South America, Travel Stories

Finding my way in Cuenca

      I hate being lost. Let me re-phrase that. I hate retracing my steps over and over for what seems like the millionth time. I actually pride myself in generally having a good attitude about getting lost. I call it ¨exploring.¨ I like to say I have not properly seen a city until I´ve driven the wrong way down a one-way at least once. To this end I have had many exhilarating near-death experiences in Chicago, New Orleans, and my own city. In my opinion, aimlessly wandering the streets is the best way to discover the sights and sounds of a place. How else will you absorb the smell of the marketplaces or hear the laughter of the kiddos on their way to school? Not knowing where you are or where you´re going is part of the thrill of traveling.
       However, it can it can also be infuriating for an impatient, gotta complete my to-do-list, American like myself. Today I am throwing an internal tantrum, frustrated by my inability to properly read a map or judge North from South. I am in Cuenca for a few short hours, trying to take in the scenery of this colonial city while hitting the highlights. After browsing the local markets, stepping inside the beautiful colonial churches, and visiting the Panama Hat museum (yes, Panama hats are originally from Ecuador), I am ready for lunch. I´ve been told there is an amazing Colombian cafe in el centro and after eating nothing but Ecuadorian food for six weeks my taste buds are anxious for something new. I ask the man at the museum for directions and he points me towards Plaza Calderón. I near the plaza and ask a Señora selling mandarins if she knows where Cafe Moliendo is. ¨You want to buy cafe molido (ground coffee)?¨ She asks and looks at me in confusion. I shake my head no and ask another Señora. ¨Do you know where the cafe that sells Colombian food is?¨ She nods enthusiastically and points to a place about a block away.¨Next to the tall green and white building, under the flag.¨ I thank her and trek on. My stomach grumbles in anticipation as I reach the place she indicated. I peek inside and realize it´s a coffee bar. She must´ve misunderstood me too. I sigh. I am on a wild goose chase.      Unfortunately, this is a fairly common occurrence for me. I remember feeling overwhelmed in Venice as we searched for St. Mark´s Square. We followed all the rights signs but kept walking down the same narrow alleyways, arriving at the same dead ends, staring into the same tiny canals only to turn around and retrace our steps once more. In Rome we spent hours trying to find our hostel, criss-crossing the same 10 blocks repeatedly. I was carrying not only my heavy backpack but also hauling a large duffel on wheels (a mistake I won`t make again!) over the bumps and cracks of ancient cobblestone paths, running across intersections trying to avoid the hordes of scooters racing past stop signs. It was miserable.       I am starting to feel like giving up. I have passed the same street corners at least a dozen times. The first time I inhaled the sweet smell of the flower market I was enamored. The second, and third time I walked passed I smiled. Now, as I catch a whiff of the flowers´ aroma for the fifth time I groan in frustration. I keep walking and see the same lady selling fruit from her wheelbarrow for the seventh time. The men on the corner with their flutes are playing the same song they were three hours ago. I´m starting to go a bit crazy from my rapidly plummeting blood glucose levels and hurting feet. I can´t take it any more. I decide to ask for directions one last time-from the internet. I pop into an internet cafe and grab a Pepsi to recharge my confounded brain. It helps. A quick search on Mapquest confirms my suspicions. I was a mere two blocks away from Cafe Moliendo when I began my hunt for delicious Combian food, this was at least an hour ago. Confident I can find my way I head back out onto the streets of Cuenca and reconsult my map. ?$¿¡&?¡* I have been walking in the wrong direction again. I shake my head in disbelief. Despite my many solo adventures and travels my map reading skills have not improved. I often feel like Joey in the episode of Friends where he desperately tries to find his way in London by setting his pop up map on the ground and stepping inside. I have no problem pinpointing exactly where I am on the map and where I want to go and then happily skipping away in the opposite direction. When I lived in Chicago I would determine East from West by the direction of Lake Michigan. I knew I was heading East if I were walking towards the Lake, West if I were walking away from it. This method worked fantastically as long as I could actually see the Lake.
As much as I loathe it, retracing my steps is not always a bad thing. I have a map of Rome hanging on my wall that I can proudly say I´ve walked over every inch of (most of the time lost) and the shops and restaurants that are often closed in the early morning hours are usually open by the time I circle back around later in the day (either by choice or accident). Then there´s the satisfaction that comes when I finally arrive at the doorstep of my hostel, weary body and bags in tow, when St. Mark`s Square magically appears, or when I at last see the view I`ve been waiting for at the top of the hill.
As I write this I`m sitting at a table in Cafe Moliendo, full belly and empty plate before me, refreshed and ready to retrace my steps again as I explore more of this beautiful city.

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