Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Cuenca at Christmas, Lounging in the Valley of Longevity

We’ve been waking up the last few mornings to a braying donkey who—from the sounds of things—suffers from both asthma and hairballs. The roosters are crowing, the dogs are barking, and birds new to us are chirping and calling. We’re in Vilcabamba, Ecuador, up in the Andes for a few days of hiking and hammocks before we set out overland for our teaching gig in Peru. Once the morning mist clears, the hosteria’s open air dining room looks down on the green valley and the little town and out onto high peaks on all sides. All this and good coffee too.


Our time in Ecuador was meant to be a holiday, and Cuenca at Christmas was pure festival—the crowded streets and markets, the brass bands, the smell of horse pee on cobblestones in the sun. Amplified Christmas music blared from speakers, an older woman in a sweater, bowler, and embroidered skirt tended to a little boy in a Santa costume, and a girl clutching a fuzzy stuffed llama crossed a plaza full of flower stands. There were firecrackers and church bells and vendors with wheelbarrows full of red cherries; there was the smell of diesel fumes and fresh piña. There were tile roofs with crucifixes on the ridgelines; there were red geraniums on the ironwork balconies.

And there were parades. The main one, on Christmas Eve, honored El Niño Viajero, a local icon of the Christ Child that a priest took to the Holy Land back in the 1960s. We didn’t actually see the Traveling Child in the procession, but we saw plenty of kids dressed as angels and toreadors and shepherds and kings.

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Aside from the odd Eeyore costume or NYPD hat, almost everything was handmade—the costumes, the floats, the offerings of chickens and roasted guinea pigs and fruit and candy and Coca Cola, all festooned with ribbons. And though the spirit was festive, there was also an undercurrent of solemn devotion, especially on the faces of those carrying their own baby Jesus dolls in homemade cradles or on embroidered satin pillows.

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We watched the parade for hours, then had lunch and went off to buy our bus tickets for Boxing Day, when we would set out for Vilcabamba. When we successfully found our way to the intercity bus terminal and made our purchase, we felt a small thrill of accomplishment. And we enjoyed knowing we were, like those around us, out doing errands on this busy Christmas Eve.

Fortunately, we didn’t bring our goat.

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Though it takes effort to make ourselves understood with our still-primitive Spanish, people have been kind. The driver on the local bus laughed when I accidentally paid twice as much as I should have, but then he made sure we got our change. A fellow passenger waved us along at the terminal until we found the right ticket window. A woman at midnight mass hugged us and said, “Feliz Navidad, senoras,” a gesture that hugely touched me.

We went to mass in a small, simple chapel across a side street from the cathedral. A brass band played outside, and inside the altar was hung with floor-to-ceiling draperies in shiny gold overlaid with pink gauze and white lace, all set off with dangling blue Christmas lights. A small band of horns and keyboard played lively music, and we drew some curious looks as we stood along the side. Only a small part of the packed house took communion—it turned out they were waiting for the main attraction at the end of mass. All were attentive when a man in a wool poncho climbed a ladder behind the altar and took a green-gowned baby Jesus down from the top of a tiered structure piled with flowers and strung with lights.

It turned out to be the Traveling Child, a semi-circle of gold rays behind his head. Everyone pressed forward so the man in the poncho could touch the top of their heads with the base of the statue. Outside the chapel, a tall, elaborate, multicolored framework was set up, ready, we figured, to parade the icon around the plaza in the middle of the night. But we were too tired to stay up and find out.

On Christmas Day, the festivities continued, and the streets and plazas were full.
  
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In the afternoon, we walked along Rio Tomebamba, a clear, rapid-filled river that rushes through town.

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The Inca ruins at Pumapungo were closed for the holiday, but we looked through the fence.

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 Then we climbed back up the hill and through the old city with its hookah bars and church domes.

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On Boxing Day, we took one bus through the high Andean towns to Loja and then another to Vilcabamba. The bus rides were a bonanza of sensory input: some kind of Spanish industrial music over the P.A., a dubbed American shoot-em-up movie on the TV, vista after vista of Andean valleys. It took me a while to realize that the mist that surrounded us on the peaks was really clouds and that we were actually inside the clouds.

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The day after we arrived in Vilcabamba, we took a 12-kilometer hike that started out on a dirt road along a mountainside. Walking to the trailhead, we saw men with machetes cutting bananas by the side of the road and a kid riding a skateboard on a dirt side street. The trail crossed steep slopes where donkeys and cows grazed, looked down on tiny plantings of corn, sugarcane and bananas, then led us down to the river and up again past a monastery with a walled garden and a side business in medicinal honey.

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Yesterday we had a lazy day, but one thing we did do was look up the vocabulary we may need on what promises to be a somewhat rugged trip into Peru in a few days. Muddy roads? Landslide? Impassable? It will be an adventure, for sure. (KK)

5 comments:

tm said...

Happy New Year to you both.
Beautiful photos and I'm enjoying traveling with you as you go.
Stay well!
Theresa

Andree said...

I can't wait to see what happens in Peru. My daughter's boyfriend is from Peru and he makes sure I get the holiday foods from his parents party's. I never know what I am eating but it is delicious. Especially a chili that had seafood in it.
Happy New Year

riggsiee said...

Beautiful Pictures!!! So glad you guys are having the time of your lives!!!

Happy new Year, Riggs

Kathleen Kearns said...

Thanks, Riggs! And to you too!

Kathleen Kearns said...

Andree, great to hear from you. Thanks for reading. Hope you're well after all these many decades.