By Robert Bradley
The blur of last minute chores blinked past me like an old newsreel complete with flashbulbs and jittery scenes where everything looks like it is going to shake right off the film. I packed and repacked, included a three month supply of prescription medicine, essential reading material, and I bought new shoes. All that was left was the cheering.
Repeated good-byes to dear ones consumed much of my last day as we reminisced, laughed and laughed again. We also drank as much of my wine and liquor from the cellar as possible, clarifying for me a new interpretation of the phrase, “warm and fuzzy”. Friends dropped in and out to wish me well and offer their advice while closer friends stayed and didn’t bring up my leaving at all.
I committed myself to Cuenca months before, and now, in the twilight of my last day in the United States I strained to retain all I could: a gray flannel cloud hollowed by a raven’s caw, lapping water kneading the shoreline of the Columbia River, the ruffled conversation of Douglas firs when the wind calls. I wanted to plant a piece of the forest within me, to wrap my heart in morning fog, to pillow my head with ferns and moss, to pray in the sanctuary of forest older than words.
Instead, I packed a stone, carved into a man carved into a bear.
I am a boat leaving port.
Ropes that tie and bind are unraveled and tossed ashore,
the gurgling engines begin to bite and I am set free.
— My last dream in the United States of America
I did not need an alarm clock on the morning of my departure. There was nothing to be alarmed about. The only thing separating me from Cuenca was time, measured in miles for convenience sake; I floated away before the sun rose, on wings the size of cranes…
In the five months I’ve been in Cuenca, I have written of my flight here, airports and way stations, food and fatigue. I wrote about my feelings of being in a far away country by the light of a neon Tony Roma Ribs sign glaring in my hotel window. I opined on verdant green and a citadel seemingly higher than the sky itself. I gushed at my excitement upon reaching the mountain’s summit, and entering the cloud factory where rain is brewed. I recalled my soft landing and gracious hosts. I penned an essay on the kindness of strangers and the tradition of almuerzo. And again and again I’ve written of the clouds. But, I was unaware how Cuenca, Ecuador, would influence me. It is profound and enduring.
I remembered riding an elevator at the Oregon Health Sciences University hospital some years back. The door opened and a young man with a hand wrapped the size of a beehive came aboard. He held his hand up like a beacon and proclaimed it as such when he said, “I just blew off my fingers playing with fireworks! I just blew off one of my fingers”. Look! He wanted us to look at the hive, his hand buzzing with cortisone, the white globe of bandages shining like a torch of shock and regret. He wanted us all to look. As if our eyes could replace his loss.
I needed a beacon too.
I lost something that once held sway and had supported me my whole life: I too felt as if an essential part of me was torn away. I could no longer grasp hold of a future believing all would be well. Standards I held tight and thought sacrosanct were splashed across the television screen and then discarded. Faith became an object of derision. Confidence in leadership was riddled with scandal, buffoonery and outright lies. I lost faith in the American Dream.
And then I found Cuenca. This precious jewel of the Andes. The Athens of the Andes, where fresh ideas, children, traditions looking far over our shoulders, and a spirit of optimism are woven together into a fabric I love.
The blinding beauty that overwhelmed me at first has muted — softer nuances, hues and texture are taking shape. The noise, once thought of as a cacophony seems more a symphony now (albeit a John Cage symphony). Traditional clothing is no longer exotic but expresses conventional wisdom; Fruits and vegetables once foreign are now daily fare and I am again at home in the kitchen. Vendors know me in the mercado. I expect to see flowers fresh in bloom everyday. Time has lost urgency. Having a cafe con leche in the plaza has become a ritual that cornerstones my day. Even the uneven and narrow sidewalks have slipped into place. But most importantly, the stain of disappointment, anger and regret that so dominated my last months in the States has been washed clean.
Cuenca is heavenly in that you have an opportunity to create whatever you want. It is worldly in that you need to learn what that is. The challenge is choosing your own best path.
Photos by Robert Bradley