For my birthday I want…Ecuador.
First thing this morning there were some strangers singing to me in bed.
Luckily I heard K as she came up the stairs say to them “it’s my boyfriend’s birthday” and “can you open the door for me?” so I had time to sit up before my serenading began. It was a fantastic way to start the day.
From there we moved straight into big bowls of fresh fruit we bought at the market yesterday. Strawberries, grapes, and uchuvas, straight from the small hands of tiny indigenous women in bowler hats. Those three officially make my favorite fruit salad. Add some natural yogurt and surprisingly good granola, with a cup of hot tea on the side, and my day was made before I even got out of bed.
It was a nice slow morning, finishing the last book of the Hunger Games. (I didn’t set out to read them, but in a sequence of unbelievable luck we encountered each one precisely when we wanted it on hostel or restaurant shelves, free of charge. I have never seen K get as into a book as she does when reading these ones, and I openly admit that I enjoyed them too.)
The morning was so relaxing that the candle in the bathroom fit right in, and it took me a minute to realize the power was out. It was still out at noon, when I was supposed to skype with my mother, so we went electricity hunting in Cuenca. Unsuccessfully.
But the sun was out in strength, and the breeze was precisely calibrated to complement it, so we ensconced ourselves at a coffeeshop table, despite the handsome barista’s warning that they had no service due to the power outage, and I spent a comfortable hour on a project I’m working on. When the barista yelled “woohoo!” I knew the power was back on, though the cars continued to blaze right through the now active stoplights. (Driving here, as in seemingly all “developing countries”, deserves its own post.)
I got to talk to my mother and K’s folks, and was feeling the birthday groove. I logged into my email and saw the list of birthday wishes on facebook and felt more grateful for that website than ever before. (A rousing shout and bow of thank you to everyone who wished me happy birthday this year. I want to buy you all cookies.)
Then we had a delicious vegetarian set lunch for two bucks that fueled a pleasant afternoon wander around a new part of the city. Cuenca is a beautiful place, with colonial architecture and an Andean flavor that earned it UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996. The architecture, cathedral, and passion for desserts make Cuenca wonderful, but it is the people who make it extraordinary.
Literally within the first hour of arriving in Cuenca two days ago, K and I stopped to take a picture of a lock, as we do, and were hailed by a distinguished gentleman who invited us into his shop. We are well versed in turning down such entreaties, but something about this silver-haired senor could not be resisted. An artist of note, Gustavo showed us some of his work, and along with his wife, showered us with more hospitality than we’ve experienced all trip.
I have been unbelievably blessed with hospitality while traveling (a bow with my forehead on the floor to the temporary homes I’ve found in Nepal, Seattle, Belgium, Hungary, Scotland, Spain, and Zambia) but this was a unique experience. Here was someone who met us on the street, had no connection or relationship with us whatsoever, and within a few minutes I had his name, business info, and contact number, plus those of his sons, on a card in my shirt pocket, an apparently honest invitation to call any time for anything, a standing offer to stop by again any time for a cup of coffee, and an invite to join the family on Friday night to blend my birthday to their celebration of his daughter’s Master’s Degree graduation.
Yesterday as we walked around town a taxi stopped and honked at us. We are fairly inured to aggressive taxi drivers, but this seemed excessive. Then we noticed Gustavo in the front seat, reaching across to wave at us and confirm that my birthday was today, extending best wishes ahead of time, just in case.
This evening we stumbled home, podged and fighting food comas after a massive dinner of Indian food, which was delicious despite the sign advertising “flafel” in the window, and where we luckily didn’t see the cockroaches until after we ate (there was one crawling right next to that rotating meat consortium they hack at to make shwarmas…mmm…crunchy).
The notion of surmounting our blood sugar barriers and venturing out into the street again was not met with a ton of enthusiasm, but the memory of Gustavo and his wife’s genuine hospitality overcame us, plus we didn’t really expect to be able to find them anyway.
“We’ll just go to the restaurant they mentioned and see if they’re there. If not, we come home.”
We found the restaurant and peered through the window to see Gustavo’s giant smile and enthusiastic hand waving us in. The next thing I knew I was being introduced to and toasted by a long table of about 20 well-dressed Ecuadorians. I wished I’d worn that one fancy-pants shirt I brought (and not yet worn). I sat and hoped they wouldn’t notice my repair-stitching on the sleeve of my shirt and the fly of my pants, nor smell the miles I’ve walked in these sandals.
People we’ve never met seemed genuinely happy to have us at their table, where they gave us glasses of excellent wine and toasted us with smiling eyes.
Undoubtedly this family is exceptional, but I suspect they are not alone in Ecuador. The staff of the hostel makes us feel at home here, but not in the kinda creepy/clingy way they did in that one place in Bogota. And going into an antique shop yesterday we met Laura, an elderly Ecuadorian woman who married a Dutchman and spoke to us in wonderfully accented Dutch. After poking around her shop (which is also her house and a museum) for an hour, she felt like our third grandmother, and when we ran into her this afternoon all three of us were happy to see each other. I even love her dog for crying out loud.
I was impressed with Costa Ricans, and Colombians on the buses were quick to offer help. But Ecuadorans? Can I “friend” the entire country?