First, to catch you up:
1) I got sick. When? Saturday? No, last Friday night…(today is Wednesday)…with a sore throat. I tried over-the-counter medicine all day Saturday and finally resorted to my antibiotic prescription meds hoping that the thing would respond and not prove to be a virus. It did, but didn`t clear up all the symptoms, so I`m still coughing and hacking. Spent a lot of Sunday resting and drinking hot lemonade, sweetly cared for by my host family.
2) I spent Monday on a long, hot series of buses, creeping down the cloud forest and farming regions of Ecuador towards Guayaquil because the road back to Quito had been washed away in Saturday`s 12-hour deluge. The night was spent in a cold water (what else is new?) hostel there and then yesterday, I took a small six-passenger bus back into the mountains to Cuenca. We were to travel through a wild National Forest, a route which I had chosen because it was reputed to be only 3.5 hours long, as opposed to the more civilized way lasting five hours. Ha!
Those were the scariest mountains I have ever crossed; so high that they remain perpetually clouded with fog and the roads are so pitted with enormous potholes below the steep places that are most likely for more boulders to come crashing down to pock any passing vehicles as well as the pavement. Crews must clean them up regularly because you see piles of this natural artillery pushed to the side, or else great swaths of mud carrying guard rails off the edge in their slow-motion disappearance. We traveled for four hours in thick fog at an altitude so high that my sealed lotion bottles built up a vacuum from the air pressure the same way they do on airplanes.
Couple this nail-biting excitement with the distressing things that my body was involved in:
1. The simplest, but most obvious, was that I could smell the exhaust, or maybe the burning of our brake pads, from my rear seat. This sent me into paroxyzms of coughing so I kept taking small slugs of water to try to control it so that my fellow passengers wouldn`t worry about my contageousness.
2. I`m one of those folks who believe that a bathroom stop is in order at least every two or three hours and this hair-raising ride lasted a full five hours, from portal to portal, without a break. The cough control drinks weren`t helping.
3. By day three of my bacteria-killing medication, all of my good bacteria were long dead, as well, and I hadn`t found any yogurt with live cultures to replace them. Anyone who has ever been in the same boat knows exactly how distended a belly can become when the good bacteria are gone. Not at all comfortable under the best of circumstances, but then, try slamming along for hours on a corduroy road full of deep potholes. It`s a test of endurance of the highest order.
The driver was very sweet and he drives this route every single day. I couldn`t understand why all the passengers didn´t beg for the nearest bathroom when we finally made it to the beautiful city of Cuenca, but most went their separate ways while he showed me to his transport office´s baño. Then, he offered to drive me to the hostal that I had selected out of my Lonely Planet. Dennis was one of the other passengers who also needed to find a hotel, so he decided to tag along with me to my Hostal Monasterio. He is traveling with a humongous soft cloth suitcase and when we got to the hostal (that´s how they spell it down here) entrance, we learn that it is six floors up at the very top of the building and the elevator is broken.
I have my huge pack strapped on my back and my big daypack across my chest, so I start climbing, laughing about having to climb Cotopaxi twice in the same week. Dennis buzzes up on the intercom and asks someone to come down and help him with his. This young lady in high heels comes clacking down and the two of them wrestle the monster up the ninety-four steps, passing me in the process, though I did manage to tease him mercilessly for not being able to carry his own weight. Obviously, that´s what bellboys are for in his book. When I rounded the top of the stairs, he was already signing up for a private room with bath for $10 per night. Not the only one, I hoped, since he was coat-tailing on my hostal search. Luckily, she had another one for the same price, or I´d have been really upset with this 32-year old travel novice.
This isn´t really a wonderful hostal as there´s only cold water and the bed is very dippy and uncomfortable, but the view of the city is stunning and I´ll stay at least two nights to give me time to find a really good place. You can´t beat the price and it´s located perfectly in the center of the best part of the old city.
So, off I go now to find a perfect spot to lay me down. This city, as beautiful as it is, turns out to be the least expensive so far. My huge dinner last night cost under $5. This is a great vacation destination, seems to me. Carl and Jose were very impressed with it and I can sure see why. Okay, more soon.