It would have been easy to spend the entire day wandering around in Cuenca, admiring its beautiful historic buildings and dropping a few dollars in its artisan shops. It has been an important city since the 1500’s, beloved by the Cañari people who were conquered by the Inca who were conquered by the Spanish. Each culture left a mark, although you have to do some digging to find the Inca remains. The Spanish were good at knocking down Inca buildings and repurposing the pieces in their own stye. The city has classic Spanish plazas and a magnificent cathedral or two. Cuenca has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its well-preserved Spanish Colonial architecture. The skyline is dotted with church domes, and four rivers wind through the charming cityscape of gardens, cobblestone streets, and ironwork balconies. Cuenca is located 8,200 feet above sea level, almost as high as Quito. Its weather is perpetual spring.
For over a century Ecuador has endured the world mistakenly crediting another country with its most famous export: the panama hat. The hats are made from the fronds of a certain palm tree. The palms are harvested for their shoots and then those are split by hand to remove the long, flat, cream-colored leaves. The leaves are boiled in water for twenty minutes and then hung to dry for three days. Some are soaked in sulphur for bleaching. The weaving process is arduous, generally a cottage industry done only by women. The best of them are woven so tightly, they can hold water. After the hats are woven, they still need to be blocked, and banded. You can get a coarse one for $15, but a good quality one which can take three months to weave, can sell for over $2,000. These hats are and have been popular around the world, especially with cool dudes. Teddy Roosevelt wore one, when he was in Panama opening the canal and he mistakenly called them Panama hats. The Ecuadorians have never forgiven him. We learned all this visiting the best hat shop in town. Usually the shopping that is done after one of these informative stops is done mostly by women, but today our cool dudes each left with a hat box. They will probably have to wear their hats on the plane so they don’t lose their shape. My cool dude promised he would wear it regularly. I hope he does.
Next we visited a workshop to see the hand-woven shawls called macanas being made. We saw how all the beautiful colors were made by dying the thread in various natural substances and minerals. Some shawls were purchased, but we were a bit cautious. The other day we shopped at a spot set up outside our hotel after dinner. It was dark and the saleslady spoke little English. One of us bought an alpaca shawl, only to discover in the light of day that the tag said it was acrylic. It’s still a beautiful shawl.
We shut our wallets and visited an orchid farm. Ecuador has more varieties of flowers of than any other country. A pod from an orchid can hold thousands of seeds. These are cultured and are not able to be transplanted for at least two years. Here they are also hybridized and pollinated by hand. In nature some of them snap shut after an insect flies in. After it thrashes around frantically and is covered with pollen, it eventually finds the way out. We couldn't stop taking photos.
On the drive back to the city, our bus was pulled over in what appeared to be a random traffic stop. I was sitting right behind the driver and saw him submit documentation for himself and for our bus. The policeman was not satisfied by what he saw and he made the driver get out. Our driver stayed calm and cool, but after lots of hand waving conversation, the matter did not appear to be resolved. Celso got out to join the conversation, but nothing seemed to change. We were there for almost half an hour, when they finally returned to the bus tight-lipped. When we asked whether they had had to pay a bribe, their response was very non-committal.
Then Celso took us to another market. We feel like market professionals by now, but when he said we had to be very open-minded there, we knew we were in for another adventure. We have seen various pharmaceutical herbs for sale, but we stepped it up a bit and got a treatment for whatever ails us from healing ladies who had an “office” under the market stairs. First they slapped us all over our bodies and faces with bundles of herbs. Then they took an egg and rubbed it all over our bodies. It felt like a bad day at TSA. They even lifted up our shirts so they could rub our bellies. Susan was next to me and her “doctor” was about 45 seconds ahead of mine with the treatment. She screamed as the lady sipped from a bottle of liquid and spit it all over her back. Even though I knew what was coming, I screamed as the cold liquid hit me. She spit in our hair and on our chests and bellies. Celso had told them not to spit on our faces, which is the normal course of treatment. Then they took ashes and rubbed them on the front and back of our heads and the front and back of our torsos. The Ecuadorian version of Ash Wednesday. Then they cracked open the egg they had rubbed us with and made a diagnosis about what was wrong with us from the looks of the raw egg in the glass. Sometimes they rub you with a guinea pig and cut it open and make predictions based on the appearance of its entrails. You can’t make this stuff up, folks!