Ascending on High

Well, it seems that way. From where I’m living in Cuenca, Ecuador, the El Centro (old historic district) is straight up. Come, walk with me as  we head up to El Centro.

I live in a part of Cuenca called El Vergel, a popular area with expats and Ecuadorians. It is composed of commercial and residential buildings. Let’s  start by walking a few blocks of the business district, walking past the ubiquitous MacDonald’s and crossing a 4-lane street. We then arrive at the relatively large Parque de la Madre. This park is busy day and night with individuals, families, and groups. We are likely to see a bunch of young kids playing games or running off their energy. There’s probably an adult exercise group of some sort. We pass by some venders, cross a street to the Tomebamba River. Cuenca has four fast-flowing rivers with walkways alongside.

We’ll cross a bridge which I call the Women’s Bridge. Everything in Cuenca has a name, but very few structures or streets have these names posted. This bridge has been painted on each side with the yearly number of reported abuses against women. It’s a sobering observation.

Now our ascent starts. We will climb 88 steps to reach the edge of El Centro. I do this several times a week (good exercise for the heart) to reach my part-time job at Carolina Bookstore, the only English-language used bookstore in Cuenca (the store also has growing Spanish language sections). At the top of this ascent, we land upon Calle Larga (Long Street) which runs along one edge of El Centro.

88 Steps to El Centro

Now, if you would prefer a shorter climb, you can walk up river to the next set of steps, a mere 84 steps 🙂 which rise alongside the Selina Hotel. Further upstream is another set of actual stairs (uncounted for now)  coming from Cuenca University (there are 3 universities in Cuenca) paralleling a curving road.

84 Steps Along Hotel Selina

Reaching the top, we find the streets of the old town jutting out in a grid pattern. Easy to circumnavigate? Yes, if you don’t care to know which direction you’re going. This grid, sitting askew to much of the rest of the city, is likely to have been structured by the river below. Despite the traveling I’ve done, I am totally confused with directions here. I’ve been lost numerous times and have had to ask how to get where I want to go. I made the mistake of thinking my base street ran in one direction when, in fact, it ran the other direction. I continue to have problems rotating my directions by 45º.

Having reached “up top,” we’ll explore El Centro next week. Come back and walk with me through this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Fact: Cuenca is described as the most beautiful city in all of South America
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The Value of Friends

I have found that making friends is one of the most important requirements when moving to a new community. I have been blessed to have made new friends who seem to have been just waiting to help me. My introduction to Cuenca would have been so much harder without their help.

I am subletting an apartment from a man who is in France for July and August. He has generously taken the time to frequently email or WhatsApp me with all kinds of information about the city. Additionally, he told me to look up a friend of his who has gone out of his way to show me around and given me helpful advice. We were sitting in the small park near my apartment when who comes walking by but Amelia and JP. I know there are those of you who have followed them on the Internet (website and/or YouTube). I started attending a church and I have been taken out to lunch and encountered a couple in a different restaurant. They started teaching me how to use a taxi app to get around. Where would I be without friends?

Walk Along the Tomebamba River

Generally, I am pretty good with directions. However, I made the mistake of thinking a major street through my neighborhood ran east and west when I later learned that it ran north and south. I have been working hard to reorient myself ever since. If only the streets ran in a predictable pattern, but they don’t. Add to that that there are few street signs, and I can become totally lost.

Fortunately, in El Centro, many of the buildings are numbered and there is a system to this. Numbers begin with 1 or 2 digits followed by a hyphen and then the actual building address. Those digits indicate the block, like 3-150. This is very helpful when you know the address of a store on a long street, for instance. Unfortunately, if you only know the name of the store, you don’t know in what block it is located. Outside of El Centro, house numbers and street names are almost nonexistent.

Even taxi drivers have some difficulty finding their way to a specific location. These drivers can drive around circles, intentionally or not, to keep the meter advancing. I’ve learned to hand the driver a note with an address to try to prevent this. However, if my destination is not marked, it’s nothing but a guessing game. I’ve had a driver tell me he couldn’t take me where I wanted to go because he had no idea where it was. Another drove around and around not finding the location and finally told me to just get out of his cab, in the rain no less!

Cuenca’s Tranvia

I haven’t begun to tackle the bus and train (think above-ground subway) systems yet. So, I walk when I can. Walking in Cuenca is really the best way to encounter this city and its many charms. I will write about this in my next post.

Fact: The riverside trails extend 13 kilometers through Cuenca (8 miles)
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Flying High

Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon – er, plane. I’m off to the world’s third highest capitol city – Quito, Ecuador – at 9,350 feet. From there, I drop down to Cuenca, Ecuador at 8,400 feet. The big news is I bought a one-way ticket. Yes, I have left Panamá to spend the next two years in Ecuador.

Panamá gave me the joy of traveling, of experiencing a new culture, and a permanent visa with e-cedula (permanent residence card). I will miss all the wonderful friends I made in Boquete. However, I can see them when I return every two years to keep my permanent visa active.

Cuenca’s Cathedral – istockphoto.com

Why two years in Ecuador? Besides the acquisition of a permanent visa, I want to further exercise my goal to travel slowly. Slow is a concept originating with food – the desire for better food cooked well. It has extended to all facets of life, advocating slowing down and experiencing a simpler life. This idea began with Carlo Petrini in Rome when he protested the opening of a new McDonald’s fast food restaurant. The year was 1986. From that protest, the slow movement grew fast.

Central Park – pinterest.com

In the book, In Praise of Slow, Carl Honoré describes the movement as a philosophy which

is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.

Tomebamba River Walk – Dreamstime.com

Slow travel is not about traveling from one place to another but immersing into an understanding of a place. How long should this take? There is no answer to the question. Some say a week, others say a month or more. I say six months or more. The real joy of traveling is to have no agenda but to stop and smell the roses. This is my aim for Ecuador. I hope you’ll come along for my slow experiences.

istockphoto.com

I will begin my stay in Cuenca, the most European city in South America. It has also been called the “Athens of Ecuador,” implying Cuenca is famous for its architecture – churches, cathedrals, cloisters, and homes – and its literary and artistic novelists, poets, and writers. I’m excited to find out for myself why these attributes have been assigned to Cuenca, and you can feel certain I will be sharing these with you.

Fact: Lhasa, Tibet is the highest capital city in the world at 11,995’
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