The Last Beautiful Thing

Of all the cities in the world to soothe a tattered dream, I hand my vote to Cuenca, in Ecuador. With regrets, of course, to Paris.

Folks from the more rural, southern parts of Ecuador will say the little city of cobble stones, cathedrals and actual cappuccino is too cold to be comfortable, too wet to be cosey and too busy to be elegant, but those folks have never been to Rome, Barcelona, Bordeaux or Melbourne – obviously!

Cuenca, snuggled beneath the flanks of the fierce and magical Cajas National Park, with its witches brewing healing herbs, its holy virgins popping up out of nowhere and its voluptuous wilderness occasionally devouring lost hikers and Bohemians overnight, is to romantics what Cronulla is to bogans.

For me, Cuenca is a four-hour ride through the womanly curves of the lovely southern Andes in a tidy white minivan. To get to the road I set off up the windy driveway at Love Bug Farm as little birds sing their heads off, and the eucalypts drip morning sunshine. I pass Pepe, the wondermule, doing his dawn unicorn impression in the paddock. A Picasso-esque crow eyes me asymmetrically on the barbed wire. A hurtling taxi thrusts its bucket of dust in my teeth as I headed to the highway… as usual.


On the shuttle north, the driver kills El Condor Passa to play Eminem. We surf past little bent shacks and drink views of Podocarpus National Park swooning in the raunchy green lingerie of steamy biodiversty. Chickens, churches, crates, sheds, forests, dogs, donkeys, children and washing lines, blowing like prayer flags, spin by as we tease our way up, up and in and out of little cities and farmland, highway squats and fertile plains, rugged mountains and clouds, drunk on ocean, toward the best coffee in at least 2000kms, and the clunkiest church bells anywhere.

This is my own mini exodus – a dash out of The Valley of Longevity where various flies have settled in the ointments of immortality and tranquility, causing a sickly sort of longing for life that turns out to be a reasonably universal reason why people flee to Cuenca.

Mine was a short trip, relatively. Thousands have crossed the equator to be here. Americans, mostly. And while I admit I came to Cuenca with a sore heart and a slightly disarrayed sense of confidence in my little pueblo world, I was to meet American after American who had a far more perilous crossing to this city of roses than I, with a lot more at stake.

Heavily marketed online and on tv as a potential new contender for Paradise, a vast herd has packed for Cuenca, which officially shelters more than 5000 gringos under her moody blue skies. They have come to flee everything from The End of American Exceptionalism, to aging, obesity, credit card debt and broken hearts.

They come in through Miami, mostly. At which airport their fears of hostile homeland security, the general meanness in even low-level US officials, and the medicalization of the previously romantic experience of aviation are severely aggravated. They come because they are, I think I can say, terrified of what might happen if they don’t.

There are new faces every day, and hundreds of visitors each month – here to see if the prettiest city in Ecuador could be their El Dorado. You can pick them easily, on Cuenca’s bright polished cobbles, with their heavy-shapes, fat backpacks and adventure footwear. They are huddled over steaming mugs of coffee with newspapers and local lawyers at the famous gringo hangouts. They cruise the streets with the bewildered eyes of the hunted, and the manicured hair-styles of an uneasy bourgeoisie.

I met a couple who had just arrived from Pennsylvania. They said they were “looking for peace. Just a chance to turn it all off. “…to escape the States,” he said. “It’s all gone crazy. Crazy and dangerous.”

“We live in a corridor, and it never stops; the traffic, the gun shots, the pressure, the calls, work, life, money, debt, travel… it’s clear just from our own lives, and it’s clear on all the news: the US is over. We have come remember what life is.” And do they love Cuenca? “Oh yes! We just love it here,” they say, her eyes brimming with tears. “But the other Americans, they mostly ignore us.. we don’t understand it. The only terrible experience we’ve had is just being nice to the other gringos… it’s as if they resent seeing us here.”

Americans have been leaving the Land of the Free in a steady flood since 2007 but this year, even without referring to the statistics, you can measure the exodus out of the USA by sitting beside the fireplace at Café Eucalyptus with an Argentinian Shiraz and simply watching it.

In one way or other, the conversation is all the same this side of Mexico: how it was that Lady Liberty came to be eclipsed by a new American idol: a sort of lurching, gurgling ogre-beastie presently in the process of tearing itself and the universe to bloody shreds. It’s clear to everybody here that there is about to be some major demolition work on the Home of the Brave.

Obamacare, surging costs insurance, FEMA camps, Fukushima fallout, depopulation plans, hostile drones, martial law, forced disarmament, chemtrails, the consequences of a deep-fried diet, terror of retirement options and the looming taboo of aged care in the States figure high among the reasons so many no longer feel safe in the Land of the Free. When you get to know them better the new exiles also talk of tiredness, loneliness, a need for adventure and a strange sort of seeping sadness that has crept into the autumn page of the baby boomer story. They talk about ‘finding themselves’ here, where life is simpler and cheaper and vaguely exotic. They talk about farms with chickens, about learning tango, cheap land, meditation, flipping houses, property development, the price of white goods, how to ship a container, lose weight, gain a few extra years and the advantages of virgin country, cheap sex, drugs and electricity.

“Me? I am American,” tells a retired accountant just arrived from Texas. “Which means that I am a man who no longer has a country.”

It used to be that Americans had a kinda-creepy-feeling that Uncle Sam was acting weird. These days nobody wants to leave their kids at his place. Americans are shedding their citizenship and fighting off the opiates of religion, war, cable and confidence in their national superiority in horrified certainty that Uncle Sam has either terminal dementia or is possessed by the devil. That Nirvana-feeling that something’s really wrong around here could these days be described as a clear and present full-blown mortal panic – with a dash of rage, three drops cognitive dissonance and a twist of premium vintage despair.

Over generations now, this kind of thing has been dismissed by parents, businessmen and politicians as the silly poetic bleats of hippies, wasters, greenies and commies – those who had listened to too much Cat Stevens or were too lazy to join in and get on with plundering the planet and making it rich. It was a diss-ease that used to brew up at universities and Grateful Dead concerts. A blight upon the young, or those damaged by war and acid, who suffered a phase of dreadlocks, pot-smoking, hugging trees and feeling queasy about the things we were doing to rabbits and rivers and African Americans.


In the beginning, they called them hippies. People who were not so much ‘dropping out’ as reminding us all of the fundamental difference between staring down a country road and the barrel of a military industrial complex. People who were eventually despised as smelly, hairy, regressive and probably-not-going-to-make-it-in-the-real-wolrld… which itself, was busily being engineered at the time.


Hippies have either ended up filthy rich in Byron Bay, Australia, or buying over-priced superfoods in Vilcabamba – while their descendants though the generations have explored new ways of dressing up the essential hippy horror – a clear insight to the inherent corruption of the order of things – in new cults and movements including grunge, trailer-trash, Occupy, conspiracy theory, dumpster diving, alcoholism, insanity, chronic depression and evacuation to as yet undeveloped nations.

This same fear and loathing that set off the Hippy-thing, sparked the Weather Underground and inspired the US government to get real nasty then, forever!… has since caused legion of clever young minds and clear-seeing souls to  choose between a treacherous decent into chasms of depression and frustration, or a perilous ascent into clouds of marijuana smoke to escape what has been described as culture and progress but is clearly a vicious, blood-soaked nightmare of bitter greed and whole-scale violence.


Until now, such a ‘failure to function’ in the democratic structure has been strictly ascribed to misfits, but in Cuenca, and everywhere else where the Americans are running, it is not the lost and the stoned who are backing out of the system – it is the successful, the upper middle-class, the executives and retiring baby boomers. Sitting fat on their takings from a game they prospered in last Century, even the well-to-do and graduates of Anthony Robbins are admitting that something sure smells wrong around the water fountain.

It’s something they’ve known all along. Secretly.

For white folk, drunk on a frenzy of other people’s land and labour, hi on the things we can make from the earth, then throw out the window for a dizzying, oil-soaked century now, the scream of the cosmic Canary broke through the fizz of fast money around the time American ‘administrators’ and their mates ploughed somewhere around five millions souls into the soil of Vietnam and her neighbours. But most people agreed to sacrifice the bird.

Folks all knew, there was something wrong around here… mate, when their Vets came back mental and the news showed Good Young Americans, Australians and New Zealand troops murdering with bludgeons and poisons and bombs and rap music the obviously innocent in southeast Asia.


It was around this time that the Americans were offered their epiphany. I saw it myself, but agreed not to notice.


I was reminded last weekend, beside the lovely deep fire at Eucalyptus, in Cuenca, when a retired American music executive brought it all back into view.

Ed was at university in California when the American Dream was being massacred. He was studying for a business career while the shit was going down, “It was a time,” he tells me, “when you could see, I mean actually see the last glow of American innocence.

“It was something in those people, the ones who were trying to change everything; the hippies and the Berkley crew. It was a look, a particular kind of beauty in the eyes of those who saw what was coming and who were begging the rest to let go.”

Ed, I think, is realizing all this at the same time as he tells me, the fire on his back, and a new life as an American exile in Ecuador on his horizon.

“The hippies, what they really were, is gone and can never be again. They held in their gaze the last light of our nation’s freedom and you can’t fake that or forge it or reinvent it. It was a depth of understanding, a sadness as well. It was a type of beauty, like they were looking through you – like they were seeing beyond, into a country that could have been – something we can never hope for now.

“It died with Vietnam, and with the shift of race relations. It died, that light, from things we still don’t understand but which are destroying all of us now.”

13 thoughts on “The Last Beautiful Thing

  1. Jade,

    That was so beautiful to read.  Like, really really really really good. 

    It makes me happy, and I’m happy for you that you are in a good place. 

    I wish you the best forever Jade. 

    May the dreams worth having come true, and the peace it births be you…

    You writing like this is great service to you and others.  

    So glad to see it…




  2. Hey, PCG, that’s GOOD! Your writing took me there and that’s the real test of narrative. You also have a funky way with landscapes 😉

    So life is not bueno, so what? Life is life, in Ecuador or anywhere. It may be better this side of the the big water. Or possibly not.


  3. Apologies for assuming you are well. I wish you peace then, and I didn’t mean any upset over it.

    Also, didn’t mean to have that be a posted comment. Thought I was just replying to you via email, so apologies there too.

    I suppose to make this a legit response to your blog…

    You bring up a great point showing how effective social engineering / mind hacking is in this regard.

    Looking back in despair and forward in fear would seemingly be a blindness to the great light.

    The light isn’t dead and I have great compassion for those embodying such an experience.

    The truth to me: More light, a new and delicate light has begun to filter through the canvas and tickle the walls within the little narrowed boxes we hold of self.

    Our ultimate horizon isn’t bounded by the visible world of “light” but swarms deep inside the depths of the Sacred Universe. It teases through the Great Whole of which only parts are to be seen.

    Nexus points don’t mean the light is dead and or dying, but rather are invitations for transformation and rebirth. The dominant worldview playing out for so long has run its course.

    How exciting to be in a time that allows revision instead of old lines of sight to reign.

    So, if the light has gone out in your world, flip your own switch on and see the opportunity for us all. Basic intelligence and intuition tell us that a change of vision and change of heart are essential.

    Might the “dying of the light” also be or instead be the rudimentary stages of a developing oneness and lifting of the veil that keeps us convinced we are separate?

    “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
    Victor Hugo


  4. I love this one, so true and you say it so well. Thank you.
    I want to run away but can’t – grandchildren with dysfunctional parents. I’m my own level of dysfunction, of course, aren’t we all? But my husband and I are the closest to stable that these children have.

  5. That’s beautifully told Karen, and you raise a fundamental question I am looking to explore… what about the Americans who are staying home to shelter the children, the nation, the peace? There is something very beautiful in this side of the story which I am planning to explore when I visit the country .. at a time when Vilcabamba has completed her work on me.
    I remember watching the south African exodus, and becoming fascinated there with the conversations, the work and plans and efforts of the people who stayed behind, with their country and its story, to ride the change and build the new nation.
    I believe that inside the presently splintering story of the United States’ growing pains right now there are a million beautiful tales to be heard and told.
    I hope you have friends who are keeping that kind of light, and ways to bring it into your own experience.

  6. Ah, yes… and the grass is always greener.
    And hmmm… it’ll be all right when we get ‘to the other side..’
    Thanks for the comments – it’s not really GOOD writing, more a ramble along, but it’s my blog and I’ll blather if I want to ; )
    On your point – it is perfect and true, what you say, on a sort of personal growth level.
    However, for example, I interviewed an art dealer from Vale here last week who had come to check out moving to Ecuador.. he saw through the situation pretty well, and wasn’t sure it was a good move.
    I asked him why he wanted to leave at all, and he said “I want to be the German who left before the shit came down.”
    To which I said, “well, what is ‘out’?”
    And we laughed, and became serious at the same time.
    Leaving a lifestyle for change and happiness is one thing – and a valid thing – if you can also shift and move the internal conditions that shaped that lifestyle as part of the change… and fleeing a dangerous regime is also valid and brave and risky.
    The real question is – what IS happening in the States? What’s next? And perhaps we are all invited too to make a clear decision on what power The People really have in this era.
    In my own view it is a delicate balance between making a stand for The World and Society, in a noble way.. and seeking out the inner light to protect and foster the tender beauties of the human experience, no matter the surrounding conditions; love, mercy, courage, hope, nurturing the young, creativity and peace.
    The question always ends up being linked to how wide one’s circle of compassion reaches.. how big is your WE? How complete is your ME?
    I think the movie Life is Beautiful was an incredible exploration of this …. do you?

  7. Well…. it’s all very heroic to sit and recommend meditating while, for example, a child dies of sickness or a some inevitable grief comes to pass.
    Those times when we learned to do that together, with the little lizard in Thailand, the mouses here and there… our cats who died, and for me at least, during the agonizing months of being apart from you, were precious.
    However, if that child (in paragraph one) is drowning, it is better to get off the cosmic lotus and get in the actual river, fight against the flow, turn up for everything that may be required to Resist the Story, Change the Experience, Fight for Life in a perfectly material way… to put one’s faith in flesh and bones.
    We have always debated whether it is better to Be Happy first, or whether we have a responsibility to tend and select the conditions that create and support happiness before it can settle in.
    In my journey with you I have discovered that Nothing can thrive without respect for both approaches.
    For example, I cannot imagine a more self-content and innocent love than I have had for you, but even that – pure of heart and steady – was nothing, really, in the bleak face of your choice to meditate on the occasions when I needed you to stop and look and really see me – flesh and bones.
    That’s not a dig, it’s a reminder that life is both Action and Reflection. And that non-action is a decision, and not evidence of meditation.
    Of course, it’s a balance between cultivating ‘the light’ (whatever that really means) and cultivating in the created forms – which all demand care: dusting, polishing, affection, water, music, laughter, tucking into bed and cuddling in the morning.
    Reality shimmers across both hemispheres: one radiating the quixotic source, and the other bringing down an exquisite pageant of manifest forms revealing and feeling life – in a trillion varied arrangements of vein and wing; petal and fur, claw and heart and cumulus.
    We are here to experience both: the inner bliss, and the crucifixion to time and space which is our mortal surrender to the conditions of the world: turning up, not being afraid of suffering when it is suffering of some kind that is required…. such is life, no?
    The soil must be broken to plant the herbs, the woman must be torn to receive the delight of her child, buds must break to release flowers and lovers must chop wood, carry water, age and fall and die – even if their ecstasy seems transcendent and eternal.
    I love you

  8. Well, I didn’t think you blathered. It was a rambling narrative, in a nicely colourful, piquant way. What was good was the argument you put, wrapped in the lush folds of the landscape, so to speak. It’s strange that Americans are fleeing their homeland in such large numbers (relatively) though of course it is only those who can afford this that do so. The USA is not in nearly such a fix, socially speaking, as some would want us to believe. It has always been a contrarian place. The “super power” status imposed on it by its wilful complicity in the destruction of rival “European” empires has proved to much for it, I think. (That’s not to say European imperialism was a universal benefit. It was as much of a Curate’s egg as any human endeavour.)

    I think America is done. It will be two generations before the inevitable result of that, the final sidelining of European enlightenment and its replacement by a motive force whose shape and form we do not yet know, becomes fully visible.

    On your central point, the question how wide is “WE” and how complete is “ME”, I don’t think there is yet a consensus. Most people think ME before WE and indeed that’s sensible, since it is frankly impossible to look after WE unless first you look after your ME. Most people, too, do not tend to think broadly as, for example, you and I do. Life imposes stricter boundaries on those who have or assume duties at the hearth. It’s not necessarily that you and I are free spirits (you may be; I would have serious doubts about my qualifications) but that left brains think better, more broadly, laterally as well as literally, beyond boundaries by choice, and are not maths-bound like right-brainers. The world needs both.

    It also needs wonderful movies such as Life is Beautiful, on which I agree with you: it is an incredible exploration of Big WE and Complete ME.

    There is any number of passable bottles of wine, this side of the big water, through which we might navigate that conversation. It would be fun to do so.

  9. I totally agree with the comments about America. It’s such a shame and what bothers me the most is that the majority of my own family don’t see it. They even voted for the guy who is helping with the dismantling. So, they view my husband and I as deserters it seems. Oh well. We are happy here and love our new life. We deliberately see the value in a large Ecuadorian home in case any of them want to add themselves to our residency, if their eyes ever open.

  10. I was looking for your post about the bad boys shooting it up in Vilcabamba and stumbled on this post. I really like your writing, and you have nailed it about American exiles. “It was around this time that the Americans were offered their epiphany. I saw it myself, but agreed not to notice.'” I noticed, got involved and have paid a lot of the consequences. It is like once you see it, really see it, you cannot really turn back without suffering as a real hypocrite. I’ve been out of the US almost 15 years now, teaching and living around Asia and the Middle East. Now I have been traveling around South America since the beginning of the year. I wanted to dislike Vilcabamba – too many cashed up expats who never had to get the epiphany, and too much of the new age, druggy crowd. But I like it. I may return when I am able. I have used up all my available travel time for Ecuador for the year. Anyway, I hope you are still there and writing about the place.

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