“You can’t escape. Your heart will be broken, too.”
This was how Jake introduced himself as he slumped against my table. It was a balmy evening, the cafe was full as he crumbled into one of the last available chairs.
He went on: “I have never been married, other than a time or two when I was younger, but none of that matters now. My heart was broken yesterday.”
I asked him to explain.
He said, “I remember the first moment I set eyes on Ignatius, although I always called him, Iggy. He was the quiet one sitting alone in the corner, the one who captured me in that magical moment when our eyes focused on each other and neither wanted to let go. It was then that the promise was made, ‘I will break your heart,’ and dogs always keep their promises.”
Jake was mourning the passing of his dog, Iggy, just as we do our own best friends who leave before we do.
The internet abounds with videos of expats living in Cuenca who appear to spend their time like this is an eternal summer camp — although autumn camp seems more accurate. Cocktails on the deck while watching the sun sink into the west, a cozy dinner party with a couple of friends, and spur of the moment excursions to the beach or jungle are touted on YouTube as just another day in the magical life of everyday gringos living in the Athens of the Andes.
Really? It certainly may look ideal to some but evidence suggests otherwise.
Two and a half years is the number property managers agree as being the average length of time expats remain in Cuenca before they return to their homeland or move on to someplace else. The supporting research is scarce but anecdotal evidence offers little in the way of a counter-argument.
So why do expats become ex-expats?
The reasons are as varied as the seasons.
One friend, a vibrant and brilliant poet, lasted just under four years before returning to Europe. She lived in London for over two decades and thought Cuenca was a tad too quaint for her. My suggestion of Guayaquil went unheeded.
Another expat, after barely a year in Ecuador, shrilly complained that wearing a mask was too much of a sacrifice. She decided to return to her home state of Texas where she was sure she would be much safer. My guess is that she either does not read — or heed — the reams of peer-reviewed evidence to the contrary published in esteemed medical journals in dozens of countries.
A vehemently progressive couple from Portland, Oregon, lasted but three months before moving south to Vilcabamba in the hope that they will find a suitable “alternative community” tucked between a generations-old coffee farm and the ever-changing bands of migrating clouds.
Others are mesmerized by the siren song just over the horizon, a few are beset with family obligations, others are fleeing the dismantling of a relationship, shell-shocked by the jarring turbulence of divergent expectations and preferences.
I know a guy who trundled off to Romania. Someone else went back to Kansas. Yeah, Kansas. I imagine it was for the educational opportunities.
More than a few will be leaving us after closing their last calendar. There is an inscription written inside:
Let this book as it ends remember the hand that wrote it, the eyes that slowly leaned its alphabet, the thumb that peeled back its pages.
I hope everyone who leaves Cuenca, for whatever reason, will be remembered for a very long time.
I know some folks prefer more periods of sun and fewer barrels of rain. A few say they find the place “boring” while paying scant attention to the thriving art and music scene and creative energy radiating from the many universities in Cuenca. I am aware that some are not comfortable with the genteel combination of Old World social graces, art, and customs that defines Cuencano cultural identity. For them the option is simple; it is time to pack the bags and go.
But none of this dulls the pain of separation felt by those left here to shape a more lonely summer.
I asked a couple of friends of mine the other day if they were staying, and I was relieved when I saw the look in their eyes. It was a combination of, “Are you keeping up with your meds?” and, “You are not keeping up with your meds.” I imagine we will be good friends for the rest of our lives.
There are those among us who believe we are under an ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Well, that may be true but it does not matter one bit; this is our time, right here, right now. We are in a most wonderful place, blessed with fertile soil for deep friendships. But, as in any garden, even one as rich as the land of Azuay, care needs to be taken to nurture relationships and prune with perspective the heartache of loss.
As I rose from the cafe table, I wished Jake well. But it was later, as I strolled through San Sebastian Plaza, that my wish for Jake progressed. I wished for him a more precise understanding that the nature of time is change.
The time will come when we will all be gone, each in seasonal rhythm to one’s own calendar. Fortunately, we can take comfort in knowing that the calendar of seasons will turn forever. Even in dog years.