Death in Vilcabamba

I’ve always had this intuitive feeling that ‘going back’ is a path fraught with disappointment, a sure way to lance the boil of regret that grows quietly on the under-side of nostalgia.

In love, in career and travel, ‘going back’ risks curdling all that warm milky romance that time so gently nurture us with – after the event.

Lovers of great tenderness and dreadsome mood swings are longed for with a ferocity far beyond their worth after a month (or a day) of separation. And places of enchantment, where younger dreams were conceived are likely to have fallen to the bulldozer, been riddled with billboards or standardised by the Sheraton.

Or fallen into the weird, desperate grip of ex-pats, like Vilcabamba.

Twenty years ago I stumbled across this tiny hamlet in the low eastern bosom of the Ecuadorian Andes in most unusual circumstances. I was 22. I was on the run from a leukaemia diagnosis and a short career in the women’s magazine business. I had found myself writing about cellulite and Kylie Minogue and buying exclusives with people like a woman who had stabbed her husband to death, only to mourn at his cheap grave with a Wuthering Heights flair after getting off on the new battered wife syndrome defence. She was prepared to tell all to me, exclusively, for a cheque made out for $5000 by Mr Packer, who owned and engineered the crappy magazine I was working for. Things like that. Things that were not what I had imagined myself offering, as journalist and daisy flower cringing beside the thorn tree of feminism, to my generation.

I had healed myself of woe and despatched its helpful sister, illness, on a 12-day boot-less escapade across Sulawesi, in Indonesia. Corrupted myself in Edinburgh, and filled my sails with passion and sunflowers on a 6-month tour of Europe in a converted ice cream van. Then one day, under the luxurious blue velvet skies of Princes Street, beneath the castle, I was gonged by a ‘voice’ out of nowhere. It said, get thee to South America.


So I painted gift cards to raise the funds and went. To Quito. And wandered about amongst volcanos, markets, dusty bus stops and hamster eaters, waiting for further instructions.

They came in Otavalo, a pretty, desolate market village where I walked into a quaint cafe in the twilight to behold a jesus-like figure, in robes, with ragged ringlets, sitting alone with two full glasses of red wine and an avocado, halved at two settings. He quietly stood up, held out his long, elegant fingers and said, “Welcome to the few. I know why you’re here.”

Didier was, Once upon a time, a lawyer in France, he said. He had abandoned the whole world for the Americas, for Colombia, specifically, where he was a recluse, living with natives, helping them with building, and was a gem trader for cash. He had a quietness, a depth and steadiness about him that I did not know then that I would never see again. I presumed we were all headed toward perfection.

Didier told me he had waited just one half hour for my arrival. Then he told me to surrender all plans, to re-pack more lightly, head to Vilcabamba and find a man named Peter, I think it was, from whom I would order one dose of his special brew, and then walk into the mountains. He drew me a map on a serviette.

Didier told me both he and I were under orders from the San Pedro cactus. That I had been summoned, and he, commissioned with the duty to relay this message. The mission was accomplished and he was now at leave to return to his beloved wilderness. He gave me a large, uncut quartz crystal, with the look of a dagger, and said to me, “Be careful. It is more difficult than you think to hold the light.”

Which proved to be true. An hour later, as I stripped under the shower in my grotty hostel, the crystal plunged out of its nest in my bra and fell, without touching the sides, down the open drain. I heard it break water with a definitive plonk! and wondered if had just failed myself abysmally, or if I had struck my sword deep and forever into the gruesome lakes of Ecuador’s sewer.

And I went to Vilcabamba. At that time it was a wild and beautiful journey, long and bruising, difficult and majestic. The bus seats were never screwed to their frames in those days, the pews were wretched with pathetic chickens, bewildered goats, sacks of grain, and women who sat on them with heavy breasts and bowler hats. Everything smelt of human cheese, and manger straw. The volcanos, the maize fields, the sugar cane went by in a flickerfest of golden light: postcards of children sleeping under smoking skies, beggars beaming toothlessly at the bus windows, hawkers with bags full of passionfruit, steamed dumplings, cordials, choclo con queso pressing their wares against the rattling panes.

Somewhere en route I met two young Canadians on the return journey from little-known Vilcabamba. They had drunk of the San Pedro cactus, and had visions. The adventure had been long and magical, profound and mystical, they said. The cactus has shown them a world of joy and miracles and had revealed to them, through psychedelic magic, that the Vilcabamba pastures were teeming with Smurf. The girls had three packets of photographs they had shot on their shamanic quest – all of them close-ups of grass.

In these days travelers were not yet salivating over the notion of ‘getting high’ on indigenous plant medicines. Shamanism was not in vogue. There were no Americans wearing feathers and ponchos and charging fifty bucks to drink their counterfeit concoctions and receive ‘healings’. In those days, ‘healing’ was not the purpose of traveling. We did not think of ourselves as sick, we saw ourselves as students of the road. Our minds were as open as the Altiplano, we were thirsty for torrents of starlight and new flavours because we loved life, and not because we were scared of it.

I arrived in the village of Vilcabamba just after the hummingbirds had would up their springs for a full day of suckling at the trillion blooms that burst forth in Technicolor everywhere. You couldn’t move for the butterflies. Jasmine and honeysuckle were both drunk before breakfast, and the cobbled streets were clean and bright and awash with golden light. I stayed at the Hidden Garden hostel for three days, dazzled by poets, dreamers, eloquent drunks and cowboys who washed in, washed out like weavers adding new shapes and dazzling colours to the splendid fabric of daydreams and adventures on the loom of a contented life.

In those days the fabrics were not synthetic yet, the land was not being gobbled up by ex-pats drowned in Club beer, rhetoric, neurosis, do-goodery and a neurotic confidence in the End of the World.

I enquired about ‘Peter’, and met him in the square, where he sold me a bottle of his gruesome brew for $10, and recommended I buy a chuppa chup, “to help with the taste” before disappearing along with any memory I might have made of him. The nectar was foul. It was wretched, and clung to my tastebuds. I sipped on a strawberry lollypop as I made my way up, up and further on yonder into the hills of Vilcabamba, fending off the yellow, blue, the vermillion and chequered butterflies that careered about in the lazy breezes like sunbeams who’d been to Cirque de Soleil.

Vilcabamba, in those days, was a living Kaleidoscope – every footstep turned the prism a knotch, switching the mandala of the landscape from turquoise, to indigo, lollypop pink to fuscia. The donkeys laughed and frolicked, the local people beamed and glowed, the views everywhere were elaborate with life. I walked on and on, past Charlie’s Place, over a bridge, up hills and into a profound, desperate weariness. At a river somewhere I lay down to die. I was wracked with nausea, illness was heavy in my bones, and lardy in my mouth. I vomited my guts up into the river. I writhed in pain on the grassy shores. I sweated and frothed, groaned and begged, I had been poisoned by the cactus and, alone in my misery, I was not afraid I would die, but more afraid that I wouldn’t.

Who knows how long it lasted? In the kingdom of the sick, time is something else. At a certain point, perhaps just after midday, I came to notice that my dress was over my head, and the grass kind of itchy. I managed to wash my face, I re-laced my boots (Rosignols I wept over when they finally gave out, in the Himalaya, six years later) and felt a passion to head on. And so began a climb that would change my life forever.

ButterflectionAt the peak of this experience, once I had made a mediation seat on the crest of a ridge, and steadied myself in the splendour of a cosmos in which my rods and cones could perceive the minutia of the cosmos: the facial expression of flying bees, their eyelashes pressing back against their foreheads as they sped by, the oceanic ripple of the plates on a butterfly wing as she rode the Van Gogh eddies, the heartbeat of a prickly pear, and its electric fizzle, and I too was blessed with a vision of who it was that loved and presided over the Ecuadorian pastures. It was more than a decade later that I was able to put a name to her, in another nation altogether.

She who danced for me, stamping her heavy, gnarly feet upon the spindle bushes, and blowing the colour into the sky, adorned with broken watches, smashed compasses, aborted babies and heavy breasts, was the goddess known as Kali.

Goddess Kali

Kali, the Hindu goddess, the Dark Mother, presented me with her ferocious creation dance and what has become known these days  (shudder) as a ‘download’, but which might be properly called a flowering of insight, a teaching, a blessing about the cruelty inherent in the idea of mechanics, especially of the drip, drip, metronome of measured time, she relieved me with a proper notion of feminism (she wore no shoulder pads, but carried skulls around her neck), she feasted on her creation. It took me ten years to even begin to appreciate the vision, thank god there were no helpful gringos spouting their fully integrated wisdom then in Vilcabamba, so I was able to let the vision plant its mysterious seed in my biography un-rhetoriced.

When I returned to Vilcabamba, all these years later, it was not Kali, not hummingbirds, nor wildflowers or even Smurfs who abounded and danced in her petrified loins. The circus of the wild has packed its bags and left lint in this clapped-out teaching ground. Shaken out, or disgusted and relocated, the menagerie of teaching things has been replaced by a grizzly mob of End of the Worldists, entrepreneurs in spiritual questing, idiot gringos who claim ‘special powers’ and provide Paypal access to their packaged waffle or trumped up superfoods, direct marketed online.

The streets, still pedaled and waxed majestic in online sites where afeared Americans shop for new lands to build their middle class castles, are sad and dusty. The locals are jaded and afraid for their children. The donkeys are not laughing and you cannot walk the wilds for barbed wire. At the Hidden Garden loud, dried-out Americans will pollute the fields of your mind with their fear-encrusted warblings about alien invasions, the collapse of the Earth (by which they mean the collapse of the dollar), chem sprays and no end of hysteria. The endless bitching and snarling that pesters the ‘community’, they blame on interference from mind-warping radio waves issued by sat dishes about the valleys, and not on their own boredom and anxiety.

I have not dared to drink the cactus, as I thought I had been called to. Who knows what demons or abandoned gods have taken tenancy of the mystic realms? But I heard that you can drink any of the mighty indigenous ‘medicines’ here now, for $50 at the luxury home of a newly emergent Gringo shaman with views to make a motsa as guide and teacher to the fretting masses at, as well as here in town where he hosts any charlatan with a poncho who washes up into town offering ‘ceremony’.

10 thoughts on “Death in Vilcabamba

  1. I love your posts and more than ever this last one.I was in Vilca this year and after a while was just like you…I guess I own it to your favorite shaman goddess for staying so loong and doing some jourenying with her…otherwise I would have left earlier!I just wish we had met and exchanged points of views! Thanks for being so true an keep on writting.Sandrine

  2. I was a PCV for two years in the early 70’s in Ecuador. I have always wanted to return but I have also always had the fear that the changes would be more than I could bear.

  3. This reminds me of why I used to tell friends not to play with Salvia Divinurum and reads like a more eloquent cross of Castaneda and Thompson. Beautifully writ.
    Thank You.

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