The gladdest moments in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.
~Sir Richard Burton
Colonial Jewel in the Highlands of Ecuador
CUENCA, ECUADOR - Cuenca is a beautiful and inviting colonial city that sits high in the Andes. It truly is a jewel of the highlands, but I don't want to go into all the details of the city with statistics, dates and history. Instead I prefer to tell you a story, a story of the day I was almost arrested.
Arrested in the Highlands of Ecuador ... Well, almost.
CUENCA, ECUADOR - Let me first start off by saying that the colonial city of Cuenca, located high in the Andes Mountains in Ecuador, is a wonderful city, a safe city, and a city I would be happy to call my home in retirement. Let me also say that I don’t like rules, don’t follow rules very well, and that is what led me to almost getting arrested in Cuenca.
I was on my second visit to the city of Cuenca, in search of a place to hang my hat when I retire in a couple of years.
On my first visit I came by myself. Traveling solo allows me to really feel the city, wander aimlessly, imagining what life would be like living there. I think anyone considering relocating to another country should take a trip alone and feel it. It is a very different experience than when you take a friend along to check it out.
If you are going to be a solo expat then experiencing a potential location alone can be very telling. How does it feel? Does it feel safe? Are any other expats around? Are they friendly or standoffish? Are they happy and inviting? What about the locals? Are they willing to engage with you? I think these are all questions that can only be answered if you go alone.
Traveling with a friend is a whole different experience. What to see and where to go are all negotiated. Conversation is constant and, as a result, you may not hear the little voice in your head responding to the city and the time to process the experience is overridden by the interactions with your traveling companion. On the flip side, however, your companion can add a different perspective to the experience and engage in conversation about the city after a long day of exploring.
But I digress.
What about almost getting arrested you ask?
Well, it happened on my second visit while traveling with my friend, Pam.
We were out and about for the day, exploring the city, going on the city tour bus, visiting churches and museums, and checking out all the things that I didn’t go to see when I had come to the city previously.
The new cathedral with the iconic blue domes on Plaza Calderon and its impressive architecture was only overridden when we went inside and viewed the stunning high ceilings, arches, and gorgeous altar.
In contrast, the smaller historic church across the plaza was filled with history, beautiful wall murals and a life-size Jesus and the Apostles. Both were worth the visit.
The bus tour took us up to Turi to overlook the city. What a beautiful view of the expansive city, both at day and at night. The Modern Art Museum on San Sebastian Square was worth the visit with interesting art exhibited in individual rooms.
Pumapungo, the ancient ruins in the heart of the city, told of life in the era of the Incas and the adjacent Museo Banco Central educational exhibits informed about the culture. Wonderful displays of life in Ecuador at every turn.
At each location we visited, we were greeted warmly by the reception staff and welcomed to the museum, church or other historic site. The man working at the Pumapungo ruins was just shutting the gate and was getting ready to close the site for the day as we walked up and with a little bit of begging and a pleading smile, he willingly opened the gate for us to wander the grounds. Now just how nice was that?
And then there was the flip side.
Wandering down a side street near the old historic center, we happened upon what appeared to be a small museum. We glanced inside the door. It was dark and quiet. We weren’t even sure it was open, other than the front door being wide open indicated to us that it was.
“What do you think? Should we go in?”
“It looks open.”
“Let’s go in. If it’s closed I suspect someone in there will let us know.”
We walked through the open door and entered a room that was dimly lit. There was an old wooden desk across the empty room and to the left was a wooden wall that only went part way up to the ceiling and partitioned the room. There was an open door in the middle of that wall and on it hung a paper saying, Bienvenidos, welcome.
We waited for while deciding what to do when a man entered off the street. He surveyed the room briefly and then passed through the wooden door where the welcome sign hung.
Pam and I looked at each other.
“Well, what do you think?”
“Aren’t we supposed to pay or something?
“Well, no one is here, and the door is open.”
“Oh, let’s just go in.”
We passed through the door in the wooden wall and entered a dimly lit and very simple museum. There was an old wooden, painted altar, worn over time, on the wall in front of us. We turned the corner and there were a few other items on display. In the second room sat a beautiful painting that I assumed sat on an altar in some church, at some point in time. It was in an ornately carved, dark wood frame. Beautiful. With my new camera in hand, I was snapping photos of everything I saw. Snap! Snap. Snap, snap, snap.
The man who entered before us had made his way through the first two rooms and headed out a door that appeared to take him outside. We followed and were welcomed by a lovely, yet small, courtyard with a bit of a grassy area. I noticed old, presumably creaky stairs that led to a balcony with carved wooden railings above. I liked the courtyard. It felt peaceful.
I was still a bit confused as to what this museum was. We had gone from religious artifacts to a simple exterior courtyard with a couple of rooms. One room had a rope to keep you from entering, but glancing in the room I wasn’t exactly sure why. Maybe this building had been a small church at some point or a little convent? Or maybe just an old home that had acquired some artifacts from an destroyed church and decided to put it in a room and make it a museum. Not sure. But it didn’t matter, as we were thoroughly enjoying wandering through it and seeing what it had to offer.
There were some large terra cotta pots off to one end. They appeared old. Must take a picture! Snap, snap, snap. Photos! I took photos of the pots, the stairs, the balcony, probably a bench and definitely a flower.
I was in photo obsession mode when I heard a man yell, “NO PHOTOS!” in Spanish, which sounds the same in English, followed by what I interpreted as, how did you get in here? He was dressed in a uniform. He was angry, and apparently he was ‘the authority’ here.
We all stopped dead in our tracks.
The man who had entered this little, dark museum before us stood silent and a bit confused. This man, the guard I presumed, led us with great authority through the two rooms we had already passed through, returning us to the old front desk that we first saw upon entering.
He was railing on us in Spanish and I was picking up enough to know that we had entered without signing in, as he was pointing to the registration book for visitors.
I looked where he pointed. Yup. I see the book.
I look back at the uniformed man who was ranting and then at the man who we had followed in. Then I heard the word ‘policia.’
Huh? What? Policia?
I looked back at the other man and he just stood there. He looked a bit fearful and intimidated. I could tell he was not going to be of any help in this situation. My friend, Pam, didn’t speak Spanish and, well, I spoke quite well with a beer or two, but I hadn’t had any recently.
Oh, what the heck, I thought. This guy, in some kind of uniform with his chest all puffed out, isn’t going to intimidate me.
I looked him in the eye and in my best Spanish and using my most assertive tone I said, “Door. Open. Look. Sign. Welcome.” The phrases weren’t flowing. Just one unrelated word after another flowed from my mouth. I think maybe banana and soup were also included in that long string of words. But I felt strong. I was taking my power. And I was being heard, even if he wasn’t exactly sure what I was saying.
His look remained adamant. There was this book. See. This book. He wasn’t budging. Then he said something again about the ‘policia.’
Enough with the ‘policia!’ This is ridiculous I thought to myself, as my two accomplishes stood silent. He is going to call the police?
I stood tall, at least 5 foot 4, displaying my power. “Listen to me, Mister,” I said, this time with full Spanish phrases spewing forth, “Where where you when we entered? No one was here. You weren’t here.”
Bam! That was the phrase I needed.
His demeanor immediately softened. He looked a bit sheepish. Sleeping in a back room? Bathroom break? He knew he was in the wrong, and he knew that I knew that he was wrong.
I felt myself relax. He paused a moment, leaned forward, looked me in the eye and quietly said, “Senora, I am sorry.”
My stance shifted from soon-to-be prison inmate to one of conqueror and I replied firmly, yet appreciatively, with one word only, “gracias.”
I turned to my friend who was looking a bit wide eyed and to the man who had stood silently by, and nodded affirmatively to them in a way that said, my work here is done.
I looked at my friend, and she at me, as we quickly turned on our heels and high tailed it out of there, before the man in uniform changed his mind and called the ‘policia.’
Moral of the story?
Cuenca is a wonderful city to visit or even to live in, filled with rich culture, history, wonderful museums, spectacular churches, and truth be told, wonderful potato soup, but when the lights are off and no one is around, just say no.