The trip to Salinas confirmed that, while the Pacific coast of Ecuador is idyllic and beautiful, it is not the place we want to make our home. We had such a lovely visit to Hotel Playa Canela that we were sorely tempted to stay. However, the general ambience of Salinas was a bit too sedate for us, and the ever-present threat of more horrific earthquakes had us jumpy; we knew we’d never be able to relax fully there. Sure enough, the very day we left, the three-story Aguapen building a few blocks away, which was the landmark for taxistas to turn off to get to the hotel, was evacuated due to a 4.7 earthquake. We saw it in the news when we got home and it confirmed our decision not to stay.
Our driver and friend Emilio Morocho picked us up and drove us uneventfully over the Cajas to Cuenca. All the landslides and washouts had been stabilized and clearly marked, and there was no mist or fog, so it was not scary at all (well, except for the occasional Ecuadorian driver, but that’s another story). Emilio is a safe driver and an interesting conversationalist, so the time passed quickly.
I had really enjoyed the way I felt during my ten days in Salinas. At sea level, my heart pumps the way it should and my blood pressure is low with no medication. My hacking cough virtually disappeared. The heat worked its way into my joints and I limbered up, doing yoga in the sunshine every day.
There is one pass on the trip which tops out at around 13,000 feet. As we ascended past 6,000 feet, I noticed my vision turning from brightly colored to shades of grey and beige. I started to have a feeling of anxiety and sadness. My chest began to tighten, my pulse to race, and my breath to shorten. Right around 12,000 feet, I began to be racked by paroxysmic coughing as my heart skipped beats. I could not stop honking and hacking; Steve and Emilio became alarmed.
“Do you want me stop?” Emilio asked.
“No!” I shouted between coughs. More gently, “No, please keep going. I just need to get down!” I really was consumed by a panicky need to get to a lower altitude right away without delay. I covered my face with my sweatshirt; rebreathing the warm, moist air seemed to open up the passages in my lungs and relieve some of the pressure. The cough subsided to the point I could carry on a conversation again. I imagine rebreathing some carbon dioxide probably helped with the anoxic reflexes of my internal organs as well.
We began the slow, stepwise descent, and soon we were in the suburbs of Cuenca. The distinctive mix of bushes and eucalyptus trees wove among gurgling rivers. Little fincas gave way to little neighborhoods of family homes, cows grazed in the meadows, children walked by the roadside, and suddenly I found myself sobbing.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Steve asked.
“I just realized I am coming home to Cuenca for the laaaaast tiiiime!” I wailed. “It’s so beautiful here and it isn’t going to be my home anymore!”
Cuenca Hermosa. The beautiful city, cradle of poets and scholars. The streets that ring with music and fireworks. The smiles of children and students and cholas in their bright bollera skirts and paja toquilla hats. The parks and rivers, graffiti art, free symphonies, sunshine and rain between the mountain peaks. I fell in love with this city 18 months ago and couldn’t wait to move here, to immerse myself in the culture and language and architecture of this ancient, modern enclave tucked into a valley of the High Andes. I dove in with full commitment. It seemed so ironic that I gave my emotional heart to this city, and this city is damaging my physical heart. Part of my spirit will always remain here.
How I struggled against admitting that the altitude was making me sick! As time went on, though, and one problem led to another, I grew weaker and weaker. I spent more time in bed or closed up in my office with a heater and humidifier than I did enjoying the beauty around me. My walks, which had at first expanded from half a mile, until gradually I was averaging 4 miles a day, became sequences of wobbly pauses. A mile in a day would leave me unable to stand at the kitchen counter. Finally, I had no choice but to acknowledge that, although the health care here is excellent and inexpensive, if I stayed here I would grow increasingly abjectly reliant on that medicine. One positive thing has come of it: my post about the medical effects of high altitude has helped several of my compatriots, who have written to thank me for the information to help them and their doctors understand the mysterious health problems that had been plaguing them. I miss the feeling of helping patients sometimes, so this felt good.
The children and siblings have been informed. The items we are selling have been listed online. Packing boxes are stacked in the corner and we have an appointment with the international mover. My flight and hotel are booked. I visited the vet today about getting the forms to take my cat back to the USA. I’ve made coffee dates with the friends I’ve made here in Cuenca to see them one last time.
This is really happening. I am returning to the land of my birth. I can’t wait to hug my kids again. I am excited to feel the open road beneath my wheels and the open sky beneath my wings. I will feel safer knowing that I am living somewhere where the right to self-defense is taken seriously. And, yes, I am looking forward to the cushy conveniences that so many of us take for granted in our peculiar sphere of wealth and privilege. Next post I will be writing more about the things I look forward to in our new, new life.
New life, Take Two. Roll camera!