We are back in Guayaquil this morning, after a 14-hour flight from Madrid with a brief stopover in Quito. We ate three times,I watched four movies – a first for me – and Michael played non-stop games of electronic chess. No sleep, as we were flying w and all was daylight, but today we are awake too early, hungry at the wrong times, and will have to resist going to sleep at about 3:00 this afternoon. Today, after Michael shops at the SuperMaxi (always thinking of the next meal!), we’ll take the bus to Cañar – four hours – and our Spain vacation will be at an end. It has been a wonderful break, but my head is in Cañar already, thinking through all to be done this last month: the visit of an archivist colleague, a photo exhibit to mount in Cañar, a new project with University of Cuenca, a visit to the Fulbright Commission in Quito to present the archive project of the last two years. Michael’s heart is still in Spain, however, as he scratches out his shopping list. He reads it for me: jamón serrano, cheese, bread, fresh tomato, onion, mussels (?), special white tuna, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, pimiento (red pepper), asparagus, anchovies, water, orange, melon. These trips to Spain motivate Michael to new culinary heights previously unknown in Cañar, a great benefit to all who come around, although many of the ingredients can only be had in Cuenca or Guayaquil. Speaking of….
Cuenca, Spain is famous today for its “hanging houses,” built on a solid rock escarpment over an incredibly steep gorge that served as a secure stronghold for the Muslim Arabs when they came in 714. Then, of course, the Christians liked the place for the same reasons when they reconquered Spain in 11th century. Since then, it’s had its ups and downs with invasions, wars, royal intrigues, the Inquisition, and the economic collapse of 2008 from which Spain is still recovering. (Our young woman taxi driver told us the unemployment rate for people her age, in Cuenca, is about 60%. She is buying her taxi and license – “the cost of an apartment, but what else can we do but invest in our own future? There are no jobs.” We’ve heard “there are no jobs” many times before – new university graduates back home living with their parents, unable to marry or start their independent lives.
Back to the two Cuencas: In 1557, in what is now Ecuador, a Spanish conquistador- ordered the new settlement to be called Cuenca after his hometown in Spain. Nostalgic, and struck by the beauty of the place, it’s three rivers and the barranco, where I suppose he could imagine “hanging houses” a few centuries hence, it appears to me a miniature vision. We had only two brief days in Spain’s Cuenca, but would have liked more. It’s a geographically gorgeous town, with lots of walking trails and serious hikes. An additional highlight for me was a visit to the historical archive, a modern operation in an ancient building that was the 15th-century local headquarters of the Inquisition, where they tortured “heretics, muslims and jews” to become Catholics. Some cells still remain in caves in the foundations – we were not allowed to visit – but were told you can still read a poem scratched into the wall by one unlucky prisoner, repenting and asking for mercy.
Finally, for those who asked for more details on food, I will say only that we tried a few things we don’t usually eat in Cañar. Strolling the small town of Ubeda, we saw folks in outdoor cafes sucking on little shells served in glasses. When I asked, I was given a serving of caracoles – little snails – which I dutifully sucked but didn’t’ much like. Michael passed.
Another day, in Cuenca, we were given as an appetizer chipirones, fried baby squid in chocolate sauce. Doesn’t sound that good, but was excellent in a small amount (didn’t get a proper photo; below Internet mage of stuffed baby squid).
And the day before we left Madrid, we took refuge from a thunderstorm in a small place near our hotel called El Anchovito and ended up with a lunch of barnacles, percebes in Spanish. We’d had them once before, in Galicia. These were tasty, and although the waitress said they’d come fresh from Galicia, they didn’t squirt quite as much (I remember we were given bibs in Galicia) and M. says were not as good. But still a treat. When you first see these little elephant feet you can’t imagine how or why or what, but once you manage to get the “top” off, you suck out a little morsel that tastes purely of the sea
Though there’s so much more – I wanted to write about visiting Federico Lorca’s birthplace near Granada; the audiobook Spain in our Hearts, that we listened to while traveling, about the Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939); and the great exhibit on art and artists during and after that terrible time that we saw in Madrid, that has to be it for Spain, 2016. (Though I’ll try for a special entry on books and travel, a funny and frustrating and woeful tale.)
But now it’s the next day, we are back in Cañar, and as I write this I see the silhouette of a hummingbird on the bedroom curtains, fluttering around the fuschia and calling me back to this world.