Folks from the more rural, southern parts of Ecuador will say the little city of cobble stones, cathedrals and actual cappuccinos is too cold to be comfortable, too wet to be cosey and too busy to be elegant, but those folks have never been to Rome, Barcelona, Bordeaux or Melbourne – obviously!
Cuenca, snuggled beneath the flanks of the fierce and magical Cajas National Park, with its witches brewing healing herbs, its holy virgins popping up out of nowhere and its voluptuous wilderness occasionally devouring lost hikers and Bohemians overnight, is to romantics what Cronulla is to bogans.
For me, Cuenca is a four-hour ride through the womanly curves of the lovely southern Andes in a tidy white minivan. To get to the road I set off up the windy driveway at Love Bug Farm as little birds sing their heads off, and the eucalypts drip morning sunshine. I pass Pepe, the wondermule, doing his dawn unicorn impression in the paddock. A Picasso-esque crow eyes me asymmetrically on the barbed wire. A hurtling taxi thrusts its bucket of dust in my teeth as I headed to the highway… as usual.
On the shuttle north, the driver kills El Condor Passa to play Eminem. We surf past little bent shacks and drink views of Podocarpus National Park swooning in the raunchy green lingerie of steamy biodiversty. Chickens, churches, crates, sheds, forests, dogs, donkeys, children and washing lines, blowing like prayer flags, spin by as we tease our way up, up and in and out of little cities and farmland, highway squats and fertile plains, rugged mountains and clouds, drunk on ocean, toward the best coffee in at least 2000kms, and the clunkiest church bells anywhere.
This is my own mini exodus – a dash out of The Valley of Longevity where various flies have settled in the ointments of immortality and tranquility, causing a sickly sort of longing for life that turns out to be a reasonably universal reason why people flee to Cuenca.
Mine was a short trip, relatively. Thousands have crossed the equator to be here. Americans, mostly. And while I admit I came to Cuenca with a sore heart and a slightly disarrayed sense of confidence in my little pueblo world, I was to meet American after American who had a far more perilous crossing to this city of roses than I, with a lot more at stake.
Heavily marketed online and on tv as a potential new contender for Paradise, a vast herd has packed for Cuenca, which officially shelters more than 5000 gringos under her moody blue skies. They have come to flee everything from The End of American Exceptionalism, to aging, obesity, credit card debt and broken hearts.
They come in through Miami, mostly. At which airport their fears of hostile homeland security, the general meanness in even low-level US officials, and the medicalization of the previously romantic experience of aviation are severely aggravated. They come because they are, I think I can say, terrified of what might happen if they don’t.
There are new faces every day, and hundreds of visitors each month - here to see if the prettiest city in Ecuador could be their El Dorado. You can pick them easily, on Cuenca’s bright polished cobbles, with their heavy-shapes, fat backpacks and adventure footware. They are huddled over steaming mugs of coffee with newspapers and local lawyers at the famous gringo hangouts. They cruise the streets with the bewildered eyes of the hunted, and the manicured hair-styles of an uneasy bourgeoisie.
I met a couple who had just arrived from Pennsylvania. They said they were “looking for peace. Just a chance to turn it all off. “…to escape the States,” he said. “It’s all gone crazy. Crazy and dangerous.”
“We live in a corridor, and it never stops; the traffic, the gun shots, the pressure, the calls, work, life, money, debt, travel… it’s clear just from our own lives, and it’s clear on all the news: the US is over. We have come remember what life is.” And do they love Cuenca? “Oh yes! We just love it here,” they say, her eyes brimming with tears. “But the other Americans, they mostly ignore us.. we don’t understand it. The only terrible experience we’ve had is just being nice to the other gringos… it’s as if they resent seeing us here.”
Americans have been leaving the Land of the Free in a steady flood since 2007 but this year, even without referring to the statistics, you can measure the exodus out of the USA by sitting beside the fireplace at Café Eucalyptus with an Argentinian Shiraz and simply watching it.
In one way or other, the conversation is all the same this side of Mexico: how it was that Lady Liberty came to be eclipsed by a new American idol: a sort of lurching, gurgling ogre-beastie presently in the process of tearing itself and the universe to bloody shreds. It’s clear to everybody here that there is about to be some major demolition work on the Home of the Brave.
Obamacare, surging costs insurance, FEMA camps, Fukushima fallout, depopulation plans, hostile drones, martial law, forced disarmament, chemtrails, the consequences of a deep fried diet, terror of retirement options and the looming taboo of aged care in the States figure high among the reasons so many no longer feel safe in the Land of the Free. When you get to know them better the new exiles also talk of tiredness, loneliness, a need for adventure and a strange sort of seeping sadness that has crept into the autumn page of the baby boomer story. They talk about ‘finding themselves’ here, where life is simpler and cheaper and vaguely exotic. They talk about farms with chickens, about learning tango, cheap land, meditation, flipping houses, property development, the price of white goods, how to ship a container, lose weight, gain a few extra years and the advantages of virgin country, cheap sex, drugs and electricity.
“Me? I am American,” tells a retired accountant just arrived from Texas. “Which means that I am a man who no longer has a country.”
It used to be that Americans had a kinda-creepy-feeling that Uncle Sam was acting weird. These days nobody wants to leave their kids at his place. Americans are shedding their citizenship and fighting off the opiates of religion, war, cable and confidence in their national superiority in horrified certainty that Uncle Sam has either terminal dementia or is possessed by the devil. That Nirvana-feeling that something’s really wrong around here could these days be described as a clear and present full-blown mortal panic – with a dash of rage, three drops cognitive dissonance and a twist of premium vintage despair.
Over generations now, this kind of thing has been dismissed by parents, businessmen and politicians as the silly poetic bleats of hippies, wasters, greenies and commies - those who had listened to too much Cat Stevens or were too lazy to join in and get on with plundering the planet and making it rich. It was a diss-ease that used to brew up at universities and Grateful Dead concerts. A blight upon the young, or those damaged by war and acid, who suffered a phase of dreadlocks, pot-smoking, hugging trees and feeling queasy about the things we were doing to rabbits and rivers and African Americans.
In the beginning, they called them hippies. People who were not so much ‘dropping out’ as reminding us all of the fundamental difference between staring down a country road and the barrel of a military industrial complex. People who were eventually despised as smelly, hairy, regressive and probably-not-going-to-make-it-in-the-real-wolrld… which itself, was busily being engineered at the time.
Hippies have either ended up filthy rich in Byron Bay, Australia, or buying over-priced superfoods in Vilcabamba - while their descendants though the generations have explored new ways of dressing up the essential hippy horror – a clear insight to the inherent corruption of the order of things – in new cults and movements including grunge, trailer-trash, Occupy, conspiracy theory, dumpster diving, alcoholism, insanity, chronic depression and evacuation to as yet undeveloped nations.
This same fear and loathing that set off the Hippy-thing, sparked the Weather Underground and inspired the US government to get real nasty then, forever!… has since caused legion of clever young minds and clear-seeing souls to choose between a treacherous decent into chasms of depression and frustration, or a perilous ascent into clouds of marijuana smoke to escape what has been described as culture and progress but is clearly a vicious, blood-soaked nightmare of bitter greed and whole-scale violence.
Until now, such a ‘failure to function’ in the democratic structure has been strictly ascribed to missfits, but in Cuenca, and everywhere else where the Americans are running, it is not the lost and the stoned who are backing out of the system – it is the successful, the upper middleclass, the executives and retiring baby boomers. Sitting fat on their takings from a game they prospered in last Century, even the well-to-do and graduates of Anthony Robbins are admitting that something sure smells wrong around the water fountain.
It’s something they’ve known all along. Secretly.
For white folk, drunk on a frenzy of other people’s land and labour, hi on the things we can make from the earth, then throw out the window for a dizzying, oil-soaked century now, the scream of the cosmic Canary broke through the fizz of fast money around the time American ‘administrators’ and their mates ploughed somewhere around five millions souls into the soil of Vietnam and her neighbours. But most people agreed to sacrifice the bird.
Folks all knew, there was something wrong around here… mate, when their Vets came back mental and the news showed Good Young Americans, Australians and New Zealand troops murdering with bludgeons and poisons and bombs and rap music the obviously innocent in southeast Asia.
It was around this time that the Americans were offered their epiphany. I saw it myself, but agreed not to notice. I was reminded last weekend, beside the lovely deep fire at Eucalyptus, in Cuenca, when a retired American music executive brought it all back into view.
Ed was at university in California when the American Dream was being massacred. He was studying for a business career while the shit was going down, “It was a time,” he tells me, “when you could see, I mean actually see the last glow of American innocence.
“It was something in those people, the ones who were trying to change everything; the hippies and the Berkley crew. It was a look, a particular kind of beauty in the eyes of those who saw what was coming and who were begging the rest to let go.”
Ed, I think, is realizing all this at the same time as he tells me, the fire on his back, and a new life as an American exile in Ecuador on his horizon.
“The hippies, what they really were, is gone and can never be again. They held in their gaze the last light of our nation’s freedom and you can’t fake that or forge it or reinvent it. It was a depth of understanding, a sadness as well. It was a type of beauty, like they were looking through you – like they were seeing beyond, into a country that could have been – something we can never hope for now.
“It died with Vietnam, and with the shift of race relations. It died, that light, from things we still don’t understand but which are destroying all of us now.”