Campaigns to Make US Politics Look Good

Version 2If the US political environment (or, in our binational family, the Brexit debacle) is getting you down, here is some consolation: At least you do not live in Ecuador.

Partout had the uncertain fortune of arriving in this small South American country in the midst of the campaign lustrum for electing (or re-electing, if not term-limited) every city councilman, mayor, county supervisor/commissioner, public works director and, perhaps, dogcatcher in the whole country.

This added up to 80,281 local, provincial, cantonal and parochial  candidates from 279 political parties campaigning all at once, everywhere. Based on what we saw and heard while there, it felt like many many more.

Ignoring these local elections (as Americans routinely do) is not an option. Every Ecuadorian from 18-65 is required by law to vote. Scofflaws who do not exercise their suffrage are subject to fines equal to 10% of the nation’s minimum guaranteed salary for one month and become ineligible for public services such as education and health care.

Ignoring office-seekers is not an option either because, as we witnessed, they are inescapable, 24/7, for the duration of the campaign season.

We could not vote, but we also could not escape.


Electioneering, Ecuador-Style

From all appearances, campaigning for local office in Ecuador goes something like this.

  • Pick an office to run for, preferably the one most likely to line your pockets with bribes, kickbacks and other time-honored forms of graft.
  • Come up with a catchy slogan, preferably something that emphasizes your honesty because the populace is desperate for some honesty. “Public Works Without Corruption” was one of our personal favorites, as if public works without corruption is a groundbreaking concept.

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    Concejal’s slogan is something like “Vote for me because I’m young and won’t do things the way they have been done by older grownups.”

  • Make about 20,000 colorful posters of your face and slogan (perhaps with a slate of fellow faces from your party) and splash them on every plasterable square inch of your community.
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    Signs at a corner on a dirt road at least one mile from the nearest town, which itself is home to barely 4,000 residents

    When public spaces run short, rent surfaces from the owners of fences and homes.

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    Also on a dirt road. E.g., not exactly in a metropolis

    Flatness is not a requirement. Even trees will do.

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    Arrow points to campaign sign in tree, even further from metropolis. Perhaps the cows vote?

  • Strictly adhere to the rule that more noise = more votes. Buy, borrow or steal the most ear-shattering amplifiers you can, mount them to a car or truck and recruit your brother, brother-in-law, barber or whoever else stands to gain from your gain to drive up and down every block of your community day and night blasting your name and slogan in hopes of impressing everyone within earshot that you really, truly are the honest candidate.

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    Demonstrating the principle: “Never let one megaphone do what three can do louder”

  • Augment mobile blasting with occasional rallies, preferably shutting down Main Street (“Calle Simon Bolivar”) in the process to demonstrate your ability to get things done. If already flush with cash (perhaps because you are already an office-holder?), rent a stadium or other venue and hold an event that can be heard for a mile in every direction or until every eligible voter within earshot promises you have their vote.
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A rally in the village outside this church all but drowned out the Mass celebration. Perhaps these worshipers were asking God for deliverance?


We were not in a position to determine whether these tactics are augmented with relentless radio and TV commercials or robocalls, but every person we talked to in any language and of whatever political persuasion assured us the process produces almost nothing but crooks and promise-breakers.

The consistent response when we protested, “Surely some of them are honest people intent on doing good work?” was that not more than 1 in 3 candidates might fall in either of those categories. There seems to be some hope the ratio is rising. The explosion of parties and candidacies in the 2019 election, the highest in the nation’s history, was viewed by some observers as a sign of political vitality and recuperation. Meanwhile, the populace remains in “hope and pray” territory.

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Translation: “Voters hope the candidates fulfill their promises.” A universal dream, more commonly realized in some places than others


On a More Serious Note

Yes, that was all pretty much the bright side of Ecuadorian politics.

(And, lest we sound like a couple supercilious Americans abroad, to the contrary. We found so much to like and admire in Ecuador that we have ditched our plan to tour Asia next cold season and instead will winter over in the colonial jewel of Cuenca. Yes! Partout will stay put for a change.)

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In downtown Cuenca (photo by Fernando Tapia from Unsplash)

Political stability and rectitude are just plain not Ecuador’s long suit. The country may have avoided the political cataclysms of some Latin American countries, but it went through eight presidents from 1997 to 2010, including a five-day period when it went through three. The nation’s immediate past president has been charged in absentia with kidnapping, and his predecessor has been convicted in absentia for embezzlement. Both are on the lam.

The country’s approach to term limits illustrates the dysfunction.

By law, local officials used to be elected for a maximum of six years (1978-1984), then for four years (1984-2009), then for five years (from 2009-2019, thus the 25-cent word at the top of the blog referring to “lustrum” elections). Beginning with this election, terms have been limited back to four years in order to synch them with general elections.

Got that?

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Voters like this gentle soul with the local campaign stickers on his living room window has to keep track of all the election laws along with the candidates. Good luck with that.

Similarly, reelection has been variably permitted and banned, variably for local officials and the president. Most recently, a two-term limit for every elected office was enacted in 2018 after being banned in 2015.

In a 2003 paper called “Money and the Rule of Law,” one economist described Ecuador’s political system as run by elites completely devoid of “moral inhibitions” who routinely secure special-interest legislation from weak and corrupt elected officials. During the economic tailspin of the 1990s, this “deadly cocktail” produced a free pass for bankers to commit “massive looting” of customer deposits while the country was replacing its native sucre with the US dollar. (Aside: Ever wonder where all those Susan B. Anthony dollar coins Americans reject end up? Ecuador.)

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After her parents’ savings were looted, our Quito tour guide moved to Israel for 10 years. (The studious tourist next to her won the rose by correctly guessing what country exports more roses than Ecuador.)

We heard about the looting repeatedly because it led to a devastating exodus of Ecuadorian youth whose parents were wiped out by the banker-swindlers. Almost overnight, something like 15% of the nation’s population decamped for other nations where they could find jobs and incomes to send home. Any 30-something we met who spoke fluent English was likely to have a personal story like our Quito tour guide’s (caption above). All told, some 2.5 million adolescents and young adults fled the country – something along the order of the entire city of Chicago disappearing from the population of Illinois.

Today, about half of the expatriates are back, both their families and the nation’s economy sufficiently restored they can go home, at last. Some went beyond merely sustaining their families with remittances to build modern new family homes called “emigrant houses” because they were built with money sent back by the diaspora.

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An “emigrant house” in a region of subsistence farming


Back on the Bright Side

Voters went to Ecuador’s polls March 24.

In the name of “calm elections,” campaign noise-making was banned nationwide beginning two days earlier “in order to allow for a time of reflection and definition to those who will vote.” Relief, at last! A suspension of alcohol sales took effect at the same time. Violators were to be fined half the monthly minimum wage in the country ($193).

Dismal and toxic as the US political scene may feel right now, absurd as the Brexit tragicomedy may be, Ecuador reminded us that things can be worse – and are, for untold millions worldwide, every single day.

Also on the bright side: We are told the candidates, by law, have to remove, paint over and otherwise obliterate all traces of their campaigns within a fixed period after the election or be fined. Stay tuned for further reports from Ecuador next winter on whether this actually happens.

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The current president is Lenín Moreno. If the graffiti that requires no translation on this church in Cuenca is an indication, he’s not much better than his predecessors


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:
We have a confession: We no longer try to live out of carry-on bags. We check bags, early and often.

Now, we recognize there are friends among our faithful followers whose reaction to this confession is, “DUH! Who carries on everything anyway?!?” Well, among road warriors living for extended time out of luggage, carrying on is a badge of experience and self-discipline. To which we say – bah, humbug.

If you travel for as many months as we do at a time, there are products you need that exceed the liquid carry-on limits (e.g., sunscreen, insect repellent, maybe speciality cosmetics, etc.) and that are either outrageously expensive or unattainable overseas. We have evolved a system in which Louis carries on his roller-bag (which also provides a convenient trolley for his backpack), and Doris checks a somewhat bigger bag (too big for an overhead) that holds all her belongings plus Louis’s big stuff (shoes) and all our big liquids (sometimes known to include unopened alcohol).

If lost baggage was the problem it once was, that would be one thing. It is not. Statistically, it is not and, personally, we have found it is not. In perhaps 30 flights in the last 18 months, every checked bag has arrived with us, in a timely fashion, with all our belongings still inside.

TOP TIP:
Don’t take more than you need, but don’t be afraid to check what you take. We have yet to meet a traveler who said, “Gee, we sure wish we were dragging more stuff through this airport and wrestling more suitcases into overhead bins.”


COMING SOON: Weather Wise: A Practical Partout

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So Much for Tarzan

Arty palmWe all grow up with images of the rainforest. Whether we got them from Tarzan, Tintin or Rudyard Kipling, Harrison Ford going mad on the mosquito coast or dog-eared National Geographics from our childhoods, the tropical rainforest – like the great plains of Africa – is woven so deeply into literature, film and news that it seems easy to picture.

And then, if we are lucky or determined, we get there one day, and the deep jungle of the tropics turns out to be something else altogether.

At least that is what happened to Partout after we flew 40 minutes from Quito to Coca, clambered into a motorized canoe, zipped down the Napo River for nearly two hours, trudged almost a mile through bogs to a shallow creek, boarded a canoe, were paddled to and across a lake and finally arrived at our digs, an eco-lodge in a rainforest preserve deep in the Amazonian jungle of Ecuador.

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The road less traveled

We were armed with insect repellent, sunscreen and a lifetime of images that prepared us to be swarmed by butterflies (on the light side) or consumed by piranhas (on the dark one), all while running the risk of being squeezed to death by an anaconda or snapped in two by a cayman.

Silly, Hollywooded us!

As one fellow member of the merry sixsome assigned to our pair of guides marveled, “When I went to Africa, it was pretty much like I always imagined. This is nothing like I imagined!”

Despite its namesake rain, the rainforest turned out to be surprisingly free of mosquitos, and sunscreen was never needed on the jungle floor, where light rarely penetrates. In our imaginations, the Amazon was full of peril – man-eating fish, lethal snakes, frogs that could kill us on contact. In reality, our guides told us, caymans mostly just lay in the mud with their big mouths open, waiting for a fish to swim in. As for swarms, the only ones that materialized were ants (army and angry leaf cutters).

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The piranha is toothy but man-eating only in the most extreme and unlikely of circumstances

In the end, the Amazon jungle felt much more benign to us humans than the African savannah. On safari in Africa, idiots who step out of their touring cars can and do become breakfast up the food chain. In the deep jungle of Ecuador, humans are pretty much at the top of the chain; it is the small things that live in constant danger.

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Butterfly as breakfast


In fact, perhaps the greatest surprise of the deep jungle was that wildlife is mostly small, even microscopic, and seldom dense in numbers. “What is rare is common and what is common is rare” is how our naturalist guide put it. The rainforest might be full of tarantulas but, in four nights, we saw just one. At the same time, Ecuador’s basin is home to more than 600 bird species, yet we could trek an hour or more through the tangle without spotting a single feather.

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The only tarantula we saw was on a railing outside our room


It turns out lush is not the same as fertile. The rainforest is extravagantly, wildly lush.  The vegetation can so dense it might as well be pitch dark for all the likelihood we could have found our way out. There is good reason the history of South American exploration includes a long trail of adventurer footprints that went into the deep and never emerged.

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Unguided, this would have been the end of us


But lush does not necessarily nurture. The soil is thin, the predators many and the competition for survival ferocious, fostering mind-boggling adaptations. Trees grow thorns and “walk,” changing ground over time, to protect themselves. Birds build nests around wasp nests to recruit armed guards for their young, termites build fake nests to fake out predators, cicadas lay eggs in what looks like spit to make the offspring look unappetizing.

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Thorny tree, spitty cicada eggs, colorful snail eggs


There is no orchid-blossom season, our naturalist told us, because no orchid wants to bloom when all the others are blooming; doing so would just reduce the chance of attracting a pollinator. One wily orchid produces blossoms that look so much like bees that bees have been known try to mate them. In search of nutrients, trees grow surface roots that snake so far from their trunks we could not see the ends of them.

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That’s a tree root our intrepid guides are standing beside

On the African savannah, it is wildlife that is elephantine – big game, finite in number even when abundant and all the varieties reasonably recognizable; plant life is relatively sparse. In the Amazonian rainforest, it is the trees, plants and mushrooms that rule, along with the insects that live off them. Kapok trees may tower like redwoods and strangler vines do hug trees to death, but bigger is not necessarily better in the battle for resources.

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Strangler vine hugging its prey to the death of both of them on the forest floor

Ultimately, the jungle is a Lilliputian cosmos teeming with finger-sized life so infinite in variety that new species are still being identified every day. Without the hawk eyes of our guides, we would have missed or mistaken just about every wild thing we passed. We sure would not have recognized the cordyseps that thrives by a zombie alchemy in which it invades the body of its prey and transforms it into mold.

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Exquisite (and exquisitely photographed by LDG) but teensy weensy shield beetle


In the end, the rainforest turned out to be a sensory feast where vision took the back seat to sensation and sound. Bird calls, of course, but also the 6 pm cicada whose chirp as sunset approaches is the time clock of jungle life, howler monkeys with cries like motors, frogs that bark, rainfall as loud as thunder. And, often, gliding through ancient creeks in a dawn fog, utter and complete silence.

Lake in mist


As for Tarzan. . . . That swinging-on-the-vine thing? More Hollywood. A native might shimmy up one to get bearings if lost in the forest, we were told, but only if there was no better option. A typical vine might not bear the weight of a child, much less the archetypal ape man.
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FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX
Leaf cutter

The childhood phrase “ants in the pants” took on new meaning when Louis did not watch where he was stepping our last day in the jungle and parked himself on a leaf cutter anthill. Within seconds, ants were up his pants and in them, in his boots, under his shirt and on his neck. Being able to strip quickly in public while hopping from foot to foot turns out to be a key jungle survival skill.

TOP TIP:
Never allow yourself to laugh so hard you miss the photo opp that may never come again.

 


STILL COMING SOON: Campaigns to Make US Politics Look Good

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Home sweet home after a hard day in the deep jungle

 

 

 

 

Jewels of the Crown (and Others)

villa.jpgAs faithful followers of Partout know, traveling South America has piqued our interest in the question of “what did the Spanish do for South America besides introducing the Inquisition, extinguishing civilizations, plundering the natural resources, etc.?”

One defensible answer might be its introduction of well-ordered street grids, people-friendly central plazas and squares, dazzling churches and chapels, romantic balconies and and courtyards, and extravagant art to fill them. To our Western eyes, at least, these are lovely.

What has been eye-opening for these same Western eyes is that much of this beauty is not actually Spanish or colonial at all, and that the handiwork itself often came from the hands of pre-Colombian peoples, not the interlopers.


The street in the photo below is definitely colonial (minus the street lights and mural). We know that because the buildings have no windows, and that was the signature feature of a Spanish colonial home in the 1600s.
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But it was the Moors of North Africa who introduced arches, geometric design and shaded interior courtyards with splashing water to Spain and thus they who bequeathed arches, geometric ornamentation and leafy courtyards on New Spain.
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Other flourishes that strike us outsiders as “colonial” turn out to date from long after the colonial period. Cuenca’s iconic “new” cathedral was begun in 1885, designed by an Alsatian monk and not completed until 1975. The signature blue tiles of its domes were imported from Czechoslovakia and its exterior pink marble from Italy.
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Cuencans of the early 20th century also embraced French architecture with a passion, stamping a distinctive European feel on many streets that has nothing at all to do with the Spanish.
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Meanwhile, up north in Quito, the neo-Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional would not look out of place in any medieval French market town except that its construction began in 1926 and its gargoyles are iguanas and armadillos.
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And, deep under the earth across the border in Zipaquira, Colombia, one of only three underground salt churches in the world was shaped not by the Spanish but by local salt miners in the 1950s on a site that had been mined since the 5th century by the pre-Columbia’s Muiscas.

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The underground cathedral, where Mass is held on Sundays, depicts the stations of the Cross in salt


All the same, there also endure many decidedly colonial Spanish influences, and they can seem the stuff of fairy tales.

It is hard to imagine a time when there was no such thing as UNESCO World Heritage sites yet it was only in 1978 that the international program began, and it is because of a Spanish church that Quito was the first city in the world given the UNESCO World Heritage seal of approval.

The Jesuits were the last of four Catholic orders to evangelize what is now Ecuador. The crown said there was no land left in Quito for the late-comers so they would have to make do with converting the countryside. The order dutifully headed to the sticks. There, in the great tradition of don’t get mad get even, the brothers managed to become so rich they came back to Quito and bought up an entire city block. The next 160 years went to building Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus, a baroque splendor gilded from floor through ceiling with 23-karat gold leaf and today filled with art, detail and the remains of a former president.
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Elsewhere, the founder of Tunja, Colombia, was a devotee of Mary mother of Jesus. In the 1570s, he financed a chapel in her honor within the exquisite Templo de Santo Domingo, now all but lost in a teeming university city of little other distinction. Suárez Rendón’s Capilla del Rosario is a wonder of carved wooden columns painted deep crimson and gold-plated with flowers. Elsewhere in the church, transporting frescoes are decidedly Spanish despite the occasional pre-Columbian godhead.
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Rendón and his fellow conquistador, Don Juan de Vargas, also left a trail of exotic wild animals and Greek mythology on their ceilings, the likes of which are found nowhere else in South America or maybe Spain itself. They even paved pathways in fossils.
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And then there are the haciendas, the estates of invaders who settled and farmed rather than mining and warring. Ecuador, which didn’t have much in the way of mineral wealth, is peppered with these grand houses brimming with history, some of them exquisitely restored.

Hacienda La Cienega near Lasso is among the oldest in the country, built in the late 1500s and visited many times by Simón Bolívar in his campaign to liberate the region from Spain. The approach through an alley of eucalyptus (planty much later) is worthy of a lord, the gardens remain magnificent and the private chapel otherworldly.

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Le Duc de Guise felt right at home at La Cienega

Hacienda Cusin north of Quito remained in the same family from 1602 until it was broken up in the 1960s during Ecuadorian land form. For a few decades, the estate fell derelict to bad ideas and neglect, but it has now been revived as a magical lodging for Quinteño weekenders and lucky foreign travelers like us.

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better dining
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Lest we give the Spanish undue credit even for these legacies, it should be remembered that virtually all the construction and art attributed to them in the New World was actually produced not by Spaniards but by armies of indigenous artists, who were conscripted if not enslaved by the church and who were viewed as mere tools through whom God spoke, not as human artisans. They were not allowed to sign their works.

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Every detail here was created by indigenous artists

And yet, these hundreds of years later, from the countrysides to the city centers, the art and architecture from earlier times continue to stun the eye and refresh the soul, immortalizing their creators one and all.

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Perhaps an architectural mishmash but still a pleasure to the eye


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX
One of the bonuses of traveling long-term the way Partout does is flexibility. Without being on much of a schedule, we can make make adjustments — adding, deleting or shortening stays — without big financial penalties and sometimes with budget windfalls. Back in the States, we eliminated the Galapagos from our Ecuador itinerary for a lot of reasons, one of them the expense of cruising. Once on the ground here, we found flights to the islands an eye-popping 40% to 50% what they cost from the States and cruises priced as little as half what comparable cruises cost from home.

TOP TIP:
If you are traveling for a month or more to a destination and can stand the suspense of not having every room and transport nailed down, booking on the fly can be more economical and even spice things up with the unanticipated.


COMING SOON: Campaigns to Make US Politics Look Good

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Even the icons are still enjoying their days in the sun

 

Eureka! The Fountain of Youth!

DSC07314Remember the scene from Back to the Future where Marty McFly discovers he has been accidentally time-traveled back to 1955?

In Vilcabamba, Ecuador, we joined him.

We came to the 4,000-soul town so far south it is almost in Peru because there was this really enticing AirBnB cabin with great reviews, and it looked like a great place to do nothing for a week. Which it was.

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“Nothing” includes watching the scenery change, which it did about every 10 minutes

After one day of absolutely nothing, we were ready for something, so we trekked downhill an hour and a half from the cabin to the town itself.

Which is where Marty McFly comes in. Picture this. . . .


Location: Classic South-America pueblo. Inevitable Spanish-style church opening onto  inevitable main square. Two-story buildings with balconies hanging over square, one-story adobes slouching down cobbled or dirt streets beyond. Except for the overhead wires and 4WD taxis, probably not much changed for a century.
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Back story: “Oh, Vilcabamba: where mountains soar alluringly above town, where the balmy air is synonymous with longevity (it shot to fame for its high number of centenarians after Reader’s Digest did stories on them in 1955), where those who encounter it simply get waylaid – sometimes for months, sometimes years. . . (Lonely Planet).

(1955!?! Jeepers creepers. Same year Marty McFly went back to the future!)

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Rough translation: “Live in Vilcabamba and live long.” Dapper Don here lived to 104.


Casting: Superannuated hippies, some weathered to leather. Birkenstocks and beards, long beards. Dreadlocks and tie dye. Billowing harem pants, macrame purses. Young hippies come to grow old with the old, some with their own young or, at least, their dogs. Throwbacks to San Francisco in the’60s, Asia in the ’70s, Mexico even today.  Yoga galore, reiki, heavenly massages at heavenly prices.

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Same square, same bench, slightly different beards and shoes

And gringos. Lots and lots of gringos.

Gringos sipping life-extending fruit drinks at the Juice Factory. Gringos drinking flat whites at UFO (“United Falafal Org.”) and Beverly Hills Café. Gringos everywhere else drinking beer. Gringos watching a classic avant garde Soviet propaganda film at an “underground” cinema that screens movies very much above ground on a white sheet.

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Every watering hole has its regulars. After two days, we could recognize them all

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Hard to say whether Louis is happier about finally finding a screening of the classic Soy Cuba or because he see a movie out-of-doors in a T-shirt at night in winter.

Gringos from the US and Canada, from Germany and Poland, from just about everywhere except Spain (the Spanish seem to have stopped coming to the New World) and China (so far). Gringos traveling on wheels that have rolled from afar.

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Dutch gringos shipped in their own camper

There once were even more gringos, we were told, not so long ago. In 2015, an asteroid was supposed to devastate the globe in September. Gringos reportedly flocked into Vilcabamba to dig bunkers to survive the impact and then flocked back out when they were not impacted. Even so, estimates are that about 30% of the village’s population is still foreign, drawn by the spectacular setting, mild climate, drinkable water, low cost of living, universal health care and, maybe, beer and flat whites.


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Every one of them has a story. The German who lives outside Vilcabamba but comes to town to go to a sweat lodge. The Londoner who came to South America for six months in 2010 and is still here, building houses for gringos. The former world-ranked tennis player-turned-Bay-Area-hairdresser with his jazz-singing wife.

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Doris getting a Bay Area touchup in salon with a view. Cut and color: $35

Some just pass through, like the Argentinian couple on an Alaska-or-Bust drive from their home country with their two-year-old son. They have already been on the road a year and a half, living off the curbside sale of drums they make along the way. Asked when they expect to reach Alaska, they just smile and shrug. “Quien sabe?
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Others stay, for years or forever, the pre-pensioners opening bars and restaurants, providing services, practicing healing arts and, sometimes, all of the above and more. We picked up one business card that promised travel arrangements (airplane, hotel, transportation, car rental), payment services (electricity, water, taxes) and Spanish/English tutoring (both languages), all from one person.

Us, we are now north of Quito for a long weekend before setting out in a canoe into the deep jungle. As always, thanks for sharing our road.

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Traffic in Vilcabamba


FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX
Credit card mileage rewards feel like found money for us roadies. Since we would be charging purchases to credit cards anyway, getting free travel for spending money with them doubles the fun. The tricky part comes when we go to use the points to secure free tickets. More than once when we have gone online to ticket ourselves, the same ticket requires, say, 30,000 points from the first of us to go online but 45,000 points for the second. (Our points are in separate accounts to maximize sign-up bonuses.) We know it can’t be a matter of the first of us getting the last ticket available at the lower award level because it happens to us repeatedly – and because we have found away around it.

TOP TIP
This may sound like throwing salt over a shoulder to escape evil, but we now buy awards tickets sitting side by side on separate computers, logged on from separate email accounts and going through the booking process in tandem, right up to “Purchase.” Without fail, booking simultaneously instead of sequentially locks in the same award deal for us both.

COMING EVENTUALLY: Jewels of the Crown (and Others)


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In Vilcabamba, even the murals feature aging gringos