When one returns to a city after 33 years, one expects some changes and surprises. When the Dowbrigade pulled into scenic Cuenca, Ecuador after a spectacular 3-hour van ride up into the Andes Mountains from Guayaquil, the biggest surprise was that it looked and felt absolutely the same as it had on our last visit here, in 1977.
That visit was admittedly a little rushed. It was during our brief, spectacularly unsuccessful career as an import-export magnate between college and graduate school, trying to turn our nascent anthropological expertise into a profitable business venture.
We had glommed onto the intensely handcrafted Panama Hats of Cuenca as our ticket to magnate status. Contrary to popular belief, the authentic Panama Hats come from Ecuador, not Panama, many of them from the sprawling fabrica of Humberto Ortega y Hijos in Cuenca.
We had somehow convinced Señor Ortega that despite our hippy accouterments and bastard Spanish we were capable of representing his line in the United States, and got him to sign an actual contract declaring the Dowbrigade as his exclusive North American distributor for a period of two years.
The hats were magnificent. Woven underwater so that the straw strands were flexible and firm, the tightened when dried into a smooth, fabric-like softness. With wire brims, a variety of colors and crowns, and styles for both men a women, they couldn’t miss. The most expensive models came rolled up in their own sliding-lid balsa wood boxes.
With the backing of a gullible Harvard Buildings and Grounds employee who invested most of his savings, we booked a booth at the big deal New York Gift Fair the week before Christmas, where the buyers for all of the chains and deparment stores commit to stock for their summer sales lines.
We ordered a dozen each of the 15 styles we thought would be the most popular, and printed up stationary and order forms for the expected flood of orders.
A week before the big show in NYC the samples still hadn’t come. In a panic we called the factory in Cuenca. Yes, the hats were there, ready to be shipped. Why hadn’t they shipped them already? One of the Ortega sons had just gotten married, and they shut down the factory for a week.
“Don’t send them now,” we screamed into the phone, “we’ll come get them!” And so we bought a quick roundtrip ticket from New York to Ecuador, arriving back in New York the morning of the opening of the gift show.
We remember walking the streets of midtown Manhattan the day the flight left. It was Christmas week, there was no snow on the ground but you could smell it in the air, the store windows were surreal winter wonderlands and people rushed by burdened by packages and trailed by scarves and small children.
18 hours later we were high in the Andes, waiting in a tiny two-table coffee shop for the Ortega offices to open so we could grab our hats and rush back to Manhattan. It was a surreal juxtaposition, the kind of cultural dissonance that we lived for, an unmoored state of being when expectations are upset, the unusual becomes normal, and consciousness gets a chance to rise above and between the ley lines of world views.
We got the same feeling yesterday, as we walked among the tiny storefronts and churches and plazas of the aged center of this Colonial city (a UN Patrimony of Humanity site). Perhaps not as strongly, and hopefully leading to a more productive conslusion, for although we arrived at the gift fair 33 years ago with our hats intact, we sold not a single one at the show.
For all of our expertise, we discovered in ourself an absolute lack of salesmanship or business sense. After a year in the business the only hats we had sold were a few we hawked sitting on the street in Harvard Square the following summer trying to raise enough cash for lunch and a beer. We would arrive at about ten and set a museum-worthy Andean weaving on the sidewalk in front of the long defunct Harvard Trust bank, arranging the sombreros in neat piles in anticipation of having to quickly relocate at the whim of the Cambridge Police Department. Most days we met our quota of 2 or 3 hats well before noon, giving us plenty of time to select a watering hole for the rest of the day. That fall we decided to move on and go to grad school. So much for entrepreneurship.
But now, 33 years later, here we were back in Cuenca. We were hit by a wave of the same cultural dissonance – yesterday morning, we thought, we were in Manhattan, and in a blink of the eye, a different world.
Some things never change, and it appears that Cuenca is one of them. Upon checking into the Hotel Macondo (Wi-fi and breakfast included, $18) we were handed a xeroxed sheet titled, in English and Spanish “For your security” and reading, in part:
‘A New Form of Robbery
In general, in the City Center and the Plaza Calderon (in front of the Cathedral) we have been experiencing a new form of robbery. Thieves bump into tourists, spilling mustard or mayonnaise or any liquid on them. Then, feigning embarrassment, they try to help the tourist clean their clothes. Instead, they pick their pockets and run.”
What new form of robbery? We’d be willing to bet our passport that this method of robbery has been common since the ancient Greek Agora three thousand years ago. We were relieved of our passport and billfold by just this technique 25 years ago in Chimbote, Peru.
Forewarned and forearmed we wandered the steets of this historic old city. The sense of familiararity was overwhelming. Not only did it seem familiar, we felt completely at home. The city blocks were dense and busy, but the individual stores, packed 20 to a block, were completely different than what one would find in a typical American city. A tiny TV-electronics repair shop crammed with old CRTs and lose curcuit boards, not a flatscreen in sight, and the elderly technician seated on a wooden stool peering through retro magnifying goggles as he soldered a piece into place. A dingy two-chair barber shop with a yellowing poster in the window displaying 12 head shots of the most popular cuts of the day, the day being, as far as we could tell, frozen somewhere in the 1960’s. A six-foot purple dinosaur – yes it was Barney – standing guard outside a store that sells party supplies and piñatas and rents costumes for childrens birthdays. Cuenca, we thought, where old Barney costumes go to die.
The stores themselves are tiny and cave-like, no more than 15-20 feet wide and the same deep. However, one of the things we love about Andean urban architecture is the mystery of what goes on in the middle of each city block, since these shallow stores only ring the circumference leaving the hidden heart of each a riddle. Some of the stores, an occasional residence, or a hotel like the Macondo feature back passages that open into mazes of corridors and storerooms, beautiful gardens and patios, entire other covert enterprises or luxurious family mansions.
Eventually, we wandered into the infamous Plaza Calderon and Cuenca’s main tourist attraction, the Catedral Metropolitana de la Inmaculada Concepción. We have been repeatedly told that upon its completion, in the 1880s, it was the largest cathedral in South America, and although we kind of doubt that, it is undeniably huge. According to Wikipedia:
“Its towers are truncated due to a calculation error of the architect. If they had been raised to their planned height, the foundation of this church to the Immaculate Concepcion, would not have been able to bear the weight. In spite of the architect’s immense mistake, the New Cathedral of Cuenca is a monumental work of faith that began to be built in 1880. It is in Neo-Gothic style, and its blue and white domes have become a symbol for the city. Its facade is made of alabaster and local marble, while the floor is covered with pink marble, brought from Carrara (Italy).When the Cathedral was first constructed 9,000 out of Cuenca’s 10,000 inhabitants could fit.”
No more. Cuenca is now a city of almost half a million. When we wandered into the Cathedral yesterday, the several hundred worshipers were swallowed up in the vast vaulted spaces and numerous nooks, alcoves and secondary shrines. The magnificant gilded altar gleamed in the distance, a couple of football fields away down the axis of the enourmous central area. Between the door and the altar, itself at least 60 or 70 feet high of twisted golden columns there are six separate worship areas on each side of the central hall, each the side of a normal American church, and each with its own shrines, pews, confessionals religious art and iconography and votive candle stands.
It was late afternoon; crespular light filtered through the
stained glass and round windows around the bases of the three huge blue domes that formed the poles of the roof. There was a smell of insence, votive
candles, flowers and floor wax the components of which varied with intensity
from alcove to alcove.
If the interior could hold 9,000 of the faithful is seemed vast and empty with only 2 or 3 percent of that number. The main altar, with the fantasmagorical golden columns reaching for the sky like an angel’s four-poster, was dark and mostly roped off; set aside for holidays or other mass ceremonies. Only two of the 12 side chapels were occupied. In one, a white-robed preist was leading a congregation of a couple of hundred in a series of chants which we assumed were either in Latin or Quechua, the native American language, since we couldn’t decipher a single word.
Not being familiar with the Catholic liturgy in any language, we have no idea what they were doing, but it sounded like a call and response format, and with our eyes closed and the droning voices echoing off the vaulted ceiling and assorted architectural recesses it could almost have been “OOmmmmm padi hummm”.
The cogregants were all of Native American stock, mixed over the centuries with European and Asian imports but easily categorized by dress and behavior and degree of acculturation. The “Town Indians” were mestisized, a word we just invented to verbalize the term “Mestizo”, an individual of mixed Native American and European heritage. They dressed pretty much like city folk around the world: button-down and T-shirts, belted pants, socks and shoes, maybe a sweatshirt or jacket. The “Country Indians” were dressed in their traditional garb; men in blue pants with sewn-in string ties and white shirts covered by ponchos, women in multiple puffy blue ankle-length skirts, frilly white blouses, multiple strings of tiny beads whose color, number and arrangement carry as many messages as gang signs and colors, and peculiar feathered, banded hats which identify their home village, marital status and other secret data beyond the imaginings of this amateur anthropologist.
Another way to tell them apart is their haircuts: the country folk all, men and women, have waist length jet black hair, tied in a single braid and hanging down their backs. The city folk had a healthy variety of modern cuts and do’s, in and out of fashion, kempt or unkempt but all the same black, straight hair.
They were standing and swaying, chanting their hearts out, supplicating and singing praising the Lord. They paid no heed to the Gringo in their midst. Indeed, we seemed to be the only tourist in the entire Cathedral.
The only other niche being used was right next door, the last remaining alcove between the chanters and the darkened main stage. There, a tiny skinny middle-aged Japanese teacher was leading a group of 13 uniformed school-girls into the first two rows of pews facing a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary.
The teacher spoke to a Nun of similar stature, dressed in a simple gray habit. They could have been sisters. We imagined the teacher had been a novice in her youth who had abandoned the nunnery to pursue an ill-fated romance with a long-gone Galan, and now dedicated all her energies to her students.
The girls looked to be 12 or 13, and showed none of the coltish exuberance common to groups of girls or boys at that age. In fact, they were all kneeling in front to a statue of the Virgin Mary, standing in a striking blue silk gown on an alter of her own on the left side of the alcove. The girls were speaking or praying in voices which were swallowed up by the cavernous space before they could reach our ears.
The tiny nun walked off into the shadows in the wings of the main altar, far from the main pulpit and gilded tower. A minute later she was back carrying what appeared to be a two-foot-long test tube of translucent glass shining in the dim light. It appeared to be half-full of some silvery liquid. What, we wondered, is that? Some arcane Papist ritual we have never seen before, or some melding of indigenous superstition and Catholic worship?
As the nun carefully places the glass cylinder on the floor next to the statue of the Virgin, we finally made out that it was a simple glass flower holder. We noticed for the first time, a few meters behind the girls, a slightly older, taller young woman carrying a full bouquet of pink roses.
The students finished their prayers and moved back into the first two rows of pews facing the Virgin. The teacher took the roses from the tall girl and carefully distributed them, one to each of the 13 students. After the last student had a rose, there was one left over. The teacher gently handed it back to the tall girl, who refused to take it. The teacher leaned over and spoke softly into the tall girls ear. She shook her head but stood her ground. Her hands were in her pockets. She wouldn’t take the rose. The teacher seemed to sign and turned back to her charges.
One by one, the girls got up, approached the Virgin, knelt, crossed themselves, seemed to say a short prayer, placed her single pink rose in the vase the nun had placed on the floor, and returned to her seat.
The teacher gave the last rose to the first girl, who got to go through the whole routine again, whether as prize or punishment we haven’t a clue. Meanwhile, the chanting in the next alcove over had given way to rousing hymn singing, although again, the 30 or 40 voices were lost in the echoing reaches of the gigantic Cathedral.
After surreptitiously taking a few snapshots we walked out into the Cuenca twilight. The Plaza Calderon, outside the church, was full of people hurrying home or enjoying the evening. Two doors down we found a classic Ecuadorian high-class restaurant with an Andean air of faded elegance, a small coterie of obvious regulars and a smattering of tourists. We ordered a fried fresh mountain trout, a local specialty, with french fries, rice (always), a salad we stayed away from, a Papaya milkshake (for the stomach) and a cold Club, the local premium beer (very good, German family brewery). The bill – $6.70.
From there, back to the wified Hotel Macondo to catch up on correspondence and the news, and see if we can get out of the Medical Pavilion in Bioshock on the Macbook. Killing time in the most marvelous way while waiting for Norma. Thus ends our first day in the Andes.
See some slides of the Cathedral and the wedding.