The Maddening Din: Cuenca’s Noise

It’s six o’clock on a Sunday morning, and a car alarm in my Cuenca neighborhood goes off with its intentionally horrible, piercing, high-pitched wail.  I groan at the indignity of having my sleep be shattered by this rude interruption.  Just as quickly though, I force my mind into blocking out the noise as much as possible, shifting the perception of it from being an intrusive interruption to a background ambient noise.  With a kind of resignation, I try to wait it out hoping that the owner of the car would find it in his heart to go out and shut off the alarm as soon as possible.

Noise pollution is a nuisance factor in most urban settings.  In the context of the hard surface of concrete walls and canyons created by tall buildings that echo and amplify noise, the grind of machinary and automotives, restaurants and bars, construction sites, and heating and cooling systems take their toll.  It takes a human toll in terms of stress and public well being.  Managing noise pollution requires legal codes and enforcement, as is the case in most developed countries.  Municipal departments send out code enforcement officers who often need to intervene to remind businesses of their responsibility to restrict piercing noises from delivery trucks and heavy construction machinery to daylight hours.  They also intervene—along with police—in noise generated by residents from parties or dogs.

Laissez-faire Regulation and Enforcement 

In Cuenca, the municipality does have noise regulation codes but enforcement is virtually non-existent. In this lax laissez-faire approach to urban noise, the general background din is extremely noticeable to anyone who is accustomed to living a city where the population adheres to noise codes.

Car Alarms: The Siren Song of Cuenca

The noises in my neighborhood typically start around 6:00 a.m. when people start to take their kids to the early shift at school (schools here are broken into a shift system with young kids starting early while older kids stay past dark).  Most cars, even the most plain, nondescript conveyance with four wheels are fitted with extremely loud car alarms as a prophylaxis for theft. Car alarms start out blaring as people fumble with keys.  Even opening the car sets off a mini-alarm.


Gas Peddlers

Then, around 7:00 a.m., the trucks selling propane gas cylinders start peddling their tanks around the streets, and they keep it up all day until dark. Their trucks circulate slowly around the neighborhoods, announcing themselves so that house-keepers can open their gates and flag them down.   The jingle is broadcast from the truck, similar to an ice-cream truck.  As a constant background noise to living in the city, the jingle has now thoroughly pierced my consciousness, and I alternate between finding it comforting and finding it utterly distasteful.


Street Vendors

Between the car alarms and gas cylinder trucks are street vendors using noise to vie for your attention.  Trucks bringing fish, chicken, brooms, or fruits ply the streets hawking their wares for door-to-door sales.  It isn’t so bad when it’s a sing song voice (but I do worry about their vocal chords doing this all day!) but it’s particularly annoying when they have some raspy-voiced dude in a truck broadcasting a repeated message on a crackling, old public announcement system.  It is impossible to concentrate on much of anything between the blasts of static and intensely-irritating repeated refrain extolling the best fish in Cuenca.


Horn Honking

Taxi drivers are among the other worst offenders.  Lacking a system of text or phone notification by taxi call centers, drivers announce their arrival at your door with a series of blows to their taxi horns.  This is de rigeur behavior, no matter if your taxi arrives at 2:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m.  It’s not uncommon to be awoken by cabs honking their horns. As I sit writing, some neighborhood car is honking their horn repeatedly, likely to hurry up whoever they are trying to pick up.

Canine Cacophony

Cuenca is blessed with plenty of canine sources of noise.  Street dogs are generally intelligent enough to know to leave most humans well alone.  However, many Cuenca residents keep two to three dogs in their garage spaces or patios, and the domestic dogs are often the ones barking up a storm.  One dog on a street can set off a cacophonic chorus of sorts that echoes up and down the blocks.  It can be set off by any disturbance on the street at any hour.  A real welcome sound from your neighbors.

When I mentioned how objectionable Cuenca’s noise pollution can be to a Cuencano friend, he smirked a bit and acted as if I was a cranky, persnickety person.  But most people I have discussed this with are of one mind, that the habit and persistence of noise is bothersome.

I worked for many years in a U.S. county government Department of Environmental Protection, with a cadre of environmental code enforcement officers who frequently dealt with noise pollution.  I know it takes constant herding and maintenance to ensure that people in an urban context living in proximity to each other, conform to standards and norms that allow for harmonious living.  People are (ideally) raised to respect others—hence admonished not to leave their litter in common spaces, not to damage other’s property and not to encroach on others’ boundaries.  We build physical forms of settlements to give each other space and allowance for personal well-being (such as houses with fences), but we depend on people to maintain a healthy environment in our shared spaces.  We all suffer if people litter and desecrate our common spaces: our streets, our libraries, our parks and so forth.

The Commons and Happiness

It seems to me, the happiest societies are those in which the commons are well-maintained, through a system of personal virtues and personal ethics cultivated from a young age through an education system, as well as through a system of well-enforced limits and policing.  When people are aware that generating noise disturbs others and therefore they endeavor to limit their own noise, it makes for an overall more amenable and relaxed atmosphere.  You self-police so as not to disturb your neighbor.  You clean up if you make a mess to avoid inconveniencing others.  In these societies, for the most part, the shared environment is maintained by everyone as if it were their own.  In Japan, Singapore, Denmark, Germany and even in parts of the United States, the system of obligations to the commons is strong as a personal ethic, and reinforced by social norms and enforced laws.

An Ethic of Regard for Others

It is fundamental to being human that we are social beings, with a system of obligations and benefits.  We benefit from each other but it behooves each person to be constantly aware that their behavior impacts other people.  Selfishness and self-centeredness creates strife, because it impinges on the well being and peace of others.

As I write this sitting in the relatively quiet garden of my friend whose house is in a cul-de-sac and fronts one of Cuenca’s four rivers, a vendor drives down the road tooting his horn to sell some food from his motorbike.  It makes me smile.  This might be one of Cuenca’s quietest corners, but here, noise is a way to get your attention, not necessarily viewed as an inconvenience or a disturbance.  The tolerance of some noise is not a bad thing.  It does demonstrate a level of social flexibility and acceptance.  The vendor does need to make a living. However, the problem is the cumulative impact of dozens of sources of noise, constantly, which goes completely unregulated.

The housekeeper walks in and I tell her about my blog on noise.  She starts talking about the “barbaridad” (madness/atrocity) of Cuenca’s noise: the dogs down her street keep her up at night, the gas trucks are insufferable all day long, and the constant background stress wears her down.

As her experience reveals, Cuenca’s noise pollution frequently impinges past the bounds of personal ease.  It disturbs people, sometimes in the middle of the night and often and frequently during the day.  When you have a tightly packed numbers of people, and each asserts their own excessive noise, as if it were fine to disturb others, it betrays a level of disregard for an ethic that we have responsibilities and obligations for the common spaces we share as a society.  Noise is a quality of life issue, and, due to the stress it generates, is a personal health issue as well.  Many people suffer disturbed sleep as a result of the noise.  Cuenca’s ETAPA Environmental Department offices would do well to address this issue with a level of commitment to action that is focused on public well being.

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Cuenca’s clean water is priceless. And vulnerable.

In cities across Latin America, tap water is not safe to consume without treating for bacteria and water-born parasites (including T. gondii, C. cayetanensis, Giardia and Cryptosporidium).  Cuenca is an exception.  Before drinking the tap water in Cuenca you don’t need to disinfect it, and many people drink it directly without further filtration.  It is an environmental luxury in a continent where the majority of people don’t have safe drinking water.  The water comes from rain-fed water sources in protected watersheds high in the steep, surrounding Andes mountains, that are fairly inaccessible to the general population.  (A watershed of a stream is the area, demarcated by high points in the surrounding land, from where all the rain during a rainfall event drains into it.)  Our recent hike took us on an exploration of a protected watershed area outside Cuenca, administered by ETAPA, Ecuador’s agency responsible for infrastructure.

Our excursion started with a bus ride heading west out of the city, along Ordoñez Lasso.  The landmark at our turnoff was a little chapel, whose loudspeaker system had been rewired by construction workers who were remodeling and painting.  This made it so the holy catholic chapel was broadcasting their “at work” playlist of clubby, hoppin’-poppin’ reggaton (which nobody around batted an eyelid at, but sounded ridiculously incongruous to us!)

We jammed ourselves into Mixtos (for-hire pick-up trucks that ply the mountain roads around Cuenca) to cover some of the distance uphill.  We drove through what was once a poor, rural outskirt mostly inhabited by small-scale agricultural producers, but is now gentrifying into a suburb of Cuenca.  San Miguel de Putushi has recently become incorporated into the larger Cuenca municipality and it’s now common to see a mix of residents including farmers driving their cows, horse-riding cow-herds, and suburban  families.  The mixture of homes include ramshackle, low-cost construction as well as gated and fenced, well-built, and stylish haciendas owned by wealthy Cuencanos who seek the fresher country air.  The artesenal brewery Nordica have their offices here.

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As the road climbs up into the mountains, houses are spaced farther out, and soon you see only fields scratched out in patches on any level surface, and usually planted with potatoes.  Looking out across the steep valleys, there were many opportunities to joke about the cows we saw grazing on the impossibly steep inclines of the mountainsides.  Surely one of the legs had to be shorter than the other to maintain their stance as they munched their way through the pitched mountain pastures.

The deeply-gullied and broke-up road eventually frays into dirt.  The Mixto driver who expertly navigated this excuse for a road noted that he didn’t expect it to be improved any time soon.  Probably a good thing.  The protected watershed area wants to keep most people out, by virtue of its difficult access and very steep trail, most people do stay away.  ETAPA have posted signage saying the area is protected for water supply, and a gate (although open) serves as a kind of sign that people are meant to stay out.

Yet, as with many aspects of Ecuador, the guidelines and rules only exist to be broken.

As we found out on the trail, some local residents do go up there, usually on horses or motorbikes, possibly to gather herbs or other types of plants and materials.  Several passed us on foot.

After the gate, we hiked on foot trails, and then up into some bush.  The trees were rich with bromeliads, plants that live off trees high in the air. Presently we found beautiful protected streams rushing through the rocks ,and falling into quiet water holes.

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I reflected on what a luxury it was to actually see clean water.  The entire group hung out by the banks, calmed and mesmerized in the presence of the purity and vibrance of a living stream.

It was time to savor the marvels and gifts of nature, relatively unscathed by human hands high up here in the mountains.  All along the steep path up, we saw patches or creepers with gorgeous wildflowers.


The Clean Water Act (United States), Environmental Awareness, and Protection

Given the effort it took to reach a body of living, clean water here in Cuenca, I reflected on my regular access to many such beautiful and clean streams all across the United States, both in the mountains far from people and in relatively urbanized areas.  In theory at least, streams are protected by the Clean Water Act of 1972.  This law safeguards waterbodies against degradation and requires that waterbodies must reduce pollutants to standards which are safe for fish and safe for humans (“fishable” and “swimmable”).

While the United States is far from perfect and has degraded many of its waterbodies during the course of its industrial expansion, the 1970s-era Clean Water Act paved the way for restoring many rivers and waterbodies back to health.  Environmental consciousness is widespread and deep across the United States.  Both urban citizens who benefit economically from clean and attractive river-fronts, and rural citizens who fish and boat recreationally and as a source of income, understand that clean water is a precious resource that requires protection.  Remarkably, and thanks to the general conformance to legal standards that care for the environment in the United States, there are fairly healthy populations of fish, and recreational opportunities with plenty of direct contact including kayaking, swimming, and floating even in major urban centers such as the Potomac River that flows through the capital city of Washington D.C.

Notwithstanding the relentless onslaught of commercial interests (e.g. oil pipelines) and their well-paid political representatives in the U.S. government who want to loosen the Clean Water Act’s requirements to make it easier and cheaper for manufacturing and other industries to pollute, the citizenry in the United States, for the most part, demand clean water in their streams and rivers.  They are also aware of their own role in keeping surface water clean, for human benefit, for economic wealth, and for ecosystem health.

The Rivers That Flow Through Cuenca

By the time the mountain streams flow downstream and mix with other streams to become the larger rivers that flow through Cuenca, they are ecologically dead. They rivers of Cuenca don’t support a healthy mix of aquatic life; only the most pollution-tolerant insects can survive. They are the outlet for untreated street runoff laden with trash and dog waste (commonly left lying in the streets).

What I’ve found here is that the majority of Cuencanos (residents of Cuenca) seem fairly nonchalant about the importance of rivers as sources of life, not just for them, but for the rest of the ecosystem to include vital native plants and animals, from insects to fish and birds.  The education system here (as I understand from teachers with whom I have spoken) does not stress environmental studies and awareness to the extent it is done in Europe and the United States.  People don’t identify their rivers as a signal and an embodiment of nature.  Yet Cuencanos aren’t immune to the obvious signs of the degradation of their rivers.  Cuencanos lament the notable changes in the rivers’ water level over recent decades; they run lower than ever in living memory.  They note that climate change manifests as changing rainfall regimes.  Indeed through changing rainfall levels and pollution, available fresh water continues to be depleted.  Many Cuencanos like to fish recreationally, but to do so requires leaving the city for trout-stocked areas and protected parks.

 

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For the large majority of Cuenca’s urban population, the rivers are largely seen as background decoration to their city, and are not connected to their imaginations as corridors of “protected nature”.  The rivers are more of a water access point usually for waste or other uses. People do laundry directly in the river and on the river banks, just downstream from big outflows of street runoff.  I’ve seen all manner of men use the river as a toilet, on a frequent basis: taxi drivers pull up to the river and find a tree to pee into the river.  I’ve seen janitors take their buckets and mops down to the river to wash off their waste.  Trash such as plastic fast food containers is abundant along the river sides. Dog waste is frequently seen on the river banks.

Water Supply Systems and Economics (It’s Free to Pollute, but Costly to Supply Clean Water)

The water supply systems of most Latin American cities are contaminated by various sources of human pollution.  If intakes to the supply systems are from surface water (e.g. lakes, reservoirs, and rivers) they are often subject to often illicit piped discharges from industry, small-scale production or processing, and agriculture.  They are also subject to urban runoff that contains contaminants such as garden chemicals, trash, organic waste, fecal coliform from pets and humans, and leaked petroleum products that are lying on our streets.  Once polluted, the water becomes prohibitively expensive to treat to a safe standard for human consumption, before it is directed through delivery lines into people’s homes.

Thus, the prevailing norm that it’s free to pollute and discharge waste into nature is the basis of the entire production system that undermines both environmental and human health.

Absurdly, after allowing free pollution by all manner of industrial production and human activities, then, Latin American economies are stuck with cost limitations of providing clean and safe water.  The costs are transferred onto consumers.  It’s up to them to bear the costs of health related problems resulting from bad water, or to bear the costs of purchasing clean water (in plastic bottles).

The only guarantee of clean water from surface water intakes is to strictly regulate and restrict human access to entire watersheds that surround a body of water.

Conclusions for Cuenca

The municipality of Cuenca and ETAPA have at least, established a way to protect their water.  However, as we found out, the enforcement of rules is sorely lacking.  And that still leaves the water system vulnerable to many sources of contamination.

 

(Notable photo contributions on this blog are from Lew Hanford, a fellow hiker.  Unless otherwise attributed, all photos on this blog are mine.)
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Any Milk Today Mistress?

While walking down Juan Montalvo street in El Centro on a Tuesday mid-morning, I happened upon a scene reminiscent of inner city London from about the mid-1800’s when street sellers hawked domestic products and services by walking around residential neighborhoods calling out their sales pitches in sing-song.  The historical scenario is memorialized in the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, and particularly by the song “Who Will Buy?”  In the musical, one of the singers is a knife grinder, one sells ripe strawberries, and another sells milk (the actual line is, “Any milk today mistress?”).  As Oliver goes about the day’s business of selling, he feels grand, perhaps proud to be usefully employed, and cheered by his interactions with the buyers who open their doors and buy his wares.  He wonders, “Who will buy this wonderful morning?

Nobody actually broke out in song in the street, however, when the milk seller parked his truck on Juan Montalvo street, the neighborhood of closely packed houses down the city blocks seemed to buzz with the news.  The dairy farmer drives in from Turi, a hilly community near the city where there are lots of small-scale farms.  Neighbors alerted each other and people started opening their doors and walking up to his truck. There was a palpable feeling of communal concern, as people seemed to take care that their neighbors not miss out on the milk delivery.

The milk seller brings in raw, fresh milk from his cows in large, steel cannisters.  I observed woman after woman come up to the truck and buy raw milk that the milk man measures out in metal ladles, by hand, into take-away plastic bags.  The steel cannisters aren’t refrigerated, but Cuenca’s air temperatures are pretty temperate.  (The sun can be overpoweringly hot when it breaks through the clouds…but I’m guessing the time that the milk is exposed to high temperatures is not enough to spoil it during the truck sales operation.)  The whole operation would shoot a U.S. county health inspector’s blood pressure straight up.
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The alternative to this milk delivery is what is sold in stores, an ultra-pasturized, treated milk that doesn’t require refrigeration, also sold in plastic bags.  I’m used to this kind of milk now and know how to use the little I take in my coffee, but when I first got here I thought it tasted artificial, since I was used to refrigerated fresh milk sold in the U.S. that still has live cultures.

I spoke to a shop keeper of a little shop (it runs out of her front room) who bought a bag from the milk man.  This is the healthy stuff, she says, but for the children, not for us adults.  The milkman had brought a helper who ran sales down the street with aplomb.  She managed sales to second floor apartments without having to enter the courtyards and walk up the stairs.  I watched as a girl lowered a rope basket down from a balcony; she filled it with a plastic baggie of milk for the girl to pull up.  Her grandmother came outside on the balcony, took the milk inside and left the payment money to send back down.  It was door-to-door sales with incredible efficiency.

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Further down, at the bottom of Juan Montalvo is a house with a large, to-scale mural of a historic neighborhood scene.  The mural depicts a woman on her second-floor balcony calling out to the woman running a bakery downstairs on the street, who is stepping out the door and looking back up at her upstairs neighbor.  The scene was from a period in the late 1800s.  How uncanny that I had just seen an incredibly similar real-life incarnation of that scene just up the street.  With the residents of historic El Centro in Cuenca, time seems to come back around.

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Celebrating Those Who Live in Our Memories.

The preparations for the Fiesta of Cuenca, a tradition of artisanal marketplaces, special concerts and city-wide parades, have been ongoing since last week. Bright flags were hung from balconies throughout the narrow long streets of El Centro, the historic town.  But just ahead, on November 2nd, all Ecuadorians take a national holiday to celebrate the Day of Remembrance.

They honor their dead family members by taking flowers and special tokens to their graves, celebrating Catholic mass, going en masse to the cemetery for a special time of polishing and decorating gravestones.  The ceremonial rites help to keep those whose bodies are no longer with us alive in spirit.

Along with the offerings of prayers and tributes for the dead, those still of living flesh mark the day with special food and drink. The classic drink is a “colada morada” a drink made of purple corn flour that is boiled with water and pieces of fruit: think of it as a kind of sangria, minus the alcohol and with cooked–rather than fresh–fruit.  To accompany it, people eat “guagua de pan”, a bread roll made to resemble a human figure often filled with fruit marmalade, and iced with a human face and form.

I went to the municipal cemetery of Cuenca to observe the family celebrations.  The summer season is just waxing high in Cuenca in November, so that in spite of its high altitude of 2,560 meters (8,400 feet), the temperatures were summery at 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit).

The decorations of each grave were a sight to behold.  One especially tugged at my heart. It was the grave of an infant which had been decorated with barbie dolls and miniature toys to keep her happy and amused in her place of rest.  Giving life, decoration, color, and character to those who are no longer with us is a way of keeping them alive.

It was also interesting to observe the holiday atmosphere of a large cross-section of society, who were gathering.  The cemetery turned out to be quite a people watching scene.  The intensity of the sun shine at the equator is overwhelming.  Most people cannot tolerate it without an umbrella or hat for sun protection.  The sun was particularly strong and people crowded underneath trees and stood under umbrellas for the catholic mass which spoke of eternal life.


Today’s sun made me feel withered after a while of walking through the various sections of the cemetery.  I recalled the cold and overcast days of September with some longing (for we always want what we can’t have at the moment!).  The solution? Head out of the cemetery to the festive atmosphere of street-side vendors of flowers, toys, traditional egg-white whipped-cream, and colada morada was being sold, to find some shade.  Outside the cemetery gates, traffic was clogged in spite of the police out in force looking impressive in their uniforms.  Nobody was moving anywhere fast, while pedestrians and sellers streamed through willy-nilly.  The uniformed authorities didn’t seem to particularly enforce any kind of system so that traffic could flow in a safe manner.

Some folks had converted the entrances of their homes/garages into impromptu restaurants, and were selling the sweet, but rather thick colada morada.  I got a cup and a pancake of ‘choclo’, the large kerneled corn.  It was slightly sweet and absolutely the most delicious pancake I had had.

After a couple of bus-rides across the crowded and holiday-like atmosphere of the plazas and streets of Cuenca, I stopped by my local bakery and picked up some milk, coconut sweet spread, and some guagua de pan to bring home.  My neighbor was leaving and left all her food with me including rice, coffee, good oregano and other spices.  We spoke about traveling around Ecuador and about her travels around South America.  Traveling seems exhausting to me.

Wiped from the morning sun, I actually fell into a nap, notwithstanding the characteristic Cuenca background blare such as vendor trucks with their loudspeakers playing advertising jingles, car alarms constantly piercing the air, and the eruptions of street dogs accosting their domestically-confined counterparts with a chorus of barking.  I slept through it miraculously.  In my dreams, my parents were sitting around in their apartment, my dad reading in an armchair and my mum calling out to me to come help her organize some things she had saved for me.  Despite being across the continent, an ocean, and a hemisphere away, they came to me as vividly as if I were in their apartment with them.

Whether it was the Ecuadorian sun, or their national Day of Remembrance, as I stirred out of sleep, my body and mind were suffused with the proximity and familiarity of my family, not here in the flesh, but somewhere else, alive in my memory.

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Forgotten Incan Ruins and Villages in the Andes

The continuing a series of weekend forays into the small communities surrounding Cuenca, a city in the Andes mountains of southern Ecuador, took us to the hillcrests of Baguanchi.  My Spanish teacher who’s family is ensconced in the Cuenca upper-middle class, associates Baguanchi with a new walled and gated housing estate and a large, private events hall that the Cuenca elite rent out to hold parties.  Our hike on the other hand, took us through the old village and then to the edges of the settlement.

Our hikes are led by intrepid American retirees who have left the United States to live in Cuenca.  They bring American culture with them into their new Ecuadorian setting, including the American lifestyle of hiking in natural areas.  Jeff Van Pelt, is a youthful Virginian retiree who now leads hikes.  He became familiar with the mountain roads and trails outside Cuenca by taking out his motorbike and mountain bike, learning from other “gringos” who had previously gained experience in this region, and by exploring with the aid of online maps and satellite imagery.

Occasional recreational hiking isn’t quite the same in Ecuador.  In the United States, it is relatively easy to access designated recreational hiking spaces in protected natural areas or public lands such as state parks, protected river corridors, wildlife management areas, or national parks, monuments, and forests.  In Ecuador on the other hand, natural places–protected natural sites—are found usually only in national parks.  It’s quite the norm for international tourists who visit Ecuador to selectively visit these pockets of protection and associate Ecuador with these sites.  However, while these enclaves are indeed national treasures, the modern nation seems to have a rather abusive relationship with its natural heritage.

Two centuries of resource extraction for business and trade with Europe and North America set the scene for a degraded environment.  Around Cuenca, there are virtually no remaining areas of original-growth forests and indigenous trees.  Instead, you will see a monoculture of the exotic eucalyptus, a moisture-sucking tree that crowds out the native shrubs and plants which would normally support the unique ecological pyramid of insects and birds of the southern Andes.

The concept of protected natural areas within urban areas–for preserving enclaves of nature, for wildlife, for mitigating air quality, or for aesthetic and recreational value for humans–is simply missing.  Ecuadorian cities are an endless accretion of low-rise concrete sprawl.  The sprawl goes on and on, along roads and climbing along hillsides, in a monotone architecture of cheap and usually unfinished construction, with untidy iron rods poking out and exposed brick and mortar facades.  The roads are draped in messy electrical wire infrastructure.  With poor street drainage and ubiquitous litter, the urban conurbation isn’t pretty.  Cuenca’s outer communities are a drab series of such roads and settlements scratching out the mountainsides.

Any remaining open or green space on the outskirts is taken up by small-scale agriculture.  Individual farmers eke out produce on small plots.  You can see them drive cows that draw ploughs through their fields, a scene at once bucolic but also, telling of poverty.  Their crudely-built, small houses speak of physical struggle and hardship.  Women are often busy laboring in their outdoor, partially-open kitchens, with children running around.  I can only imagine how tough it is to organize a household under these circumstances, and how difficult it must be to withstand the freezing night-time temperatures at this altitude of nearly 4,000 meters.

Going for a casual hike here is less about communing with nature, as it is about exploring village communities in the surrounding mountains.  It always impresses me that some of the American immigrants to Cuenca (relative ‘outsiders’) know the backroads and surrounding villages much more so than the local Ecuadorian upper middle class who don’t really have much reason or motivation to visit these outlying villages.

On the bus ride into the hills south of Cuenca, to Baguanchi, it strikes me yet again, how wonderful it is to have a reliable and high-frequency public transportation system that connects outer communities to the city center.  It makes it easy for people who live farther out to reach markets, schools, and other services in the city, without having to rely on their own vehicles.  It reduces congestion.  One aspect of Ecuador I greatly admire is that even as a poor country, it supports people’s mobility, key to economic power, with their low-cost, regional bus system.  It is liberating to be able to rely on public transportation to get everywhere you want to go.

Baguanchi seemed to be a collection of houses and small shops around a dirt road.  The most notable feature was of course its church.  That morning a pig was being slaughtered and dressed for the ‘grill’. (The preference here is to dress and roast a pig in its entire form.)  The blood from the slaughter ran red down the mud on the road side.

From the church at Baguanchi we took the “Mixto” transport, (pick-up trucks with a passenger cab that service the mountain communities around the city of Cuenca), up a mountain road to it’s terminus.  A house is located there at the top of the road, owned by an old couple, who run an informal bar, serving up cold beer and drinks on demand from visitors such as weekend mountain-bikers from Cuenca.  As soon as we arrived in the “Mixto”, the undomesticated dogs immediately came out of the bushes, some barking fiercely as they are wont to do.  Jeff, our ever-prepared hike leader, pulled out a Ziplock bag of left-over cooked chicken, and quietened down the dogs with an impromptu snack.  He has a way of seeing through the aggression in  these dogs to their ‘need’ and pacifies them by engaging them with food.

After the dogs sidled off, we took a rocky trail along the mountain’s spine.  By far the most impressive part of this trail were the clouds that hung dramatically almost at eye level with us (or so it seemed).  From the vantage of the mountain, I felt as though we are looking down from an airplane over the red roofs of Cuenca.  On the other side of the mountain spine, was a small valley settled by a handful of farms.  The mountain seemed to separate two worlds, one bucolic, one messy and urban.  The contrast between the two was most notable by their sounds.  On the one side, you heard only roosters and the wind.  In the distance behind the agricultural bowl, the hills behind are green and there is no human settlement.  In stark contrast, overlooking the Cuenca environs, there is a constant chorus of what the other hikers affectionately term “Cuenca’s theme song”: a constant background sound in the city of noisy car alarms.  They ring on and off consistently, piercing the air and traveling great distances.

The hike ascends along the spine, until we reach a stone-walled structure.  It appears to be a room (now roofless) built with intention and care, with a couple of built-in alcoves.  We wonder aloud if this is a pre-Inca structure or one built by the Incas.  It certainly feels awe-inspiring to touch and see the evidence of a people who prevailed in this, their territory, for centuries, until the Spanish occupation.  There was great wealth and a rich culture here before the conquistadors made it this far.  The stone-walls are witness to the hidden history of this land, whose people are now descended from varying mixtures of the two populations, indigenous and Incan, and European and Spanish.  Just like this small relic of a great civilization here on the hillside, there is other evidence of Inca settlement scattered casually throughout the region.  (In Cuenca proper, the remains of a fairly large fortress has been converted into a museum called Pumaponga).

On our hike back I stopped at a small farmers outpost where he had managed to dig up a small field.  I saw little potatoes gathered in spots in the field, where he had harvested them.  Potatoes are the mainstay of Andean mountain agriculture and this variety looked rather like stunted carrots.  I pocketed a couple to boil up and taste test later.

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We made our way down the mountain using some short cuts and paths that went through people’s fields.  The local inhabitants looked at us with some surprise; most likely few outside visitors come through their villages.  We came down to another little village called Paccha [pronounced “Pak-cha”], which consists mostly of a few lanes of rather be-draggled houses, among which there are a few notable homes with historic architectural features and flourishes. As we walk by, observing the routines of local residents, various, sundry dogs bark in a dreadful chorus, ready to defend their humble households.

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Photo by Lew Hanford

Amidst the poverty and drab nature of the houses in the village, the beautiful church tower stood out.  Historical Spanish colonial legacy is manifest in these communities—where wealth, adornment, power, and might were located in the church.  In contrast, the surroundings with its native population, are left in punishing poverty as well as lacking in power and voice.

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Photo by Lew Hanford

At the church plaza, the Cuenca-bound bus came around to pick us up along with several villagers who were going into town.  Children played while waiting for the bus. Other family groups sat around.  One young man was carrying a trombone.

It struck me that although the villagers may be monetarily poor, their lives seemed rich with community and social binds.  Poor rural communities in the United States are currently facing down massive opioid crises because people feel alienated, depressed, economically marginalized and without hope.  Here, individuals were woven into a social fabric, connected by family, church and community through underpinnings of obligation, meaning, and engagement. There is great wealth in social reciprocity and connection.

Between Inca history, stray animals, and the palpable sense of humanity underlying the scenes of poverty and rural life, our hikes never fail to connect us in small and big ways to the way of life and the beating heart of the Ecuadorian people of the southern Andes.  Our very presence as relative outsiders in these villages inspires all kinds of connection between us and them.  Every time they call the dogs off or we get a little village transport van, and buy a beer, we, together, make the world a smaller place.


(Notable photo contributions on this blog are from Lew Hanford, a fellow hiker.  Unless otherwise attributed, all photos on this blog are mine.)
Posted in Anthropological, Cultural Commentary, Environment, People, Social Documentary, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Back roads of Sayausí, a French Restaurant, and the Search for Beauty

Among the unpaved, narrow, hilly backroads of Sayausí, a village community outside the city of Cuenca in southern Ecuador (and now engulfed by the city’s sprawl as an outer suburb) you will find a somewhat incongruous destination.  It’s a restaurant featuring fine French cuisine called “Le Petit Jardin“, the project of a U.S.-trained Ecuadorian chef who returned from Baltimore, Maryland to work in his native village employing his French cooking skills.  The experience of dining here feels rather magical, partly because the aesthetic and gastronomic senses are startled and teased by the setting–the rather unkept, surroundings of a poor village, its muddy roads strewn with litter, and utilitarian, ramshakle construction in various states of repair.  Walking into the restaurant, one’s senses are suddenly alert to its purposeful design.  The building and garden have thoughtful artistic flourishes, and everywhere this is a conscious sense of beauty and aesthetic vision.  The restaurant–featuring an open kitchen–is built in the profile of a traditional Ecuadorian house with its curved red roof-tiles.  Tradition ends there however, and the creativity of the chef and his brother who built the place themselves, is showcased in every beam, pillar, and wall. They have artistically re-purposed and incorporated antiques, old machinery, toys, vintage cycles, and other knick-knacks into the building.

The arresting visual contrast between the restaurant and outside–where beauty seems like a distant luxury–speaks both of harsh economic realities and of attitudes to aesthetics.  Are aesthetics a priority in human life?  How are aesthetic values expressed under different circumstances and by different cultures?

Take a look at the pictures that illustrate this visual contrast in this post and read descriptions of the village scenes from my walk, with a local hiking group, along the back roads of Sayausí to the restaurant.  Further down, I draw on these contrasts to reflect on how aesthetic values are expressed in different cultures.  I relate observations about Ecuadorian villages to more universal themes about how people incorporate aesthetic values and beauty in their lives, and in the case of litter, how this has implications for our environment.

The walk began at the San Pedro de Sayausí church.  We quickly climbed into the hills above along village roads, where we encountered commonplace scenes such as the following:

  • Big city transport buses that connect back to Cuenca,
  • Horses being ridden by local farmers,
  • Cows being driven by a local dairy entrepreneur,
  • Laundry day in the river,
  • Children playing on the street, running errands, or buying sweets at little window-front stores run at many village houses
  • Many stray street dogs (who are supported in various ways by local people), and
  • Modest low-cost houses often with productive vegetable gardens.

The San Pedro de Sayausí’s striking blue cuppola rises above the modest, low, tiled houses in the village surrounding it.  Its hefty door also looks imposing, both in size and in its ornate wooden carving.  There has been clear investment in making this religious center of the community notable and a little awe-inspiring.

Around the curve, we were met with scenes of village roads and village animals, especially street dogs.

The houses along the road were in various states of repair or completion. Bedraggled wires hung between street poles and required tenuous props (such as forked sticks) to make the connection from pole to house. The unfinished construction and exposed brickwork on side walls, might, we understand, be a tax haven. There’s a local tax provision that says real estate tax is only payable after completion of the house.

We  noted how dogs are loved in these rural communities.  We counted nine dogs at one particular house.  We took a break from our walk in the courtyard of a small church, where a dog who appears to live around the back sidled up to us.  Like street mutts the world over, he was clever in assessing our intentions and stuck around quietly, enjoying our attention and snacks, even jumping to our delight!  Other street dogs we encountered were quite aggressive, or loved to chase the horse riders.

It was laundry day in the river.  The mountain water is quite cold and the women in rubber boots were standing in it continuously, for a long time.

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We finally turned into the small cul-de-sac where Le Petit Jardin is situated.

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Photo by Lew Harford

The restaurant setting is full of artistic features such as wheelbarrow patio chairs, vintage bicycle decorations, and lamps made of found metal objects.  Windows seals and joints were finished cleanly, and each step and stone seemed to have its place.  There was a sense of aesthetic unity to the entire design, as opposed to a jumble of various things gathered together.

We savored a wonderful dining experience including trout almondine, mushroom vol-au-vent, pork chop with parsnip mash and roasted brussel sprouts, fried eggplant, soup, and vegan plates.

Their cocktails and locally-brewed beer (Nordica microbrewery is located around the corner from them) are also worth trying. I enjoyed their delicious maracuya caipirinha.

The well-executed, French-style cooking tasted delicious, but the juxtaposition of French-style food and libations crafted by an American-returned emigrant in an Ecuadorian village made the experience more evocative.  Perhaps its not such a stretch for the imagination–the world is indeed a smaller place today and migrations of people and their food practices and preferences are common.  We are connected in so many ways.

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Cuenca, Ecuador: 21st Century Ground Truths From a Historic Andean City

The urban geography of Cuenca, a city in the Andes mountains in southern Ecuador, has obvious roots in colonial-era Spanish architecture and city layout.  The 21st century growth and expansion of this city however, confronts similar issues as modern cities anywhere: infrastructure, energy use, economic vitality, and goals for environmental quality and human well-being.

As a geographer and environmental planner I am struck by how a city’s physical forms express deeper cultural beliefs about order, social norms, and the relationship of society with the larger environment and nature. In this respect, Cuenca is a study in contradictions and changing economic conditions.

Cuenca’s historic center, El Centro, is a densely built up, historic Spanish town with narrow cobbled streets and low-rise buildings.  The city has kept much of the architectural history of its old buildings—sometimes crumbling, otherwise gloriously preserved.  With limited economic investment in urban revitalization, renovation is focused on the city’s most valuable buildings–its cathedrals, some historic homes, and private hotels which have re-purposed historic properties.  Beyond these, much of El Centro’s cityscape appears dilapidated and disheveled.

Beyond El Centro, a huge urban conurbation spread outwards.  It has taken over the entire, wide Cuenca valley and up its surrounding mountains.  As far as the eye can see, the horizon of the Cuenca valley consists of low-rise mixed housing, commercial and industrial uses with motley red-roofed buildings and other mostly small-scale concrete construction in various states of completion.  Centers of commerce in this larger Cuenca are increasingly located in shopping malls, department stores, and mini-malls, sometimes anchored by large U.S.-style grocery stores that cater to the tastes of the new immigrants in the town (U.S. American retirees).  Up the mountainsides, lower- and middle-class neighborhoods are built up wily-nily as people seek cheaper housing options that are within driving distance or a bus ride from the city center.  Erstwhile villages outside the city have been annexed as ‘suburbs’.  In terms of pressing 21st century priorities such as environmental goals for the city and for energy use optimization, little to no planning and zoning is evident to shape and regulate this urban growth and sprawl.

Today, Cuenca faces environmental quality pressures due to burgeoning motor vehicle numbers and population growth.  As with many cities in developing nations, the challenges involve population mobility and mass transit, industrial location and environmental controls, air quality, noise control, and the pressures of larger numbers of people–and their pets.  What is the vision for the future?

It remains to be seen how Cuenca will adapt to the 21st century.  Will it become over-whelmed with cars and buses, and the pollution they cause?  Will the city continue its unchecked growth while ignoring aesthetic and environmental considerations?  Will the city be able to preserve the character of its historic center, without the detractions of pollution and will its outer rings evolve into a modern city of energy efficiency, cleanliness, wellness, and health?

Take a dive into some of the notable features that have persistently impressed me about Cuenca:

  1. The Mediterranean tiled roofs. A sea of red-tiled roofs makes the city seem cosy and traditional from high vantage points; there’s a Mediterranean quality to the red tiles.  Pictures from certain angles can suggest that Cuenca can easily be interchanged with certain views of Rome, Dubrovnik, or other Mediterranean towns.  Add in the hard-to-miss spires of the city’s Catholic cathedrals in the historic center of the city known as “El Centro”, and the Mediterranean impression is stronger.

  2. Mental maps don’t include background mountains. The mountains make for a wonderful backdrop but they aren’t used as prominent physical features of the city proper.  Mountain names aren’t used commonly and townspeople don’t orient themselves around the city with reference to the mountain ranges.  The mountains exist in the background but different sectors of the city are known by their  urban landmarks, buildings, shops, streets, or circles.

  3. Historic plazas and squares. El Centro has a direct lineage from the original, colonial Spanish city.  There’s a geometry to the town squares anchored by churches.  The square street grid leads off from the principle squares of the city, which are paved open spaces with fountains, benches, and mature trees.  Many are used for daily market stalls, or impromptu or formal concerts and gatherings.  The commercial center of the old El Centro –and prime commercial real estate– is on the streets leading off these main squares.  Note that addresses in Cuenca are often simply an “intersection” of two streets.  It is upto you to walk a little down the block to find the actual establishment.

  4. Low-rise urban construction feels small-town.  The physical form of El Centro creates a sense of living in a continuous timeline with a previous epoch. There has been no war damage and rebuilding. It feels as though you are looking at the imprint that Spanish colonists physically asserted centuries ago, when they came to the new world in search of gold and other precious resources.  El Centro has just grown block by block in the same manner around the original settlement.  Furthermore it has maintained its low-rise, two- and three-storeyed building style through municipal code.  (Studies on the relationship of human psychology to the built environment in urban centers have demonstrated that being around low-rise, small-scale buildings positively influences the sense of human well-being.  Contrast that with the sense of awe (and alienation) people feel amidst the steel-, glass- and blocky concrete sky-scrapers of modern cities in the U.S.)  In the modern city beyond El Centro, a few high rise towers dot the horizon.

  5. Walkable, but not safe. Concomitant with the historical lineage of El Centro, its sidewalks are from an earlier age.  They’re impossibly narrow and often dangerous when there is vehicular traffic along the narrow thoroughfares. They are not designed to allow disabled people in wheel chairs to navigate them. The height of the sidewalk above the street can be over one foot high. Walking in Cuenca, between the knee-high and uneven sidewalks, can be quite an obstacle course.IMG-20171006-WA0003

  6. Unfinished business. The majority of city blocks of in El Centro include several rundown buildings that have simply not been maintained, and lots of unfinished construction.  The old structures have sagging lines where foundations that have settled over the years. It’s very common to see unfinished brick facades along the sides of houses, where only the street-facing façade is finished with concrete and painted.  From terraces and patios, unfinished construction is usually visible with tarps or metal pieces flapping in the wind. Rustic charm is not quite the appropriate term here. There is a sense of economic bottlenecks and people making do without beautifying their buildings.

  7. Bring back the trees. Trees soften the cityscape, clean the air, and add value to a city.  The lack of trees in El Centro is glaringly obvious. Between the high altitude, dry climate of Cuenca, and the fact that its native forests have been largely cut down for timber over a century ago, trees are missing in the city scape.  The trees on the distant mountains are invariably colonies of non-native eucalyptus trees, which are notorious for sucking out available soil moisture and thus preventing other vegetation from growing in between.

  8. Walls and gates.  The lack of trees is compounded in El Centro by the limited landscaped shrubbery or gardens that soften urban surfaces.  There are no outward facing gardens to be seen from the streets, rather tall walls and metal gates.  It’s not uncommon to see jagged sharp metal points atop gates and walls, so that often the street is simply a conveyance between mini-fortresses.  You don’t see landscaped gardens, you see high walls.  The architecture here (and stemming from Spanish history) emphasizes interior patios, terraces and courtyards.  To find and feel the relaxing presence of tall trees, you have to spend time in one of the city’s three historic squares.

  9. Grills. The walls and fences around houses close them off for security.  Same with windows. From the street, house windows are usually criss-crossed with metal lattice work in various patterns.  Balconies also feature metal lattice work.

  10. It’s all interior. Amid the dilapidated homes there are several notable, historic homes and hotels that have been renovated and are worth visiting.  When you walk inside, you instantly realize the depth and complexity of the interior construction, obscured by the street facade. These properties were built by Cuenca’s bluebloods and wealthy businessmen of yesteryear, (usually dating back to the 1800s) on streets near El Centro’s historic squares. The architecture of these historic homes provide clues into the way that Ecuadorians build homes in the modern period: interior courtyards are common.  While windows don’t face the street or outdoors, they let light in from interior spaces and sky lights.  Indeed many homes don’t have a single exterior window, and instead have dining areas or corridors which feature sky lights, while other windows open into interior spaces.


  11. Rivers form park corridors but don’t support aquatic life. Most Cuencanos will refer to the riverwalk as their place for contact with nature.  There are four rivers that flow through the city, and like in many cities around the world, they receive direct rainfall runoff via storm sewer pipes from the street.  There are some stretches where river walks are more landscaped like parkland…notably the historic section near the University of Cuenca.  Other stretches are not formally developed as riverside walks.  Dog feces is a phenomenon everywhere along the river. Along some stretches, I’ve seen people do laundry in the river.  A glaring omission for me, is that I have never seen posted signage about signs of life supported by the river such as amphibians, fish, birds, or salamanders.  The river functions largely as a canal or a waste conveyance channel rather than a living being, rich with life.  People’s relationship to it is largely as a contrast from the harsh urban surfaces, lacking trees, in the rest of the city.

  12. No protected nature preserves. Cuenca doesn’t offer open wild natural spaces where indigenous flora and fauna are protected.  There are neither such spaces in the valley nor on the vantage points of its mountains.  Other than along the river corridor at the lowest part of the valley, there is, sadly, no natural or wild designated public parkland on the mountainsides or high points around the large valley of Cuenca.  Most people gain views of the city from cell phone tower areas or alongside roads that lead to ‘suburban settlements’ along the mountainsides.  Open space is usually agriculturally developed by small holder farmers.  Citizens of Cuenca can’t savor nature, local natural history, and panoramic views of the Cuenca valley at the same time.   It’s ironic that Cuenca, situated in such an ecologically diverse land as Ecuador, does not afford easy access nor proximity to tracts of untrammeled nature.  It’s also sad that the children of Cuenca are mostly raised without the experience of being able to explore the wildness of nature in self-directed exploration within easy access of the city.  Without contact with nature during their developmental years, children are less likely to know local trees and birds, and grow up being sensitive to the lives of animals and the unique gifts of trees and plants.

  13. Terraces could be valuable real estate.  It’s apparent that the terraces of buildings are often under-used or used as functional areas for laundry and keeping chickens rather than for plants and cocktail bars, to enjoy views of rooftops and the sky.20171013_114441

  14. Sky shows.  The sky here is a source of entertainment !  The combination of equatorial latitude with high-altitude creates an intensely variable climate.  There is a desert-like dryness to the air inspite of frequent rainfall.  Be prepared always with both sunhat (because the direct equatorial sun is so strong) and rainjacket (it will rain on a dime).  The skies are guaranteed to be dramatic.  Everyday, you can enjoy pregnant cumulus formations in the sky rather than just high cirrus blankets of grey.  Sky texture it is said, trumps any TV show you can pick from a line up of over 100 channels.  Often, sunny skies will shift into stormy afternoons, with distinct lines of cloud formations visible across the panorama of the Cuenca.

  15. Electrical and cable infrastructure.  As a modern city, Cuenca’s electrical and information technology grids are worth noting. There is usually continuous electrical power and fairly strong internet service.  But it is disconcerting to see electric wires hanging all around the town.  There are wires hanging from street poles outside schools and I’ve seen children brush by them without anyone batting an eyelid.  One morning when I was brushing my teeth, the lights flickered on and off.  I heard some static crackle coming from outside and alarming pops coming from outside my window.  Two wires on the street touched and caused sparks due to wind.  This short-circuited our internet connection and electricity in half of the house!  Within an hour of calling however, the electricity company had sent out a mobile truck and repair men.

  16. Free-range dogs.  This is not a city with cats, but there is a large population of free-roaming undomesticated dogs who have assumed specific streets and street corners as their own territory. They seem to know the difference between locals and regulars and strangers passing through. They will aggressively bark at strangers.  Cuencanos love their dogs though and often have more than one, usually between two and three, while in the areas surrounding Cuenca proper, households often have six to eight dogs.

  17. Pet waste lying around, a lot of it.  Parks and city streets are littered with dog feces. Although undomesticated, free-range city dogs may be responsible for some portion of the ubiquitous dog poop, its widely acknowledged that Ecuadorians pet owners don’t feel the obligation to pick up their pet poop. It’s particularly disturbing to see pet waste all over childrens’ parks and play areas, at the base of swings and slides.  It’s pretty awful to see children playing on swings and slides when the grass around them is littered with dog turds.  The scene is fetid for the transmission of disease.  I don’t allow people into my apartment with their outdoor shoes on for this reason.

  18. Black fumes and air pollution. The air in El Centro is notoriously contaminated and impossible to avoid.  Diesel fumes from the buses that plow Cuenca’s streets are the worst offenders. The streets of El Centro are basically alleyways confined by contiguous blocks of buildings and no trees in which crosswinds don’t move the air out.  When buses pass with their black fumes, the air is, frankly, asphyxiating.  It’s disturbing to watch babies and children standing on the narrow sidewalks of the narrow streets and be smothered by black exhaust.  I often wear a surgical mask when I go out to try and limit the particulate matter pollution I inhale, but there is no getting around the hydrocarbon fumes.  With bus fares as low as $0.12 for seniors and only $0.25 for a normal fare, the bus companies don’t have a profit margin and simply have little economic motivation to install catalytic converters to clean out their exhaust.  It isn’t even a legal requirement.  Over the years the sheer number of cars and trucks in Cuenca have increased and traffic jams down the narrow streets are commonplace.  The cars and trucks are often big offenders in the smelly exhaust game.IMG-20171003-WA0007

  19. Transit trams? The city began a tram project in the historic El Centro called the Tranvia. The project was halted due to contractual disputes between the municipality and the company. This left the streets of Cuenca dug up and left halfway with tramlines that are not used. The frozen state of the tram infrastructure dig has left businesses on its route high and dry.  It’s made walking hazardous where sidewalks were also dug up.

  20. Taxi mobility. While walking on the city streets is complicated by fumes and dog poop along the streets, taxi rides across town are usually very economical. Cab rides across town are usually $1.50 (the minimum fare during the daytime) and $2.50 (the minimum fare at night).

  21. It’s loud. There are no noise ordinances in the city.  The sound of rogue car alarms is common from about 6:30 a.m. onwards to 10:30 p.m. or so. Fruit sellers in vans drive around neighborhoods in the city advertising on loud speakers.  What sounds like an ice-cream truck loud speaker playing a friendly jingle on repeat, is a truck that circulates sells cooking gas tanks (which everyone buys for cooking and for heating water).  Late at night, young people drive around playing loud music.  It echos around the harsh concrete walls and facades of El Centro.  There is no recrimination for causing disturbances in the street.  The many town dogs bark all the time. Bring ear plugs, and you get used to background sound over time.

  22. Waste management.  Trash is collected from homes and businesses about three times a week by municipal workers and waste haulers. However the separation of recyclables from trash is not strictly enforced. Furthermore there are few guidelines published or publicized, about how to separate materials that are recyclable.  This results in confusion– I’ve seen people stuff single-use thin film plastic bags into the recycling waste stream.  There are no guidelines about how to separately containerize regular waste versus recyclables.  I’m never sure if my recycling is actually being tossed into the regular waste stream by municipal workers at some point in the collection system.  Sadly, although there is much more fresh food preparation here, the city doesn’t collect biodegradable food wastes for composting.
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  23. Mixed zoning.  Land-use zoning doesn’t separate commercial from residential in Cuenca.  Mixed use development encourages much richer and fluid city living.  It’s easy to walk down the block to the local bakery or the mini-mart. (Think of the opposite — monochromatic American suburban landscapes of cookie-cutter houses that are hard to distinguish from each other, and that modern generations are disavowing for more mixed urban settings.  Single-use zoning is outmoded in 21st century urban development).  The mixed zoning is often taken to extremes.  Shops and restaurants are run out of people’s garages and living rooms. There is a decorative lamp store across the street from me, and across the way is a full mechanical garage.  I’ve been to restaurants set up in people’s driveways.

  24. Commerce out of homes. Many houses use their front areas as a shop and with a home-based business. Though it is for security, I often wonder if its because the home-based proprietors are often working in their pyjamas–shops are often grated and grilled and seem like a jail rather than a shop. As a customer, you don’t saunter in off the street and pick out what you want.  You have to ask for what you want through a little window.  Don’t even imagine that you get to examine goods before buying. 20171013_112935

  25. The new city.  The river Tomebamba which forms the southern boundary of El Centro is a demarcating line. South of the river, the development is distinctly more like a modern suburban grid, with wider streets built for vehicular traffic. Here, you will find boulevards along which are mixed modern businesses, car sales shops and restaurants. There are modern suburban neighborhoods with upper middle class homes.  Many are behind walls and fences for additional security.

  26. Petty crime abounds. The streets are not safe from petty crime. One story that is frequently recounted tells about a mystery drug that criminals shake on victims or get on their hands by handing them a map asking for directions. This drug has a hypnotic effect which gets victims to go to the bank and extract money to give to the perpetrators of the crimes by hypnosis. It sounds like an urban legend to me, but every gringo will repeat this story.  I’ve personally heard of people getting their money swiped when they take it out at ATMs, or getting mugged by a group late at night.

  27. The indigenous population. Indigenous people in Cuenca add a sense of cultural diversity to the city’s streets. The women in their traditional felt, swinging chola cuencana skirts, and wearing their hats are a lively sight to behold. They’re traders in the local markets and you will often see indigenous women carrying babies on their backs plying carts of fruits to sell around the town.  There’s a notable social stratification and social divide between the more ‘urban’ Spanish-heritage Cuencanos and the indigenous people.

Conclusions

The urban  architecture and layout of Cuenca reflects a particular lineage of a Spanish colonial history.   The social norms (and social stratification) of people living here have also emerged from this cultural history.

Today, Cuenca faces environmental quality pressures due to burgeoning motor vehicle numbers and population growth.  With specific vision and goals, municipal budgets, programs, and environmental standards will need to evolve to proactively address growth and development, building standards, transit, and environmental standards in the city.

Environmental consciousness is not a new concept in Cuenca because of the global awareness of natural resource degradation.  But it will remain a theoretical concept unless its citizens feel a personal stake in improving environmental quality and recognize its benefits for their own lives, in terms of the health of their children and themselves, or the security of their economic futures.  Cuenca proper has no natural preserves with indigenous flora and fauna (though a national park is about an hour’s drive away).  Setting aside nature reserves that are readily accessible to Cuenca’s citizens can make a huge difference in helping connect people more personally to the protection of nature.  Better education and outreach especially targeted at children, regarding litter and waste management at the household level will be crucial to a clean future for Cuenca.

Many environmental problems cannot be addressed through regulations and require widespread shifts in social practices.  The environmental problems of pet waste, litter, noise, and air pollution throughout the city will require both changes to municipal codes, as well as public outreach and education.  Solutions for non-polluting mass transportation will be key.  Human well-being depends on the quality of the environment.  For children, having access to safe air to breath and clean environment makes all the difference in their life long abilities.  What kind of quality of life will the children of Cuenca enjoy in the future?

 

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