At last, I have arrived in Cuenca – my home for the next 5 and a half months. The past couple of days have involved another flurry of orientation and adjustment. I’ve had to learn how to get around again, how to communicate (hello, super-cheap cell-phone), and I’m getting to know my housemates in Cuenca and colleagues at la Universidad de Cuenca. Through all this, I’m meeting great people, discovering fabulous colonial architecture, and getting excited to begin work with a really motivated research group.
Cuenca is Ecuador’s third largest city – so there are lots of people, taxis, buses, etc., but it’s infinitely more walkable than Quito, and a lot slower in general. The central plaza in Parque Calderon is one of the most beautiful plazas I’ve seen.
The park is populated by teenagers, families, tourists, ice cream vendors, expats, and elderly gentlemen all dressed up in suits and ties to spend some time people-watching from a park bench. But what surprised me was just how much English I heard as I strolled through the plaza. I’ve heard that Cuenca is currently home to somewhere around 6000 North American expats – most of them retirees. I felt like I was in some city park in California – English and Spanish, all mixed-up.
My home department at the university is located on a satellite campus at the edge of town – fortunately, it’s only about a 5 minute taxi ride from my house. The focus of investigation among researchers at the department has traditionally been hydrology, ecology, and natural resources – although, they are beginning to branch into meteorology. There are about 10 faculty and 50 or so graduate and post-graduate researchers of various sorts. In the past 2-3 years, the president of Ecuador has been pumping A LOT of money into scientific research at public institutions and the department pretty much gets anything it needs, in terms of equipment AND people. In fact, there’s a huge building under construction in the lot behind their temporary office and lab space – all for science!
It made me realize just how sorry the state of funding is for public higher education back home. I feel like I’ve just been launched into the 22nd century (maybe, in part, because their office building uses a digital face-recognition system instead of keys to open office doors…And when I asked if I could borrow a computer, instead of hauling mine back and forth on a taxi or bus each day, they said ‘sure’, and within an hour, there was a shiny desktop Mac with the latest OS freshly installed and ready-to-use.)
I’m staying in a B&B/home that’s about a 25-minute walk from Parque Calderon. My host-family is very sweet, and my rent includes three home-cooked meals a day – I can’t remember when I’ve eaten so well. The food is simple, but includes lots of fruit, veggies and protein. I’m really happy for the veggies because most Ecuadorian food is seriously lacking in the veggie department. There’s another Fulbrighter staying here until the end of the month, and she’s given me lots of good advice about daily life here, including the best walking spot along the river.
Last night we all went into town for some traditional tamales and hot chocolate. Delicioso! They have a type of tamale here called ‘humita.’ It’s basically a desert tamale – no meat, but a little bit of sugar mixed in with the corn meal.
After dinner, they drove me up to Cuenca’s best vista point: the Church of Turi, on a hillside above the city.