At long last, the tour through Ecuador has come to an end. Last stop, Cuenca.
For those of you who stuck with me through the Quito chaos, sailing 8 days through the Galapagos, and five stops along the Wanderbus circuit, I thank you. While the country of Ecuador is only half the size of Texas, there is much to see here, with enriching cultural experiences that are as varied as the topography. So while it has been a bit of a struggle to get the blog caught up, I wanted to get it all down before the memories began to fade.
While Cuenca was my last stop in Ecuador, it was also the one I was most looking forward to seeing. So the fact that I left it until last was not by design, but rather by the clockwise circuit of the Wanderbus. I was eager to check it out.
Cuenca is a town where more than just its colonial charm parallels my beloved San Miguel de Allende. The high desert climate produces temperate, spring-like weather year round. Artisans and creative types are drawn here to live. Red tiled roofs and domed churches dot the skyline. And UNESCO has designated both cities as a World Heritage site.
If you have ever contemplated retiring outside of the USA, you have no doubt read the International Living publications ongoing lists of the best places to retire abroad. These articles make Ecuador sound like a regular Shangri La. The articles literally say “Live Like Royalty on Your Social Security.” Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city is home to one of the largest expat communities in the country, nearing around 5,000 and growing. So I was curious….
Not that I have any plans to expatriate myself anytime soon mind you, but just like with San Miguel de Allende, home to Mexico’s largest expat community, I am always curious to know what kind of people it attracts…And am I one of those people?
I arrive in Cuenca the day after the big Carnavale blow-out, so the town is quiet. Long lines outside the churches remind me it’s Ash Wednesday, so not much is open. I drop off my things at Pepe’s House B&B, and go for a walk along the river to start my exploration of the town. I stop beneath the Puente Roto, aka the “Broken Bridge” which dead ends at the Tomebamba River. The bridge washed away during a flood in 1950 leaving behind only the stone arch approach, now turned tourist attraction.
I sit down beneath the bridge to search through my Lonely Planet Ecuador to figure out what there is to see and do here in Cuenca. After walking for two hours, so far, it’s fallen a bit short of my expectations.
As I am leafing through the pages, a tall, thin woman passes by, then turns around, “Eileen? Oh, sorry, you look like my friend Eileen.” I respond back, “No, but it’s funny, you look familiar to me too.” After a lengthy conversation, I figure out what is familiar about Carol. Turns out, we both worked for the same airline during the same timeframe, and lived within a few miles of each other near Dallas HQ back in the late 70’s. While I didn’t know her personally, she had that elegant stature about her from the golden days of airline travel, back when flight attendants wore uniforms designed my Emilo Pucci and Halston. I didn’t know her, but I knew of her.
I was delighted to have an opportunity to talk to Carol to learn more about expat life in Cuenca, while she was dreaming of a life on the road. It was serendipity, so we booked a lunch date to talk further.
Not knowing where to start, I ask Carol a rather pointed question. “So where’s all the charm I read about in International Living?” To which she responds with a hint of left-over Texas drawl, “Not all that glitters is gold.” I probe further, “You’re not happy here?” “…..hmmmmm, not my dirt.” Carol goes on to tell the other side of International Living, and how it’s mainly a marketing tool for realtors to lure people in.
I ask Carol what she misses most about the USA. I already know the growing list I would like to escape, on top of all the “charms” extolled by International Living magazine. I want to hear the down side. To get a real sense of expat life in Ecuador. It doesn’t take her long to come up with an answer. “I miss geography!” I ask her what she means by this exactly. “You know, wide open spaces! Road trips! Travel!” It seems when one is an expatriate, the travel budget is spent returning back home to visit loved ones, take care of business, and resupply.
There is a “mule service” between Cuenca and the US…fellow expats willing to carry letters, open packages, back and forth for fellow expats. Carol tells me she ordered a Road Atlas via mule service. If she can’t go, at least she can dream. Suddenly, I feel like I can’t breathe.
This is difficult to explain but once I went full time in the Winnebago, I all but quit traveling outside the US, save for winters in Mexico. My life-long need for perpetual motion and addiction to jet fuel was being met by the constantly changing landscape from being on the road. Just “living” was taking all my resources (I’m talking brain and body power here, not financial.) I didn’t realize how much I missed traveling internationally until I started packing for Ecuador.
After talking to Carol, I got a sense the same might be true for expat life. Most resources are taken up by sustaining life amidst another culture, assimilating, learning the language, and just getting to the point of comfort in another country. Along a similar vein, I wondered if I would take the stance, “what’s the point of traveling internationally if I’m already ‘international?”
My time with Carol gives me a bit of insight that I had not considered before. If one follows International Living magazine’s promises of “living like royalty,” it’s not enough to merely base your budget on living expenses alone. In other words, don’t just think about “getting there.” One must also make allowances to get back out again. Otherwise, “living like royalty” might end up feeling like living like a Queen in exile.
Before we leave Ecuador, one last tip of the misnamed “Panama Hat.”