Yeah, I know, it’s been a while. The thread of my story has fallen by the way side because I’ve been too busy with the stones. The wonderful, beautiful, fantastic pile of stones. In a couple more months, I’ll have them all put together. Hopefully my final creations will be worthy of the rocks I’m working with. Then I will have more time and energy for these travel stories… this travel story. My never ending ongoing travel story. In the meantime, I will continue posting old stories from my archives…
Vilcabamba, Ecuador; March 1, 2011
“I came here to escape the shit. 2012! Maybe sooner, maybe later. But one way or another, it’s going to happen. Total financial collapse; ecological disaster, world war III. Western civilization is going down and Vilcabamba Ecuador is the last best place to be to survive the chaos that is going to happen.” The speaker is a retired American. He’s about 70 years old, a bit fat and balding. He has the look of a self-satisfied successful man. He goes on to tell me that he bought property in Vilcabamba this past year and he is using cheap local labor to build his earth ship survival home. I sit back in my chair and sip at my beer. I try to wrap my brain around this bizarre Vilcabamba reality…
When Ms. B. and I arrive in Vilcabamba, it’s about 10:30 at night on a Sunday and the town is quiet and fairly dark. We are tired after our long journey from Peru and we need a place to stay. The first two we look at are closed and dark and the next one is fully occupied. We find a room at Jardin Escondido but it costs 30 dollars a night. It’s a nice room, but way over budget. We take it because we are tired and don’t want to search anymore. The morning is slightly bizarre. Breakfast is included with the room and we are served this awesome morning meal on the patio in a wonderfully lush garden. The other diners in this patio garden are middle aged typical tourists. A taxi arrives to take one group to the airport and they roll their big luggage out on wheels. I feel out of place. The place is nice…real nice… But the atmosphere is disturbing my reality. I’ve been to Vilcabamba twice before; in 2000 and 1993. My memory of the place involves cheap bohemian huts surrounded by paradise, lots of weed and San Pedro cactus and bizarre international hippies trying to adapt to the environment of Southern Ecuador. Now, however, I feel sort of like I’m in a Bed and Breakfast in northern California. The coffee is healthy organic, the bread is home made, the garden is luscious and beautiful and the entire set is very well designed. It just doesn’t seem like Vilcabamba. I want a dirty Bohemian artsy cheap place to stay.
So we check out after breakfast and move to a place called the Rumi-Wilco Eco lodge. It only costs 7 dollars a person and we get our own little adobe hut to stay in. The bathrooms are shared and there is no restaurant but they do have a communal kitchen we are free to use. Most importantly, however, is the place is located about a kilometer outside of town, above a path that follows a river and it is set in the midst of a nature reserve. The reserve is quite literally a jungle paradise with walking trails and bathing spots on the river. The other people staying there are mostly world traveler types. All I need is some weed and I’m going to love this place.
Unfortunately, I have lousy luck in the weed department. I can’t believe it. I used to buy weed from a downtown shop here and now I can’t find it anywhere. Everyone says it’s a fluke. The week before, the biggest pot dealer in town got busted so now everyone is paranoid. Accordingly, the supply is temporarily dried up. It should start flowing again soon but no one seems to know when. I hear this same story several times in the next few days so I assume it is true. But nevertheless I can’t help but think that it’s some kind of twisted karmic curse. Here I am in paradise but I can’t smoke weed.
Actually, the truth is… Vilcabamba is a bit like an absurd metaphor spinning out of control. A symbol perhaps of the ongoing disaster that slowly but surely befalls the whole world. Vilcabamba is paradise in a geographical sense. It has a perfect climate so everything grows here; passion fruit and coffee; sugar cane and mangos, bananas and coconuts, tobacco and marijuana. It has green hills and clean rivers and waterfalls and hiking trails. In historical terms, the sacred valley of Vilcabamba has also metaphorically represented an ideal, paradaisical place that is hard to find and hard to get to. The oldest people in the world live there. The waters are special with holy healing powers. There something about the sacred mountain of Mandango that towers above the town too. And of course there is the ever abundant presence of the very hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus. Don’t you see? It has all the ingredients. It’s the perfect setting for the story of humanity to unfold.
First came the prophet. An American character named Johnny Lovewisdom stumbled upon the sacred valley and decided it was the perfect location to establish his fruitatarian ideology. .He was followed by a collection of international hippies looking for paradise. They were followed by adventurer travelers and artists and college student backpackers. Then, well… they paved the road and built an airport. So on came the vacationers, the tourists and now finally the retirees. Put simply, the civilized world has taken over Vilcabamba and now it seems like paradise no more.
I hear a bout the 2012 scenario at least five times. Lots of people come here to escape the coming apocalypse. Apparently, Vilcabamba is the last best great place to be. And while these people are here escaping the western world, they re create the western world all around them. They exploit the cheap labor to build earth ships and villas and compounds and mansions. They have taken over the main square with fancy international style restaurants and modern cultivated guest houses. They speculate on real estate. There’s a big boom going on. The town is “developing” so fast you can hardly keep track.
Anyway, I digress. The point is, Ms. B. and I have a wonderful time. It is, after all, an environmental paradise. We wander around the green hills and bathe in the rivers. We eat in the good international style restaurants and we relax in hammocks that swing within a jungle paradise. Life is good.
It’s on the morning of the third day that I hear about the robberies and crimes that have plagued Vilcabamba. I’m making morning coffee in the communal kitchen when I enter into a discussions with Alicia, one of the Argentine owners of the EcoLodge and another world traveler from Australia named Deane. Alicia tells us that two nights before someone stole her washing machine in the middle of the night while she and her husband were sleeping. This is an incredible story. Alicia’a home is located in the reserve. It’s built upon stilts in dense jungle and the very heavy washing machine was kept directly underneath the home. There’s no road; just a dirt track maybe suitable for a motorcycle or mule. How did the criminals move a whole washing machine quietly through the jungle? It’s a crazy concept to wrap your head around but it’s true. And as it turns out, Alicia’s stolen washing machine is just a tiny part of a real big problem.
Lots of people get robbed in Vilcabamba. Actually, to be more specific, lots of foreigners who have moved to Vilcabamba have been robbed. There have been rapes and robberies at gunpoint. There have been raided houses and invaded houses. The story is that professional gangs from the relatively nearby city of Loja are targeting the wealthy foreigners who are moving into the sacred valley. And the local police are in on it with the professional gangs. Some of the settling foreigners have been frightened in to moving away. Others have now formed a kind of gringo patrol. With walkie-talkies and organized assignments, the group checks on each other’s property. Is this a battle for control of paradise?
Even crazier, in a metaphorical sense, are the armed robberies of tourists on the sacred mountain of Mandango. A short time ago, there were a whole bunch of armed robberies on the trail to the top. Eventually, they caught someone and there have not been any robberies recently. Nevertheless, the cloud of possible robbery puts a strange twist on a quest that should be sacred.
When Ms. B. and I decide to hike the holy mountain, it’s on the 4th day of our stay. We leave most of our valuables in the room and we take nothing with us that we are not prepared to lose should a villain or criminal come waving a gun our way. After a good breakfast, we begin our walk. It’s very hot and a bit dusty, especially as we walk down the dirt road. At the beginning of the trail there’s an entrance booth, an admission fee of two dollars and the beginnings of a nice tourist restaurant marking the spot. Isn’t that nice, a brand new tourist trap is in the early stages of development. We pay our two bucks each, climb the stone steps, turn right, turn left and continue on the dirt path. After about 50 meters there’s a fence and a gate and a sign explaining that this is the end of the commercial establishment. After that, the real world begins.
The first part of the trail is rather steep. It climbs ever upward through a grove of small trees. The way is beautiful but in the back of my mind I think about robbery. I don’t want to think about it. But I can’t help myself. I just do. I’ve heard the stories and the stories effect me. We haven’t been walking long when I decide to pick up a rock. Not a big rock; about the size of a grapefruit but solid as a bowling ball. Honestly, when I first pick up the rock, it never even occurs to me that a rock might be a weapon. I just like rocks. Like them a lot. I like to put them together and create things. I like to hold them in my hands. I haven’t had much of a chance to do that lately because I haven’t been working. I see a rock I like so I pick it up. I hold it in my hand as I walk. I look at it. I toss it up in the air and catch it again. I toss it back and forth between my hands. It’s a good size; comfortable to play with. It’s an easy walk to the top without a big pack. I need a workout for my arms. I have to get in shape for stone season. Why not carry a grapefruit sized rock all the way up the sacred mountain?
At what point do I think of the rock as a weapon? Realistically, it’s not a particularly good weapon. It certainly would not do much good against a man with a gun. And I’m definitely not wishing or hoping or thinking about actually using it. As a matter of fact, I’m clearly hoping a situation requiring it’s use will never arise. Actually, the visible presence of the rock may serve as some kind of deterrent. After all, a smart criminal choosing a victim is a lot less likely to attack a big strong man with a rock in his hand than a frail old man with a shoulder bag. So to some degree, the presence of the rock in my hand probably makes us objectively safer. Nevertheless, from the moment I think of the rock in my hand as a weapon, I feel significantly less safe. Why is that?
The scenarios unfold inside my head. How would I handle a confrontation. An aggressive attitude invites aggression. The presence of weapons brings on attacks. It’s a dynamic universe with symbiotic relations and karmic connections. I want to live in a peaceful world. This is a rock rather than a weapon. Why can’t I just enjoy the walk in the hills? Why do I have to think about the possibility of robbery? Is it because of Ms. B.? Does her presence require more protection and concern? I have a woman so now I need a weapon. No, that can’t be it. It’s the stories, the tales and the true history. If only I could let go of this lurking anxiety.
We don’t get robbed. We make it to the top of the sacred mountain and have a wonderful afternoon. From our vantage point up there we have a perfect view of the entire sacred valley. And it really is quite a magical place. It’s hard to put in words or explain but something about the shape and shade and color of the hills just brings forth notions of abundance and fertility. The human population is scattered throughout but somehow they seem but a small little subset of a much bigger thing. The valley encompasses the humans within its bosom. The humans don’t own the valley… or so it seems.
Shortly after our arrival on the top, we are joined by four other hikers. They are young, post graduate backpackers; 3 women and 1 man. They take a quick look at the view, have Ms. B. snap a group photo of them, sip some water and then charge enthusiastically off in the direction of their next destination. They are visible as they hike along the ridge for a while but then they disappear. We wonder where they are going but we had not asked. We think about trying to follow them to see where the trail will lead but we are low on water and not in the mood to get lost so we stay on the top of the ridge and do not wander far from the main trail. We go back down the way we came up and I drop off the rock at the entrance. Obviously, I didn’t need the rock for protection. The trail was perfectly safe. Those 4 young backpackers didn’t carry any weapons or rocks. We didn’t encounter any locals at all and we certainly didn’t see any bandits or criminals. The worry was all in my head. And the presence of a weapon (or the thought of a weapon) in my hand increased the worry in my head. It undermined the entire sacred mountain experience. Let go of fear, be free, you are one with the world… It’s hard to be one with the world if you are armed against it.
Anyway, the overall experience was quite fun and we make it back to the plaza in town to have ourselves a mighty fine mid afternoon lunch in a quality restaurant. After lunch, we return to Rumi Wilco for a splash in the river and a swing in the hammocks. It really is hard to complain about living the good life here in Vilcabamba. Nevertheless, I do complain.
I complain, mostly, because I can’t find any marijuana. It’s like some kind of curse. It should be all around me but it’s nowhere. In the evening, Ms. B. stays in the room and I go out in search of it. Once again, I don’t find any but I do find a group of local expats drinking beer and gossiping at the gringo watering hole. I swear this town has more drama than your average day time soap opera. The story I hear the most about is the local Ecuadoran guy who owns a hostel and he used horse tranquilizers to date rape blonde haired blue eyed gringo traveling chicks. Apparently, he never got busted because he is well-connected with the cops. Actually, that’s the biggest complaint of all. The local cops do nothing to protect or help the gringo ex-pats. That’s why they had to form their own patrol to protect their property. A few years back, a gringo got murdered and although everyone seemed to know who did it, no one was arrested. And then, another gringo died in a suspicious bicycle accident and there was no investigation. The complaints go on and on. The Ecuadorans are xenophobic. They don’t like white people. There have been threatening letters sent to every single ex-pat living in the valley. But still, the cops do nothing. It seems as if the only crimes the cops pursue are the crimes committed by gringos. That’s why there’s no weed in town. The cops do nothing about murder, rape and robbery, but they don’t hesitate to bust the foreign pot dealer.
The battle between the gringos, the locals and the cops is actually only part of the story. There is also great animosity between the gringos who have lived here a long time and the new wave of mostly American retirees who have recently moved in. Apparently, the newcomers are driving up property prices so locals can no longer afford to live here. Capitalism has invaded the sacred valley with a boom of property speculation. And the newcomers build big mansions and villas that attract the criminal gangs from Loja. The newcomers don’t even bother to learn Spanish or attempt to assimilate with their neighbors in any way. It seems almost as if a separate and insulated gringo reality is being super-imposed upon the Sacred Valley.
It’s a Saturday night when Ms. B. and I decide to go out and hear some live music. First we go to a gringo bar in the main square for a few warm-up drinks. I can hardly believe the scene I see. I remember Vilcabamba as a peaceful little Ecuadoran town with a few international hippies living in the surrounding hills. Nowadays, on a Saturday night, the main square is rocking. Drunk gringos are everywhere, loud music spills out of bars and there are people swarming in the streets. It’s a party like you see in so many other party towns on the planet.
Now don’t get me wrong. I like to party. And I do like gringos… I am one after all. It’s just that the atmosphere in Vilcabamba on this Saturday night is so inconsistent with my memory of the place that I have a hard time assimilating the experience. After our warm up drinks in the plaza, we catch a ride with Deane on his motorcycle (me on the back, Ms. B. in the side car) to the bar for the live music. The bar is gringo owned and gringo occupied. It’s really a great place. It’s exactly the kind of place that I like to hang out in. Me, Pat, the gringo that is. The whole scene sort of reminds me of a night out at the Autumn Café back in my home town of Oneonta, NY. We’ve been in Vilcabamba for a week now so we are starting to recognize the local characters. There’s juice lady and cheese man; the karaoke kid and the gay professor; there’s the earth ship builder and the apocalyptic paralegal. Like every town every where in the world, I look closely and the web of stories entangles me; the drama and comedy of human social interaction; the madness and absurdity of the crazy western world. It really is a wonderful and beautiful and interesting thing… But it sure doesn’t seem like paradise anymore.