At breakfast at the Inkaterra Hotel in Aguas Calientes, Peru I chatted with an Argentinian woman who seemed quite willing to speak to strangers.
"What do you think of Peru?" I asked.
Without hesitation she answered, counting on the fingers of her hand, "One, it is a very beautiful country. Two, it is a very poor country. Three, it is a very repressed country."
The government, she explained, was not for the people but for the special interests.
Peruvians with whom I have spoken since tell me the Argentinian lady is exactly right. Now that we have landed in Cuenca, Ecuador, I see why they think so. Peru has the look of a country unable to finish anything. Everywhere strands of rebarb stick up from the rooftops of dingy looking houses. It is as if every town in Peru is having a bad hair day. Peru has the down and out look down pat.
Cuenca, Ecuador, on the other hand, is a beautiful city. In fact, one year it won the "cleanest city in Ecuador" award. It is known as the country's culture center. It is also the birthplace of Huayna Capac, the last independent Inca king, the king who died of the small pox the conquistadores brought with them along with their arbusquers.
In Cuenca there are no unfinished houses. The streets are clean as a whistle. It is a bustling, busy town populated by bustling, busy people and small children with almond colored eyes as big as marbles. It is one of the most popular expat cities in the world. A recent statistic said that there were over 5,000 expatriots living there now. I can believe it. Sitting in the airport at Quayaquil, Nancy and I struck up a conversation with a woman from California. We mentioned that we had just come from Cuenca. She said that she was moving there permanently. She said that she had spent the last several years searching and researching the internet for the best place to emigrate to given what she saw as America’s decline. Cuenca came up first on her list.
Ecuador is a country about the size of Nevada. Its principle exports are oil, roses and bananas. Oil is No. 1. In 2006 the Ecuadoran government imposed a windfall profits tax on American oil companies. The United States immediately suspended free trade negotiations. Since then, foreign investment in Ecuador has waned. So, too, has economic growth. But independence is flourishing.
Our guide in Cuenca tells us that emigration is a major event in the lives of Ecuadorians, to the point of breaking up families. She says that the Ecuadorian population of New York City is 1,000,000 (Wikipedia says 695,500.) As if to underscore her observation, a waiter at our hotel, the Santa Lucia, tells us that his mother is coming back to Ecuador—she is being deported—after living and working in the U.S. for 17 years. He says that when he was ten years old, she told him and his 12-year-old brother that she was leaving them to go to New York. The two boys were left to fend for themselves while their mother, pregnant at the time, went to New York where found work and sent back money. Now she is coming home again. Our waiter visited her in New York a few months back. Only then did he discover that he had a half-sister. She is sixteen years old, born in America and doesn't want to leave. These are the kinds of family fault lines that emigration has imposed on the country that has given us oil, roses, bananas and Christina Aguilera.
The United States-Ecuador connection is ubiquitous. We ask our guide in Guayaquil whether he has family in the United States.
“I have a brother and a sister,” he says, “They both are living in New York.”
Like our Cuenca waiter, they send money home. The sister teaches mathematics at Brooklyn College. Her monthly contribution is $250.
The impression I get is that if you scratch an Ecuadorian, you’ll find an American émigré close by.