After a year and a half of dreaming and planning and the inevitable chaos of getting to Cuenca, I finally made it. I’m set up in my own apartment just outside of the old, colonial city center. The difference between my neighborhood and the center is like that of San Juan Viejo and San Juan, if that means anything to anybody. So therefore, the city center is where I would rather be, and will be an unspecified amount of time. I’m in a condo in what the locals call gringolandia (Gringo Land), and the set up is unexpectedly luxurious. I mean, granite counter tops, wood floors, a multi-feature shower and a plasma screen TV are nice and all, but really all I need is a tin/glass roof and sufficient enough plumbing. And that last part is debatable. In an unspecified period, though, I’ll be moving to an apartment in the middle of the city, only a couple of blocks from the city center and grand cathedral. The center reminds me so much of Florence, at least of Il Duomo. Jess has told me that I’m going to get the South American fever, and my euro-trekking days are over. I’m starting to believe that’s true, although I have yet to actually do any substantial European travel. I think Morocco will be a very nice compromise, and I’m planning on that one next. I graduate in December, so you can all expect Part II–Rabat, Morocco to come in February, give or take a few months. Or France, or Andalucia, Spain. There are just so many places. I think my bank account may decide where I end up going, but money can always be made. I feel as long as I have the drive to go, I’ll find a way to get there. I have no doubts.
My trip began in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport just before 7:00 AM on May, 28th 2013. Dad did me the great favor of waking up at 4:45 AM to drive me down there, and it was really great to spend the two hours or so in the car with him as I we drove down there. I miss him, my mother, and all of my family. Not to mention my friends. It’s a strange feeling, though. I picture myself as a dot on the map and I’m constantly surprised to realize that I’m on the other side of the world, a couple hundred kilometers south of the equator. I miss everybody, but even though the language is different and the city is so far removed from life in Madison, I feel like I haven’t traveled very far. It’s like I’m spending the summer in some super ethnic part of South Milwaukee. A part with sporadic water access, police who don’t really seem care too much about what happens, ever, and kids who stare at you because you’re a weird. And by weird, I mean a blond haired, blue eyed, and pale as hell American. I’m working on my tan, though. No te preocupes. I’ll be looking like a local in no time at all.
In Chicago I met a Costa Rican pastor named Juan. He was making his way through security and doesn’t speak a lick of English, and I of course jumped at the unsolicited opportunity to translate as much as I could between the bumbling TSA officer and Juan. Juan is also the mayor of his town in northern Costa Rica. We struck up further conversation on the plane, and once he found out I was a political science and international studies student he started speaking incredibly fast about the political situation in South and Latin America, specifically about Venezuela and what’s happening post-Chavez. I was sitting there with what I assume was an incredibly blank stare and just nodded when I felt it was appropriate. I responded with something to do with Iran, and freedom, oil, and neoliberalism in what, in hindsight, must have been some of the most generic poorly spoken Spanish bullshit he’s ever heard. But then we talked about our families and lives and Middle Eastern conflicts and the EU, all things I’m very comfortable talking about. It was fascinating conversation, and I’m so happy I worked up the nerve after two hours on the plane to start talking to him. We exchanged contact info and I met his family at the gate in Panama City (which is apparently always humid and rainy and sticky…I would have hated to have built the Canal) and promised to see each other in our respective homes when we get the chance. I don’t know if he was just being polite, but I’m going to go knocking on his door for a warm meal and a cup of coffee the next chance I get whether he was serious or not. Juan, if you can read this, you’re welcome at my home as well. I’ll get the French Press started.
When I was flying to Florence last year I had the pleasure of sitting next to one of the greatest Chicagoans I’ve ever met. His name was Renoir. We talked for probably six hours en route to our layover in Zürich, and talked about everything from the Packer-Bears rivalry to income and race inequality in Chicago and what it was like to grow up as a rich black man of a single mother with friends in the Robert Taylor Housing Projects, which have since been razed, all the while taking advantage of Swiss Air’s free alcohol policy as much as our bodies–and more importantly, flight attendants–would allow (for more information on the RTHP, check out the book Gang Leader for Day. I hated the class I had to read it for, but it was such an incredible read. Check it out. Really. I have it in my giant bag of books at home if anybody wants to borrow it.). Renoir directed me through the Zurich airport to my flight and made sure I was on track to get where I was going, after which he departed for his flight to Rome. On the second plane I met another incredible French woman named Audrey, to whom I am incredibly grateful for going through flight and city changes and bus rides from Pisa to Florence with me. We both spoke the same amount of Italian (next to nothing), but with my Spanish, her French, and our Italian/English we were able to make it to our destinations safely. This was, however, only after my first Italian glass of wine and shot of espresso. And with a French woman nonetheless. I love travelling. She should also be expecting a knock on her door some day soon. France may be next on my list. Some local guidance could be of great service.
The above was an incredibly long-winded, Matt Mleczko style way of introducing my new friends Danny and Pablo, two businessmen from Chicago (is this a theme starting?) and Guayaquil of 52 and 29, respectively. Pablo is a two meter Ecuadorian bachelor (if anybody isn’t familiar with Ecuadorian people, this is about as common as Yao Ming in China) Like Renoir and Audrey, these guys were lifesavers. I am so happy and lucky I connected with Danny on the plane to Panama and again in the duty-free liquor store as we both salivated over whiskey and scotch. With the help of these two guys and another man named Enrique, a young lawyer from Honduras in Guayaquil to work on a case involving a dispute in the city’s port, I was able to make it to the bus station a few miles from the airport. Pablo and Danny took me to the pre-paid phone store to buy a phone to contact Tere for my final leg to the apartment I sit in as I write this, and after drove me to the bus station and helped me get a ticket for the bus to Cuenca. Pablo’s local knowledge and their use of Spanish showed me I have so much to learn, and without people like these I’d probably be holed up in some hotel in Guayaquil wondering what to do next as I bled my limited funds. On top of all of this help, these guys checked up on me constantly as I drove the deathly fast and winding route throughout the mountains and were able to contact my parents for me when I was unable to place a call to them with my calling cards. If travelling has taught me anything, it’s that there are always people out there who have your back. The opposite is unbelievably true as well, but few people really like to see a dead white kid laying in the gutter with a knife in his abdomen. That being said, I’m going to continue to operate with the guarded optimistic view that there will always be a friend around when you need one. You just have to know where to look. Cheesy, (or as Brynna would say, cheesy cornballs) yet true nonetheless.
To further reinforce this point, I’m going to tell another (somewhat tangential) story about when I got lost in what I was told was the worst neighborhood of Florence at 1:30 in the morning some 9 kilometers from where I was camping (yes, I was camping in a tent alone on a mountain in Italy that night. It was awesome. And cold. I recommend it.). Apparently the buses in Florence have a different route for their last stop, which I really wish I had known before I left Mariana and her English businessman friend at the bar in Italy with the UW-Madison Witte Hall shirt on the ceiling, among other college shirts. Mary, you’ll have to help me out with the name of this place. Jordan bought like 3o t-shirts worth of drinks here, if that helps. Anyways, I left them, took the bus, got lost in conversation with some Tunisian men (who I think were illegal, but that made their story that much more interesting), and before I knew it I was far outside of Florence and lost with Gypsies all around me looking at me funny and yelling at me in Italian. When I told the bus driver where I needed to go he looked at me with the most discouragingly worried eyes I probably would have panicked if I hadn’t already thought I was facing my death in Brussels, Belgium, days before, where I also met a fantastic Pakistani and Afghani who were able to walk me from Mollenbeek to my hostel. Just another example of the dead horse I’m currently beating. In Florence I was able to find a cab number and get picked up by a guy who, at the end of my trip, got out of the car and kissed me on both cheeks and asked me to return to Florence as soon as I could. He gave me his card, and only accepted half of the designated fare. Like I said, people help you out when you’re in trouble. Just another excuse to leave my safe Madison apartment and the idea of settling behind in pursuit of hand-picked mangoes and views of the big dipper atop Ecuadorian mountains.
After four and a half hours of a bumpy, fast, and winding bus ride I finally arrived in Cuenca, and met up with my new best friends and host parents, Tere and Mark. Tere is the sweetest, tiniest Ecuadorian woman who made me feel right at home with an enormous hug too strong to come from a woman of her size and the endearing goodnight words of “Ahh, finalmente, tengo un otro hijo amar” (Ahh, finally, i have another son to love). After the chaos of the day and body aches which I’m not sure are from the altitude or the flu which I may have contracted from a week’s and probably 200 packs of cigarette’s worth of hookah with Rakan and others, I practically crumpled right then and there. And I’m not even a little bit ashamed of this blatant showing of emotion.
Tere and Mark set me up in Mark’s ritzy apartment with granite countertops, surround sound, flat screen TV, wood floors, and the most spectacular view of I’ve ever woken up to. I’m spoiled, or as I learned from Tere today, mimado (just one of the many Spanish words I have been and will be cramming in my head…the picture’s attached at the bottom). Mark is as eccentric as he is fantastic, and the long talks I have with him and his hilariously American accented, muddled Spanish has been one of my favorite parts of Ecuador thus far. He’s an archaeologist from the American west, and retired down here to fulfill his life-long goal of becoming fluent in a second language. He ended up falling in love with his Spanish teacher, married her, and figured that was more than enough to self-actualize. He’s a fascinating guy. I’ll be grabbing a beer with him this weekend at the strip along the river where younger Ecuadorians hang out. There are a bunch of bars and discotecas there, and the river is not deep or big enough to fall in and drown as sporadically happens in La Crosse (puedes dormir bien, mama).
Today, Tere took me all throughout Cuenca and showed me everything there was to see, although I’m going to need to wander aimlessly for many hours more before I get a good feel for the streets here. The weather is generally in the 70s or 80s in the early afternoon, and the heat washes away with daily rainfall between 2:00 and 5:00 PM, after which it is about 50 to 70 degrees, depending on the time. The weather makes for perfect daytime walking and gallivanting and even better sleeping conditions. I couldn’t ask for a more perfect climate, or a better situation altogether. Tere and Mark have been godsends, and everybody I’ve met thus far have been more welcoming than I could have dreamed. I have the opportunity tomorrow to talk to a Spanish woman from Sevilla, too, who has spent a fair amount of time in Morocco. Could these first couple of days get any better? I hope the rest of the summer continues in the same fashion.
I’ll be spending my first day at the orphanage tomorrow, and I’ll get to know hopefully some of the seventy kids that unfortunately call it their home. I have no idea what I’m going to be doing there, but I can’t wait to find out that and these kids’ stories. It’s certainly going to be a humbling experience, although I feel I may learn more from them than they will from me. But I suppose that was a given. My International Studies adviser told me the key to having success down here was humility and a willingness to help in any way possible. Taking his advice to heart, we’ll see how everything goes tomorrow.
Until then, buenas noches, amigos. Se hecho de menos mucho.