“Hola Piña! Como vas?!”
I turned around for the fifth time in half an hour to see a group of girls eagerly clambering down the stone bleachers towards us. In front of me, the tall figure of ‘Piña’ – otherwise known as Jose, and still further known as my friend Sherri’s host brother – stretched out his arms jubilantly and grinned at his approaching friends. He had good reason to smile; spending eight months away from Cuenca had clearly taken its toll, and he had a lot of catching up to do.
The strange thing, though, was that we never should have met Jose. He is our Ecuadorian equivalent; spending a year volunteering in England, just like we Brits are spending six months volunteering in Ecuador. We shouldn’t have been crossing paths at all – but he’d missed his home too much to stay away until his year abroad was up.
There’s a huge importance given to the relationships with friends and family in Ecuador; something I simply don’t think we share in England to the same extent. There are few families I know back home who all convene for lunch every day, regardless of school and university timetables, job schedules and varying other occupational restrictions. Similarly, there aren’t many people who will disregard all suggested Sunday plans in favour of specifically spending the day with family. Every single week.
But that’s just how things go in Ecuador – or in Cuenca, at least.
And the group of friends you make when living here are clearly your friends for life. After copious conversations with my host mum, listening to her stories of weekends spent with varying members of a twenty-three-people-strong friendship group that she’s known since her schooldays – not to mention their husbands, wives and children – I’ve become accustomed to the idea that friendships are immensely important to Cuencans.
Widening our social circles
Not to be outdone, our little band of volunteers has definitely taken on this prescribed Ecuadorian closeness, too – but up until last week, it’s essentially only revolved around ourselves… Not that there’s anything wrong with hanging out with Brits, of course; but part of my move to Cuenca had been vaguely based around the concept that I’d spend some time befriending Ecuadorians.
Like every first trip to a new place, I entertained all the normal over-romanticised notions. In my imagination, we’d immediately fall in with a crowd of wonderfully cool Ecuadorians, improve our Spanish ten-fold, probably end up becoming a graffiti artist/breakdancer and/or start a band/hippy hangout and live here forever… you know, the usual.
Instead, we’ve spent two months slowly realising that the Cuencan community is so closely knit together that it’s somewhat difficult to break in.
We’ve tried speaking to people on nights out, but it doesn’t go too well. Either our lack of Spanish or their general creepiness ends up ruining the moment. Even on birthday celebrations when we were able to boast both a table and a free bottle of rum (courtesy of my host brother), the only Ecuadorians we managed to befriend were woefully underage and playing way outside of their field.
It wasn’t exactly pretty.
But luckily, the annual celebration of Cuenca’s founding day last weekend – which manifests here as a city wide four day holiday – gave us a chance to get well and truly indoctrinated into Cuenca’s social scene. Regardless of whether we were ready for it or not.
Time for a party!
Thursday morning was bright and sunny – the whole day open for doing whatever we wanted. So we wandered around the markets on the riverbank, drank beers and sunbathed beside the Tomebamba river (just as relaxing and jealousy-inducing as it sounds!), and eventually headed to Sherri’s house to meet her host brother, recently returned from England.
Somehow, things got blurry rather quickly. There were drinking games in a very smart living room as crowds of Jose’s friends arrived and kissed us on the cheeks; car loads of excited teenagers fist bumping through passenger windows; a very long queue to get into a tiny club; a lot of fun with lasers; and hours of hilarious dancing with multiple Ecuadorians. There was also, most definitely, quite a lot of rum.
Basically, we hadn’t accounted for the craziness of the Cuencans. It only really dawned on me when we were sat outside Jose’s house at 3am in a stationary car, giving lessons on the worst swear words in English and Spanish to five of Jose’s friends, that I realised the night had been taken a slightly unexpected route.
Suffice to say, the next morning’s English-style breakfast extravaganza was highly necessary to soak up all the excess rum. And once we’d finished eating, we were bundled into yet another friend’s car and driven through the city to a park, populated by countless Ecuadorians wearing cowboy hats.
Because what’s the best thing to do on a hangover around here? Easy.
Go to the juvenile rodeo.
I’d heard about the rodeo from my host brother, who had a friend competing; but from the looks of it, every single person in the stadium knew one of the riders. They also knew everybody else.
So while me, Issy and Sherri attempted to understand why on earth various children were careering into a circle of sand on the backs of some understandably aggravated cows, the rest of the audience got down to the most important task at hand.
It turns out going to the rodeo is actually a vehicle for the youth of Cuenca to gather, talk, laugh, split from one group and reconvene with another, for literally hours on end.
And it’s not just that; all the rodeo audience members clearly came from a particular social strata. I always knew that Cuenca was an upper class city, with a great deal of Ecuador’s wealthy families choosing to live here, but it became obvious when I realised that the social level of these kids is high enough that they have the money to train themselve on riding horses – and riding cows, apparently.
The art of Cuenca’s social life
Sitting in the sun for three hours, watching children riding bulls and teenagers swapping gossip, was a crazy insight into what it means to be Cuencan. Clearly hanging out with friends and going clubbing is only one element of their social life; the other is a hugely public affair, where you kiss every single person you see on the cheek because (1) you probably know them, but (2) everyone is watching exactly what you do.
The rodeo, just like many other places in Cuenca, is a place both to see and be seen. I’m sure there’s alternatives to this kind of social hub in England – although god knows if I’d ever actually find myself in it! From my brief rodeo taster, though, it seemed that while the focus may be on the bull in the centre of the ring, the action is actually happening everywhere but there.
We’ve got a good few months left to further fight our way into Cuenca’s social scene. Here’s hoping that I’m never the one struggling to keep my balance.