Thursday, November 11, 2010



Cuenca is a paradise for happy snappers – I can’t believe I took so many.  In this age of digital cameras and instant images I can only say ‘Eat your heart out Mr Kodak!’

The faces of Cuenca are striking, Cañar, Incan, the influence of Spain, all evident in their flashing eyes, friendly smiles. 

The Ecuadoran people are not an affluent society but they are a proud one. Their Canaris history can be traced back to the cave dwellers of 8060BC. Their culture has survived invasion by the Incas and by the Spaniards.  They have enjoyed life’s dizzy heights of wealth and power and weathered its tragic lows.

Today many of their young men make the difficult temporary migration to other countries to seek their fortune; the United States a popular destination.  They send their earnings back to Ecuador, to family left behind, wives, parents, children. We were often stopped in the streets by some of these men, now returned, asking where we came from, in turn telling their stories of life in Miami or perhaps New York.

Or sometimes people stopped simply to ask why we were in their country , and more to the point,  did we like it here.   Some spoke English, happy to converse in a language learned in far away places. 

Others like this lady from Samos was especially pleased that Jenny and Chris could speak her language.

Sometimes a passer-by invited my camera to capture his image, other times I stole the moment delighting in a novel pose, or a beautiful face.


And there were times I had merely to lean out of our first floor window to snap the passing parade,  in this case  a weekend marathon followed some weeks later by a billy cart derby. In each case traffic was briefly brought to a halt in normally busy Calle Larga.

Cuencans are outspoken advocates of their civil rights.  The few demonstrations I observed were loud and emotional; well organised with buses bringing supporters from outlying districts,  but not unruly.  They may have held up traffic for a while, but once speeches were made and heard most dispersed fairly quickly.  I was amused to notice ice cream vendors moving through the crowd, the demonstration quickly becoming a social, finger licking occasion.

 Cuenca youngsters are polite, I rarely saw a tantrum or any gross misbehaviour.  School uniforms are clean and tidy,  the older children project a confidence and awareness of current affairs.  High school and University students do on occasion take to the streets to voice their opinion, as these youngsters did on Calle Larga,  and perhaps this is to be applauded

The contrast between the old and the new in Ecuador is never more evident than along the spine of the high Andes particularly in the cities of Quito and Cuenca where traditional dress is still worn by indigenous ladies.  They have a quiet, dignified quality as they go about their daily business.  But western influence is creeping in as this photograph shows.

I was always fascinated to see these ladies in their traditional pleated skirts, shawls and distinctive hats, either walking the streets selling baskets of fruit, tending market stalls, or even just stopping at a corner to answer a call on their mobile phones.  Modern communication and business practice somehow seemed at odds with their appearance. 

In the photo below this Cañar family had spent a short while in an internet shop touching base with home or perhaps making contact with family members overseas.  They are obviously comfortable with the new hi tech convenience of the  modern world but show no wish to become glamorised in the western style.

I’ve given a great deal of thought about including the next two images.  You see I snapped them without giving fair warning.  My only purpose was to capture their beauty,  the exquisite evidence of family and indigenous pride.   It wasn’t until the women instinctively and immediately moved to shield the small child from my intrusive lens that I realised how they in turn viewed me.

To them I was a foreign devil, a meddler, a stealer of a child’s soul.

Naturally I felt chastened, even ashamed though I tried to justify it to myself.  And still do.

But not all native Cuencans took this view.  The elderly folk in this next shot had been snapped by a friend visiting from Tasmania.  The photograph she took I don’t have, but I do have the memory of what transpired.

As  she clicked the camera Denise raised her eyebrows in invitation or permission and the gentleman smiled and held out his hand.  My friend misinterpreted and delved in her bag for a coin.  

He took the coin and he and his wife turned it over obviously puzzled.  I wondered if they thought it too much, too little, or perhaps they felt insulted.  I asked a man standing next to me could he ask them in Spanish was everything alright?

He did, and then laughed.  The old man hadn’t asked for money, he had merely wanted to know where we were from, but having accepted the coin he and his wife were amazed that someone had given them a shiny gold dollar for nothing.

The photo I took showed them moving off to cross the street, still puzzling over their great good fortune.  Such is the great simplicity and humour of the people of Cuenca.

I wonder though how long their children will continue their adoption and participation of 21st century technology while still retaining the unique appearance and dress of their mothers and grandmothers. Will the same close family ties and traditions endure in the face of relentless attack by fast food, fast information and mind numbing video games?  Will their way of life survive the invasion of tourists?

If only I could eavesdrop on the 22nd Century.


Robyn Mortimer