It's interesting how we sometimes construct character and life for complete strangers; people we come across on trains, or buses, or in hotels. Most of it is pure fable, but not all of it. We can tell a lot from observation, from clothing, from what we see in a person's bearing – and that's without including the sound or volume of a voice, or a person's body odour, even if it's simply the scent of a perfume or an aftershave.
The four people sitting at the table next to me at breakfast in Quito were American by their accents; two women, and two men. Both men were well into middle age. One of them looked as if he'd been in the military. He was tall, slim, in neat grey slacks and a sports shirt. He had short grey hair, clipped moustache, an erect bearing and he looked fit. The woman with him was about the same age, not as tall. She was well-dressed, well-groomed, with no sign of grey in her hair. They looked like man and wife, but I don't think they spoke to one another at any length during breakfast.
The other two at the table were quite different. The man was about the same age, but quite without the military appearance. He was a little bit overweight, and casually dressed in a red t-shirt and baggy blue jeans. The woman with him was younger – early-30s, attractive, and dressed in blue jeans and a sports shirt. She had dark hair, her English was accent-less. I didn't pay attention to the conversation between them, except to note that it was easy and familiar – relaxed.
The military American paid no attention to me at all. The second man watched me as I walked over to the buffet to help myself to over-cooked scrambled eggs, sausage and coffee. It was quite a thorough appraisal. I caught his eye and nodded at him. He nodded back. I thought that if he had been in the military he'd have been in intelligence.
The first two, the military-looking one and his companion, left first. The other two stayed and talked for about five more minutes. It was hard to tell what the relationship was, but it seemed as if they'd known each other for a long time.
Quito sits at a little under 10,000 feet above sea level. The altitude takes a bit of getting used to and the weather patterns are different than they are at sea level, where I normally live. But the next day was sunny and warm, with a bit of cloud down in the valley. While I was waiting in front of the small hotel for my colleague Diego, one of the Americans I'd seen at breakfast the day before came outside – the one with whom I had exchanged a cordial nod of the head.
I was wearing a black sports shirt with the word 'Jura' printed on it. The American asked me if that's where I came from.
'No,' I said, 'but I know Jura quite well'.
'It's a nice Scotch,' he said.
I asked him where he lived in the United States. 'Orange County, California,' he said. It was his first visit to Ecuador. He liked it. He thought Ecuador was an easy transition for Americans, particularly since the country had adopted the US dollar as its national currency some years before. 'There are no calculations involved,' he said, 'and the prices here are reasonable'.
He told me he'd been to Edinburgh, and he loved the city. Then he mentioned Alex Salmond; not in any particular sense, simply to ask if he was still active in Scottish politics. It surprised me. I didn't think many Americans would be that familiar with Scottish political figures.
'Salmond's had some interesting jousts with your current president,' I said.
The American laughed. But we didn't go down the Donald Trump road in our conversation – or the Alex Salmond street. We didn't have to.
It was only a brief encounter, but I liked him. No artifice, no sense of entitlement, and a thoughtful intelligence. More than that, he was interested in the world around him; the world outside the United States. It reminded me that an awful lot of Americans are like that, and that the rest of us are just as capable as they are of making profound errors in who they elect to run their governments. It reminded me too, that of all the countries and cities I've visited, I've rarely encountered greater, more genuine generosity than I have from the people I've met in the United States. It's not always easy to remember that when we tune in to the news every day, but it's worth reminding ourselves that we're not always who we elect to represent us.
Increasing numbers of Americans are discovering Ecuador. The country seems safe, at least in the mountains and along the coast. And the United States can sometimes be a pitiless country in which to live. In a review of the book 'Gringolandia: Lifestyle Migration Under Late Capitalism' by the Canadian sociologist Matthew Hayes, Max Holleran spoke of the volume of Americans who have migrated in recent years to live in South America. In setting out the article, he wrote of the difficulties many Americans are facing in trying to maintain a middle-class lifestyle into their retirement years. He also referred to 'the stark inequality between wealthy countries that produce expats
and poorer countries that send migrants
Many of these American migrants, the article pointed out, are people who had been among the wealthiest 20% of Americans up until the stock market crash of 2008. After that 'free market' catastrophe they had found themselves among the lower percentiles in terms of American wealth. Now past retirement age, they could no longer afford the rising cost of living in some parts of their country nor, most importantly, the health insurance premiums they were facing.
A surprising number of these Americans have moved to cities like Cuenca, the old Inca capital. Cuenca is a small city – and now a World Heritage Site – in the southern part of Ecuador with a palpable European feel to it. Thousands of migrants from North America have found property there to be affordable, the lifestyle to be relatively stress-free, and the cost of living and medical services to be much less expensive than in the United States. It's a trade-off with family and friends sometimes, but few of these American economic migrants appear to be expressing regret.