Having maintenance workers in my house has always embarrassed me. These strangers enter your home and, within minutes, understand its workings more meticulously than you could be bothered to.
They had come by unannounced. I had contacted our landlord the previous evening when a malfunctioning heating element had forced me to drape damp clothes over every surface of the apartment. I had been practicing my Spanish when they knocked on the door. We mumbled greetings and the eldest pointed over his shoulder at the stacked washer/dryer behind him. I backed away from the doorway and they steered the unit through the frame.
They worked in silence while I scrolled through my phone, looking on from the couch. They were the intrusion, yet I felt I was the one out of place. Two months in Cuenca had allowed us a measure of familiarity with the language, but I still stumbled over these unexpected interactions. I was eager for the installation to be over, to be left to my lesson, crafting phrases for use in the less threatening realm of the hypothetical.
I had booked our tickets back to the US while in Page, Arizona. Our motel, chosen for its relative economy, promised an oasis of Wi-fi in the desert of roaming that is the American Southwest. Hours spent struggling to secure reservations over a faltering connection proved the establishment’s claims to be inflated.
Cuenca is almost directly below Cleveland in terms of longitude, but all flights from the city into North America transfer through Quito. We would additionally be touring the airports of Miami and Charlotte before finally arriving at our destination. This not-so-scenic route would be divided over a grueling 27 hours. We were leaving Cuenca on the afternoon of December 23, putting us in Cleveland on Christmas Eve, and despite our less than ideal timing, J’s mother generously agreed to leave mid-celebration to come retrieve us.
With a few hours before we had to leave, we cracked open our last bottle of Pilsener. We probably wouldn’t have time to stop by the market down the street to get back our deposit, bougie imprudence for two people without jobs. I threw a load in the washer and began packing.
After a whirlwind two months traveling across the US, the home we had created for ourselves in Ecuador had been a place of solace. There is a romanticism projected onto the vagabond lifestyle, especially when the rambling is done in service of a creative pursuit. Now, with our plans to return still uncertain, the idea of leaving that home felt less like embarking on the next leg of our bohemian adventure and more like standing at the precipice of an indeterminate stint of homelessness.
But life was quick to intrude on our moment of mournful reflection. An attempt to collect the last of our clothes from the new dryer was unsuccessful. The garments were warm, but not dry. Assuming I had overstuffed the load, I restarted the cycle and went to shower. It wasn’t until the third reset that I began to panic. I fumbled with settings, turned up the heat. When that produced little effect, I unpacked my hairdryer and started working through the load piece by piece. Eventually, we ran out of time. We quarantined the damp cloths in a single bag and hoped for the best.
The send-off we received from our neighbors was unexpected; people in the right place at the right time. Y flagged down a cab for us and the handyman helped us with the luggage. Maya, continuing her role as the affectionate, distant aunt we had borrowed for our stay, asked after our destination and a dozen other things. We thanked them all, waving back to people that suddenly had appeared to stand next to them as we hopped into the cab and pulled away.
New slices of city unspooled as the cab driver navigated the bowl of noodles that is the roadmap of Cuenca, and we understood every third word or so of the ads and music on the radio. After a short ride, we were back where we had started only two months prior. The weather waiting for us in Cleveland was a decidedly ill-mannered sort of windy cold. We took a deep breath of the warm and slightly smoggy air outside the airport, grabbed our bags and entered into the line for the gauntlet that is air travel.
The preceding days had been filled with celebration. Fireworks and parades and markets, along with the quarter-million visitors there to enjoy them, had given the city a palpable electricity. Now the sun-baked streets were almost barren and strangely silent. A few old women lounging on porches, a couple of children playing in a park, but the shops had all shuttered for the holiday.
We rode in silence along the city’s Northern ridge. Our hands lightly clasped, but our eyes stayed fixed on the city, our stillness a permission allowing each other the space to savor our last few moments in our own way. For two months, we had been drinking Cuenca in. Our glasses had been all but emptied. We swirled the last lingering drops and took a final swig.
The automatic doors of the terminal glided open, releasing a flurry of frenetic chatter to shatter our daydream. People were swarming a small militia of overwhelmed ticketing agents. We braced ourselves for battle.
Economy air travel has afforded people an opportunity to access destinations of a greater distance with more frequency than humankind has ever had the ability to do before. But the luxury ends there. Modern air travel has become something to be endured, more closely resembling the crammed chicken busses Americans like to dismiss as barbaric than the dapper picture of opulence still imprinted on our collective psyche by sleek 1950’s advertising campaigns.
We would be charged $300 for luggage that was free to bring with us due to Ecuador’s holiday tax, spend hours hungry in the Quito airport only to find the restaurants opened at midnight to accommodate their considerable number of international red-eyes, have a wheel pop off my 50 lb. suitcase, be woken for dinner during the only flight with a duration long enough to reach REM and go through customs, twice. I would do it again in a moment. Albeit with half as much clothing. For a serious traveler, minimalism isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s a mode of survival.
All the cramps, and hunger, and mind-numbing drudgery of the next 27 hours would test our fortitude, but our ability to support one another is part of what makes us such a solid team. We craned our necks to catch a final view of the sun setting behind the Andes through the eye of our cabin window. The plane curved North, grazing the mountains.
Cuenca is a city whose beauty is grounded in juxtaposition. Edgy graffiti punctuates the scaffolding surrounding elegant cathedrals. Humble haciendas abut concrete apartment buildings. Indigenous women conduct their daily affairs in traditional capes and skirts of velvet, parading through colonial plazas past college students loitering in leather jackets. It is a city which has embraced its many histories, recognizing the interwoven diversity of its people serve to strengthen the fabric of its culture.
The surreal magic of alpacas running through the manicured gardens of a city park was unlikely to be replicated where we were going, but places reveal their own charms to those who know where to look. In a day’s time, we would be surrounded by family, the sanctuary of a warm fire staving off the biting chill of a Rust Belt snowstorm. There would be a hot shower and real whiskey waiting for us, and all would be well.
Humans tend to focus their lives on the things that give them joy. Even knowing what gives me joy, it was often the case that in some lizard-brained stubbornness I found myself bobbing and weaving as my own happiness tried to plant one on me. Our time in Cuenca changed the bulk of that narrative. While I’m far from a machine, my dedication to avoiding bliss has dwindled significantly, and I understand the difference now between coming up for air and staying put as the air goes stale.
Finding consistency, that golden hum of creativity and inspiration, is a fleeting thing. I can say I certainly don’t hate the act of writing, and if finding new perspective and completing a rough draft of a novel in 23 days in a beautiful new country with a loving partner cheering you on isn’t joy, I can’t wait to find out what is. Whatever it may be, I’m moving forward safe in the knowledge of all the thousands of words to come, all the music yet to be made.