Traveling The Panama Canal Part 11
By now, we had seen quite a bit of Cuenca, Ecuador and had traveled outside of the city a bit. We found the people to be very polite and friendly.
It appeared that security was important to Ecuadorians as exhibited by the tall walls around most properties. Even though Cuenca has one of the lowest crime rates in the nation, I was surprised to find a multitude of deadbolt locks on the steel door to the fourth-floor condo. There were eight on the side, divided into three sections, and two more at the top and bottom. All of this in a building where you must be buzzed in and where there is an overnight security guard.
I wondered how handicapped people navigated the high curbs and steep inclined driveways found throughout the city. There were multiple opportunities to break a leg or ankle in Cuenca and we did our best to avoid that. Directly across the street from the Magee’s apartment building was a round hole in the sidewalk that was about 18-inch deep. A telephone pole may have been removed from that spot sometime before we arrived. Down the street a short distance was a tripping hazard where two thick hooks attached to the sidewalk. These may have been used to hold cables that anchored whatever object had once occupied a freshly patched hole. Occasionally, we had to step over a trench along a curb. Another hole that was partially filled with litter, was in the sidewalk in front of a nice restaurant we had passed regularly. Chris, one of our hosts, commented that she found it odd they hadn’t filled it, even though it was on the city’s sidewalk and not the section leading to the restaurant. Another very nice restaurant had jagged flagstone steps, much like a short obstacle course, and had been constructed by the owner himself. Broken cement and pavement was abundant.
The holes, hooks, trenches and cables weren’t the only safety obstacles. It wasn’t uncommon to find low-hanging branches across a sidewalk and folding racks, used to hold bags of trash on pick-up day, installed at shoulder level on the walls and buildings that were next to the sidewalk. Chris explained that the attitude in the country is that the pedestrian is responsible for watching where he or she steps. She made it a practice to look ahead as she walked and not down as I had been doing.
There may not be much money in the city’s budget for repairs, as our relatives’ annual property taxes for a three-bedroom two-bath condo are fifty cents per year. (That is not a typo.) If they pay the tax a few days before the due date, they save a few cents. This may explain why there are broken sidewalks.
Christine asked if either of us was due to have our teethed clean, because there are many dental schools in Cuenca. She told us tourists save enough on implants to more than pay for their trip to Ecuador.
As I mentioned in an earlier installment, minimum wage is about $380 per month for people who are employed. Others do what they can to support their families or to supplement the income they receive from jobs. We saw people who had collected cardboard for recycling, some with arms full and some pushing modest carts full of large folded boxes. One indigenous woman had it tied to her back.
Then there are the people who step out in front of cars waiting at traffic signals. These people juggle, ride unicycles, do magic tricks, clean windshields or whatever else they can do for a few coins. Our relative explained that most of these people had come from Venezuela since their economy collapsed, with some being professionals.
Ecuador uses American dollars, making shopping much easier than in other countries where a fast, mental calculation must be done before making purchases and with more thought put into handling money to pay for them. Whatever the price was on a sign, tag or menu was what we paid. Done! Easy! Thankful!
We didn’t dare buy too much, because we didn’t want to exceed the allowed weight of our luggage when we flew back to Florida, but when Noel showed us his custom-made leather jacket, my husband knew he had to visit the leather shop.
He began searching for a picture to have ready. Since he has owned many leather jackets, he knew what he wanted, such as a zip-out lining. When the day came, he chose the leather from 30 to 35 samples and was measured. The cost, was $145 as opposed to the jacket he found on the internet for $262. Even though I tried to discourage him, he decided to order a matching hat, which made him look like a chauffeur.
Following Christine’s suggestion that I look at shoes while we were in the leather shop, I ended up with some dark brown ones for $40 and light brown boots for $45. Before we left, she pointed out that many of her friends liked her purse with its many compartments and a long shoulder strap. I ordered one in black for $25. As I write this, I am realizing how easily I can be influenced.
From the leather shop we went to the post office to mail post cards we had been carrying with us since we at a port in Peru. We knew postage would be costly, so we only mailed them to each of our three kids, our Sunday School Buddies’ family, my 99-year old buddy and a friend who is actually from Peru. The cost of postage was $2.35 each and they were supposed to take 20 days to arrive. It has been 11 weeks and so far, not one person has received them.
Next, we walked to the Provencal or State Building where we looked at beautiful tile murals inside and out. We stopped at a traditional Ecuadorian restaurant for lunch, which was located in a very old building with brick walls, arched windows and wooden floors. The ceiling was covered with white pebbly, plaster between thick wooden beams. We ordered the $4.00 lunch special of the day, which consisted of a very large bowl of lentil soup, a piece of breaded chicken, tomato and cucumber salad, some rice, an eight-ounce glass of naranjilla juice and a small dish with one half banana, covered with whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup.
I can’t remember what I ate at a deli on a different outing, but I remember its beautiful bathroom. This was a much bigger deal to me after spending several days where nearly every restroom had a sign asking that toilet paper be left in the covered receptacle provided. (As was mentioned in a previous installment, the old plumbing has 2.5-inch pipes.) The paper was often in a dispenser outside of the stalls, with each dispensing by a different technique or there was none to be found anywhere or several connected sheets were sold outside the restroom door. All restrooms, including private ones, had some form of strong-smelling deodorizer for obvious reasons.
Three squawking parrots flew over our heads one day, on the way to a narrow street lined with blacksmith’s shops. We could see some of the men working on various wrought item pieces in the tiny shops. We bought a pair of candleholders for an anniversary gift for Noel and Chris. On the same street Chris bought four humitas from one of the vendors who had a large kettleful of them. Humitas, a mixture made of freshly ground corn, onions, eggs and cheese, wrapped in corn husks, are very popular in South America.
During our visit to Cuenca, we ate in restaurants located in centuries-old buildings, ethnic restaurants, small one-room restaurants and restaurants located in mall food courts, but one of the restaurants that stood out to me was a French restaurant located in a remote area in the outskirts of the city. Only certain cab drivers knew how to find it, because it was off the beaten path, down a dead-end dirt lane in a residential neighborhood, after turning a couple of times off a main street.
A flagstone walk led to the double front doors, doors made of stained plywood with wood trim. Large stones accented the front of the building, along with dark wooden beams. A swing held up by bicycle chains hung near the entrance. The same wood and stone trim carried over into the interior. Wall lamps, racks and stands appeared to be unique at first glimpse, but once we were settled in and our eyes adjusted to the dim indoor lighting, it became obvious they were made from recycled objects. A sewing machine from the forties had been converted into a wall lamp. The base of an old treadle sewing machine held a tabletop. A glass-topped table had an engine block for a base where little pots holding cacti had been placed into small open chambers. The items filling the shelves and tables were older pieces, not all antiques, such as a microscope, a movie projector, a world globe with a standard made of welded bicycle chain links and a vintage flat iron with a compartment for holding hot coals or charcoal. The shelves and doorways were trimmed with iron or steel curly cues and designs.
The seating in a waiting area was made up of two logs that had been cut into bench-like seats covered with long cushions, with a low coffee table made from another log between them.
The owner had spent five years away from his wife and children while living in the United States as an illegal alien, where he learned how to cook and run a restaurant. He built the restaurant from stones he collected in creeks and from logs he peeled and finished. Many of the items used for trim and furnishings were repurposed from things he found in dumps. (The details of his two-month journey to the U.S. when he nearly lost his life, came to work with a famous chef and how he is giving back to others, can be seen by searching “Bad to Beautiful” at post-journal.com.)
Late one afternoon, Noel, Fred and I climbed into a taxi and rode to Turi, an area that overlooked the city and where the most spectacular views of Cuenca could be seen. We were able to see the three blue domes of cathedral Nueva in the distance. I had looked up at a white church from several locations in the city and now, I was not only seeing it up close, but was able to walk inside.
We visited Eduardo Vega’s, a famous ceramic artist, shop which was just done the street from the church, where we saw beautiful decorative pieces, including plaques with pictures of famous churches and dinnerware. I would have purchased a plaque with the beloved three blue-domed church, but the domes on them were not blue, but an orangish color. One piece that was a bit disconcerting, was a platter made for serving guinea pig or cuy, which is well-known in Ecuador and especially popular in Cuenca. It may not have been as disturbing, had it not had pictures of four furry little rodents, with two of them looking up at the beholder. I tagged my friend, Kelley, on Facebook asking if she would like one, but she wasn’t amused, but then many of my friends had shown disgust a few days earlier, when I had posted a picture I had taken in a meat market of the little critters.
To be continued.