Have you ever had one of those ideas that blasts into town like the best looking man in the world? He’s riding a sweaty black stallion, shimmering with the hypnotic light of an unseen horizon and ready to sweep you clear out of your mind.
An electric idea. Buzzing with genius and special magic. An idea that promises to change all your stars and deliver you to a land where the lions lay down with the lambs, the women are all radiant in shimmery gowns and the men don’t scratch their balls in public.
It was one of these that struck me in a moment of high altitude swooning perhaps, two months after Scott and I arrived in a remote pueblo in the southern Andes of Ecuador, on our search for renewed love and the Good Life.
After failing to find such a prize in Peru, Australia, Bali, Laos, Thailand, Hawaii or the hot springs at Lares, we chose this particular microscopic dot on the surface of the planet to reunite from matching tropical islands on opposite sides of the equator because of the tiny town of Vilcabamba, where I have been travelling off and on for the past 20 years, and which had been shouting at me to Get Over Here for more than 6 months.
We rode in on the midnight bus from Quito and discovered by noon that even the remote southern Andes of Ecuador are swarming with American property investors, cacao junkies and alien botherers. It’s been the same everywhere: as the myth of capitalism gurgles and spews out foul smoke across the USA, it had become disturbingly clear for a while that it is no longer enough to head for the hills to escape the capitalist itch and connect with the un-contaminated earth. The hills from Laos to Lima are being fenced off at breakneck speed and developed into gated communities and hobby farms by early boomer retirees, escapees of the flatulent American Dream and Doomsayers ready for the End of the World (or the end of the US dollar)… by Christmas.
It’s not that this whole business bothers us, exactly (even though I am horrible allergic to raw cacao and can’t stand the idea of gated communities of gringos anywhere). It’s just that what we’ve found we want more than a good theory on how humans are ascending to the fifth dimension, to be with the aliens, and the Earth is going to turn into a butterfly and only yogis and raw foodies will be allowed on for the ride etc… is just a nice quiet time.
Besides, wasn’t that the sixties? And wasn’t that twinned up with a stay-at-home revolution inspired by a logical horror at the atrocities of the televised Vietnam War, Nixon’s betrayal of what was clearly written on the packet of the American experiment, and the flowering of the pineal gland inspired by acid? Wasn’t there some moral courage behind the Flower Power thing?
These days there is no sign of acid, and no sign of The War either. Though Americans are once again recoiling from the blood wounds to their national archetype, there’s not a hero in sight, nor a flower behind anybody’s ear in Vilcabamba. And it’s the ones who won’t take drugs that seem the most paranoid to me.
In my own view, it’s just better right now to get a connection to the land than a ride on a spaceship. I am looking to check out of the current Frankenstein myth – a hobgoblin of spare parts from whichever ancient culture or quantum physicist or fancy pants yogi can keep the people entertained as the internet opens the nasty can of extra-terrestrial worms that is man-made reality in the 21st Century.
Scott and I just want to make a living that does not require exploiting other people or commuting to a city. The company of good quality eccentric folk, quiet minds, open hearts and chocolate croissants… if they are available. The fact was plain: we would need to burrow deeper into the wild.
In the six years since I’ve been to Ecuador the actual travellers had been replaced by ‘lifestyle-changers’ and Armageddon-ready entrepreneurs. These folk are not in town to mountaineer, live rough, smoke pot or see the culture: they were in town to buy town.
Prices are spiking, exotic cheeses and stainless steel cookware are available and dwelling options for longstays have shifted from whatever sideways burrow or treehouse you can find for a few dollars, to the full catastrophe: glamorous villas with modular lounges, flashy ovens, flatscreen TVs, food processors, staff (who used to own the land they’re now working on) hi-speed wifi and even higher walls from $800- $3000 a month.
Gringos are setting up in Dallas-style dreamhouses while most of the locals are still living in grass and mud huts, earning $2 an hour as cleaners and labourers.
But why the heck would you come all the way to the dusty wilds of Ecuador to live like you could live anywhere from LA to Marrickville, but without a job? And anyhow, what the hell happened to travelling as a way to change your world? Who are these new arrivals with their blow-dried bobs, their dehydrators and residency stamps, their post-hippy adventure-wear and their 4 wheel drives? Last time I passed through South America is was all about checking out, chilling out and discovering life in the raw, without the spirit-crushing barrage of kitchen appliances, imported superfoods and real estate offices sprouting like mould outbreaks
Last time I was here gringos were here to wonder at the beauty of the mountains and soak in the relief of being free of heart in an untechnologisised , gently cultivated wilderness. The bars were full of poets, philosophers, acid-freaks and climbers who realised the sixties had kind of flopped, but were still fierce and beautiful in their rage over the greed-machine of the developed world and all the minds and lands it was gobbling up. They came for visions. They came for blessings from being fit and strong and dirty in the backcountry. They came to recover from their educations and suburban lives, and drink from the generous well of acceptance the local people offered.
Bit those days are gone. And as Scott and I met more and more property speculators on fly-in, fly-out trips from California looking to buy virgin mountainside to turn into permaculture farms, retirement ranches, spas or private resorts (or just secure the mineral rights on… ) we decided to check back in with our own priorities.
We agreed we had ditched our previous lives for something more wild and noble than a cheaper version of the same in an evaporating third world culture. We agreed we were placing ourselves in a precarious position by not just lushing out and buying our own slice of wildly escalating Ecuadorian countryside. We agreed we were possibly immature and maybe even stupid, but we were going to stick to the idea that we can survive and even thrive without a paranoid myth behind us, by treading lightly along the path of love.
What we had was a strong, clear vision, and it went like this: we’d keep on heading for old fashioned Simplicity. The Basics. Peace, quiet and a return to the bosom of the Goodly Mother Earth, soaked in her rhythms and nourished with humble pie. We’d find a place where we could escape the hullabaloo, the cafe-set, the basic repetition of lives we’d had elsewhere but with very bad coffee. We’d set our clocks to Life Time, we’d connect to the soil, and all its progeny. We’d eat beans, tend snowpeas, squeeze our own juice, knit by the fire and learn the pan pipes. What we needed was another cliché.
I had seen the perfect thing. On past mystically-inspired ventures to Ecuador to sip the psychedelic cactus with my favourite snake goddess and keeper of the dark spices in the secret recipe of the cosmic casserole I had passed a little green house, tucked up in the skirts of the shaman’s enchanted farm just outside town. It was a shy mud brick shack, hidden behind a tumble of flowering vines, with a wonky chimney and a fuzzy dog on the porch.
By perfect coincidence, the tenant was leaving in a huff and the cabin could be ours for $300 a month. We made the deal with the shaman and heaved a sigh of relief. We would head deeper into the skirts of the olive-green Andes, strip life down to the absolute basics and thusly restore ourselves to our natural condition, our original shape. Under the guidance of a presumably benevolent living earth we would work hard, disentangle from the matrix and find pure, uncomplicated peace and simplicity: sure fired bliss!
In the little green house it would be just like Into the Wild, without the dying part. It would be just like Little House on the Prairie, without the bonnets. It would be Grizzly Adams, without the bears. And true love will blossom, and goodness will prevail as we raise a little organic family of fat cherry tomatoes, parsley, marigolds and strawberries.
There was even the fuzzy dog, prepared earlier, and indeed named Grizzly, with whom we could bound about in the fields of buttercups and watch the fire with at night.
And so it was. Under a dripping-full moon in June we packed our worldly possessions and prepared for the 45 minute walk to take residence in to our mud brick dream incubator. Said possessions amounted to a ragtag collection of clothing, two stems of psycho-active cactus and my collection of Vital Supplies for Ladies in Feral Environments, meticulously researched over years of survival in ruthless un-air-conditioned wilds from Africa to Antarctica.
We had three bags-full of dried beans, two frozen pizza bases, lentils and a pineapple. Scott would arrive with the luggage after he’d put the chickens to bed at our last house-sit and I would scout ahead, down one mountainside and up another, with the pineapple. It was the first and surprisingly most natural change of our mountain life – the sharing of tasks had radically altered between us from the start. Division of labour had devolved in micro-seconds through a century of chick-lib and was now unquestionably based on a body fat to muscle ratio which meant that Scott carried stuff and I cooked.
Under the gorgeous glow of a late-in-the-day South American sun the pineapple and I set off for the little green dreamhouse, through the Wilco tree forest, passed the crumbly rural homes of what might be the last generations of traditional Ecuadorians, in their various states of tumbledown and charm, passed the old ladies beaming child-like smiles and waving from their sideways porches, the bent dogs, an occasional donkey, a squeaking piglet among the sugar cane and mountains: mountains brewing rainbows, mountains brewing dusky aromas, mountains in all directions.
The little gate creaked prettily and the fuzzy dog spun at my ankles as trumpets of orange flowers, all Van Gogh on the porch, heralded my arrival. It was my first time inside the cabin and I admired the neglected lawns, the wild-haired veggie patch completely feral and tangled by the unkempt fence. My heart filled with sweetness and there were no words for my joy as I admired the neglected gardens and the tiny little form of this shack of our own in the woods
An original, unrenovated Ecuadorian cottage, the little green house has a red tiled floor, thick handmade walls, high ceilings with a plywood roof, one bedroom, a bathroom with a vast cement bath and a tiny sink, a living room that opens into a kitchen and hosts a stone fireplace, two wooden arm chairs, a writing desk, a gas burner, two sinks, a fridge, two buckets, two brooms, four plates, a wooden spoon, two new knives (Chinese) and a blender.
There are three wooden-shuttered glassless windows, two heavy wooden doors (each with two brass bolts and a deadlock), and three rooms in all, each painted with a fruit salad wash (one banana, one papaya and an apple). It is very sparsely furnished. I took in the actually manifested reality of my dream and had at least a full minute of blissful rapture before saying to myself something very much like, “hmmm, isn’t it a bit pokey in here?”
Out on the porch I tested the hammock and longed for Scott to arrive so he could boost up the bliss cliché with his reliable mid-West optimism. I swung nervously there while the fuzzy dog eyed me carefully and dozens of evil invisible biting flies attacked my ankles in the twilight. I swung under a flank of lovely eucalypts that told Australian poems and made me woozy for ‘home’. I swung under the ancient profiles of the high Andes around me as they peered out to space, and realised with a sinking feeling, that I was bored already.