Deep in the heart of the Andean mountains, the town of Cuenca is located in a valley irrigated by four rivers: Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara.
Cuenca illustrates the perfect example of the principles of urban planning of the Renaissance in the Americas.
The Historic Centre of Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca, occupies the territory where Cuenca was until the first half of the 20th century. It is also the archaeological site of Pumapungo, and the ancient access routes to the town. It is a remarkable example of a planned inland Spanish town. Founded in 1577 according to the guidelines issued by the King of Spain, Charles V, it has preserved over four centuries its original “orthogonal” plan,(meaning constructed of right angles.)
“The Historic Centre of Santa Ana de los Rios de Cuenca comprises a system of parks, squares, atriums, churches and other public spaces. Around the Plaza Mayor (Park Abdon Calderon), the three powers of society are always present: POLITICAL ,with the town hall and the Governor’s Office, RELIGIOUS , with its two cathedrals opposite one another and the JUDICIARY with the Law Courts.”
The religious architecture, the New Cathedral, begun in 1885, the Old Cathedral, the Carmelite Monastery and Santo Domingo Church incorporated to public areas, where community life is expressed, and continues today.
Many of the previously simple colonial houses were transformed into more important residences, during the period of relative economic expansion of the 19th century, due to the production and exportation of QUININE, and STRAW HATS: the quinine, to combat the epidemics of malaria, which perpetrated many of the coastal towns, and the straw hats, which erroneously became known as Panama hats. These straw hats are still proudly warn today by the indigenous peoples, because they serve a practical purpose for those working in the fields, and they are an integral part of the traditional dress.
“The River Tomebanba (el Barranco) defines the boundaries of the historic town on the south side. It is also in this sector that the site of Pumapungo is located (Puma Gate) in the heart of the Inca town of Tomebamba, and that of Todos Santos (All Saints) where the vestiges corresponding to Canari, Inca and Spanish cultures have been unearthed by archaeologists.”
An Indian community, the Inca Canari, was in existence at the time of the arrival of the Spanish, (Inca-Canari), and the consequent townscape bears witness to the successful fusion of the different societies and cultures of the time.
The Spanish colonial strategy was to undermine the native oral tradition by substituting for it the story of the Passion of Christ. By promising eternal life for everyone, Jesus subsequently “democratized” the power to rise above death. The church authorities adopted a policy of spreading the Church doctrines by communicating to the native people in their own language through mythical-religious stories. The church also controlled the printing press until the 19th century.
”Ecuador had only small deposits of gold and silver in its southern provinces of Cuenca and Loja, and these deposits were depleted by the end of the sixteenth century. The economy was based, instead, on agriculture and textiles. Cotton, grown on the eastern slope of the Andes, and wool, from imported merino sheep that thrived in the high Andean valleys, provided the raw materials for high-quality textiles that were manufactured in hundreds of sweatshops, called obrajes, and exported throughout Latin America. Indian mitayos, who commonly worked from dawn to dusk chained to their looms, provided the labor. As appalling as were the preindustrial working conditions in the obrajes, most historians agree that they were more bearable than those found in the Peruvian mines at the time.”
Forced labor was a mainstay of colonial industry and was not completely abolished until after the Spanish were expelled.
Panama hats and bright green velvet skirts, with thick black braids and swaddled babies nestled and bustled throughout the market. Sun worn and wrinkled faces kept a close eye on visitors and offered their wares with hopeful expectation. Local inhabitants purposefully shopped and bargained for produce, as the predominantly female vendors skillfully negotiated narrow pathways carrying loads on their heads, or on their backs. Babies slept in shawls tightly secured while mothers worked. Young children played while Grandmother and daughter shucked corn or spit bean pods to release the glossy fresh beans.
Taking pictures was a challenge. Advised by my daughter, I decided not to use my 35mm because it drew too much attention, and I felt was too voyeuristic. So my market pictures were taken discretely with my iPhone, sometimes politely asking for a photograph, and always buying something. The juxtaposition of modern technology used to record this colorful experience was strange in a way. Such a contrast to such a quintessential ethnic market experience, yet a custom that is traditional in all cultures. I love the art of photography, capturing life as it happens. I am not a painter, but I try to paint stories for others to enjoy.
As we walked through the streets of the Artes del Fuego, ( fire art), I managed to capture a Black Smith at work. This area is famous for its Iron works and another example of an ancient art still vibrant in Cuenca.
Calle de las Herrerías or “Blacksmiths” Road lies just south of the rio Tomebamba across the river from Pumapungo.
This was the route where farmers travelling into Cuenca would hitch their horses while they went into town. In those days the Calle de las Herrerias had about fifty busy blacksmiths where horses were shoed and bridled, farming tools and cooking utensils were fashioned. Today, about a dozen blacksmiths still operate, skillfully making custom gates, chandeliers and specialty customer consignments.
Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.
Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.
And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.
He goes on Sunday to the church,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach,
He hears his daughter's voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.
It sounds to him like her mother's voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.
Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night's repose.
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The local merchandise markets were vibrant and full of color. Fabulously soft alpaca blankets and ponchos, Panama hats and woven fabrics piled high, and hanging from tents and awnings. Rainbow colors popped with Ecuadorian patterns, and traditional intricate embroideries. Local vendors beckoned and bargained, luring the obvious tourists, and proudly offering their beautiful work.
At night the flower markets still bustled and bloomed beneath the brightly lit church bell towers. Buckets of Lilies and Roses, bouquets and ecclesiastical arrangements, wafted a sweet perfume into the night air, petals strewn underfoot.
I thought about the local vendors; how dependent they are on their customers to survive in this community; how deeply intertwined their existence is with the consumer. Here, poverty is rife. Despite government injection of money into infrastructure, many homes are humble, and even the grand colonial buildings are crumbling and crying for renovation. Behind the faces of these stoic people is an independent determination to produce their own, in the traditional way.
The Market Place
BY WALTER DE LA MARE
My mind is like a clamorous market-place.
All day in wind, rain, sun, its babel wells;
Voice answering to voice in tumult swells.
Chaffering and laughing, pushing for a place,
My thoughts haste on, gay, strange, poor, simple, base;
This one buys dust, and that a bauble sells:
But none to any scrutiny hints or tells
The haunting secrets hidden in each sad face.
The clamour quietens when the dark draws near;
Strange looms the earth in twilight of the West,
Lonely with one sweet star serene and clear,
Dwelling, when all this place is hushed to rest,
On vacant stall, gold, refuse, worst and best,
Abandoned utterly in haste and fear.
Work and personal issues have taken priority, and stress has perniciously seeped in.. Now, while I write this, I can reflect pleasurably on my time in Ecuador. The friendliness and hospitality of the people is engrained in my memory which will sustain me for many years to come.
I have a deep sense of respect for those who work on the land, and weave their own cloth to eek out a living. Yet the unstressed and cheerful constitution of the locals I met, contrasts dramatically with our frantic North American lifestyle.
I hope you will enjoy these pictures, and encourage you to travel.
Travel is the best education to develop an appreciation for other life styles and beliefs, and an experience essential to our understanding of others.
While I am writing, I am far away;
and when I come back, I have already left.
I should like to see if the same thing happens
to other people as it does to me,
to see if as many people are as I am,
and if they seem the same way to themselves.
When this problem has been thoroughly explored,
I am going to school myself so well in things
that, when I try to explain my problems,
I shall speak, not of self, but of geography
Pablo Neruda, Chile