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Tuesday, December 26, 2006


So we made it to Cuenca. And we didn't feel so good.So we spent some time 'resting.'

Our room looked out onto a little green area, with benches and fig trees and roses... it was quite relaxing and peaceful. Everything was so neatly trimmed! The fig trees were absolutely loaded with fruit, although there weren't any ripe ones just yet.

A handsome gardener took care of things while wearing a denim jumpsuit. He had long curly hair and kept a tape measure clipped to his sleeve. Susan wants me to get a jumpsuit like that, now.

This is the church right at the end of the street. We never did quite figure out the bell-ringing schedule, since some mornings it was earlier than others, and sometimes no bells, and sometimes bells every fifteen minutes (or so it seemed). In a country that is 95% Catholic, there are lots of churches and lots of bells.

The streets were narrow, mostly one way, and were all cobblestone.
Everyone was quite festive, getting ready for the holidays, and each afternoon there was quite a commotion when the kids would all get out from school. The ice cream sellers were out, and the kids were all crowded around with their coins in their hands.

We went walking around, slowly getting further and further from where we were staying. Everywhere we turned there was another beautiful street or another beautiful view. Just a couple of blocks from our little hotel were these stairs:
At the bottom of the steps there is a bridge over the river that runs all through town, which is flanked by grass and beautiful trees.

The river is just fantastic. It's flowing fast enough to make that nice gurgly-water sound and it sounds refreshing. Maybe one reason why it felt so good was that the weather was amazing...just mild and warm, but with a breeze it was just cool enough. It felt like spring. From the walk along the river you could see all the bouganvilla up on the terraces up above on the hillside...the terracotta roof tiles on the white plaster buildings... just beautiful.

Here is a medical school that we walked past, at the bottom of the hill. We found Cuenca to be an interesting mix of modern and ancient...and these buildings are the perfect example.

I thought the detail on the wall was quite interesting...

One of the industries in Cuenca is straw hats, made from the toquilla straw that grows along the coast in the northwestern part of the country. The 'Panama Hat' is really from Ecuador, Panama being where men bought them and then took them back home with them after working on the Canal. Cuenca is where the hats are/were finished and then prepared for export.

So! While wandering around we came upon a hatseller that had a small museum-type exhibit on how the hats are made. In the picture on the left, you see how the fibers were treated with sulpher and 'spun' a bit to soften them so that they could be woven. The center picture shows how the finished hat was steamed into shape, with the dimples on the front and a crease on top. On the right is the finished product.

The lovely couple in the photos are Joe and Lois Parise. We went through the exhibit with them and then ran into them again at the airport a few days later! On our advice they went to Banos for a couple of days...only to stay in a hotel that was robbed overnight! They woke up to find that their passports and other valuables were stolen from the hotel's safe and had to get emergency replacements in order to be able to make their return flight a couple of days later.

That place had a wonderful exhibit, but actually didn't have any of the higher quality hats that made Cuenca famous. So...we continued walking along. A few blocks away, at a small, somewhat seedy looking shop, we ran into Alberto Pullo. His shop had hundreds of the cheaper quality hats that we saw most of the indigenous people wearing, the ones that they would have 'whitewashed' every year or so to keep them looking fresh.

When I enquired about buying one, Alberto (who is now mute) shook his finger vigorously at me. No, no, no he whispered. He took us upstairs, around the back and up the rickety stairway, into his 'real' showroom. We were surrounded by hats of all different styles and shapes and colors...along with newspaper clippings, many very yellowed from age.

As it turns out, I'd read about Alberto Pullo twenty years previous, while reading about Ecuador and the 'Panama Hat' trade. He learned the business from his father and started working with him at the age of seven...and has been working ever since. He proudly showed us the magazine articles about him, the letters of thanks that he's received, postcards from around the world, his guestbooks...and then shows us the stacks of more and more underneath the table. He's quite proud of his son, who lives in New York City and works as a veterinarian.

The more time we're there, the more hats we try on...the more I break down and decide to get a really nice one: a Monticristi Fino. Mr. Pullo, of course, couldn't have been more delighted. The finest kinds can be rolled up, put in a box, packed up and then unpacked later, with the original shape springing back when it's unrolled. I'd known this for years, but it was still a little shocking to see my new hat rolled up and boxed. It's unpacked right now and looks perfect!

We asked if we could take a picture, which he gladly agreed to. It wasn't a picture with me that he was after, though. He took quite a liking to Susan.

With my beautiful hat tucked away in a balsa box, I realized that I needed a hat for everyday wear, too. I selected another hat with a wider brim to wear out from the shop. The lower quality hat takes a couple of days to make, whereas the nicer one took about two months to make. The difference in quality is obvious when you look at or hold both in your hands. I'm still tickled to death about my hats!

Everywhere you turned you felt like you were just in an old city. Not perfect and pristine, but very old, with a very long history. With the actual city of Cuenca being almost 500 years old, it's easy to understand why. There are parks and squares around that you just stumble upon when you're wandering, and there are lots of art galleries tucked away in small spaces.

We took this picture on our last day in Cuenca. Susan insisted on the picture because the clouds were just so beautiful. Of course it's different in person, but you probably get the idea. It's December, it's in the mid 70's, the sky is blue, there's a nice breeze blowing crisp dry air past you and you can smell something good that someone is cooking...yep, it's good.

There were a couple of museums in town that we visited, and while we were a bit hesitant at first, we really enjoyed our visits. The first was an enormous display of pre-Columbian art, mostly ceramics. The second was a bank sponsered museum that included very well done exhibits that demonstrated the clothing, food and houses of the indigenous people in all of the areas of Ecuador. They had quite a lengthy explanation of the Shari people, including their practice of shrinking heads, one of which you see here. Wow.

After several days of rest and exploration, we headed back to Quito. We flew back (a forty-five minute flight) instead of taking a ten-plus hour bus ride. As it turns out, the roads were closed and we couldn't have taken a bus if we wanted to!


Susan said...

This is a great picture. What would I do without Tom and with 2 bags I can not carry and a hat? I would buy chocolate. That is all I wanted at this moment. - Susan

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