Not Just Another Party

In a culture filled with tradition and festivals, Cuencanos go all out to celebrate Corpus Christi.

The Christian festival is one of thanksgiving, tracing its history to the 1500s through Spanish heritage to its indigenous roots. Hundreds of years ago, Incans showed their appreciation for a good harvest by celebrating the mythological Incan goddess Pacchamama, or Mother Earth, and sun god Inti. Somewhere along the way, the Roman Catholic Church redefined the festival to be one that recognizes the belief that during Mass, bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Corpus Christi is Latin for the body of Christ. Many Cuencanos celebrate both aspects of the festival.

Current-day Corpus Christi takes place 60 days after Easter and generally lasts a week. In Cuenca, where celebrations centered around our central Parque Calderon, vendors and merchants extended the festival two additional days by pitching in for additional fireworks displays. Roads around the park are closed to traffic nightly and hundreds of people pour into the streets.

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According to the Cuenca Office of Tourism, the commemoration of Corpus Christi begins with a proclamation in the streets that ends at the Cathedral de La Inmaculada, also known as the New Cathedral. Here the liturgy is solemnized, followed by a presentation in the streets of the first burning castle, or tower of fireworks. Devotees are given the opportunity to worship at the blessed display inside the Cathedral. The Sacred Host, or consecrated communion bread, remains on display for seven nights and seven dawns. For this the festival is also known as “Septenario,” where “sept” refers to seven.

The family-friendly atmosphere is punctuated with human statues, clowns and homemade carnival games. Vendors hawk everything from whistles and LED toys to handmade bracelets and tiny toy animals. The highlight, of course, is the famous candy produced specifically for this festival. At least 125 tents lined the park on all sides, each displaying mounds of colorful sweets more spectacular than the first.

While the delicacies are beautiful, the selection is overwhelming. How can you possibly decide? For a few dollars, you can take basket and pick and choose to your heart’s content. Of course, you may have to fight swarms of honey bees to get to the products you want. The longer the festival goes on, the more the industrious little bees are drawn to the sugar-laden tables. According to the tourism office, sweets were first distributed by Spanish noble women as gifts to those who lived nearby their homes. They were also given to women in convents and to the Cholas, the indigenous women known by their embroidered and sequined skirts, and became a means to prove participation in the Septenario. Eventually, the recipes slipped out into the general population and today, families take great pride in their own concoctions of candies.

Each night features new folkloric dancers and traditional music. I never cease to be amazed at the agility of Cuencano dancers who navigate the uneven cobblestone streets with ease. Each dance tells a story and is almost always accompanied by props, such as Ecuadorian hats, baskets, flowers, scarves or crates. Most nights, military bands perform as well.

Corpus Christi ends with a procession from the New Cathedral, spilling out hundreds of parishioners who leave rose petals strewn in their wake. In a solemn march around the plaza, onlookers join the parade behind the priest and his contingent. Then comes the grand finale – the burning of the castles. Handmade towers of bamboo, some stretching as high as 40 feet, are placed in the street. The towers are artistically decorated and strategically adorned with swirling pinwheel pyrotechnics, dazzling giant sparklers and colorful rockets timed to go off in rapid succession. The burning of the castles, signifying the end of that night’s celebration, is sponsored by church congregations, civic organizations or individual families.

I was surprised by the location of the opening night’s incendiary display. Fireworks were attached to every window, atop the roof and along the front of the alabaster and marble New Cathedral. The church isn’t that old, having opened in 1975, but it took nearly 100 years to build it. And it’s quite possibly the most recognizable Cuenca landmark, with its trio of domes covered by brilliant blue Czechoslovakian tiles. It was with a bit of fear and awe that I watched as sparks flew off the church. Thankfully, there was no need for the firemen who stood at the ready.

On another night, bystanders angling for the front-row view of the burning towers pressed against some of the police warning tapes until they broke. People crowded to within 20 feet of the burning displays while officers tried in vain to push them back. Again I was reminded of a major difference between Ecuador and the United States. You don’t sue anyone if you get hurt here. It is your responsibility not to get hurt and, if you do, there is no one to blame. Shockingly, a mother standing near me sent her 8–year-old son repeatedly under the tape to stand next to an exploding tower.

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As the sparks of the last tower burned out, this year’s celebration of Corpus Christi came to an end. Well, you still hear fireworks. But this town is like that.  Cuencanos love a good light show. The louder, the better.

 

 

How This Story Began…

cuenca-ecuador“What do you think about Ecuador?’

The question split the silence.

My husband was intently reading an e-mail about a promotional trip to the coast of the South American country.

We had talked about leaving the United States for months. No, years. First, my husband considered pursuing his Belgian heritage by claiming citizenship. We ruled that out as a costly venture for our next act. He pondered various Caribbean islands with attractive retirement plans. We visited a few, but none beckoned to us.

With our mutual love of Latin America, we also were drawn to Costa Rica, Panama, and perhaps Brazil.

We longed for a change of scenery.

We lived in the same house in El Paso, Texas, for almost 20 years. It was now too large and silent. The children were gone. Our pets had passed away. Worse, we lost the last of eight relatives in six months – an entire generation – to a variety of diseases.

Retiring to an exciting new, affordable locale was an attractive idea. Putting adventure and wonder back into our lives as we entered the Golden Years was even more compelling.

“Sure! Why not? When do we leave?” I asked brightly.

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It was time. I had just crossed over the 60 mark and my husband was entering his seventh decade.  Our careers had been long, fruitful and rewarding. We launched a son into a house-flipping business and helped a daughter and her husband buy their first house. We no longer were tied to our Southwest Texas home by responsibility or routine.

We booked the promotional trip to the coast of Ecuador. Sandwiched between Peru and Venezuela, Ecuador never was on our radar. It’s one of those countries you rarely hear about. This may explain why it also is one of the most quiet and peaceful – tranquilo – as the natives often say.

Straddling the equator on South America’s west coast, Ecuador is a diverse land. The coast contains the country’s most fertile lands, producing bananas for Dole and Chiquita, and roses for worldwide export. The highlands feature snow-capped peaks as high as 20,549 feet and most of Ecuador’s volcanoes. El Oriente, or the Amazon, is composed primarily of huge national parks and native reservations, and features the largest preserves of petroleum in the country. Ecuador also includes the Galapagos Islands, the UNESCO world heritage natural site 620 miles west of the mainland in the Pacific.

Ecuador is a country of more than 16 million people, governed by democratically elected president Lenin Moreno. Shot in 1998 in a robbery attempt, the wheelchair-bound president was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for his advocacy for people with disabilities. When he assumed office in May 2017, Moreno became the world’s only currently serving head of state in a wheelchair.

Ecuador is beautiful. Its coastal hamlet, Salinas, was a tempting slice of life. The variety of affordable homes – from apartments to haciendas – was astounding. The ocean-front properties were priced well below our expectations, each offering seductive views of the Pacific Ocean. Near the promenade, dolphins and sea lions frolicked. In season, migratory humpback whales are a breath-taking sight. Ecuadorians were kind and helpful, curious about the new Gringos in town. But it was hot. It didn’t feel like home.

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We spent days traveling from Salinas to a variety of smaller beachside communities. Montanita is the party town. Traveling back in time to the late 60s and early 70s, we were transported by the boisterous atmosphere, good food and late-night partying. There was sunlight and clean beaches and laughter. But it wasn’t home.

900x600-ecuador-montanita-streetQuieter enclaves, like Punta Blanca and Olon north of Salinas, beckoned to us. We considered a quiet duplex near Santa Domingo, with a patio surveying the glittering ocean. Was it too remote? Without a car we would be confined to walking dirt roads and waiting for lumbering local buses. It was too quiet. It wasn’t home.

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My husband and I were blessed with multiple happy addresses in our life together. Careers and opportunity drove us to four cities in 33 years, where we found comfort and safety in seven different homes. Each time we moved, we happened on a house or apartment that just felt right. Our homes were comfortable and welcoming, exuding warmth to visitors and providing the safety and comfort in which our family thrived.

Slightly discouraged, we made plans to head back to Texas. Someone suggested we stop off in Cuenca, Ecuador’s historic UNESCO World Heritage Site located high in the Andes Mountains. Not crazy about the altitude – 8200 feet – and the average 68 degree weather, I was apprehensive.

Cuenca is enchanting. Designated a historic site for its 16th and 17th century era Spanish colonial architecture, the town has a population of almost 400,000. Predominantly Spanish-speakers, we were pleasantly surprised a few attempt English.

Making our way to our hotel, we dropped our suitcases and headed out for a walk. Visiting the gorgeous green grounds of the Pumapungo Museum, we got a sense of the city’s Incan history. We learned that Panama hats are actually from Ecuador in the world-famous Homero Ortega factory. At Mirador de Turi, we experienced breath-taking vistas of the city’s Spanish, red-tiled roofs.

The second day, we discovered the central park, Parque Calderon. There, we joined sun-bronzed old men chatting on benches and velvet-skirted women selling their wares from baskets skillfully balanced on their heads.

Soaking up the dazzling sunshine and diverse culture, we sat in silence. We gazed at the brilliant blue domes of the spectacular new cathedral, completed after 90 years in 1975. Turning, we could see the “old” cathedral opposite us, a captivating stone church built in 1567.

Laughing children chased homemade tops across the crumbling, cobblestoned paths. Pungent smells wafted through the air: Freshly baked bread and garlic from restaurants blended with aromatic roses at the nearby flower market. Around us, the explosive tolling of ancient church bells shattered the quiet.

Reaching across to the sun-splashed bench to one another, we grasped hands.

We were home.

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The Real Labor Day

Labor Day will never be the same in my mind.

Having celebrated my share of three-day weekends as an expected September vacation, it was refreshing – and educational – to understand for the first time what the day is all about. In Ecuador, and throughout most of the world the recognition of workers falls on May 1. Only Canada and the United States celebrate Labor Day the first Monday in September.

Known as the International Day of the Worker, or May Day, millions of workers marched in parades worldwide. In some places, violence marred the message. But most countries, including Ecuador, celebrated the day in peace, amid passionate pleas for better working conditions, solidarity and equality in the workforce.

Interestingly, this worldwide recognition is rooted in U.S. history. Some accounts report that American union leaders were calling for a recognized “Labor Day” as early as 1882. In 1886, Chicago workers began a general strike on May 1, primarily calling for an eight-hour workday. Working conditions were deplorable at the time, with workers putting in as many as 16 hours of work a day for little pay. Three days into the strike, a bomb was thrown into the crowd and the police responded with gunfire. In the ensuing bedlam, at least eight officers and protesters were killed. Hundreds of individuals were injured. A police round-up netted hundreds of labor leaders and sympathizers, with four being executed by hanging. The bomber who instigated the riot was never identified. Known as the Haymarket Affair, the event was commemorated by leaders of The International Socialist Conference who, meeting in Paris in 1889, chose May 1 as the official Labor Day.

While that meeting kicked off the worldwide recognition of Labor Day, many states in the U.S. had already begun celebrations of their own. Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to recognize Labor Day as an official public holiday in 1887. Then U.S. President Grover Cleveland declared it an official national holiday in 1896, though many states had followed Oregon’s lead and scheduled festivities such as ticker-tape parades and carnivals.

In Cuenca, several thousand workers participated in parades in the historic city center. I was impressed with the variety of workers represented – construction workers, city employees, teachers, transportation providers, electrical workers and more. Each group was designated by their hardhats, caps or brightly colored shirts. Most carried signs or banners lambasting the country’s social security system and pointing to needed changes in Ecuador’s labor laws. After marching several blocks into Cuenca’s main square, Parque Calderon, the groups disbursed to listen to rousing speeches from a platform on the edge of the park.

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As the leader of the teachers unions spoke, my thoughts were carried back into the United States where teachers are demanding the same rights. In states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky, teachers are demanding higher pay, which has not kept up with inflation or comparable professional jobs. Just as important, teachers and unions are demanding a greater investment in the country’s education in general. It is appalling to see classrooms that are woefully under-equipped to prepare our students for competition in a worldwide economy. I am a bit passionate about that. In Ecuador, teacher unions are fighting for those key points as well as to protect and increase pensions for retired teachers.DSC_0592

While emotions ran high during the impassioned speeches to the crowd, there were no disturbances. To ensure a peaceful day, Ecuadorian authorities were out in full force on foot, on bicycles, in cars and on horseback.

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By mid-day, most of the crowds had dissolved, undoubtedly returning to their homes to enjoy the rest of the enforced day of rest.

Except for the “blue people,” as they are known around town. They are the legions of men and women dressed from head to toe in turquoise blue. They work day – and night – to sweep away the day’s debris and to ensure that early morning brings washed sidewalks in a town where dogs run wild, the constant attention paid to sidewalks is much appreciated.

I stopped to talk to one of the “blue people” in the park. While it was a mandated holiday announced by Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno, the blue people were still hard at work.

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I could see she was smiling by looking at the sparkle in her eyes. I could not see the rest of her face, covered by a bandanna to prevent inhaling dust and fumes.

“Yes, it is a holiday,” she acknowledged. “But if I don’t clean the park today, who will?”

Then she pointed to a young boy playing nearby. “And because the schools are closed, I am fortunate to have my son with me today. It is a good day.”

As I walked away to enjoy my own holiday plans, I looked back. She waved, and continued sweeping.

It was a good day.

 

 

Celebration …and Mourning

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Cuenca is Old!

We just celebrated the 461st year of the founding of Cuenca, Ecuador. And I used to think my hometown of El Paso, Texas, was old! Basing El Paso’s founding on the establishment of its first military outpost, the city was created in 1854. That was just nine years after the entire state of Texas was formed.

April 12 marks Cuenca’s founding as a Spanish city in 1557, but historians say the community of current-day Cuenca was established by the Cañari more than 4,000 years ago. The Cañari called the city Guapondeleg, and the Incas, who overthrew the Cañari and reigned for 75 years, dubbed it Tomebamba.

Being in town for my first foundation celebration was a treat. The weeklong festivities ranged from parades and demonstrations to concerts and fireworks. And oh man, does Cuenca love a parade!

Just shy of six months residency in this quaint, colonial town, I have seen more parades than I saw in my lifetime in El Paso. And that Texas city’s annual Sun Bowl parade is a pretty big deal.

Here, parades are generally marching bands, folkloric dancers and an occasional float that consists of a decorated truck or trailer. Every high school and college has a band, and all of them march. The bands are predominantly made up of drummers, with a scattering of horns thrown in. While band members generally wear sensible shoes, it was a first for me to see so many female marchers in short skirts and sky-high heels. In a town known for cobblestone streets, broken pavement and unrepaired potholes, these marchers got my vote for courage and dedication.

The most fun parade was the “Night of Lanterns” in the downtown historic district. Preschools throughout the region sent their youngest marchers dressed in yellow or red, the colors of Cuenca’s flag. These tiny Cuencanas carried handmade lanterns or torches, many featuring lit candles. With thousands of onlookers, and despite the rows of parents escorting the children on each side of the street, I could not help but feel anxious until each reached the finish line and adults extinguished their flames.

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Still, the most heart-stopping moment came as a tiny band of dancers began their choreographed routine. Suddenly, a boy of four or five entered the scene. He was wearing a dappled black and white, cardboard cow on his head. The crowd cheered as he danced in and around the tiny dancers. Then someone – as hard as it was to believe – LIT fireworks on the top of the cow “hat” the child was wearing. Within seconds, his head appeared to be ablaze and he continued his merry dance.

All kinds of thoughts ran through my head, not the least of which was that this would never have happened in the U.S. But almost daily, I am reminded I no longer live in the U.S. I stood silently, praying that someone would soon put an end to this spectacle. After what seemed like forever, they did. And the parade went on.

Cuenca was dressed up for its birthday, as it does each time the locals celebrate a holiday. More than 400 flags were hung along downtown streets and at the entrance to the city. Special lighting, again in the city’s colors, was used to showcase Cuenca’s most important buildings such as government offices and cathedrals.

We had multiple vendor fairs throughout the city, outdoor concerts, dozens of street food carts offering a wide array of tasty local treats, and even a “cuy fair,’ celebrating the local delicacy – guinea pig.

The celebration was ramping up on Friday, which marked the official holiday with the closing of offices and schools. That was when Cuenca city officials announced that all government-sponsored events would be cancelled in honor of three Ecuadorians murdered by drug traffickers in southern Colombia. The cancellations followed an announcement by Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno of a four-day mourning period for the victims.

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The two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver were abducted March 26 in Ecuador, near the Colombian border. The team was covering recent attacks on Ecuadorian soldiers by suspected drug traffickers in the area. The drug cartel known as the Óliver Sinisterra Front has taken credit for the kidnapping and murders.

Cuenca seems a world away from Colombia. In reality, we are less than 450 miles from our shared border by car. Granted, that drive would probably take twice as long as it does in the states due to mountainous routes and hazardous roadways. The country of Ecuador is itself small, a little more than half the size of the big state of Texas.

As evidenced by its birthday celebration and by its president’s remarkable response to the loss of human life, Ecuador does things in a BIG way. For this former Texan, that says a lot.