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The International Writers Magazine. Ecuador:

An Afternoon in Azogues
Tyrel Nelson


I’m not a superstitious man. In fact, I think it’s funny that my so-called 16-unit building really only has fifteen apartments. This is because there is no Room 13. My credulous landlord, Dolores, skipped it when numbering the apartments many years ago. Hence, I wasn’t surprised by the fact that I didn’t see her at all during the second Friday of the month, which was the 13th of June. The elderly owner was probably holed up in her house on the complex grounds, anxiously gripping a crucifix and hoping for the clock to strike midnight.

Instead of hiding in my apartment, waiting for Friday the 13th to pass by, I, on the other hand, convinced my next-door neighbor, Sheik, to take advantage of the beautiful afternoon that was spoiling us. Nevertheless, despite my cynicism towards superstition, our excursion did get off to a bit of an unlucky start.

As my lanky, dark-featured friend and I made our way through Cuenca’s bustling terminal terrestre, I felt a slight tug on my backpack. Assuming that my neighbor simply bumped into me, I thought nothing of the nudge. However, when we took our bus seats a few minutes later, I noticed that my water bottle was missing. To begin with, I didn’t hear anything fall behind me. And given that the side compartment of my bag was elastic and always clung tightly to its contents, I assumed that someone had taken my drink. Although it was only a plastic container, I was still bothered because it was the first time in my nine months in Ecuador that something had been stolen from me.
"Maybe it happened because it’s Friday the thirteenth?" I jokingly pondered aloud.
"Don’t be silly! It happened because you were walking through a busy bus terminal, where things often get stolen from people WHO AREN’T PAYING ATTENTION," Sheik affirmed. "At least it was only water. Worse things have happened."
"You’re right. It’s just sad, that’s all," I replied.

While I quickly shook off the incident at the station, a 31-kilometer, whiplash-inducing bus ride along the Pan-American took my Costa Rican friend and me out of the Azuay province and into the lush hills northeast of Cuenca. Prior to arrival, the only things I had heard about our destination were that the city was known for exporting loads of Panama hats and it was home to my friend, Andrew’s (fellow English teacher at my school), favorite Ecuadorian soccer team. Sheik knew even less. For these reasons, we wandered aimlessly into Azogues, thankful for our sunglasses, which protected our eyes from the blazing sun above, and simply wanting to see what the capital of the Cañar province (one of 24 regions that divide the country) had to offer.

First, Sheik and I very much enjoyed the township’s (30,000 residents) central plaza. Marked by its skyscraping palms, blooming shrubbery, and spotless walkways, this tiny square proved to be beauteous and pacifying. We found the antiquated, brick church that overlooked the pretty park to be worthy of a few snapshots as well. Similarly, the two of us were impressed by the balcony-bearing streets surrounding the square, which were lined with well-preserved, traditional buildings that proudly displayed their colonial architecture. These time-tested structures appeared to be hundreds of years old, most likely erected shortly after the founding of Azogues, which occurred in the mid-1500s.

In addition, my graying companion and I stopped by the pueblo’s most famous landmark, the Iglesia de San Francisco de la Virgen de las Nubes, which can easily be seen on the town’s steep hill from the Pan-American Highway. While my 52-year-old neighbor nursed her arthritic knee at the base of the steps, I ascended endless flights of stone stairs (lined with many gold plaques depicting religious scenes) to finally arrive at the magnificent chapel’s entrance. Standing at the enormous archway to the church’s nave, I gazed at its pair of neck-breaking, cross-adorning towers. Moreover, the intricately-sculpted facade was decorated with many circular, stained glass windows, as well as several ornate, yet false columns. Not only was its construction remarkable, but the cathedral also provided outstanding vistas of the municipality below. I was able to get a good glimpse of the colorful capital as well as the surrounding Andes from the church’s excellent viewpoint.

Although this town was reasonably defined by its high holy house, I actually found the true highpoint of Azogues to be its charming cemetery, which rested near the eastern end of the city. As a matter of fact, the color of death in this community wasn’t black; it was a cheerful orange, brilliant blue and pearly white.
Stumbling upon this hidden gem, Sheik and I were actually taken aback by the delightful burial ground.
"The joy of the afterlife," the Tica said while chuckling. "It’s beautiful, don’t you think?"
"Of course. I feel weird saying this, but the cemetery is the best part of Azogues," I honestly answered.

In truth, this necropolis had a tropical feeling to it. The entrance was marked by two enticing arches, which not only sported a vibrant orange hue on their undersides, but were also bordered by a striking shade of sky blue. Furthermore, the comely curves introduced us to a pleasing palm tree, which was a splendid centerpiece for this city of the dead. And as we continued to amble past several mausoleums, hundreds of headstones, and thousands of niches, the two of us couldn’t believe how well-kept the cemetery was. Not only were the pinkish brick paths lined with neatly-trimmed, healthy lawns and countless tombs decorated with fresh flowers, the entire area was also immaculate. To that end, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a woman armed with a spray bottle and rag, carefully cleaning each sepulcher she came upon. This potter’s field, in reality, was so impressive that it almost encouraged one to give up to ghost right then and there. I couldn’t recall ever smiling in a cemetery before.

Eventually, my next-door neighbor and I had our fill of the funerary grounds and, therefore, left the site quite satisfied. Conversely, our departure from Azogues turned out to be rather abrupt.
Noticing a bus exiting the terminal from a half-block away, we sprinted to the station and hurriedly hopped onto the southbound coach just in time-only to see that every seat was occupied. It was a tad tiresome standing all the way to Cuenca.
Despite our disappointing exit, however, Sheik and I felt that our visit to Cañar’s capital was very worthwhile, especially its final resting place.

And even though I doubt that I’d ever want to return to dust there, I’m certain that I’ll return to Azogues nonetheless.

© Tyrel Nelson July 2008
tyreln at gmail.com

The Other Baños
Tyrel Nelson

We finally pulled into a small, dusty lot in front of a giant, light-blue church, which sat atop a small hill a few miles southwest of Cuenca.

A Walk in El Cajas
Tyrel Nelson
With some free time at last, I felt relieved as the monstrous bus roared westward through the green hills just outside of Cuenca.

© Images Nuryajans Sheik Valverde and Tyrel Nelson 2008


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