With only 24 hours left to spend in Ecuador, I arrived in Cuenca. Landing at the airport, I was beginning to wonder if I had made a mistake in wanting to explore a city 3-4 hours away from my departure airport, Guayaquil, with no logistics of getting back to Guayaquil. The taxi made its way to my hotel near the city center hitting the cobble stoned narrow streets. I left my bag at the hotel, got a general direction to the Plaza and headed out. Within a block of walking, I started noticing the French and Spanish colonial style buildings. These were magnificent buildings with detailed art work. I made my way to the city center and noted that a band was playing next to the church. The opera singer was excellent and played a couple of pieces. I was surprised to find few people in the audience. Where was everyone? I kept walking towards the Central Plaza Abdon Calderon. All along, the beautiful building left me spell bound and shutter happy. It seemed for a while that I was taking pictures of every building I saw. The combination of the artistic building, the cobble stoned streets and perfect weather was making me fall in love with the city. It was like I was being drawn into exploring a lady who is revealing some with suggestions that there is more to explore. I was getting breathless but not from the 2500 meters of elevation above the sea-level but by the breath-taking charm of this city. I had been in the city for less than two hours and I was feeling this way. Was this love at first sight? I was getting hungry with the delicious aroma from the restaurants but I did not want to lose time eating and so I continued to wander towards the Plaza.
While walking towards the Plaza, I started noticing the thickening crowd and a beautiful symphony playing. Talk about a welcoming reception: the city symphony was playing in the plaza! It happened to be the 15th anniversary of the recognition of the city as the UNESCO World Heritage Trust Site. I now stood along with a crowd of 500 people in the Plaza enjoying the city symphony giving voice to the city’s pride. Only when they stopped, did I notice the magnificent cathedral, Catedral Metropolitana de la Inmaculada Concepción. The splendidly decorated doors were 15 feet tall and the sodium vapor city lighting made it appear golden. Even while I was not able to make out the details of the stained glass windows, they appear to be perfectly positioned to add to the beauty of the church.The next performance of the festivities started and it an Ecuadorian group Quimera with the vocalist and guitarists.While the guitarists plucked away at the strings, the sensual vocalist, her voice, her style and the lyrics plucked at the heart of the audience. How many artists can hold attention of teenagers and seniors alike? There were people in suits and expensive dresses, mixed with the street vendors all mesmerized by the beauty of the performance. Most of all, I was enjoying every moment in this city. She was like a lover who knew how to draw you in with all your senses: the exquisite smell of food, the beautiful sights and the sensual music…..how did she know what I liked, or did I like it since she is offering it. Is that love?
Once the hypnotist artista concluded her performance and the celebrations, I realized I cannot continue to walk the city since hunger was taking over my mind. Frustrated at my lack of caloric reserve, I conceded to eat quickly so as to continue roaming this city late into the night. After a perfect snack of papas fritas at Raymibamba, I was back on the streets. I kept turning from one corner to another, here the Moor influenced Spanish style building, there the French style balcony with house plants, there in the distance was another beautiful church, the walk to which impeded by more beautiful buildings and the desire to take a picture. The city was like a woman that I wanted to know everything about. (I see why the Spanish language considers a city feminine gender).
I was wandering around the city enjoying one great view after another. I realized that the French style colonial buildings, the magnificent and numerous churches, the cobbled stone streets, the hubbub of the plaza and the sing-song Spanish of the locals all were joining forces to overwhelm me with awe for the city. I was like a lover who wants to spend the whole night conversing and exploring the mysteries of his love. But then again, I wanted to fall asleep so that I can wake up early and know this beauty in the day time, exploring more, knowing more…. doesn’t every lover face this dilemma?
When I went to the hotel, I wanted to know this city’s past. The Incas had captured this Canari city and had constructed it magnificently. Legends about this city mired in its golden temples and other such wonders. Hence the Spaniards came here looking for El Dorado, the city of gold. They renamed it Cuenca, after the Viceroy’s hometown in Spain.
After falling asleep at midnight, I woke up at 5 am, and got ready to explore the city at sunrise. However, once awake, I wondered if yesterday was a dream or was it a delusion. I was worried that in the daylight the city would not stand up to the expectations build up from yesterday. The daylight will melt the delusion and it will be just another city. Thankfully, it was not so. The ministrations of the city continued. I realized that last evening was not a dream but a reality only half viewed. Now, I saw the details hidden at night.
The Cathedral with its magnificent towers, the blue cupolas reaching for the skies, the old church with its decorated walls all continuing to tell me that I had made the correct choice of coming here, even if only for a few hours. Even the small flowers growing in the cracks between the cobble stones, the weed growing in its nooks and crannies appeared to give it character. At 7am, the church doors opened, and people of faith flocked in. I was told that the cathedral was built with the goal of befitting the big faith of the locals and so here we have the largest cathedral in South America. The city’s numerous churches, all conducting services each had large congregation at 7 am on Tuesday morning. Once again, I saw the young and old, rich and poor, gathering for the morning service. Being a part of such a ritual, enjoying the sound, sight and smell of the services in a new city was magical. Once out of the church, I continued to wander around the city. There was a mystery at every corner, every curve of this city left me wanting to enjoy the sight in front of me but also the yearning to explore further since I did not want to miss what else the city offered.
I continued to walk away from the churches and found the river. The river Tomebamba runs through the city center and divides it into the colonial half and the residential area, where modern office buildings, hospitals, museums are located. Walking along the riverside, one comes across numerous Inca artifacts, bearing witness to the historic turmoil of this old city: the Canaris, taken over by the Incas and then the Spaniards, quite befitting the many suitors of a beauty. Walking back, I saw a humming bird, working to spread the pollen of the flowers, like I spread the message of this wonderful city.
Next, I got on the bus to travel 30 minutes outside the El Cajas National Park. Even while leaving the city, I was making plans of what I wanted to do when I returned. The north part where there was another church I noted in the distance and then there was another tower, and I have not yet been to the other side of the river…. like a lover making plans of what to do when he meets his love again. At the national park, I was transported to a different world. The beautiful mountains, surrounding the lagoons and lakes, the movement of the clouds in and around the mountains was magical. A short hike brought me to the paper tree (Polyepsis) forest, the only tree that can grow above 10000 feet. The dense paper tree forest was like a scene out of “The Hobbit”.
After sometime hiking, I wanted to return to the city, see more, learn more for 1 hour before I had a take the bus to bring me to the airport. I returned and continued to walk the city. I was trying hard to memorize these sights, these structures since I knew that the pictures will not recreate the image of the city my eyes behold. I yearned to store as much in my mind’s eyes as I could. Two more charming plazas, three more ancient churches and numerous beautiful buildings later it was time to leave. But, my heart kept screaming, “May be one more church, may be that other plaza, another park, right on the way to bus stop…..” I remembered parting from my girlfriend, one last kiss, another hug……
I made my way to the airport and eventually got onto the airplane. The airport seemed to be full of helpful staff and interesting people. I was gliding through the security and onto the terminal. The security lines, the scrutiny, the frisking…..none of it bothered me. I had a nice window seat… perfect. Partly sad to be leaving the place but partly thrilled to have found a city to love, I was lost in this emotional turmoil. But once the plane took off, I fell asleep and was in and out of that semi-awake state where neural connections are made and creativity blossoms. After sometime of the smooth flight, the turbulence kept waking me up. Flashes of other beautiful places that I have visited started flashing before my eyes.Grand Canyon, Cuzco, Alps, ….did I feel the same way? This seemed different, but was it so or was it just my distorted memory? In Cuenca. I was so relaxed, so comfortable, …..so at peace with everything. Everything seemed great, nothing was bothersome, nothing out of place. I had reached the town with a certain uncommon and unique tranquility. Was it a surprise that Cuenca seemed so wonderful. Could any other place encountered at that time been equally enchanting?
John Paul Young sings:
“ Love is in the air
Every sight and every sound”
Every sight, every sound, every breeze seemed wonderful in that moment. The walk past churches, the sounds of sermon, chirping of the birds, the whiff of coffee being roasted, I had encountered these in my routine life. I had even encountered similar external charm on other occasions but had walked through them untouched and without getting entangled in their energy. But when I landed in Cuenca, in a peaceful, copasetic state, the same routines had turned magical. The same breeze, the trees, the cobble-stone streets… all were enchanting….
“Love is in the air
In the whisper of the trees
Love is in the air
In the thunder of the sea”
So, was it on the outside or was it the within that I was enjoying? Was I in a state of mind where everything would have been charming and just right? And then when I am out of that frame of mind, reality will hit! I remember going home after falling in love with places and then reviewing the pictures.The pictures were beautiful but did not create the magic back again. The pictures had served to be reminders of the city, the marker of the event, but not creator of the magic. May be because the magic was never in the outside, it was within. The pictures capture the outside and then we keep wondering why it does not have the same impact? “Oh, I am telling you it was much more majestic than this. Pictures just don’t capture it” I remember once telling a friend when viewing the pictures of Grand Canyon. It is probably because the internal magic is lacking when we are viewing the pictures of these wonderful places. The pictures capture the sight not the mind.
And when we are in that serene state of mind, being charmed we superimpose the feeling within on the outside to maintain a cognitive congruity as to why one is suddenly in love with everything around. It is a sense of pleasure, a dopamine release that occurs within and this makes one prone to be in love with everything around. In that state of mind, one can be in love with place, person, object. Anyone could walk in and that time and one would fall in love with that person. Could it be that all of love is like that? Is that what they mean, when they say, “You will find someone, when the time is right”. The release of oxytocin in our brain will makes us fall in love with anyone at that point in time and our brain will makes us believe that it is the charm of that person that we are falling for. Is that the reality or is our brain trying to maintain a cognitive congruity and façade of rationality about falling in love with someone. The magic is within but the object without. If so, I want to be in that situation as much as I can. But of course, there is a possibility of falling head over heels….making long term decisions, based on that feeling, like moving to a new city, getting married……that may be another issue altogether.
Love is in the air
Every sight and every sound
And I don’t know if I’m being foolish
Don’t know if I’m being wise.