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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A Hike and Roadside Repast Outside Cuenca

The principal bus routes out of Cuenca seem fairly indistinguishable to me—an endless array of metal signboards advertising the same kinds of variety goods stores, car repair and barber shops, mixed in between houses that look intermittently finished or ramshackle, with exposed brick, concrete cladding in various states of repair, metal grills, little garden plots, and uneven steps where yappy dogs keep a look out for passers-by.  The jumbled, untidy settlements along the roads contrast with the stately, grand mountainous backdrop of the Andes.

Cuenca’s retired American denizens comprise some intrepid hikers and bikers who have not only mastered the bus routes, but have also explored the little roads that peel off the main routes.  These usually unpaved, unremarkable turnoffs lead into the surrounding Andes mountains, climbing steeply into a verdant and dramatic landscape.  The explorers have carved out walking routes into the countryside on these little roads, and in doing so have become the kind of Cuencano locals you should seek guidance from if you seek to understand the local terrain and surrounding mountains.  Their explorations have paved the way for larger groups who gather for weekend hiking excursions.

The little mountain walking paths are not formal trails—they traverse private land holdings (haciendas owned by affluent Ecuadorian families) or little villages, whose residents are now used to seeing groups of ‘gringos’ trudging through in their colorful hiking gear.  The excursion I joined this weekend was one of these routes.  Its starting point is an unassuming bus stop on route 201 out of the city’s western bus terminus.  No visible landmark sets apart this bus stop on the road, other than a house portico on a side pull off, where two barbeques had been set up, one with a turning spit for chicken and cuy (guinea pig is a regional delicacy) and the other for an entire whole pig, head and all.

Seeing animals stretched out and roasted in their full form made my heart lurch–there’s an obvious violence to it.  Seeing pork chops in a freezer or in the butcher’s counter is simply not as much of an affront, although essentially the same thing.  Most people in Ecuador seem inured to seeing animals in a state of obviously violent killing, with head still intact; it’s commonplace.  This is seen simply as food.  Like in many places in the world, animals are not viewed as fellow living beings with sentience and the capacity to feel pain and empathy.  Species-ism is the unselfconscious norm.  You might be the odd one out if you pay too much mind to treating animals as self-aware life-forms, not too different from yourself.

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Leaving this nameless house-grill-restaurant behind us, our group hiked up hill past little houses along the road.  Their small vegetable fields are cordoned out of impossibly steep slopes, while old Chevrolet- and Tata-brand utility trucks are parked on the roadside.  The local residents were working outside, and inevitably their dogs let us know they were around, running at us and barking to indicate they were on guard.  I’m always glad to be around others who know how to handle dogs, because they scare me.

After some distance, we left the houses behind and climbed into pastures in the rolling mountainsides.  Clouds hung low over the peaks all around.  Very occasionally, a truck passed us on the narrow unpaved track, its passengers politely waving and perhaps somewhat amused at these recreational walkers.  Although the surroundings are green, tall trees were sparse.  The indigenous forests were clear cut at some time past, and not replanted, rather converted into pastures and sloping open stretches.  The only trees we saw were Australian eucalyptus trees whose smell hung around the air mixed with pungency of fresh cow droppings.

 

The roads in the mountains simply lead to settlements or are connectors that local people have developed out of need over time.  We came to an informal gate made of barbed wire strung around flimsy fence poles that demarcated obviously private land holdings.  The practice I was told, is to go through the gates, and leave them as we found it, shut or open.

Around a bend, we came to a modest bungalow residence belonging to agricultural workers, with traditional curved, red roof-tiles.  Large squash and greens were growing in their flourishing vegetable garden.  A little puppy ran around, clothes were hung out to dry (although the frequently fluctuating moisture conditions would make drying the washing a frustrating endeavor—intermittent rain seemed to be the norm here) and a woman with a baby on her hip came out to see what the puppy was fussing about.  We waved, and continued on, climbing high on the path that was littered with cow droppings.  Two calves in the path scuttled off upslope as we approached.

We passed a horse that was tethered by a stream, weighed down with the heavy wood and metal saddle, piled with metal milk cans.  Seemingly, he was simply left there for a while.  The suffering of animals makes my heart bleed a little.  We said a few words to him and left.
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The verdant mountain views got better with every gain in elevation.  We saw cows out on the hillsides, at once bucolic and dramatic, because this landscape seemed immense and sheer, not exactly the rolling soft hills.  The Andes are a young mountain range, with pitched slopes that seem to reach into the sky, and dramatic folds along the range.  Yet the green makes them seem softer.

A U-shaped valley lay below us leading the eye down the range.  In the distance and over some folds and hills, you could see the crowded jumble of Cuenca’s buildings and red roofs.

After a decent climb, we turned back, still shooing away the aggressive dogs near every house and driveway.  It was raining fairly heavily now and the mud trails had turned into a slick sliding expressway when we arrived back at the nondescript bus stop.

Roadside Repast

As a hike hurrah, we piled into the little nameless roadside house-restaurant.  The roasted pig (chancha) looked either delicious or galling depending on your perspective.  Their fixed price meal consisted of hunks of chancha served with large kernel-corn (mote) scrambled with eggs and with fried potato pancakes (llapingacho).

If you wanted to go vegetarian, you were served half an avocado instead of the pork.  An alternative for some in the hiking group was roast chicken, which is a heaping serving of half an entire, plump chicken bird.  Most couldn’t finish their meal.  Alongside, on the table you were served “aji”, a kind of chilli sauce made up fresh ground chillies/vinegar/onion.  Everyone who ate the chancha called it juicy and savored their meal.  The rain poured outside, the beers (cervezas) were cold, and it was a thoroughly Ecuadorian finale.

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Listening to Prince in Ecuador

“Could you be the most beautiful girl in the world?”

“Do you want him, or do you want me? Because I want you.”

He belted it out unrestrained by any convention of song or sound.  It was his signature, classic cry that ripped unself-consciously through to the top of his throat, as pure and ecstatic an expression as any human being could produce.  In another body, he might be a central Asian throat singer sending out resonant vibrations into the desert, or a Pakistani ghazal singer creating euphoric crescendos of praise.

He wasn’t.  He was Prince.

The mixed-race, slight man who had been raised in the tree-lined neighborhoods and the urban blocks of Minneapolis, the American heartland of grain and railroads.  He was a son of the city of silos, warehouses, a wide Mississippi River, homes with screened porches built around parks, and gleaming towers built on the territory of the Enishinabe, Lakota, and Sioux.  Prince painted big, electronic sound of technology, over the beautiful melodies and the sounds of jazz, Motown, ballads, funk, and gospel he heard in his rich, musical mind.  He drew from the rich legacy of the American pantheon.  He tapped into a poignancy that his soul could access.  He wrote with raw forthrightness and with honed talent.  He performed (growled, shrieked, tore it up) with edginess, rhythm, and a palpable sexuality.  He brought together weird, profound and explosive.  He amazed us with uniqueness and the unexpected.

Here in Ecuador, in Cuenca, where I found myself, in the maze of streets in this Spanish colonial city high in the Andes mountains, cold at the equator, surrounded by churches and a palpable catholic religiosity.  I was foreign; disconnected from the codes that gave people meaning and roots here.  Indian, American, German, British—all my sources of self and reference points on distant continents.  In this South American family-centric culture and traditions, I was an alien.

I was also unmoored from myself, in the way that being in a strange place removes you from the trappings that make you the person you become, over time, connected and woven by the sounds and the paths and the trees and the repeated seasons of a place.

After yet another hapless day, still trying to get my feet under me in this country, and frustratingly not having found my Spanish language groove, or any groove to speak of at all, I decided to get out of the house, and walk to Cuenca’s central Square as dusk fell.

Unable to find the familiar things that anchored my life back in the United States, I had been feeling disaffected.  (I had arrived there as a foreigner too, but in the United States of twenty years ago, I melted in as other newcomers were allowed to.  Without skipping a beat, I merged into the body and psyche of a gracious liberal arts college life in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I might have pulled a very lucky straw in life.)

The small, tiendas or shops were lit garishly around the main plaza in Cuenca.  I walked into one, selling all kinds of little electronic knockoffs and cell phone paraphernalia.  I had been missing my collection of music and the quality Bose speaker that could transport me to different dimensions.  I realized how much it colored my life alive, because my life seemed empty and invalid without the musical soundtrack that tickled my senses and that I could feel in my bones.  I asked to see Bluetooth speakers and in their unfailing patience and gracious politeness, the shop clerks showed me a couple of small speakers that sounded pretty good for the very reasonable price. They allowed me to test the speakers over and over again with different sound tracks.  A nice lady offered me her opinion, that the smallest one sounded the best.  Somehow, she confirmed what I was thinking.

I procrastinate on purchases, but right then and there I bought a knockoff speaker the size of my palm, with some cheap cables.  The little garish shop delivered.  I brought it home and plugged it into my computer and scrolled through my music.

I found Prince.  Prince, from the great beyond, found me back.  I needed Prince.  I needed the swagger of a maestro doing backflips up and down the guitar and teasing the strings with both intuitive restraint and heady power.  I needed the chords of the familiar songs that made me the person I was.

“The most beautiful girl in the world” burst through, and my heart swelled.  Prince was painting music in the richest purple tones, edged with cyan blurs at the highest pitch of his throat.  It’s impossible not to feel his passion.  It lives.

I was suddenly cringing through the cold, blustery wind tunnels between the old buildings of Minneapolis’ warehouse district , trying to get into a club with a fake i.d. card.  I am suddenly wearing that thrift store coat I bought 25 years ago, the thickest I could find, to ward off Minnesota’s deep winter.

A little speaker makes me feel like myself again, even though I find myself in a strange new city.  The music that has created my emotional life, and made me a person—picking me up when I am down, or making me feel again when I became just a cog in the wheel of a bureaucratic life—is alive here too.

Then, by chance while browsing Internet radio stations through an app called Kubi on the Amazon TV, I found one from Hamburg Germany called “80s80s Prince“.  They curate and stream what would essentially be my own playlist of Prince’s (and Prince’s friends) catalog and provide interesting factoids and tidbits in between.  Total geil.

So I’ve got a private Prince party going.  Sign of the Times, Purple Rain, The Beautiful Ones, When Doves Cry, everything powerful and profound from the late 1980s and the 1990s with Prince’s zingy, ironic, and staccato performance, comes out in shrieking guitars and apt repetitive melodic phrases.

Far away from his hometown of Minneapolis, Prince is rocking Cuenca in the Ecuadorian Andes.  His swagger rubs off on me a little.  That powerful creativity lights a way  reminding me that being unique is the best way to be.  After all, “Nothing compares to you.”  He makes this place feel alright.

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Ecuadorian Encounters: Sunday around Cuenca

Getting out of town
Sundays are quieter in old town of Cuenca.  The narrow, cobbled streets that normally grind and rattle with buses seem empty.  Their diesel-fume and black-soot pollution is noticeably lower, and the air seems cleaner.  Most Ecuadorians, whose harrowing daily routines during the week have them delivering kids to school at 6:45 a.m., picking them up for an extended lunch around 1:00 p.m., then afterwards, working a late evening, while getting caught in traffic throughout, take the day to relax at home.  Shops and restaurants are shuttered for the day.

This particular Sunday at the end of September, I traversed the “El Centro” section of town, which is laid out in the old Spanish colonial grid, heading south towards the Tomebamba River.  I walked past blocks of compact houses and two-storeyed buildings, their facades weathered and peeling .  They were clad in wrought-iron window grills and balconies, and many were adorned with metal signs advertising small enterprises—repair shops, variety stores with grocery items, paper goods and hairdressers.  The unfinished, exposed brick and historical charm has a certain appeal.

As I approached Calle Larga—the main street paralleling the river, three buses in a row hurtled past me, leaving a familiar acrid stench and a brown cloud residue.  I was glad for my surgical mask, brought along as a precaution despite it being Sunday, and quickly pulled it over my nose.  I met my friend, and we crossed a stone bridge across the Tomebamba river which is a fairly narrow, straightened channel lined with rocks as it passes through the town. Our destination was a saddle on the hill high above the Cuenca valley.  A white church called the “Church of Turi” sits prominently in the saddle.  It is a noticeable landmark that can be seen from vantage points across Cuenca for miles.

We made our way down Avenida Fray Vicente Solano (“Solano”) heading further south out of town.  Solano is a wide divided boulevard with trees growing down a center island.  Its layout is a visible departure from the more tightly-packed city grid of El Centro.  With large, gracious homes and buildings on either side of it, its architecture is more spacious, modern, and suburban.

Gaining elevation
At the bottom of Solano, we came to a river that runs through the city of Cuenca, called Rio Yanuncay, and almost immediately after it another river, called Rio Turi.  After crossing both rivers, we came to a turnoff, a narrow road going uphill into a residential neighborhood.  We found a little passage alongside a garden wall and kept going, up a somewhat challenging pitched slope.  It seems we had made a sharp cut uphill, because presently we came to a divided highway that was traversing the mountain the long way around, along its contours.  I didn’t feel like making a run across the highway. Fortunately, we spotted a highway overpass built for pedestrians and thus, we made it safely across.  We found the stairs, built from stone, that were wedged into the hillside going up to the Church of Turi.  At over 7,200 feet, Cuenca’s altitude made my heart pound.  I stopped a few times to take breaks for a swig of water, as Cuenca’s air is surprisingly dry.  As we were walking up, we saw Ecuadorian ladies in high heels on the uneven stone stairs.  It didn’t seem to be the most apropos shoe style for this path and made me wince, but they were pulling it off with aplomb.  I also saw ladies carrying their heavy babies in cloth harnesses tied around their torsos, pushing on uphill.  Strong mama bears, certainly.

Once at height, and finally in front of the white Church of Turi, we looked back to see the town spread out from west to east across a wide river valley.  Cuenca in Spanish means “bowl” and it’s easy to see that shape.  The jumbled red rooftops, the blue-tiled cuppolas of the central church, the open landing strip of the small airport, and the round stadium in which the Cuenca football team were playing Guayaquil today, punctuated the city panorama.  Above the city, as it does so often, the skies hung threateningly grey.  They are always dramatic here, just two degrees north of the equator.  And when the sun shines here, its intensity makes my head hurt.

 

A Catholic festival after mass
The church behind us resounded with singing, and churchgoers even sat against the portico pillars outside.  As the Catholic mass came to a close, people began spilling out into the plaza alongside, where a stage had been set up.  We realized we were encountering some kind of religious festival.

People carried idols of Catholic saints, with beautiful expressions painted in various states of rapture, on palanquins in small processions.  The crowd was noticeably led by the region’s indigenous people, whose women wear distinctive swinging skirts in jewel tones like cranberry or emerald, with richly embroidered hems.  Groups of people carried seemingly elaborate offerings that looked like cornucopias of festive foods.  As I got closer to the bright baskets, I realized they featured whole roasted guinea pig and chicken, the animal forms intact, including head, feet, and torsos.

The crowd grew, the microphone announcements got more animated, and we felt it best to retreat a bit from the center of the festivities.  I noticed a young man and woman on mountain bikes also skirting the animated religious festival crowd.  I asked them in my broken Spanish if there were any further hiking trails down the road on the backside of the mountain.  They took a look at us and must have decided we weren’t really equipped to head down the backside of the mountain without landing in some kind of trouble.  So their answer was, “There’s nothing much to recommend really, it’s just a road that goes down past houses.”  I felt a bit stuck.  I wanted to get out of the city, and here I was on a hill above the city, looking at a much greener hinterland yet without the means to get out and explore.

Stray dogs force a new way
The bikers went on their way on their very smart-looking bikes.  We sauntered on a bit just to check things out, tried a side road that appeared to curve around.  Then the dogs intervened.  A very aggressive pack of dogs told us in no uncertain terms that we were on their territory, prompting us to back up.  As we did, we again encountered the same couple on bikes.  We greeted each other.  Now, they pointed to the next peak beyond with a cross on top.  Calling it “Cruce de Monjas”, (the cross of nuns), they told us it was a much better view of the Cuenca valley than from the Church at Turi.  At the same time, they felt it was not safe for us to venture there alone…there was a small community up there, it was unfamiliar, and there were bound to be more stray dogs of unknowable ferociousness.  In a spontaneous offer of hospitality, the bikers invited us to go to the cross on the next mountain, and they would accompany us.  The lady, Dani, began cycling down the road to flag down an all-purpose off-road taxi cab (yes, they exist in this part of Ecuador—they’re pickup trucks with passenger cabs).  She returned with her bike loaded into the back of a pickup truck-taxi, to pick us all up.  Impressive moxie, I thought, and no shortage of stamina.

We drove down the paved road in the pickup truck-taxi, harangued in spots by packs of stray dogs, and within ten minutes took an unpaved turnoff.  The track was along a mountain ridge with steep drop offs on either side.  It led past a few humbled abodes to a church compound at the base of the peak with the “Cruce de Monjas”.

Cruce de Monjas (Cross of the nuns)
Dani and Javier off-loaded their bikes and together we took the short hike to the top of the mountain.  From the cross, we looked out over the entire Cuenca valley and it was indeed, a more expansive view of the town.  You can see Baños to the west, a town of hot springs and spas, rolling into the outer reaches of Cuenca proper, continuing through the town and to the eastern airport and industrial sector.

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We had a great time chatting with our new biking friends, and snacked on candied puffed mote (the large-kernel corn you find in markets here).  They told us about sports plazas, pools, and quirky corners of Cuenca.  It felt wonderful to get the insider’s scoop.  The dry winds were blowing on the exposed peak, and it got colder.  Dani and Javier portaged their bikes down the hill, and we made our way to the little community to try and call for the all-purpose cab running the mountain route.  We didn’t need to.  Another pickup truck-taxi had just delivered about ten people to the church at the base of the peak…where by now, they were blasting very lively music.  It didn’t sound religious at all.  In fact, I felt like breaking out my dance moves.  Evidently this was a bit of a Sunday party, a gathering on church grounds on a sunny day to enjoy fellowship, music, and fun.  We piled in the taxi for the return trip to the Church of Turi.

Dancing through history
As a final hurrah, the Church of Turi plaza was filled with music and dancing.  We found a troupe of indigenous dancers who were part of the day’s festivities. Their music and step and twirls were an amazing combination of indigenous traditions being celebrated and adapted to a very Spanish Catholic context.

Even though European Catholicism brought over to South America in the 1500’s had nothing resembling these dances, the fact that these dances continue today is remarkable.  The dances suggested to me that, in spite of religious proselytization and subjugation under political ideologies imposed by powerful colonizers,  indigenous people persevered and sustained their spirit.

Their dances carry a longer memory of their unique evolution in this particular land and place than the memory of the Spanish colonialism.  The dances continue threads of cultural expression, happiness, love, and positivity in the face of subjugation.  Expressions such as their dances kept, and continue to keep, their unique ways of seeing and being.  Their dance is an assertion that their life is much more than quiescence and conformance to an occupying, colonizing power.  It expresses the pulse of the Ecuadorian people and their history of indigeneity and adaptation.

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Minding A Stuck Turtle

When I go hiking, I spend a lot of time being quiet. I like to listen to, and bathe in the natural world. I enjoy the sensations.  It feels like therapy to someone stuck in the rectilinear world of square rooms, in severe, tall buildings, along dead-straight streets for the majority of her waking hours.  Here, in the remaining patches of woods, I feel connected to myself as a human being, in an animal sense: vulnerable, excitable, wondrous, and just a component of the rich, diverse community of life.

The dancing sun and shade in the forest, the wind rustling in the leaves painted with the layered orchestral melodies of hidden insects and birds, and the cool scents of earth flush me with a sense of being alive.

In the excessively sanitized and artificially separated human-centric world, only human emotions and human negotiations matter.  Only language carries weight.  The Anthropocene has profoundly wrested, lassoed, and pummeled nature underfoot.  Human detritus has floated to the remotest corners of the planet far afield from where humans themselves live, to threaten and choke life.  From the vantage of the human domination, nature it seems is a neutered and diminished thing.

Yet, when I immerse myself in the woods, if even for a walk, the possibilities of other existence and other meaning are awakened.  I am jolted awake in the woods, feeling myself to be more on an even plane with the rest of the planet’s creatures.  My empathy for the birds, animals, and all the little creatures—whose lives go largely unseen in the modern world—is sharpened.  With just my simple act of presence, often slightly self-absorbed and not even particularly keenly attuned to the natural world around me, I am still richly rewarded.  Usually I witness some brief interaction from the drama and complex negotiations of others’ lives: a couple of blue jays squabbling around the woods, a painted turtle inching along a single-track trail who might so easily be squashed by a mountain-biker hurtling down, a hawk swooping into a thicket and scuffling around for what seems like a mysterious reason only to rise, with a great whipping, with a snake in its beak still squirming and alive.  These moments only become available when I am without distraction, just ready to receive, hear, see, by being there.

Sometimes, however, I go walking outdoors with others who may not have the same proclivity to tune into the hidden world of nature in their surroundings. They are in it for exercise, companionship, health and sunlight, a change, or whatever else.  I don’t want to impose on them, to quieten down to be able to observe and sense their surroundings more keenly.  I think nature is the best teacher of attention anyway, so much better than I could possibly be, with a didactic summons to listen rather than to talk and chatter about the human world.  Everything in its own, fitting time: that’s how nature seems to work.

And that is exactly how she opened up a moment of revelation when I went walking with a friend who, like most modern, urban people, wasn’t raised to pay attention and give importance to the quiet ways of nature.  I brought her along the main walking trail around a lake, not even the small forest trails along the rises and gullies of the hills.  The main trail has tall trees and good views, but is frequented by many recreational users and doesn’t reveal the enchanted, obscured life of the forest too much.

Along our path, we suddenly notice a turtle who has crossed it, likely dodging cyclists with decent luck, to get to the pond on the other side (it’s an artificial one that receives runoff from city streets through a combination of streams and pipes).  Except there’s a problem.  The turtle has run into an unexpected hurdle: a chain link fence.  There in that moment, the drama of a turtle, confronted with a fence between him and his destination pond—his safe haven—joined us into the drama of being a small creature in an unpredictable and dangerous world.

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The turtle was blocked on his way to a pond by a chain link fence

While safely ensconced in sterile urbanity, we humans feel seemingly omnipotent and above threat.  Yet we have the vulnerability of childhood still within us.  We remember what it feels like to be vulnerable.  As children, we knew by instinct that if we were to lose our mother, the ultimate shield from the dangers of the big world, we would suffer devastating loss.  That closeness to the condition of other species, whose babies are equally lost without their mother, and who are not as powerful as the dominant human species, brings us empathy and compassion.  We sense and feel the pain of animals sooner than adults do, tough as they have grown, to the ways of the world, having survived different challenges over time.

As witnesses to the turtle’s confrontation with this metal, man-made barrier which with his tiny legs and impossibly inflexible and outsized shell, he has little chance or capabilities of overcoming, we are immediately folded into the pathos of existence.  We sense that tragedy and cruelty is in close proximity, particularly when uncaring humans, blinded to the ways of the rest of creation, insert themselves.

I drew my companion in by stopping and focusing attention: the turtle’s problem surely is our problem now.  We hovered and peered at the fellow. Would we be able to help?

My companion spotted a solution sooner than I did—there’s a hole in the chain link fence a short few feet away.  The turtle might have been a moment slower or might have already identified the gap and I didn’t realize it, but he was already cautiously feeling his way down the length, traversing the fence laterally. (A short moment later I realized I was not giving the turtle his due respect: wouldn’t I do exactly the same, not give up, but search for another way? Or maybe unbeknownst to me, oblivious humanoid, turtle has done this trick a few times before and was just going back to a known crawl spot?)

It could be that turtle was more wary of my undivided attention on himself, than of the barrier the chain link fence posed.  He dragged himself on, keeping one eye cocked on us, to find a way through the barrier.  How stressful to be cornered against the fence with some humans to make a show of it.

Slowly but surely (there’s a reason for this phrase that surely stems from the turtle’s comportment) turtle inched closer and closer to the depression in the ground where the chain link fence had a crawl hole beneath it.

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Turtle finds a crawl space to cross the man-made barrier

He almost toppled down the slope with his unwieldy carapace.  The relief could be seen in his gait.  (Although, he might just have been happy to have the chain link fence between him and the large human.)  I almost wanted to give him a friendly butt pat on his shell to send him on his way.  As soon as he crawled under and through the fence, I don’t know, he seemed to gain a self-confident swagger to his crawl, and off he went at quite a different turtle pace than before.

gettingthru

That’s more than a turtle pace: how he picked up his step once he forded the fence

Even the most distracted of walks can bring you close to the natural universe that modernity continually, humiliatingly denies.  As modern people we have disowned and dissociated ourselves from our universal family. We consider them beneath us, not as important.  But are we so grand?  Look at how our grandeur has devastated the entire planet to the point that our own existence is threatened.  Look at how our language and our tools have distanced us from our roots in nature and our kinship with other living beings.

The simple act of walking, graces the world with presence, and even without asking, brings rewards of relationship and connection.  The turtle’s struggle is one in our own heart.  He reminds us of the source of our shared impulses for life, for survival, for home, for safe haven.  We cannot turn away.

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Gifts

Today, in the woods
I chanced to look up
at the exact moment
when the cardinals converged,
on a branch across the path,
as sunlight danced rambunctiously
on the eager foliage.

With a tuft of red on grey,
the lady loped in from the left,
to a breathtakingly precise maneuver
from her man in rich scarlet regalia,
who dashed in
from a low thicket on the right.

I saw the exulting kiss,
a small flame of red
among the green flags
fluttering giddily
in the spring afternoon.

This baring of love’s delight
is a gift of nakedness
that compels the eyes
and makes the heart stammer.

How did they know to meet
on that branch?
Had they been confirming details
of their discreet pas de deux
across the labyrinth of tree limbs,
sing-trilling their plans while
I was obliviously trudging the trail?

What are the chances, I marveled, that
I would be gifted witness to this,
singular moment,
Unhidden just above me
on a branch,
where passion ignited from throat, chest, and wing,
presses beak points into each other,
among the tens of thousands of branches
along this miles-long circuit in the forest
(I travel so slowly and rarely these days)?

In a half breath and a flash
he has sprung off into the woods.
Again I am taken aback.
Can it be just that?
Cad, I immediately conjecture–
the wily one who has other visits to rush on to,
in other quarters.
No doubt a hunt is always on.

She stayed behind,
but just a moment longer.
Just long enough, for me to see
the worm in her mouth.
Fruit of his toil,
coiled in her beak.
She carried it off squirming.

There was after all
more than just that.
He delivered
as a gallant man does–
coin and nourishment,
praise and offering,
sustenance and substance–
these gifts of love in
a wriggling worm.

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Woodpecker

There I was, glasses in hand, stumbling on,
a joyless morass leaking out in salty tears,
Resilience frayed into tattered fringes of despair.
Even the sunlight’s dance in the trees
could not gladden
this labyrinth of loud loneliness.

But the path goes only one way through the woods,
I could not leave it. Elsewhere,
the brush is too thick or the bog too muddy.
It’s certainty carried the legs on
that cold spring day,
when no other thought would be formed
about direction or destination.

I was simply, fixed on the way ahead,
dully aware of an occasional jogger passing
Hoping nobody would catch a glimpse, and betray their pity
for this hard face of despair
Their recognition of it,
would be more than I want to bear.

So I was grateful for a quiet stretch,
and solitude through the bog just coming alive in green
through winter’s detritus.
When just at the periphery of my bleary eye,
in a messy pile of woody roots, I caught
A bright scarlet comb on the forest floor,
and heard a loud knocking both, at once,
blurring, poking at my blunt senses.

I turn, and stop. The curious instinct larger than me,
red, feathered flicker gripping me inspite of myself.
I wipe the eyes and fix the glasses, to ascertain this surprise,
To which all that was wild and alive in me leapt back in response.
A bird with a perfectly straight red comb on its head,
Glassy eye, soft white throat, and zigzagging black line.
He is an astonishing sight in the heap of brown brush.

Elegantly, the Pileated Woodpecker hops around the logs,
Never minding me,
steadily working, busy, preoccupied,
absorbed in the search for life’s meaning: insects and joy.
Darting now to another branch low to the forest floor
He is everything I am not: fast, dazzling, sharp.

But I am, here, in his circle.
I am included. I am somebody. I am in the family of things that are alive.
My heart steadies at this avian debonair’s
bustling distraction.
How he goes about his business with certainty and purpose
dispels my doom.
“Thank you” I whisper, for letting me be here, next to you.

But equally suddenly, he is gone. Then, I might have seen a wispy flight, a flickering shadow in the trees.
He zips clean over the path, up into the high trees further into the woods,
Dark wings flashing, magnificent mohawk, lively and pert.

The path stretches on, beckoning,
But I am mollified, softened into ease,
Suddenly at home in reflected glory.
I am with kin
and the promise of belonging.

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