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Peregrinations Mexico and Central America on Motorcycle: Open road, open heart, open mind.

Firetrucks and chocolate in Cuenca, Ecuador

ECUADOR | Saturday, 7 June 2008 | Views [1095]

Location: Computer room at Hotel Plantas y Blanco, which I highly recommend, in Baños, Ecuador

Most recent meal: Veggie sandwich and fresh blackberry juice

Mood: Similar to that of a puddle of goo (see, I splurged today and bought myself an hour-long professional massage for $25. The woman worked every muscle in my body, making me pop and crackle so much I felt like a bonfire. She was pushing what felt like golf-ball-sized knots around in my shoulders, and she even found knots in my feet! Which, by the way, she spent a good amount of time on because she knows reflexology. Personally, I'm doubtful of the science behind it. I mean, I just don't get how pushing on the heels of my feet has any effect whatsoever on my cervix. But whatever, it felt great. When she left the room I told my legs to move, and they said, "Mmmm, no thanks. Yawn." And don't you just love that moment at the end of a massage when you can feel your heartbeat in every inch of your body? I sure do. When I went back to the desk to pay I noticed my voice had dropped half an octave--that's how relaxed I am right now. Anyways, back to the story.)

It's not often that I like a city enough to want to write an entire entry on it, but Cuenca and I really got along well. I was awash in good feelings from the moment I arrived, which was largely due to the fact that I rode into town on a bus with a lovely Ecuadorian woman named Vanessa. She teaches teachers to teach English. It keeps her very busy. Because her English was fluent, I was able to interrogate her with a slew of questions I'd been dying to ask a Latin American woman, such as "How do you deal with how unfaithful the Latin American men are?" and "What is it like for women in the workplace in Ecuador?" We went out for Mexican food that night, and jabbered away the entire time. Very fun. So that was day one.

The next morning I awoke to blue skies and sunshine shining over the red roofs of the city. Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecudaor, with something like 230,000 residents. Despite its size, it's quite lovely. I spent the entire day wandering around the various neighborhoods, poking my head into shops, reading my new book while lying in the grass by one of the four rivers rushing through the city, and pondering such important questions as, "If you eat ice cream while walking up six flights of stairs, do they cancel each other out?"

I also visited an internet cafe, where I had the pleasure of watching two very inept thieves try to steal a backpack off the back of my neighbor's chair. The thieves tried three times to nick the bag, and each time I looked at them and let them know they were caught. And still they kept trying. Finally I told the guy next to me, the intended victim, that there were thieves trying to steal his backpack. He looked behind him with a bewildered expression and the crooks ran away. I really hate thieves, but I hate bad thieves even more. I mean, if you're going to rob me and steal my money and prized posessions, at least be slick about it so I don't feel quite so dumb about it all.

That night I shared my dorm room with two girls studying in Quito: Maria from Bolivia, and Liz from Peru. I found myself chatting with them for hours, entirely in Spanish, something that never fails to amaze me. After we turned out the lights we were kept awake by the sounds of sirens outside our window. Finally we got up and looked out, only to find that the building just down the street from us was very seriously on fire. Flames at least 30 feet high were shooting off the roof and out of the windows, and firemen on ladders were valiantly spraying it down with massive jets of water. We could feel the heat waves from where we were standing in our sixth-floor bedroom. It was intense. Eventually the firemen got it under control, and we went to bed. And so ended day two.

On the third day I undertook an adventure to Parque Nacional las Cajas, a very unique ecosystem 30 km from the city on the Continental Divide (the westernmost point of the entire Continental Divide, in fact, which appealed to my water-nerd side). The entire landscape is the result of glaciation, and is scattered with more that 200 lakes, giving it the highest density of lakes in the world. Many unique animals live in the park, including the Unexpected Cotton Rat. You have to wonder just what happened to the scientist who named that one. Anyways, I got off the bus, and so did a German girl, Tanya, so I asked her if she'd like to hike together. Yes, she would. Then I noticed that I had completely forgotten to put on my hiking boots that morning, so I was standing at the entrance to the park in my sandals and socks. Yep. Fashion at its highest, that is.

Well, despite the boots issue, we managed. We just hiked slowly, talking a lot and taking in the views, all of which were beautiful. The lakes were plentiful, and of varying sizes and shapes, dotting the gentle green landscape with their dark-blue reflections of the cloudless sky. And, might I add, park admission was free that day because it was El Dia del Medioambiente, or Earth Day. What a lovely way to celebrate the holiday!

Later on, while we were eating lunch at Laguna Pallcacocha, I glanced through my raptor guide to South America (actually, it's just the color photocopies of the raptor section of the two-volume Birds of South America -- screw the woodpeckers and seagulls), and learned that the Carunculated Caracara has a very limited range (think 100 square miles), a little bit of which lies within Parque Nacional Las Cajas. I told Tanya how cool it would be to see one...and a few minutes later we saw two. I stared at the birds through my binoculars and made funny noises of excitement, while Tanya stared at me and marveled at how psychotic her seemingly-normal new friend had become. It was a glorious moment.

Hours later we returned to town triumphantlym having explored a Ecuadorian national park and witnessed Exotic Beauty. We then hurried to a restaurant called "Cocoa y Canela" to explore a menu and witness Divine Acts of Chocolate. I think I drank about 136,000 calories of chocolate in less than half an hour. It was epic.

To conclude our celebrations of Earth Day, Tanya and I went to the main plaza to watch a concert. The plaza was packed with Ecuadorians listening to their favorite kind of music, which is a mind-numbingly monotonous style that uses pan pipes, a big drum, and numerous guitars and small guitar-like instruments to pound out one (just one) rhythm. The first three songs were wonderful, because we could kind of detect a slight difference between them based on the lyrics. After that, though, I kind of zoned out...until I noticed the drummer's mustache. Tanya noticed it, too, and we both stared. It was like a cross between a Mexican mustache and a 70's mustache. But mostly, it was just huge. We were mesmerized.

There were other things to entertain us in the plaza, too. For instance, there was a political rally on the corner. However, the only person present was the coordinator of the event, sitting behind a booth and berating himself for scheduling his rally the same night as a concert. There were also fireworks, which are key at any South American event of any sort. Rarely has a day passed during my trip that I haven't heard fireworks, usually in the middle of the night and sounding an awful lot like a shootout. These fireworks, in the typical fashion, were being set off in the middle of the plaza without clearing aside the concert goers first, depsite the fact that several of the fireworks were faulty and would launch sideways into the crowd before exploding. The highlight of the night was undoubtably when a rogue firework launched itself straight into a palm tree on the plaza and set it on fire. Soon, everyone was staring at the tree instead of the musicians, and when the firetruck arrived, everyone migrated towards it to watch. Firetrucks are it in South America. You see, it's like this: concert trumps political rally; and firetruck trumps concert, your mother's funeral, and Che Guevara coming back to life and walking down the main street.

At any rate, it was a fantastic way to end the evening, celebrating Earth Day by setting a palm tree on fire. I went to bed happy.

The next morning I caught a bus to Baños, which is where I am now. It's a lovely place, surrounded by lush green hillsides that constantly drip with moisture. It's nice...but it's not Cuenca. I just think the fire potential here is way too low. 

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