After a night of rain, the river is a strong brown god . A rat scampers along the lawn-like grassy banks where a stormwater drain discharges into the turbulent water just above an arched bridge paved with rain-slicked dark wood. A few people walk, jog, are led by dogs or just sit by the river, but in this still-early morning the town seems only to be waking. Metal roller doors close most of the openings where last night shops and bars and restaurants invited customers in, and only a few panaderias have opened, their delicious hot-bread smells reminding me I've had no breakfast. But Bananas, open every day except Christmas, is closed. Apparently, Sunday doesn't count as a day. I buy a couple of croissants from a little panaderia and make a mug of tea at the hostel.
Now, though, my time in Cuenca has to end.
The bus to Loja fills with the smell of moist, fungal footwear; at a stop nowhere in particular, three small people smelling slightly of stale fish occupy the seats in front of me. The man behind me coughs and from deep in his gut the smell of old liquor escapes. The bus climbs steadily into mist, the air grows colder and the windows steam up. We descend from the wet scrublands into an arid, steep, enormous landscape; later we climb again into the mist, then descend. So it continues. From time to time I drop off to sleep but try to stay awake, partly to keep an eye on my bag which I've hung over the back of the seat in front of me — the safest possible position — but mostly because I love this huge landscape with its suggestion of wildness. But even here, the land has been extensively grazed and much has even been cultivated.
At Loja I take a taxi to the Hostel America — the most expensive room so far on this journey, by far — and after settling in, walk to the Pizzeria Forno di Fango where I have a tiny woodfired pizza and a glass of beer. Despite the excellent food and welcoming atmosphere, I'm slightly melancholy. Perhaps I miss Cuenca and the friends with whom I shared some of my time there; perhaps the woodfired pizza reminds me of particular, wonderful evenings back in Aotearoa; perhaps today's landscapes also remind me of New Zealand. This is not homesickness, at least not in the usual sense of longing for somewhere familiar and comfortable, it's more a reminder of how lucky I am to have a place as wonderful as New Zealand to return to, more a kind of enjoyable anticipation. In any case, looking out the bus window and these almost-familiar landscapes seemed close enough to a homecoming, and while my friends and family might not be with me in person, they accompany me constantly.
Tomorrow, Vilcabamba, the last stop in Ecuador.
1. "I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god" — T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages.
1. The Tomebamba runs through Cuenca.
2. Rooftop sculpture, Cuenca.
3. Street art, Cuenca.
4. Black-chested buzzard eagle, captive in the avifauna centre in Cuenca.