Tomebamba Magic

Sunday 23rd April, 2023

It's been a frustrating morning. My writing has stalled, and my brain feels like mush. The hall mirror said I look fat. My husband has been pushing against a headache all morning, the worst kind that starts with a visual aura. This has got to shift.

As soon as Stan finishes his weekly Zoom Bible study, we put on shoes and hats and head for the Tomebamba. First down the quiet elevator and then across the shadowed lobby, we exchange smiles and "Buenos tardes" with the young security guard at the front desk.

Directly across from our apartment building, beyond the narrow, busy two-way street, a green lawn stretches to the edge of the Tomebamba River. We watch for a break in the eastbound lane, scootch across to the center island, then, after a quick glance right, walk quickly across the westbound lane. Ecuadorian taxi drivers are oblivious to the crosswalks, so we hurry. At first, I thought we were disobeying some unwritten pedestrian rules when taxis bore down as we crossed streets. But the Cuencanos scurry too. Unfortunately, designated crosswalks are mere suggestions in Cuenca.

Once across the street, we head towards the water, crossing the broad manicured lawn with some care. Cuencanos and ex-pats alike love their dogs, and we see them out walking at all hours. Big fluffy collies, squat pugs, energetic huskies, pert chihuahuas, genial golden retrievers, and happy-go-lucky mutts walk with their owners everywhere, especially along the riverbanks. The grass is lush and thick, trimmed close like a golf course. Flowering trees dot the grass, their branches thick with glossy dark green leaves and clusters of bright yellow blossoms. The wide path that curves along the river is just dirt and rocks beaten hard by many feet but outlined neatly with stones in both directions. We cross the path and reach the Tomebamba, about 400 feet from our apartment door.

"If we turn left," I glance at Stan, "we'll pass that bakery on the way back. It'll be after two by then." The bakery brings empanadas out of the oven every day at two o'clock. A warm flaky pastry folded over savory fillings of shredded chicken and vegetables costs a dollar.

"Ok," he nods, coping with his headache.

"River" describes many moving bodies of water, but the Tomebamba is actually a wide mountain stream. The water flows in the shallow stony riverbed below, its soft roar muting the sound of traffic. Tall eucalyptus trees line the river banks, and boulders the size of tables and chairs are scattered at intervals. The sun is bright but not oppressive, and soft air moves gently over our faces under the shade of the rough-barked trees.

A couple of weeks ago, the Tomebamba was muddy, its waters brown and swollen with recent rains. Nevertheless, a few locals still wash clothes at the rivers' edge, scrubbing them on rocks and rinsing in the flow. On Sundays, a farm family washes big bags of potatoes downstream in the chilly water. People rarely swim in the Tomebamba, though sometimes squealing children wade in up to their ankles.

Today the waters have returned to their usual shallow clarity, splashing over the rocks with an irresistible melody. At night we fall asleep to a white noise app set to "Gurgling Stream," but it's just static compared to the Tomebamba. As we walk, my shoulders suddenly relax and fall away from my ears. I take a deep breath and exhale slowly and naturally. Stan and I make eye contact and smile.

"The water," I say, nodding at the river, and then we are quiet again, not talking or wanting to talk. Instead, we simply exist in the little world along the river, the soft air, the cool shade, the springy grass, and mostly, the clear, cool water of the Tomebamba exerting its peace on us as it pours east.

A jogger runs past, a lady walks a bright-eyed dog, and then we pass a young couple sitting close on a log bench, arms entangled and heads touching. At the Av de los Cerezos bridge, students wearing backpacks head into the Balzay campus of the Universidad de Cuenca. We cross the bridge in the opposite direction and turn back along the river's far side.

Last week as we were walking here, on the northern side of the Tomebamba, an earthquake struck southern Ecuador, including Cuenca. I didn't even feel it, but Stan did, holding his arms out to steady himself. We thought he was having vertigo, another annoying vestige of our month of Covid in January. Then, once we were on our way again, a young Cuencana called to us from across the street, "Did you feel it? There was an earthquake!"

By now, the mental yuck has cleared, washed away by the river. My brain is relaxed and pleasantly empty in an unusual way. Curiously I try to recall my fretful thoughts from earlier, but they're slippery and insubstantial. I let them go. In the sunlight and waving shadows of the eucalyptus trees, it's impossible to worry. It's unthinkable to do anything except walk dreamily along the river. The word everyone associates with Cuenca is "tranquilo." Peace. Tranquility. Above the river banks, past the greenway, and into the city, Cuenca has poverty, petty crime, post-Covid inflation, and infrastructure decay like most cities. Beside the Tomebamba, though, and along all four rivers which wind through the city, there's only peace and calm. We're all drawn to it, Cuencanos and gringos alike. Tranquilo.

"Do you want to stop at the bakery?" I break the peaceful silence as we reach the Los Cedros bridge.

"Yes," he says, and we start across the narrow concrete bridge with the traffic. Directly across the bridge, on the southern side of the river, is a short strip of stores; a little cafe, a tienda selling groceries and fruit, a pet store, and Panucha, the little bakery.

During a momentary lull in the traffic, we dash across the street. The bakery's glass doors are perpetually closed save a foot-wide gap blocked by a folding table inside. Buns and loaves of bread are jumbled in deep bins inside the store. A tray of warm empanadas sits on a glass counter. The proprietor, a slight, older man with short grey hair and blue eyes, waits on me from inside the bakery with his usual somber courtesy.

"Hola. ¿Como estas? Cinco empanadas, por favor," I say politely, nodding at the tray of golden pouches. Stan and I learn Spanish on the Duolingo app daily, and making this piddling communication in Spanish fills me with pride. The baker hands me a warm white paper bag which I tuck into my backpack. He offers a rare smile and sends me off with "Gracias!"

Meanwhile, Stan is at the tienda choosing two ripe avocados, which a teenage Cuencano sells us for a dollar. This young man is always friendly and patient with my pitiful Spanish, as are all the Ecuadorians we meet. I consider some enormous blushing mangoes on display, but we have two at home now. Ecuadorian mangoes are the best we've ever had; fragrant, soft, and intensely sweet. We'll return for mangoes and more avocados in a day or two.

We walk along the sidewalk for the last two blocks, and then we're home again. The apartment looks bigger somehow and brighter than when we left for our walk. Stan eats three empanadas at the breakfast counter and then returns to his laptop. I have a fresh idea for a story and open my computer too. The tone of the day has changed. The Tomebamba's daily magic is complete. All is tranquilo again.

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