Monday, December 23, 2013

Vilcabamba: as American as mom's apple pie

Vilcabamba is called the Valley of Longevity, partly because of the unusually high life-expectancy of the town's residents but largely because a few over-enthusiastic journalists failed to check their facts before printing a story in National Geographic. Regardless of its reputed powers of life extension, it is a beautiful place. The sun shines, tropical fruits thrive, a cool breeze blows down the Andean valleys and the mountain springs flow cold and clear. In fact, Vilcabamba is so good many people have felt fit to use that most-hackneyed of metaphors "Paradise".

But is Paradise going bad? That's the conclusion of one blogger who made this bold statement after a brief trip into town and a chat with a few dissatisfied expats. The author cites a few reports and rumours of isolated crimes before leaping to illogical conclusion that Vilcabamba is in the midst of a crime wave that would make down-town Johannesburg look like a trip to the zoo with Barney the dinosaur. Vilcabamba is many things, but crime-ridden it is not... chocker block with Yanks, it is.

Of course, crime exists in Vilcabamba but that's because it's a town on the planet of Earth with humans living in it. Crime thrives when there is a chasm of disparity between those who have and have not. The gringos pull into town in their brand new 4x4s and park next to a knackered Nissan that's so old it's called a Datsun. The gringos live in air-conditioned gated homes with terraces and pools next door to breeze block shacks and chickens scratching through the pig shit. There is no shame at the inequality and there is no attempt to mix, unless they're on the lookout for a cheap cleaner or gardener. So yes, there probably is a little bit of crime – but let's keep things in perspective.

Using the same strange logic, the blogger draws baffling and paranoid conclusions about the town's sleepiness – inferring there must be something sinister behind the veneer of tranquility or as he describes it “a very dark shadow hanging over town”.

However, despite some of the author's baffling conclusions, he writes well and his observations are largely accurate. I agree that many people have arrived in Vilcabamba as the Hajj to their hippie Mecca, expecting quick-fix enlightenment and an escape (not a solution) from their First World Problems. In town, the American expats are eager to talk – it's almost desperate, certainly lonely. With a bottle of Pilsener in their hand, they quickly tell you the story of their lives and their new found freedom in Ecuador. Of course, they never ask you any questions, instead they plough on with their monologue like a poor player treading the same well worn boards. They are mostly men, mostly over the age of 60 and all shamelessly smug that their little hoards are buying more bang for their buck than their “conformist” compatriots over in Florida.

Vilcabamba exists in a strange segregation. There are the gringo bars and restaurants around the main square, and then there are the locals' facilities. Lucy and I were in a limbo, with a foot in both camps. When she spoke Spanish with an Ecuadorian accent the foreign bar staff gave her a strange look – the look the bartender in Cairo gave Lawrence of Arabia when he strolled into the officer's mess dressed in sandy Arab clobber. The half-drunk American expats were similarly confused by the presence of a native in their close-knit community. One American even said: “You don't expect to hear an Ecuadorian speak English” which unlocked the dual achievements of being both startlingly idiotic and racist at the same time.

We went to another popular expat bar and the response was similar. Lucy ordered a gin and tonic but instead received a sparkling water and tonic. She told the bar man, believing he'd simply made a mistake, but he replied: “You can't get tonic in Ecuador.” I think he'd mistaken tonic water for unicorn's tears. Lucy handed back the watery gin and got a beer instead. Five minutes later the bar man went to local corner shop and returned with a bottle of tonic. He fixed the drink and the charmless Spanish waitress thumped it on our table without eye contact and told us it was on the house. Things got odder, when Lucy posted a negative review on Trip Advisor – which charitably brushed over this incident and focussed on a critique of the Tom Yum soup, which tasted like vegetable broth and curry powder. Lucy received a private message from the waitress inviting her to give the review face-to-face next time (thus perverting the very nature of online review sites), she then spiraled into an unhinged tirade on the subject of jealousy, before finishing with a villainous: “jajajajajaja”.

But everything I've written makes it sound like Vilcabamba is a hostile and unpleasant town. It's not. The locals are as friendly and helpful as everybody in Ecuador. For example, when I saw the fighting cocks pegged out on the street, their owner was only too happy to tell us about them and patient while I lay on the dusty street photographing them. Or the the hillside farmer who joked with us when we got lost and had to hike through his field to find the road. Even the construction workers are friendly as they haul heavy rocks atop the fortress-like wall of a hotel they will never be able to afford to stay in.  

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