We’ve been living in Cuenca for about 6 weeks now and we have encountered a variety of things that we’ve found a bit odd and I thought I’d share some of them. When we first moved into our apartment, the rental agent spent a while introducing us to the place. One thing we found odd was that you are not supposed to flush used toilet paper down the toilet. It is to be placed in the wastebasket located beside the toilet and disposed of along with the household garbage. No wonder most bathrooms feature an open window for ventilation!
Although virtually all households use gas for cooking, water heating and drying clothes, the houses are not connected to a central supply of natural gas. Instead everyone has cylinders of propane that run out after a while and need to be exchanged for filled ones. One of our two tanks ran out a week or so ago and so we called our landlord. He arranged to have the propane tank delivery company drop around and pick up our empty cylinder and carry a full cylinder up to our laundry area on the 3rd floor and hook it up. Total cost was $2.25 for a cylinder that holds about twice as much as the ones we use up north for our BBQs.
Obviously when you pay $2.25 for a tank of propane and $1.48 for a US gallon of gasoline, you know that the government is subsidizing the price. The President has announced that the subsidy is too expensive and must be reduced. One proposal he made was to eliminate the use of propane for heating water by banning the manufacture or import of propane water heaters. I guess the slogan behind that is, “The only good shower is a cold shower!” It seems as though this proposal has not received widespread support. However, he is now proposing that each family be issued fuel cards that entitle the family to so much subsidized gasoline and/or propane per month. Use more than the monthly ration and you will have to pay world prices.
But enough about politics, lets take a look around Cuenca.
As in North America downtown space is at a premium and so the buildings fill the entire lot. However, many businesses here have heavy roll-down metal shutters that are locked shut when the business is closed. Often there is no signage visible when the shutter is closed so you can’t tell what type of a business it is. This might be a good idea for businesses in some North American cities – it would certainly reduce the risk of damage and looting. Since the central part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are building restrictions in place that preserve the Spanish colonial architecture of the buildings. Some of the buildings are really amazing. The third photo shows a building that we looked at with a real estate agent. It is quite narrow but extends a long ways back from the street and has 3 inner courtyards and about 10 studio apartments.
One feature that is characteristic of Spanish colonial architecture is elaborate railings on second floor balconies. In the first photo the balcony railing is done in wrought iron but other two are good examples of intricate cast iron railings.
This is an example of a beautifully restored colonial building. When you go in the entrance there are offices to each side but you can see into the inner courtyards. Each of the courtyards are covered to keep out the rain and have offices and display space around the periphery on each of the two floors.
Although many of the buildings in downtown Cuenca are quite narrow, there are some really large buildings that occupy half or more of a city block. The first photo shows one such building. If you look up at the small peaked area you will see a sign identifying this as the San Jose school built in 1893. However, the entrance is a bit hard to find among all the commercial shops on the street level. The third photo shows the entrance.
If we go into the entranceway between the commercial establishments we can see that this is indeed the entrance to the school. Note that it is no longer San Jose school but is now the Miguel Angel Estrella school. If we peek inside we can see that the central area is the schools playground that is open to the sky. All around the periphery are the classrooms on two floors.
Even most of the banks in the central area have buildings in the colonial style. The first photo is of the bank that has the ATM I usually use to get some more cash from my account in Brandon. The ATM here has a $300 limit rather than the $200 limit at most other ATMs and does not charge a local fee for using the ATM machine! The second photo shows the serious firepower carried by bank security guards. In this case they are doing a money transfer to the armored car parked in the background. The final photo is of the line up in front of a bank. There isn’t a big line because this is payday either. Most banks have large waiting rooms and/or long lines on most days. You see, there is no postal delivery system in Cuenca so you can’t use the mail to pay your water, electricity, cable and other bills. You used to have to go to each of the utilities and pay them directly but now you can pay your bills at your bank – hence the long lines.
As you walk the streets you will see many signs like the ones in the first photo advertizing doctors’ offices. It looked like there was a huge over-supply of medical doctors in Cuenca. However, when we asked our Spanish teacher about this she pointed out that these are not medical doctors. The word “abogado” in Spanish means lawyer. The town is over-run with lawyers, not medical doctors!
The reason there are so many lawyers in Cuenca is that all the legal business for the province is done here. By the way, the lawyers that display the title Doctor have earned a Doctor of Laws degree. The second photo shows a copier business that operates on the sidewalk. Black and white copies are 2 cents and color copies are 5 to 7 cents. Although we have gotten used to a wide variety of people walking the streets of Cuenca, the man in the third photo did catch our attention.
Riding one of the big blue transit buses in Cuenca is quite an experience. The first photo shows the front of a typical bus with the fare box that is connected to the driver’s computer so he can tell if you have deposited the correct fare (25¢) and the scanner for your transit card (the fare is automatically deducted from the amount on the card). Once the bus starts moving you better be sitting down or hanging on tight because many of the drivers must think they are racing car drivers as they zip around corners and zig-zag through traffic with only millimeters to spare. Occasionally on busy bus runs a vendor will hop on the bus and start hawking his wares. After a few stops he will hop off and try a different bus. In the second photo we see a vendor who was selling a clothes hanger. In the final photo we see two boys who were selling gum and candy on the bus. In theory they aren’t supposed to sell stuff on a bus and some buses have signs on them forbidding vendors, but some drivers let them get away with it. Many of the vendors who sell chocolates or candy will pass out the product and then do their speil hoping that with the product in hand you are more likely to make a purchase. Of course they come around and either collect the payment or the product before the next stop.
Some people are afraid to ride the buses. However, we have ridden the bus several times every day and have never had any problems despite the fact that we are often the only gringos on the bus.
Even in the suburbs people build right up to the lot line. Sometimes the house comes right up to the lot line but often there is a tall fence, either solid or openwork along the lot line. In the above photos there is a very substantial solid wall made out of adobe bricks reinforced with straw. The gate happened to be open and so I could see that the wall enclosed a lovely house with beautifully landscaped grounds with many flowers and trees.
With solid walls around a property you never quite know what is inside. This is a property on Primero de Mayo not far from Ave. de Las Americas. The gate happened to be open when we walked by and beyond the wall is a stable where the owner keeps his cows. Actually, with no zoning outside of the core area, animals are quite common in Cuenca. Here is a lawn care service unloading three lawnmowers from the delivery truck.
If you read the blog post about parades, you may remember that many of the floats had very elaborately dressed dolls as part of the float decoration. There were also some children that were very elaborately dressed who walked or were carried in the parades.
While walking around downtown we has seen many shops selling dolls and very elaborate clothes for them. We couldn’t understand how all these shops could do enough business selling dolls and doll clothes to stay in business. So, we asked our Spanish teacher.
Once she understood what we were talking about she told us that the dolls represent baby Jesus and that every Catholic home has a baby Jesus doll. She says the one she has has been passed down in her family for generations and is dressed in red for Christmas. However, in many families they change the baby Jesus’ clothes depending on the liturgical season. They use violet, white, green, red, gold, black, rose, and other colours depending on the season. All of a sudden the demand for elaborate doll clothes made sense.
Our Spanish teacher went on to explain that some of the baby Jesus dolls were called miracle babies because strange things happen. Her aunt has such a miracle baby. She had been told that when there is an argument or dispute in her aunt’s household, the baby Jesus doesn’t like it and gets angry. It’s face changes from a pale white to a bright red. Of course being a modern, enlightened woman she didn’t believe this until one day she saw it happen. Now she believes.
She also told us about how people who are full of anger and hate can look at you and give you the evil eye that will make you sick. As a modern woman she didn’t believe in such nonsense until one time her daughter became sick and was crying all the time. Her mother thought that someone had given the child the evil eye but our teacher said, “No way!” However, her mother took the child to see one of the witches at the market and the woman performed a ritual involving using an egg to draw out the evil spirit. As soon as the ritual was complete, her daughter was smiling and feeling good again. As a result, she now believes in witches and magic. She told us that on Tuesdays and Fridays witches are at a particular market here in Cuenca.
As you can see, there are many, many things in Cuenca that are very different than what you are used to in North America. It is a much different culture than we are used to.