Oct
09
2009

Vilcabamba Diary

More from the wilds of Vilcabamba, southern Ecuador. I thought sharing some random encounters with you might give some insight into the life down here.

8/14:
Got into an argument with a Canadian anarcho-capitalist about political systems. He honestly believes that the world would be a better place if all governments were eliminated and every public service became privatized – schools, roads, hospitals, police, everything. [Here is a great chart of what America would look like under that system.] He makes a point that the state uses violence and coercion to enforce laws – but I’m not sure those would go away under a private system. Every time an industry has been deregulated in the U.S. it has proven worse for the consumer. An anarcho-capitalist society would be a wonderful place for those with money, that’s clear – and the rest of us would become more and more destitute! The question is, would you rather be poor in a capitalist country or in a socialist one? Because in my view, “the strongest nation is the one that takes care of it’s weakest members”. The answer is obvious to me – Cuba (for example) treats their poor far better than the United States does – free, excellent health care and education for all. The one thing we agreed on is that the U.S. does not currently have a capitalist economy – it’s corporatist – with limited liability preventing true capitalism from operating. He argues that in a true capitalist society, market forces would eliminate practices we currently label as evils of capitalism. For example, without the safety net of limited liability, the repercussions following an Exxon Valdez-type environmental disaster would put the company out of business rather than being protected by a legal framework that favor corporate interests above all else.

A great band played at the corner bar tonight and all the South American hippies that camp in the hills surrounding came out to dance.
I keep hearing about questionable murders and suicides of people who “knew too much”… I think it all revolves around the town rapist and his powerful family. There are apparently just three families that own most of the property and businesses (at least, pre-gringo influx).

8/16:
This town is so small that if you want to go to visit a friend, all you have to say to the taxi driver is “Blair’s house, please” – and they know where to go. There are about a dozen or so taxis which are actually 4×4 pickup trucks in order to get around on the rough dirt roads.

I keep taking hikes in the late afternoon and ending up in the middle of nowhere after dark. The first time I got a bit nervous since I was on the side of a ridge full of brambles, miles and many valleys away from town. But I calmed myself down and simply backtracked the way I’d come, although it was a bit of a challenge in the dark. [I often subconsciously put myself in challenging situations simply to overcome them.] Returning to town from these night walks I’ve often accidentally come upon young couples courting on the edge of town. Sorry, guys!
The hiking here is superb – almost any direction you go, there is a different type of terrain just minutes from town. It’s great not having to organize a tour or take transport to begin a hike.

8/20:
Met a guy tonight from Silicon Valley who retired at 44 with multiple degrees and who it turns out is a paranoid conspiracy theorist. He runs one of the most popular 9/11 “truth” web sites, and believes that Wikipedia is “being controlled” because they still label it the “9/11 conspiracy theory”, despite the “overwhelming” evidence to the contrary. “Truthers” believe that the government/mass media/scientific explanation is the conspiracy, not the other way round. Leaving aside whether 9/11 was an inside job or not, I tried to explain the meaning of “theory” – as in, the theory of relativity is still a theory even though it’s the accepted truth of modern science. Regarding Wikipedia being “controlled”, I know for a fact this is not true – the stewards of Wikimedia take any kind of undue influence, governmental or otherwise, very seriously and have numerous safeguards against such intrusion.

This guy proceeds to explain to me that AIDS was created by the U.S. Government at Fort Dixon, that the “mandatory” inoculations for H1N1 are actually nanobots or chips that will later be activated, and that the Rothschilds run everything, start wars, choose presidents and prime ministers and pit countries against each other for profit. I asked how people like Noam Chomsky, who is so well-read and informed, could not know of all this going on. He says that Chomsky and others like him are “gatekeepers” – someone who is allowed to satisfy the rebels, but whom they know won’t go too far (and if he does, he’ll be eliminated).

Did you know that fluoridated water calcifies our pineal gland , thus breaking down our resistance to authority? [The pineal gland, of course, is the third eye, sixth chakra, and correlates to the location of the Great Pyramid in the center of the physical planet. When "awakened", it acts as a "stargate" that "sees beyond Space-Time into Time-Space". Just gotta raise your frequency, baby!] He developed this theory when he noticed that country people raised on well water (like him) are more enlightened, while city folk (raised on fluoridated water) are “sheeple“. Actually, I’d say it’s the other way round – urban populations tend to be better educated, thus better equipped to reason and analyze. But then, I’m probably being controlled to say that.
OK – I just looked up fluoridation, and it turns out it’s naturally occurring in water, especially in mountainous regions. Municipalities often have to de-fluorinate water, which shoots down his entire premise. Jeezus.
Other subjects we breezed over: the “Greys” (an alien race), “hermeneutic vibrations”, “thought planes“, the fact that Obamba’s cabinet are Mossad agents, and other fascinating theories truths. When I jokingly called him crazy at one point he got angry and defensive, explaining that his brother tried to have him committed.

I’m intrigued to hear all this stuff and try to approach everything with an open mind, but cannot stand it when the person I’m talking to refuses to do the same. These people claim they’re free thinkers, yet they can’t deal with actual dialog and debate. Any criticism or presentation of other theories or explanations is shut down if it doesn’t fit into their pre-existing world view. I’m all for questioning the government, but shouldn’t we be equally questioning of other conspiracy theorists? It’s this lack of critical thinking that gets me fed up with these conversations. That and the fact that they’re all men over 50 who only talk AT you, rather than WITH you.

8/22:
Met a different Canadian who has been here about a decade. He gave me a brief tour of the houses he’s built, each time using different construction techniques. We had a nice chat that went from the afternoon into the night. I’m working on a much longer blog post about all the marvelous conspiracy theories I keep hearing about, but I’ll just mention one more as a teaser. This man introduced me to the concept of chemtrails – the idea that regular contrails (the vapor trail occasionally left by jets in the sky) are not so benign after all. Apparently in recent years there has been an uptick in the number of contrails being noticed (that couldn’t possibly have any other explanation, like say, new flight routes, or simply more people looking for them). The fear is that the government is spraying chemicals (or nanobots) on the populace, slowly poisoning us. Nevermind questioning why they would do it in broad daylight instead of under cover of darkness. Or the fact that spraying from 30,000 feet would be ineffective due to wind dispersal (aerial spraying has to be done between 30′-150′ to be effective). Or the fact that ultraviolet light from the sun would render any biological agent inert. Despite common sense, the laws of physics, and Occam’s Razor , folks here believe the government is engaging in population control. Which is one reason they left North America.

There is a sense of humor and fun missing from these people, and that makes me sad. It’s a very dismal view of the world. Call me Pollyanna, but I prefer to live in a world where people are generally good-hearted and look out for one another, as we have for thousands of years.
Another thing bothering me about the CT’s around here is their strong anti-intellectualist bent. They actually look down on you the more education you have.. as if the universities of the world are somehow indoctrinating people into complicity, rather than teaching one how to think and reason.

Many people here are worried that we’re only seeing the beginning of the economic crisis – that the world’s economies will crash soon, and crash so hard that only those prepared will survive. Most of these folks keep their wealth in the form of gold or precious stones (although I’m fond of pointing out that gold is just as illusory as currency – if everyone decides tomorrow that gold is worth a nickel, then it’s only worth a nickel. For instance, the Incans valued vicuña wool higher than gold. Much more useful up in the Andes.) A number of survivalists living in the mountains around here are stockpiling food, water, and possibly weapons – although they don’t seem to be of the violent sort that you find in North America.

It’s funny – back home in the States, I was considered fairly radical / anti-establishment. Here, I’m considered conservative / mainstream. This is also the first and only place on my trip I’ve encountered right-wingers. I used to think they didn’t travel – just stayed home with their “guns and religion” as our president so succinctly put it. But for whatever reason, they’re attracted to Vilcabamba.

Tonight I met an older American woman who lives up in the mountains, only coming into town once a week to sell bread and granola that she makes. Through her I met a young American woman who lives four hours (by horse) up the mountain, only coming down every couple of weeks to resupply. Wow, talk about getting away from it all.

Many of these expats I’ve met at a gringo hangout called Charlito’s, run by a friendly Alabamban/Virginian named Charlie. Charlie has led an interesting life all over the world.. we’re both men of the theatre, so we initially bonded over that. He is the perfect barman – there to listen or offer a bit of advice when needed or chiming in with a funny anecdote if a particular table becomes too sullen.

8/23:
The last two weeks of August is the procession of the Virgin of Cisne, a statue of the V.M. which is carried 70 km by foot to hang out in another church for two weeks before being carried back. They’ve been doing this for nearly 500 years. I decided not to participate in the walk, but I did go to the neighboring town of Malacatos for the party. It wasn’t too thrilling, just the usual crafts, bands, and junk food for the kids.

I promise to stop dwelling on these, but I just heard another juicy conspiracy theory – that the reason the U.S. switched from analog to digital television was to install cameras in the new equipment with which to spy on the populace. Why else would you need a converter box? Really, people – any six year old with a screwdriver can prove this one wrong. Not to mention the lack of upstream capability available over cable lines. It’s getting more and more difficult not to burst out laughing every time I hear a new one.

8/25:
Rode my first horse today! Loved it. I also met a lovely and slightly crazy (in a good way!) Australian woman named Ferne that I would end up spending the following three weeks with. A rather intense time, the days just slipped by. Ferne works in environmentalism, anthropology, food systems, and related subjects. She just came over from Venezuela where she was part of a delegation studying all that stuff. It was interesting hearing her pro-Chavez take on Venezuela.
In the following few weeks I went on two other horse trips. I’ve combined all these horse adventures into one blog post.

8/26:
It’s amazing the range of people who believe in conspiracy theories. Tonight Ferne and I hung out with a smart, savvy Australian realtor who despite his intelligent demeanor explained that Obama is being threatened by the powers that be into doing their will. Not mind control as some PCT’s have it, but old-fashioned coercion. This was in response to my proclamation that Obamba came out of left field, that his election was surely demonstration that democracy is alive and working. Not true, say the PCT’s (paranoid conspiracy theorists) – Obama was “chosen” back when he gave the DNC speech in 2004. Just look at his background for proof – Harvard educated (hmm, suspicious indeed), and wife Michelle has some connection to the Council on Foreign Relations. Proof indeed!

One of the CT’s I haven’t met yet is a former astronaut (well, he never actually went into space, but he was in the space program). He believes in “free energy” which the powers that be have been keeping suppressed for the profit motive.

Although I love the hotel I’ve been staying in ($12/night for a simple but nice private room including a great breakfast), I’ve decided to rent an apartment and stay in Vilcabamba another couple of weeks. Get caught up on the blog, study Spanish, and other things I keep putting off. [None of which I ended up doing!] I found a studio apartment (half of a duplex) for $150/month or $40/week that has a decent kitchen (although no oven), simple furnishings, bathroom, hammock. Only a couple of drawbacks I’ve found – due to the simple construction, there is no soundproofing between the neighbor’s and my apartment. You can hear every squeak and fart. I suppose we’ll just both pretend. The other drawback is again, due to the lack of sealing, all kinds of interesting critters make their way in. I keep finding rather large spiders, insects, and evidence of mice. Ah well, I guess I have my work cut out for me. But it’s wonderful having a kitchen again after a year on the road eating out. I can make a salad just the way I like it, burritos, pasta, omelets, juices, yes! Also fried green plantains, just the way George’s family taught me how in El Salvador.
The front yard has mandarin and lime trees, cool. I continue to be impressed by the aqueducts criss-crossing the town and surrounding hills. When you want to water your lawn, you simply go down to the gutter running alongside the street and stick a big rock into it to divert the water into the culvert running towards your house. No need to use tap water.

8/27:
Went into Loja today for supplies. Loja is the closest city, about an hour away. It’s funny how people around here are afraid of a city even of that tiny size. They think nothing of hiking for miles up in the mountains, yet tell me to take a cab 10 blocks in Loja. While shopping for housewares for the new apartment, I thought maybe I could pick up a cheap toaster or even a microwave oven. One gets deceived by prices down here – locally produced goods (like food) are incredibly cheap – but anything imported has huge duties imposed. The cheapest toaster oven was $50, the cheapest microwave $150. An iPhone is $699. Yikes. I’m not sure why the government would impose such enormous taxes that prevent most residents from being able to afford even simple appliances.

Speaking of prices and wages, guess what the average daily wage is here? $10-$12. Per day, not per hour. This is actually a living wage. Want a full-time cook? Gardener? Nanny? Construction crew for your new house? $12/day per person. Geez, no wonder so many gringos are moving here in droves.

Fed up with all the time and money spent in frustration at internet cafes (getting viruses on my camera cards, for ex.), I’ve decided to buy a netbook (small, cheap laptop). I went all over Loja comparing prices and models, but they’re all the same – I picked up an Acer AspireOne for $450. A bit frustrating, since this same computer goes for $300 in the States. That’s a couple less weeks of traveling I’ll be able to afford, but it’s worth it just to have something to write on anytime day or night.
<Begin tech rant> I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that most of the world uses Windows, and even some of the reasons for that. But I still hate it. It’s just so kludgy, it fights me at every turn. Constantly popping up error messages and annoying reminders, making me jump through hoops to do any simple task. But what I really don’t understand is why so many people still use Internet Explorer when it’s the slowest and most virus-prone browser out there – and the alternatives are free! My first order of business when I sit down at a computer is to download and install the latest version of Firefox and change all the privacy settings to maximum. People are so sloppy with public computers, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen other people’s mail simply because they didn’t quit the browser.  Anyway, this netbook not only came with Windows pre-installed, but the Latin American version – so I can’t even read it! First order of business? Wipe the disk clean and install Linux (specifically, Ubuntu netbook remix). I’ve been intrigued by Linux for years, so this is a good opportunity for me to learn it. So far it works fine, although it’s nowhere near as elegant as Mac OS X. <end tech rant>

8/28:
I’ve been looking to rent a bicycle for the time that I’m here and finally found one. The one bike shop in town wanted $30/week, which is absurd – for $90, I could buy a brand new mountain bike at the hardware store. But someone suggested I talk to a proprietor’s son who is going back to school. After a few tries, we settled on $15/week. The bike is a bit small for me, but will do fine for getting around town, running errands, and taking short trips into the surrounding hills.

During a walk around “the loop” (the paved road that circles the village) I came across these amazing birds:

8/29:
Had a housewarming party tonight for the new apartment. Not a lot of people showed up, but Ferne and I had a great time preparing hors d’œuvres and cocktails. Couldn’t find any twinkle lights in town, so I put dozens of candles around the perimeter which helped the dismal lighting situation.
My neighbor is an odd older German-Canadian fellow with just a few teeth left who is still suffering from the war. He’ll talk your ear off about all his health problems and yes, you guessed it, conspiracy theories.

9/3:
Ferne and I have been editing Gavin’s (the Kiwi cowboy I talked about in the last couple of posts) new book. This one is poetry – difficult to edit for content, but he definitely needed our help with the grammar, spelling and punctuation. He gave us a discount on a horse trip in exchange for all the work. I think it will come out well, I like a lot of the poems. I plan on recording Gavin reading them too, since his voice is so distinctive.

Another thing I love about this town: often I’ll find myself standing in the middle of the street chatting with someone (usually Gavin) and we don’t even bother moving to the sidewalk to get out of the way of approaching cars – they simply go around us. Finally I’ve found a place where pedestrians are more highly valued than automobiles!

Time is completely different here. Back in the rat race I inhabited a year ago, every hour of the day and every day of the week was planned and filled to the brim. I was busy, busy, busy. Here I might have one big thing I have to accomplish each day – whether it be laundry, groceries, or what have you. But never more than one. The rest of the day is filled with strolling, chatting, reading, and hanging out. Those of you who know my busy mind might think this would drive me crazy, but I find I get enough stimulus from the conversations and reading.
I had to laugh the other day – Ferne and I had three things planned in the coming week – I think it was two parties to attend and an errand to run at a specific time – and I got stressed. “This is why I left New York, so I wouldn’t have things on my calendar anymore! So I could have free time and not be committed to things!” That’s right, getting stressed over three appointments over the course of a week. Two of which were parties. It’s amazing how quickly one gets used to this lifestyle. I frequently forget what day it is, and am always shocked when a new month turns over.

9/5:
An Italian chef who lives in London but spends half the year here always throws a big pizza party for friends and neighbors just before returning to the UK. Ferne and I were invited along. It was fun seeing all the kids running about. A small group of them lit a rather large fire in the front yard until an adult nonchalantly told them to put it out, which they did by beating it with brushes. This supports my belief that kids should play with knives and fire so they learn how to manage these things rather than being taught that they’re scary and thereby won’t acquire the necessary skills they’ll need later in life. The pizza was sublime – best I’ve had in a long time. The guy has a real pizza oven in his kitchen and was cranking them out all night long.

For the past few weeks there has been a lot of drama surrounding Gavin’s English-language book about the history of gringos in Vilcabamba. He self-published the book (called Vilcaflor: Valley of the Rare Fruits) last year and it sat under the radar until he stirred up trouble by running the hotel rapist out of town (see my first post). The rapist’s family is very powerful, so in July they retaliated by badly translating sections of the book out of context (sections where he mentions prostitution and drug use in the town history) and anonymously posting these flyers around town. The local populace (including the all-powerful priest and his church) believe what the flyers say, and now they’re all mad at Gavin for giving the town a bad name. It all came to a head today when an article in the national newspaper La Hora trashed Gavin, smearing him with lies and innuendo. The article didn’t include a byline, quoted no sources, oh and guess which family owns the newspaper? They say they’re going to deport him, and G is afraid of going into Loja for fear he’ll be arrested and put in jail. I guess Ecuador doesn’t have the same lawful protections I’m used to like habeus corpus, free speech, and being innocent until proven guilty. The whole affair strikes at my sense of fairness – for all of Gavin’s faults (terrible drunk, belligerent, bad businessman, can’t organize his life to save his own skin), he’s got a good heart and has done great things for this town. Besides his horse tours that have won rave reviews in every guidebook for decades (thus attracting tourists, not driving them away as these scare-mongers say), he’s raised four local children, godfather to many more, volunteers fighting forest fires, and is clearly generally a good member of the community. We were all a bit worried how he was going to defend himself until an angel dropped out of nowhere – a lawyer that his publisher recommended has agreed to take on this case pro bono and is already crafting a nasty letter to the newspaper that quotes the constitution and demands a retraction.

9/6:
I’ve accidentally overstayed my visa. Crap. I had the date of September 8 in my head, since I entered the country on June 8 and it’s a 3-month visa. I was going to go to Cuenca tomorrow, spend the night, and get it renewed on the 8th (you have to do it the day it expires). But I just looked in my passport, and the stamp expired yesterday. I’m not too worried, though, as Gavin tells me that you can stay as long as you like and just pay a $200 fine on the way out. I’m bummed about losing that $200, but it could be worse I suppose.

9/8:
Went to a lovely yoga class today at the community center. $3 for a 2-hour class! All gringos, about 8 of us in total. I got emotional at one point and almost started crying. Don’t know what about, it wasn’t associated with any thoughts or imagery. They say emotions can be stored physically, so I must have hit a nerve thereby releasing something. Anyway, it felt so good to honor my body for once instead of abusing it or taking it for granted as I usually do.
The yoga teacher invited me back for the worldwide consciousness-raising meditation tomorrow at 9am on 9/9/09. In related news, 9/9/09 turned out to be the day that Steve Jobs made his first public appearance in six months since recovering from a liver transplant. COINCIDENCE? I think not!

I love the cheap prices around here – $10 for a good one-hour massage. 80?for a 32-oz. beer. $2.50 for a decent haircut. A bag of 50 oranges for $2.

9/10:
This area is historically known for the spiritual/medicinal/entheogenic San Pedro cactus which I tried yesterday (purely in the interest of research, mom!). This plant is similar to peyote in that it contains mescaline, which you’re probably familiar with from the writings of Aldous Huxley, Carlos Castaneda, and Hunter S. Thompson. I plan to write a detailed trip report about how exactly I prepared it and the details of the experience which I will post to the Vaults of Erowid forums. But in brief – while it wasn’t exactly fun (one normally vomits and I did), the overall the experience was generally positive. The reason traditional healers use this plant, Ayahuasca, and others is because it has the ability to “show you what you need to work on at this moment, even if it’s not necessarily what you want to work on” as one shaman put it to me.
All psychedelics lift the veil and reveal our subconscious allowing us to gain insight into relationships, ego, and so on – but mescaline seems to be more about this and less “hallucinogenic” than psilocybin or LSD. Err, or so I’m told!
Having said this, I did have a lot of very fast, overlapping visions of an interesting sort – Terry Gilliam meets Gerald Scarfe-type animations. According to Wikipedia, one unusual but unique characteristic of mescaline is the “geometricization” of three-dimensional objects – objects can appear flattened and distorted, similar to the presentation of a Cubist painting. Interestingly, these intricate geometric patterns show up in a variety of contexts (independent of mind-altering substances) in every culture, going back tens of thousands of years. It seems to be fundamental to our visual cortex.  Neurologist Oliver Sacks has done a lot of work in hallucinations of the sane (which are surprisingly common) and notes:

Geometric hallucinations [in mescal] are identical to those found in a variety of conditions: migraine, sensory deprivation, low blood sugar, fever, delirium, or the hypnopompic and hypnagogic states that come immediately before and after sleep… these hallucinations reflect the minute anatomical organization, the cytoarchitecture, of the primary visual cortex, including its columnar structure — and the ways in which the activity of millions of nerve cells organizes itself to produce complex and ever-changing patterns. We can actually see, through such hallucinations, something of the dynamics of a large population of living nerve cells and, in particular, the role of what mathematicians term deterministic chaos in allowing complex patterns of activity to emerge throughout the visual cortex. This activity operates at a basic cellular level, far beneath the level of personal experience. They are archetypes, in a way, universals of human experience.

Anyway, I didn’t have any great revelations of things I need to work on, which I took as a sign that I’m mentally and emotionally stable and in a good place in my life. I had a nice insight/confirmation that I am, and always have been, my own best friend/guide/teacher.

9/11:
My 38th birthday! Ferne cooked a lovely pancake breakfast, followed by more lazing around watching movies and reading conspiracy theories to each other from the web. It turns out today is also the birthday of Vilcabamba. This kicks off two weeks of partying around the central square – bands, skits, dancing, fireworks. My favorite part of all this is the “vaca loca” (“crazy cow”) – a cardboard/chicken wire/papier-mâché cow with dozens of fireworks, streamers, sparklers, bottle rockets, and roman candles attached to the outside of it going off at various angles. The cow is worn by a “vacadero” who after lighting the fireworks proceeds to charge through the crowd! People scream with delight as they run for their lives, narrowly avoiding being set on fire or burned. Wow. Wouldn’t find this in any industrialized nation!

Sometime this week Ferne and I went for a lovely bike ride ending up at a gated community built by and for gringos. Ugh. It’s having some trouble at the moment – apparently a lot of the lots were effectively double-sold. Since a bicycle has only two wheels, tell me how I managed to get four flat tyres this day?! This is in addition to the flat I got when I rented a bike my first week in town! Vicious spiky bramble plants grow around here that just love to rumble with passing inner tubes.

There have been a lot of wildfires this month in the hills surrounding Vilcabamba since it’s been so dry. Farmers usually light them on purpose to clear their fields. They somehow think the fire will go out on it’s own, or it will rain, or won’t spread. But it does, and a brush fire ensues. Lacking a fire department, it’s up to whomever to organize people to go fight it. Neighbors usually band together for the grueling effort that often takes all night.

WWOOFers are common around here, a lot of the organic farms rely on them for help. A variety of other volunteer organizations abound as well.

9/15:
Saw a flyer today for a meditation workshop centering around the “Violet Flame of Transmutation“. With a name like that, I just had to look it up. Turns out the Violet Flame is the 7th Ray of Divine Love and measures upward of 12 million bovis units! (I’m afraid to say that you and I probably only measure around 10,000 bovis units). Humans amaze me – even (especially) in spiritual aspects, we have the need to create hierarchies and scales with which to divide one another. Isn’t that a bit like marching in formation to watch the sunset?

My apartment is a veritable National Geographic – I keep finding different types of spiders and beetles and flying oddities I’ve never seen in my life. It would be neat to learn more about them.

I grew up thinking roosters only crowed at dawn. Not true – the ones around here crow all night long. You have to keep your windows closed just to get some sleep. I’ve also been hearing rustling at night out my back window. Hmm, is a peeping Tom creeping around? Nope – I look out the window to come face to face with an enormous cow. Huh. That’s a new one. It’s not like I’m living on a farm, but I guess that’s what you get in Latin America anywhere outside a large city – people keep livestock in their backyards.

9/17:
Just ran into my crazy neighbor and couldn’t escape the bullshit for 20 minutes. He’s all worried because the end is imminent – on Oct 15, the U.S. will begin “forced” inoculations. Those refusing will be arrested and put into “concentration camps”. Then “they” will begin the economic changes. What exactly this means was hard to get out of him – as if he hadn’t gotten to that part of the movie yet. His answers were very vague and rambling, but basically any money you have in a bank or in currency notes is not safe – we all need to invest our money into material goods – NOW.
Good grief. It’s no use trying to talk sense into these people, their world view is just so removed from reality. If you do try, they just look at you in pity with a smirk of superiority. Another day this same guy told me that President Eisenhower signed a contract with aliens that they later reneged on. I wonder which law firm the aliens engaged, they really ought to be disbarred.

9/19:
Happy one-year anniversary to me! One year ago I left the United States and my old life behind to begin this Latin American backpacking adventure. Seven countries, hundreds of hotel rooms and countless rich experiences later, I’m still going strong. Looking forward to seeing what the next year holds in store. I’m working on a contemplative blog post detailing why I left and how I did it.. look for that within the next few weeks.

9/20:
Today is Gavin’s 12-year old daughter’s birthday, and I’ve been invited to a BBQ party to celebrate. Mom (separated from Gavin) lives next to Johnny Lovewisedom’s old church (in which Gavin’s 22-year old daughter was born). I spent the first part of the day helping mom prep the food, idly chatting in Spanish. Whew, it’s been a long time! I am seriously rusty, pretty much only speaking English for the last six weeks. We all piled in the back of a pickup and rode up to the house. It’s a beautiful spot, nestled by a river with hundreds of fruit trees surrounding – mango, pineapple, rose apples, tropical plums, passion fruit, bananas, figs, tree tomatoes, avocados.. it’s still such a revelation to me that one can eat from the tree in the front yard rather than going to the supermarket. I spent a lot of the afternoon playing uncle to all the kids.. most of whom were girls, for some reason. They had a couple of trapezes hanging from trees that the girls liked to show off on.
I learned an Ecuadorian tradition when the time came to cut the cake: as the birthday girl (or boy) is blowing out the candles, those surrounding her push her face into the cake – getting frosting all over her face (and resulting in uproarious laughter by everyone)! I couldn’t figure out why she was so hesitant to blow out the candles. One of the gringo girls had just gotten a new puppy that she treats like a baby making all the adults roll their eyes. Even if it’s overboard coddling, it’s better than the abusive treatment dogs owned by the locals receive, most of whom look like emaciated street dogs even though do they have homes. Our favorite (because she’s chill and follows you around town) Roger nicknamed “Diamond Dog”, since she has differently colored eyes, just like David Bowie (who has an album of the same name on which he appears looking like a god dog).

A French family recently passed through town in an enormous fully-outfitted truck designed to get them through any terrain.. like if the Army or Hummer designed an RV/Winnebago. They’ve been on the road for almost two years now, going from Canada all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. What a cool way for the kids to grow up.

9/23:
Last night I had my second experience with the San Pedro cactus, this time with a shaman in a “sacred medicine journey” ceremony. Not strictly traditional since the shaman is an Austrian woman, but she’s been leading these ceremonies for over a decade here and is quite earnest and empathic. Although I had expected this experience to be stronger than the one I did on my own during the daytime, it actually turned out to be milder. I experienced a bit of synesthesia, but no real hallucinations (other than the fire toad I spent a while mentally conversing with!) The whole thing is a bit like lucid dreaming except that you’re clearly able to function and recognize what is internal and what is external. I spent most of the night lying on the ground staring into the fire (eight of us surrounded a big fire pit) thinking of archetypes, family, and all my good friends over the years. Again, good confirmation of the life I’ve led and the people I’ve known. Also good reminders of stuff I learned at Landmark – letting go of the idea that “something is wrong here” – I am exactly where I need to be at this moment.  The ceremony included a number of “cleansing” rituals including drums and shakers and offerings to Mother Earth which usually make me gag, but it wasn’t too bad. Dawn was equally as spectacular as the sunsets around here – I’m convinced it must be the quality of the clouds. Again, I’ll write up a detailed report in a few weeks to the Erowid forums.

While walking out the door of my apartment in order to head over to this shaman’s property, I stopped, turned, and had one of those “way station” moments where you think, “the next time I see this apartment I will be a different person.” I used to take this moment every time I would leave my Brooklyn apartment to go on tour – stop to think of all the experiences yet to come, how I would be a bit wiser and more experienced the next time I returned home.

10/1:
I’ve spent the last few nights waging a losing war with the rats in my apartment. Fortunately they confine themselves to the concrete and steel beams about 8′ overhead. I’ve stuffed wire mesh in most of the openings but they still find a way in. I’m not sure why they keep coming around, since they don’t venture down to rob my food.. no signs of that. I’ve been sitting here on alert until all odd hours scaring them away every time they venture into view.. until I realized they’ve been coming in to munch on the rat poison I sprinkled around. OK, good – I’ll let them do that. Only it doesn’t seem to be effective – they come back for more the next night!

Ecology in action: it’s been raining recently, bringing out the midges. The swallows emerge to eat the bugs. Then you see eagles and condors circling in the sky, feasting on the swallows.

Most of the Ecuadorians (i.e., non ex-pats) have a private garden in their backyard in which they grow much of what they eat. This can include a wide variety of fruit, coffee, cassava (yuca), sugar cane, corn, grain, beans, lentils, as well as the usual vegetables.

10/2:
There’s a new group of South American hippies / artisanos in town. A big one, about 10 people or so. Fascinating.. typically they’re from Chile and Argentina, wear natural clothes, dreads, and barefeet. Guitars and bongos abound and weaving of bracelets and other jewelry. People accuse them of being “gypsies” – not in the ethnic sense, but in petty theft of food or simple things that have been left out. I doubt they consider it theft. One cool characteristic is that they live communally – if one of them gets food or money, it gets distributed for the entire group. I wonder what it would be like to live that way – I’m intrigued by their lifestyle.

10/3:
Today is Gavin’s 55th birthday. Unfortunately he was drunk by noon and it only got worse. The plan was for a few of us and his daughters to go over to a friend’s house for a lunch gathering. I ended up organizing all the food which was annoying since there were several other responsible adults there. Occasionally G would come stumbling into the kitchen and cause havoc – telling his daughters that they weren’t doing it right, yelling at me not to make a mess, etc. Typical alcoholic behaviour. I almost lost my cool and walked out, but carried on. Eventually he settled down and stayed out of my way, and I had a lovely evening making chocolate chip cookies with his six-year old – who had never made cookies before! Ecuadorians bake cakes, but that’s the extent of it. It was a bit frustrating sourcing the ingredients since they don’t have certain things down here (like baking powder and brown sugar – panela is close, but what is the correct proportion?) But the cookies came out alright in the end despite a lot of improvising. This daughter is delightful and we became further enamored with each other that evening. I love kids that age. His 12-year old is great too, but at that age that she’s too cool to talk to adults much. It was great to bake again after so long.. my apartment here doesn’t have an oven, which is not uncommon.

Spending time with Gavin’s kids and watching all the delightful local children playing in the streets has been tugging on my paternal instincts.. perhaps I do want kids after all. But can I get them only from age 2 to 10?

10/4:
Although it’s extremely safe here (no muggings or petty theft that I’ve heard of except on Mandango), occasionally the town is rocked by a violent encounter. When I first arrived, a taxi driver was shot and killed in the next town over. And just yesterday, the son of one of the restaurant owners was knifed and killed in Loja.. some say it was related to him being gay, but others dispute that since there are open gays here (although I haven’t seen any). Actually, he was more than knifed – his tongue was cut out of his throat, penis and testicles cut off and shoved down his throat. Lovely image. Similar to mournings I saw in Central America, hundreds of people come and sit with the family for 24 hours or longer. I happened to walk down their street last night and came upon row upon row of chairs, cars, and people quietly sitting or standing outside.

10/5:
I finally climbed the geologically odd mountain of Mandango that looms over the town. I had been putting it off because, well, it’s tall (7,500′) and daunting, plus there have been robberies there – people recommend not to bring any valuables – but you know me, I have to document! So I took a risk and brought my camera. But I took Roger’s advice to start early in the morning – both to avoid the heat of the day but also because thieves don’t like to get up early. All the same, I brought along my can of pepper spray.
Leaving the house at 6 am (yes, that six o’clock – the one I normally never see), I had a pleasant walk through town. Shops were open already! Crazy people. The full moon was setting in the west just as the sun was rising in the east. I managed to slice my hand open while jumping over the fence to get to the trailhead, thereby leaving a trail of blood should I need to return the way I came. The route passed through varied terrain, all quite dry and Mediterranean feeling. I reached the cross on the summit by the time I’m normally waking up. The low-angled light passing through the clouds was spectacular. So glad a brought my camera – selected photos below. The mountain is really odd looking – apparently it was an island when this entire valley was underwater thousands of years ago – which I suppose explains the unusually sharp erosion. The trail then followed the ridge line for several kilometers, affording spectacular 360° views. Scary bits at points where you have to gingerly ease over rocks along the 2′ wide trail which falls off quite steeply on either side hundreds of feet down. Wouldn’t want to do it in high winds or the rain. Didn’t see another person the entire way, sublime. Eventually made it to a semi-abandoned farm and followed the dry creek bed down back to the main road. Five hours, all told. I’m sunburnt, parched and cut up, but glowingly happy.

10/7: My lease was up today, so I moved out of my apartment and back into the hotel I started in. Although I’ve only been in this apartment for six weeks, I’ve nevertheless managed to acquire a bunch of housewares that I’ll need to get rid of in order to condense everything back down to one backpack again. It’s going to be nice going back to the hotel life, actually – those rats were really getting to me – and having somebody else worry about cleaning, restocking, etc.

I’ve made friends with a born-again Christian right-winger who treats the Bible as literal fact. But I’m pleased with myself – although we live at opposite ends of the spectrum, I’ve been able to see through that and appreciate him for the things we agree on and the parts of his personality that I do connect with.

10/8: Vilcabamba is really hard to leave! The living is just so easy here – the friends I’ve made, the beauty of the surroundings, the tranquility. Tonight I met a wonderful new person that I’ve connected with – a 31-year old Canadian Aussie-Indian with interesting, varied background and passions. You would think this would not be unusual, but most of the people one meets on the road are quite young – in their gap year, or just out of university – of whom I don’t have much in common with. Occasionally I meet older retirees, but there seems to be a gap between the two. So I think I’ll stay in town just a few days longer in order to have more deep intellectual conversations and get to know this person more. One can’t walk away from such opportunities.

ADDENDUM 10/17:
I’m still here!! Good grief. I keep putting off leaving. Even bought a bus ticket a few days ago, which I ended up changing. It’s partly because I don’t have any real reason to push on quickly, since my visa is already expired and the living is cheap here. I’ve also been having great discussions with the person I mentioned above. But mostly it’s because I’ve been working on a massive treatise all about conspiracy theory, plus another blog post summarizing Ecuador. These posts are taking longer than I thought, and I want to get all this stuff out of my head so I can start visiting Peru with a clean slate.

ADDENDUM 10/20:
I’m finally leaving. Found great advice on the Lonely Planet message boards saying that I shouldn’t try to bribe my way across the border. So I bit the bullet and paid the $200 fine in Loja today, giving me 48 hours to get out of the country. I feel relieved to have that resolved.
Emotional farewell to Gavin and the other friends I’ve made here. Don’t know when I’ll be back, if ever. It’s a magical place, and I’ve had experiences of a lifetime.

Thanks to Ferne for the first three photos.

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Written by Josh in: Ecuador | Tags: ,

2 Comments »

  • christine says:

    Great post! I thought of lots of things during this one. You hiking so much in the dark made me remember hiking down from Point Reyes, CA after the sunset. Man, there are so many crazy conspiracy theories in this post, I might never be able to leave my house again.

    • Josh says:

      Stine, I’m so impressed you made it through that book of a post. I’ll try to be more concise in the future, lol.
      I often think of that day at Point Reyes. A definite highlight of the last few years. And the cabin on the lake. Highlight of my life.
      Conspiracy Theories – just wait for the next post! Impress your friends! Wow your family! But talk too loudly or They will hear and lock you up!

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