Our next stop where we hope to be able to take a longer rest is Vilcabamba. Not knowing anything about the town it turns out not to be much of a typical Ecuadorian village but an Ecuadorian village infused with heavy American influence. There are people who developed into Mother Earth-types, believing that the center is right here in Vilcabamba. In this town inhabitants consider to reach an older age than elsewhere because of certain minerals. Worse is that the prices went up drastically by expats who spread money as if sowing papaya seeds.
The border is at La Balsa. A very small immigration building shows stickers of motorbike drivers who’d gone before us. Stickers of how fantastic and adventurous driving a motorbike is. Not often do travelers with an own vehicle pass through and the official forms takes long to process. Paperwork have to be send to Loja by email and then the officials need to be able to print them correctly.
We are both relieved to have left Peru. I throw my arms in the air, weakly yell ‘Ecuador!’ and mount the saddle wearily. After 100 meter I have to get off as the unpaved hilly road is too steep for our 150cc.
Ecuador is immediately different. Wondrous how such changes can occur. I have always noticed how crossing a border shows instantly another view. And now I like what I see. The Peruvian closeness of the jungle has made way for views across the uncountable hills.
The route takes a height of nearly 3000 meter before reaching Vilcabamba and is considered very atmospherically. We see nothing of it, driving in a dense mist, a cold rain and over a road, though mostly paved with concrete, lined with debris from landslides.
The drive leaves us with painful hands, shaking from cold, clothes drenched and Geo’s shoes filled with water (so much to be adventurous and not having any decent protection). This fashion we enter Vilcabamba. An elderly man with white hair, dressed in the well-known outdoor colored clothing comes over, his mouth shows only half of his upper teeth, chatting away cheerily with Geo.
I suffer a culture shock in one of the many colorful unconventional artistic establishments where we eat a delicious pizza. The clientele is American and to top off our dreadful ride in the cold rainy misty clouds, we have a mom with child opposite us who believes the little child is a grown-up, thus equal and has to be treated with the same maturity as any other mature human species. The little princess screams and does all other sorts of things to attract any one’s attention.
A man dressed usually in orange, with fabrics originating from India, a little handy pouch on a string crosswise slung across his upper body, appears very centered in the center of Vilcabamba. He works on his computer, spooning big spoonfuls of vegan food in his mouth while concentrating on the screen. The only sign of slight nervousness are his legs, wobbling left to right, with his feet dressed in Birkenstocks. Then suddenly: ‘God damn it!’ Presumably, something went wrong on the screen…
Mandala’s, dream-catchers, semi-precious stones, wind-chimes to fence of evil spirits and attract benevolent ones, woven bracelets, wolf imagines and feathers. Small shops selling handmade leather shoes, others typical India shops, where very little is actual used in India. Hip cafe’s with colorful yet repulsive skulls painted on the table. Maca, spirulina and all else does not start below a dollar. Nothing in this town is aimed at locals who are not connected to foreigners.
Can we like it here? Enough to stay a long time to rest our very weary bones?
‘Velcrobamba’ says Don, an American who talks incredible much. ‘Vilcatrampa’ says the Italian pizza lady, who has to correct Don when he says how useless many of the western inhabitants are. Don speaks negative about the many drunkards, living only to wake up late, purposeless walk from cafe to cafe, spending their low pension money in cheaper Ecuador.
It turns out we love it here! The atmosphere is a mixture reminding me of spiritual India, the types ranging from Californian hippies to real cowboys, in between serious nutcases and people who are visibly in the spectrum. There is a stronghold of permaculture people, Americans who sell excellent food, Europeans with bakeries where the perfect bread and pastries are for sale. We meet people who traveled and lived all over the world, and came to a stop in a place with the exact right energy for them. For us too, it is the right place. We are able to truly rest, undisturbed by blaring televisions, a much lesser content of screaming Latina’s and pleasant to the eyes: finished constructions. The town is small, our room spacious, nestled between green hills. Almost everyone greets each other, the foreigner zips seamlessly with the Ecuadorian, cleanliness rules and quietness is king. A sort of Truman show stage indeed.
The word morning-glory might have well been sprouted up here. Chickens are in a contest, hurrying up in to the highest tree, to give the most swollen pitch pretty much throughout the night. They have hardly any competition, or at least no more than the irregular car with sound system, announcing fruits, vegetables or something else vitally important.
The odd Mexican masculine hombre, all tattooed and bulky, pumped by his daily fitness program, standing on his bright painted patio, is the most macho it gets in Vilcabamba. It really is more about retired misfits, funky people and those searing high in the seventies when the word hippie meant something.
Glad that there is a communal kitchen, though it usually isn’t my favorite place to be. The French invading the kitchen means getting out of there as quick as possible. They occupy every nook, use every kitchen machine available and fix wholesome hearty meals. Harsh sounds of utensils and shrieks of a blender included. A communal kitchen does not add to misophony as a condition. So, in fact, we fit well into this community of expats, permaculture people and folks with all sorts of conditions.
Some people praise the energy in this place but Geo and I know that very energy started right across the border with Peru, in La Balsa as soon as you enter. This energy is to be felt everywhere, in the lush hills anywhere in Ecuador, and in every restaurant. But not so much in the communal kitchen of the place we stay.
We go for a 2 kilometer hike up Mandango hill. I am in awe when I stand opposite, the huge soft stone, naked and sheer, caught me by surprise. The narrow, light colored path promising a circling motion around this butte, works on me like a magnet. At times we climb like steps on a stair. Until I look down and realize a fall down could mean the end of my life. When I understand further that the path we are on is as broad as a big man’s feet, having nothing to grip on to and any absence of stability, I stop. Would one of us loose balance, would a piece of the soft path crumble, would a snake disturb our equilibrium, would one of us fall: it would be the end of our sorrow-free marriage. At once we both decide for one thing: TURN AROUND.
A less perfect balanced Mandango trail and communal kitchen, this can not be said of our neighbor. A Chilean artist. Unbeknownst we smirked a bit about his dreamy copy in town, about horses and freedom, ‘What sort of a person is that?’ we wondered, when we still did wonder about people in town. The Chilean artist called Massai turned out a very normal, pleasant and even lovely man. He bestows me with presents and takes Geo for a ride to Loja, in his Apache pick-up truck.
Massai cares for his pick-up truck as if he is brushing the pelt of his horse. Explaining: ‘Apache is like a horse to me, I want to care and threat it well, because the better I care, the better it performs. Sure, it does not make the sound a horse does, but it is like a horse no less’, Massai explains, all in Spanish. Massai is not his real name, that is José. He has chosen Massai because he is intrigued by the North American cowboy stories on television when he was a child. His last name, Nebraska, is the name he gave to his camera.
Massai has characteristics Geo and I both wish we had a bit more. Massai shows no irritation whatsoever to who ever. Although he dislike as much as I do a crowd in the kitchen, dirtying everything as it were the average student house. He is kind and patient to everyone. He is talkative and friendly, showing no second thoughts. He paints and photographs, dressed like a soldier on a mission, his camera Nebraska camouflaged as well.
Every morning, when we meet at 6.00 am in the kitchen, he ask me how I am. The first week I was tired and keeping up with tasks and rest. The second week I felt at home and quiet. When I return the question Massai always responds with ‘soy muy feliz, muyyyyyy feliz’, and he truly wades in happiness, contentment and obvious wonder. Massai is from Puert Montt, Patagonia and dislikes it as much as I did.
Folks walk bare foot. Some play the pan-flute. Marijuana is popular and together with the smell of burning palo santo is gives a nice natural incense.
Long waving blond grayish hair flows in the absent wind, hair thin as the strays of horses hair stuck on a barbwire.
It never is as quiet in the weekends than on week days, cars with sound systems announce something exciting. City people stay in their holiday houses around Vilcabamba and tourists more than usual flock the guest house. Musicians with bongo’s, guitars and well sounding voices perform for the one guest, in the back of a hip restaurant, the sound flowing through our open bathroom. Like rain through the roof and window.
Geo and I go for walks, we pass energy-peace-loving folks who greet the river and pay homage with a bongo. We return where ever we need to pay entrance fees. We always enjoy though.
‘She has a sixth sense, she is an ambassador’s daughter, you know,’ says Oswaldo when Ximena says she knew we were ‘decent’ people. I doubt neither of them took the word ‘decent’ in their mouth but something similar it must have been. We meet with two locals from Ecuador in our favorite pizzeria ‘Casita’. Ximena and Oswaldo are not the average permaculture farmers, nor campesino’s. I doubt they would invite the regular coming in for a pizza, the person we named ‘Pouchman’, whose condition, we decided, is bipolar. Ximena and Oswaldo invite us to their hacienda, to have breakfast at ‘miercoles, a las nueve, punto!’
Wednesday exact nine o’clock we are at hacienda Ceibopamba. It was everything I expected it to be of people like Ximena and Oswaldo. Geo had expected a square structure plonked in the middle of a field, as usual a bit out of alignment and odd shining bathroom tiles. We feel a bit out of place with our only motorbike outfit but it turns out Ximena is without make-up and Oswaldo in a matching outfit with Geo, both army style.
Oswaldo had a high function in the government, where he had to interfere with the end of a war between Peru and Bolivia. Many photos decorating the wall of a high-end, rich man, busy lifestyle. The sort of living where they still travel a lot, if only between their 3 haciendas in Ecuador. We are honored to be invited and Oswaldo shows us around the boundaries of his land, as far as the eye can see. All his.
Unfortunately, he sold much of it and now, as anywhere else in these regions, nature is dotted with the usual structures, a bit out of alignment and odd shining bathroom tiled houses.
We stay three weeks in Vilcabamba. The first is one of resting. The second of walking in a wondrous natural environment. We also unanimous decide we have had enough motorbike riding and enough of the natural surrounding. However lush and beautiful, it seems not to change that much. Our aim to go to Colombia has vanished. We simply have no desire to go to another South American jungle where culture is marginally visible. We use our time wisely and book, plan and arrange our second leg of the journey: USA by a new means of transport. The third week our system get ready to leave again, where the mind starts to be annoyed by little things, because it wants to be alone.
To be longer in a hostel, though we have our own toilet and shower, is still a lot of not wished shared moments. Points in time where annoyance start to reign. Upon entering the kitchen most people feel the need to be socially accepted, and thus start talking. About the weather. About where you are from, where you are going and those sort of questions. As an anti-social these questions are rather obsolete. Besides, we are on an obvious tourist trail, there is not much specialty in being here. I get tired of the amount of people everywhere, especially in our hostel. One plays music on his cellphone and another smokes, one talks loud and another has a tone for each incoming message while actively using WhatsApp. Cars rev. Trucks need the motor run before pulling up. I feel couples their friction. When travelers leave in the early morning, I notice their nerves while packing their backpack. I feel who is disturbed and who is unhappy, and so, when all guests leave and all is quiet, its tangible. As if a tense layer of thick clouds slowly descents. This quietness is ever present where is seemingly no life…
January 2020. La Balsa, Zumba, Vilcabamba