I’m occasionally asked, “How did you meet your Ecuadorian wife?”
This question always triggers a reflection on why I had come to Ecuador, not to find love but to find a place of peace, wide smiles and laughter — a place to cast off the energy of a busy past, an exciting, but somewhat cluttered lifestyle, that pushed and pulled me for decades. When I realized there was no resolve in sight to the endless to-ing and fro-ing of travel, I looked for a place to touch down, a place to commune with earth and spirit. When I walked into the Parque Central of Vilcabamba in 2011, my heart said, “Welcome home.”
It is said that in the Indian summer of our lives, we will return to the place of our birth, either metaphorically or physically. I connected on both levels, I grew up in a small Midwest town in the U.S. where kids ran free of fear, you knew everyone and there was lots of gossip. Here, in this Andean village, I began to breath full quiet breaths.
Being the new kid on the block I attracted attention from some of the single women in town, most of them gringas. The advances were for the most part innocent, flirty and playful. I gently declined the more direct advances simply because I was not looking for a relationship.
I would occasionally eat at a restaurant located on the main plaza which had terrace seating at colorful wooden tables. My favorite table was situated just outside the window of the kitchen where the female staff laughed and joked their way through the day and into the night. I loved to hear that chatter over their radio which constantly played cumbias, bachatas and other lively Latin tunes. Those dining on the terrace could not see inside the kitchen and the kitchen staff could not see clearly through the fine bamboo curtained windows to the outside. We were anonymous to each other … our eyes were closed!
One laugh coming from the kitchen stood out above the others: it was such a heart-felt laugh that it almost moved me to tears the first time I heard it. It reminded me of a boyhood friend who would start to tell a joke and then, just before he delivered the punch line, he began to laugh a laugh that was so genuine and infectious it would have all of us laughing with him till tears filled our eyes. Kids would crowd around him just to hear him cover up the punch line with his animated laughter. Half his jokes ended like this and it made no difference to his audience. We came to hear him laugh before we knew what the funny part was. The punch line would have been an anti-climatic distraction to the laughter.
And for me to know what this disembodied laugh floating from the kitchen was laughing about would have been a distraction. My heart was being opened simply by the sound and the depth of her open heart … I knew nothing of her story or what she looked like. The old paradigm was shifting: from primordial visual attraction and biologically based evaluation to a place of clear unsullied spirit. Her name was Alexa.
I play two musical instruments, keyboards and diatonic accordion: well enough to express the notes that are brought into being somewhere between heart, head and spirit and find their way into others to gift; smiles, laughter and on occasion tears. Of the two, my small beautiful button accordion, is the most expressive. Acoustical and driven by bellows which breath life into a suite of reeds encased in cherry wood. His name is Benny, namesake of an uncle of the Italian family who passionately hand crafted him. Little did I know that Benny was about to become an intermediary, a miracle worker of the first order.
A sacred triangulation is at the heart of the creative process in virtually all artistic endeavors.
A musician and his instrument represent the two opposite points at the base of the triangle and the divine/muse is at the zenith. A musician chooses an instrument which resonates with his soul, practices to coax spirit from it and inspiration comes from the muse.
Playing an instrument is something akin to listening to god. The Sufi mystic poet Rumi said: “Don’t go to the library today, there are too many words already. Pick up an instrument instead.” He understood the meditative effect of embracing mysticism through music.
The Muse at Play
I would occasionally take Benny to the restaurant to play a few tunes after my evening meal during L’Heure Bleu. Usually self-composed waltzes or moody ballads. Both expressing narrative through melody, tone and time without words: like laughter… Hmmm … The birth of Venus?!
Alexa told me that when she first heard me playing the accordion she turned off the kitchen radio and said: ‘Listen, that’s so beautiful.”
She asked the kitchen staff: “Who is playing that?”
“An old gringo named Tomas, the one with blue eyes,” came the reply.
Later, she said she remembered it was a waltz that told a story and was a bit sad. I remember that waltz because it was a depressive evening for me. There was almost no one in the cafe, the sky had turned a Van Gogh ultramarine, romantic and but a bit cheerless this particular evening, and I was living in the village of square street configurations rather than the expansive countryside I had hoped for. Benny that evening was the conduit of my emotions: sad, lonely but truthful. Few musicians will tell you they can pick up their instrument and fake an emotion when composing on the fly.
I returned on a few more occasions over the next month with Benny. Each time I played, Alexa would be filled with something she described as unexplainable; later she would say that it was a feeling deep and soothing. And I in turn continued to be lifted by her spontaneous laughter. We were creating and anonymously symbiotic relationship, feeding our spirits through harmonics. Our eyes were still shut.
One night Alexa heard me playing and asked the waitress to let her serve a meal out to the terrace so she could get a look at this mysterious gringo. I remember her gliding out in her sauce-splattered apron. She was carrying a plate of enchiladas and a beverage, her hair tied up loosely, a few strands falling free, framing a smile to die for. Our eyes met for the briefest of moments. She returned passing my table again without looking my way, but stole another glance as she passed through the door into the kitchen. In retrospect I think we felt a spark of something familiar but elusive.
If there is a road map for falling in love, abandon should be the start point.
As time passed through another season Alexa and I would occasionally exchange greetings either at the restaurant or on the street when passing. Not until she asked me if I needed a cleaning woman at my cottage did I come to learn that she had separated from her husband of seventeen years and needed extra money for her and her three teenage children who were still living at home with the father. I said OK, come over. She cleaned for half a day. I remember a subtle current moving between us as she did her work and I was fossicking around with photos on my computer.
A month passed and I moved out of the village proper to a lovely quinta near a river in the countryside, a quiet place with fruit trees and flower gardens, birds galore, and a wrap-around terrace: my dream home. I invited Alexa to continue cleaning. She showed up and we cleaned windows together, her on the outside me on the inside, clowning around like teenagers on a first date. Things were becoming relaxed and playful between us.
I began to make lunch for us and we would sit quietly eating on the terrace, taking in the nature that surrounds this quiet place. My Spanish was not conversational at that point so we spent a lot of time trading glances and smiles and laughing at silly things: a leaf constantly twirling from a current of wind, fruit falling on the roof, a donkey braying. Comfort in our silence … just being together.
She visited twice a month over the next three months to clean and each time she left I thought: I love how her presence fills this beautiful space, I love her gentle company, I don’t want her to leave. So once during lunch I looked at her, tilted my head, smiled and said: “I think I’m in love with you!” Me too! she smiled back.
We started seeing each other clandestinely at my quinta. For months, taxis would drop her off a kilometer away and she would walk up river to my home. We did this because gossip can often be brutal in a small village. Since leaving her husband, she had been living with a girlfriend in a shack along the creek in the village, sharing a bed and meals. Until one day I met her after work and drove her to pick up her small bag of things and said: “Come live with me!”
So we had secretly tried on our relationship, decided we wanted to continue and now was the time to announce it to the village (todo el mundo / everyone) by way of a public appearance together. We decided on the Hostelería Vilcabamba and, dressed to the nines, we arrived by taxi at the dinner hour, walked into the large dining room and discovered we were the only dinners there! There would be no anticipated buzz of “Oh my gosh!” or “Who would have thought?” We sat drumming our fingers on the table, glancing around hoping someone would show up to share the now open secret. They didn’t! So after dessert, having primed ourselves for our coming out fanfare, we headed straight to the Parque Central for a vuelta, arm in arm, grinning like teenagers. There were glances, wide eyes and someone remarked as they passed us: “I knew there was something up with you two!”
We celebrated our tenth year anniversary together last November.
Over the years, the relationship has had a few hiccups, usually over cross-cultural issues, most of which I honestly can’t remember. She still charms me with her laughter and I play music several times a day on the keyboards or Benny. She has asked me over the years “Where does that song come from, it’s new, did you just make it up?” Yes! It’s new, mmmm, it comes from the same place your laughter comes from!
I believe in what Warhol suggested: avoid the distractions, be open to what I choose to call the simplicity of heart: no projections, no neediness, no wish list. When you are in that space what needs to come to you will come to you in a key your heart and spirit are open to hearing and will recognized.
American-born photographer Thomas Ives has worked for international news and feature magazines for over 38 years. His photo essays and images have appeared in National Geographic, Time, Geo, Stern, Newsweek, Life, Smithsonian, and many others publications. He lives in Vilcabamba with his Ecuadorian partner. For more about Thomas, click here.
Thomas Ives may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and more of his work may be seen on his Instagram account: thomas_h_ives