Expat Life

A boat leaving one port, arriving in another

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

Robert Bradley

Robert Bradley

Robert Bradley is a former restaurateur and Manager of multiple Meals on Wheels sites in Portland, OR. He has long experience in public service and community relations. He moved to Cuenca in February ’17.

  • Pixelvt

    Do not take the personally Robert, but CHL, please go back to your roots and bring us news about Cuenca and the area rather than feel good stories from expats. Maybe these are filler stories for low news days, I do not know, but my opinion only.

    • Tim Reynolds

      Did Robert say that Cuenca is the best place in the world? Did I miss something? I thought he was expressing –and very well, I might add– his personal experience.

      Like many other readers I don’t live in Ecuador but am seriously considering moving. I appreciate reading the accounts of others who have made the move, without the International Living BS and hype. The upsides and downside are both appreciated for my calculations.

      As for the news, thanks CHL for the coverage of the controversy between the president and vice president. I have found virtually nothing on the subject in any other English-language site. Information like this is important for making a decision to move abroad.

      So please CHL, keep ’em both coming, the news and personal reports.

      • ecexplorer

        Looking for the news in English is the problem. The El Mecurio, El Universo, El Comercio, and El Telegrafo are the major newspapers in Ecuador (El Mecurio is not a major but a different perspective) and are available free online. That is where you get Ecuador news.

        • D’Ambrose

          The problem is that journalism in Ecuador is terrible even if you can read Spanish. (Comercio is is the best of the group, by the way.) My wife is a university educated Ecuadorian and can’t make sense of it half the time. I appreciate the fact that they read several sources and pull together the relevant info.

      • Dan

        Thanks Tim and I agree entirely. I guess it’s a social media thing but some people just can’t accept someone else offering a personal commentary without taking a shot at it. Too much time on their hands, I guess. Great column Robert.

        • StillWatching

          Wasn’t pixelvt’s comment a personal commentary just as valid as anyone else’s?

          Personally, I love Robert’s writing and his photos as they are just something different and interesting to me. It is good writing and great photography and the writing is poetic at times. To each his own.

          • Susan L. Moore Vault

            I agree!

          • edgeof 2

            As usual chit chat here with not much to offer….

        • Pixelvt

          hey Dan, this is a discussion board, if you put something out there expect some feedback. I did not take a shot at anything, and I was careful to say nothing personal. So whats your beef ?

          As for the article, eh, blog, his are pretty much always the same, so I guess I am taking a shot now.

          When I read some comments like the one below “I just divorced my country”, I cringe. But an article like this brings it out in people. You see, I do not personally believe people should leave something but rather go to something new and exciting maybe. Divorce is a strong word, and Robert did not write it, but the gist of this article and others is how he escaped a life he did not like in the states in a very subtle way.

          At least I got people DISQUSing, which is what this forum is about Dan.

      • Candy Jackson

        Well said, Tim Reynolds. Gracias.

      • StillWatching

        By the way, Tim. What you have raised here is a classical strawman argument. When you write this: “Did Robert say that Cuenca is the best place in the world?”

        No, Robert didn’t say that, nor did pixelvt say he said that. You have implied (falsely) words to Pixelvt that he never said. Please read this short description of why strawman arguments are a logical fallacy:

        https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/strawman

        • Dan

          Back in the 1930s, Edmund Wilson coined the term “bathroom thoughts”, referring to the throw-away impulses that run through our minds while we sit on the toilet. Fortunately he said, most of these thoughts die a quiet death, never making it into essays or letters to the editor. Unfortunately, the internet has made things easier and anyone with an internet connection and working fingers can post whatever runs through their mind, no matter how silly or irrelevant. So here’s to “bathroom thoughts”, Pixelvt’s, StillWatching’s, Tim’s, and my own. May they survive till the next flush.

    • RJB

      I submit that blogs are essential to CHL because it is a community newspaper that reflects the news and views of our community. Would you deny editorials in print journalism?

      • Pixelvt

        not if they are identified as such

        • lorenzo

          You’re in for it now. I hope you know what “meet me for coffee” really means. RJB is a 300 lb. gorilla. 🙂
          P.S. I thoroughly enjoy Robert’s blogs and photos. They bring back memories of myself 40 years ago when everything here in Ecuador was fresh and new.

    • RJB

      It is clear from your comments regarding several, if not most of my blogs, that you do not approve. Meet me for coffee to discuss this issue.

      • Pixelvt

        What issue ? You post your opinion, I post mine.

        • RJB

          Where would you like to meet for coffee?

          • Pixelvt

            since I am in Burlington VT right now how about Starbucks.

            • RJB

              I would have been very surprised if you were in Cuenca.

              • Pixelvt

                been there MANY times over many years and have family there, own a home too, be careful what you assume

                • RJB

                  I carefully assume you are not living in Cuenca.

                  • Pixelvt

                    Only part time, so what ? I have been in Cuenca many more months and years than you I can assure, and invested with a house now 6 years. My daughter and son and law live there, he is a Cuencano. What is your point ? How is it relevant to my original comments. Eyes wide open here, good and bad.

  • Jane

    I needed to read this column this morning. I have also only been here a few months, and I woke up this morning with a wistfulness for my home in the high desert of Santa Fe NM. But I love living in Cuenca, and what Robert wrote about “spirit of optimism” is something I had not thought about, but I do recognize it! Please keep writing, Robert, for the (few) mornings when I am doubting this decision!

    • RJB

      Thank you for writing, Jane. I am glad to have been of service.

  • Alaura Love

    Robert Bradley, I lingered over your article & savored it as one would a fine wine or a delicious dessert. I divorced my country & moved to Vilcabamba from the North Oregon Coast 15 months ago. Your reflections mirror mine in so many ways. Thank you!

    • RJB

      Thank you. I hope to see Vilcabamba soon.

  • Nancy Thornton

    I like what you’ve done with this, Robert!! Good read start to finish.

    • RJB

      Thanks, Nancy.

      • Alaura Love

        Look me up when you get here. Post on Vilca People.

        • RJB

          I will look forward to it.

  • Robert, if I may, I interpret the “spirit of optimism” which you experience in Cuenca is due to the youthful demographics of its population.
    Witness babies wrapped in shawls on the back of young mothers, nursing mothers relieved to be seated on the bus, the effervescence of students spilling out of schools to socialize on the sidewalks, and children offering chiclets and roses for sale as we dine and shop.
    Cuenca brims with youthful energy. And, yes, it is infectious. The challenge for us ‘oldsters’ is how to plug into it and carry us through our twilight days.
    I admire you for having faith in yourself and seeking your newfound optimism. Felicidades.

    • RJB

      Thanks a bundle. I’m having a great time.

  • Susan L. Moore Vault

    Enjoyed your writing. Thank you so much.

    • RJB

      Thank you, Susan.

  • Cheryl Baldwin

    Loved your article Robert. Thank you! Great writing. I have not been here much longer than you, and share many of your sentiments.

    • RJB

      Why, thank you , Cheryl. It is a wonderful place, eh?

  • Terri Drake

    Robert you do have a way with words and I applaud your choice. Leaving the things we have always known, even if they are things that give us peptic ulcers, is never easy. We always second guess ourselves or make excuses as to why we shouldn’t do what our heart and our mind says is the right thing to do, at least for us. Each person must make their own decision and your article covers all the bases. My husband and I have been making Cuenca our home for almost 2 months now and we have no regrets, except that certain spices I use in cooking I can’t find here, but that is what visiting family/friends are for, to bring those items.

    Thank you for a lovely and moving article and for placing into words those feelings and thoughts I have held. Who knows, perhaps we’ll run into each other at El Centro or one of the little restaurants enjoying an Almorzo. Would love to buy you a cafe con leche. All the best and keep on writing!

    • RJB

      A free cup of cafe con leche! How about the cafe in Seminario San Luis one day next week?
      robtjbradley@gmail.com

      • Terri Drake

        That would be great. Now, if you can tell me exactly where that is as I am still learning my way around. I will email you directly for help,with directions and you can let me know what day works best for you.