The Bitter Cup: Ayahuasca – beware the hand that serves you

As ayahuasca tourism explodes into a frenzy of expensive retreats, gringo-shamanism, one-night love-ins, and do-it-yourself thrill-seeking across the planet – a shaman from the Amazon sends a postcard on which he writes, only this….

beware the kiss

of the vine of death.


 

If you were sick, I mean really – and abandoned on a sandbank in the Amazon -would you trust a chain-smoking motorbike mechanic with a fetish for vomit and a blunt machete who turns up out of nowhere, stinking of cigarettes, and says…

“I can be help you if you be come, come with me

 I will be show you how to love de medicina.”

Deep in the ancient forests of the Amazon, where healing arts have been honed for thousands of years under strict and secret lineage, a shaman of an unknown tribe blows heavy plumes of Marlboro Red from a rickety stool under a banana tree.

His practice is a jungle garden. His ‘consulting room’ is air conditioned by plants, and his library is living all around him; in blossoms, cloud, roots, shoots, animal visitors and continual dialogues with nature who informs his powers of diagnosis and prescription.

The currandero was five days late for our appointment.

DSC_0054When he finally boomed into camp on a supped-up Yamaha, wild curls dancing behind him, he wore a grin so wide it instantly erased my resentment for the long and cranky wait.

This was a meeting I was forced into, really – having had no intention of ever ending up on the ayahuasca scene, let alone in a shaman’s wretched camp.

I came to the jungle assisting a team of American medical volunteers for the CNN-awarded outreach project, Amazon Promise.

It was in deep jungle, far away from Iquitos, that a recurring undiagnosed health problem struck me down again with its presentation of angry circular welts, allergies to everything – fatigue, fever and painful, deforming joints and nightmares. After two years’ under care of Sydney specialists I knew the pathology: disorders of the white cell count, acute and unattributed inflammation factors, evidence of infection, progressive decline with no known cause, and no known cure.

At the peak of the illness in Australia my feet and hands were reduced to livid claws too fragile to bear the weight of even a sheet. I had been placed on large doses of steroids and their related chemical cousins. I was warned I was unlikely to walk again, and told to ‘toughen up’.

My questions of experts from rheumatology, infectious diseases and oncology had not been welcome and I spent long, expensive years in a state of chemical dependency and shame.

So ending up here, on a splintery bench in the rainforest for one more shot at a happy ending did not seem intimidating at all: I was used to feeling confused and cranky.

I was also well ware that here in the jungle, shaman give a medicine so powerful for its effects it is known as the vine of death. That didn’t bother me much. Most of the drugs I’d been taking the last few years were likely to kill me in the end.

What did bother me was that I was here at all.

I had been ‘miraculously’ cured of my symptoms a year ago after a juice-fast my brother recommended from a book. 10 days of beetroot and miso soup brought on a hell of nightmares and weird thinking at the end of which I was pain, welt and arthritis-free enough to climb Kilimanjaro and five other of the world’s highest ranges for charity.

touching the void

But here in deepest, darkest Amazonia, I had plunged back into a hell much worse than the first. It was an ER doctor, a veteran from a Boston hospital, who pleaded with me to find a jungle healer.

“What Western medicine knows about what you have is the equivalent of a bucket’s worth of ocean,” he said.

 

“Get yourself to a shaman.  Bring back something useful.”

So I set out to find a shaman. In Iquitos. Which is a bit like looking for a raindrop in a river.

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They call it zombie-fever. Bleary-eyed ayahuasca tourists; the sick, the lame, the lost and confused who have descended on Iquitos these last ten years in search of healing or of a new career in shamanism.

Most locals shy away, but hordes of gringo healers, jungle side-winders and scouts prey on the tide of incoming, just like most of them were preyed upon when they first set out to taste the medicine.

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It’s an ugly scene. There are deaths and rapes, fakes and all manner of weirdness in the circus that has been conjured up around the promise of ayahuasca.

I hunted for a healer in this city of dealers for more than a month and come across every breed of charlatan, con man, gringo wannabe and naysayer as I got sicker and sicker and weaker and more desperate to believe that the legends of great cures and wisdom in the jungle were not a hoax.

The greatest name around Iquitos is Rivas. The Banco.

He is one of the Grandfathers of plant medicine and a very wealthy man, by all accounts. It was exactly due to his Big Reputation that I had struck Rivas off my list. I wasn’t interested in anybody famous, I wanted the real thing. Somebody genuine, authentic,remote and exotic. As a result, I ended up with Rosa, who had a lot of stuffed toys, some fascinating stories, and no idea at all what to do with me.

She had plied me with the toxic juice of a rubber plant to help cure me of parasites and was taking me to her jungle camp for further ‘healing’ when, an hour down the Amazon, she apparently had a sudden change of heart. She made a pretty loop in the speedboat, pulled up beside a muddy verge, and shoved me out with no instructions, food or even a goodbye. Then she fled into the jungle steam.

It was not a great start to my ayahuasa healing adventure.But it was no worse really than things had been in general. So I sat there, sweating and inflaming, listening to the water lapping on the bank and the howl of far off monkeys.

About an hour later a tall, slim man and with remarkably white tennis socks turned up in a rickety dinghy. He was an ambassador for the Maestro, the said.

The who?

The Maestro. Vamos!”

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And so it was that I found my wretched self before none other than the Banco. Himself.

It was his cigarette smoke that hootchy kootched around me as his sweat wilted the flowers on his Hawaiian shirt.

The Maestro, I knew, was a legend in Peru. He was feared and adored in his region and quietly famous around the world for his power with the plants. He guarded the dignity of the medicina with a ferocious respect, and had openly declared that we are in a time of great war on Earth – over nature, over power, over everything.

He was on the side of the plants. And an enemy of those who either destroyed their habitat or offended their honour.

The Maestro was credited with cures for aches, pains, indigestion, infertility, snakebite, depression, cancer, arthritis, warts and every complaint of the soul. He was to be admired for his drumming, respected for his temper, and the only man to go to in Iquitos for advice on how to fix both motorbikes and photo copiers.

His patients came from simple villages along the chocolate-coloured  jungle rivers and all the wealthy continents. And occasionally, apparently, stumbled in as orphans – like me.

I was in no condition, really, to be meeting a legend. I could fairly be described at that time as scruffy and irritable.

I offered a scowl and a floppy, swollen handful of hideously deformed fingers by way of introduction. He shoved my hand aside to crush me in a wet and fragrant embrace.

Now! How are you?” he asked in melodic jungle Spanish, pulling up his wooden stool. “Come! Sit here. Relax, smoke de cigarette?

I want to know de  ev-e-ry-theeng!

Precisely!

How you in de heart?

How you in de feelings?

How you in de self?”

And so began a journey you will likely never take either in classic Western medicine, or in the circles hosted by gringo entrepreneurs who have recently got hold of the medicine and market ayahuasca tourism.

You cannot sell this sort of a thing. And you cannot buy it in a pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all ‘retreat’ setting. It does not bless any one night stand flirtation which might involve a ‘dose’ of so-called ayahuasca, and cannot abide even the slightest sniff of hippy thinking, according to the Maestro.

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To know ayahuasca – or any other plant – requires that sort of wisdom you cannot serve in a cup.

What true ayahuascaroes cultivate is an ancient process of diagnosis, treatment, care and insight strongly based on relationship – primarily to nature. Many died in keeping this alive during the persecutions of the Conquistadors. Many were exiled as they kept the covenants of their lineage through the carnage of the rubber boom.

Those who were passed the rites cultivate their intimacy with the plants through long, solo pilgrimages in the jungle dieting specific species, meeting with the blessings and terrors they keep, to earn the right to give ceremony.

Many are declaring, now the fad has hit the mainstream, that appropriation or abuse of the ‘medicines’ are acts of war to be avenged.

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It takes a lot more than knowledge of the recipes, a few icaros and a splattering of shipibo artwork here and there to suppose the role of currandaro – let alone of shaman.

A true ayahuasca journey is conceived by a sort of fate, conducted down a river deeper than it appears, in a craft made of fear and trust.

When you active the bonds of chemistry that cause ayahuasca to appear before you, you have conjured a genie even the most powerful healers do well to treat with awe.

“She is the wise one,” says Viejo, adoring the little leaves of  stems we are going to cook with.

“She be the beautiful one.

The empress of all the plants, of de everything.

But Ooooo, she be  the terrible, terrible  jealous one.

The vengeful one.

She be not be liking to be fucked with.

Not de one de little tiny bit.

For my recovery I was apparently to live in Viejo’s camp for as long as it was going to take. “You be live here, in my paradise,” he beamed. “Maybe two weeks, maybe three months.. we be see what the plants, she’s saying”

The camp, far from what you may be ‘shopping’ for now, if you are considering buying a pre-paid, web-marketed, $2000-a-week ‘authentic shaman experience’ in the Amazon – was slightly lacking in mmm… charm.

It was a sort of  ramshackle jungle squat with hungry-looking chickens, a dubious-coloured bog and a slightly worse than average rat issue. My home would be wooden yurt with a moldy single bed and an even more moldy pillow, which were to become my heaven as the healing journey began.

On the second day he told me, after a long diagnostic massage in his plywood temple, examination of my rash and conduct, evocations of deities from the jungle university and lots of poking about;

“You have de poison in de blood and de heart-ache long time.

You have de blockages in de love, and de many hurting not go away.

You must have take out de metals here –  in de teeth.

You must be cleaning de liver and de whole body.

You live here.

With me.

We play de bongos

and talk with de nature.

Vamos!”

And so it was.

Every day for 8 weeks I slouched about camp in bare feet, listening to Viejo on his bongo, or vomiting in buckets, or preparing to vomit in buckets, and running a constant dialogue of wonder and irritability that my life had come to this.

There was Viejo, greeting the dawn with a Marboro dangling from his lips and a bongo on his belly, singing like mad to the quivering garden.

There was Viejo, preparing me another concoction of leaf medicine, ordering me wrapped in honey, buried up to my neck in dirt, asking me to sing to the plants, drawing me a picture of the 13 chakras, holding my hand as a jungle dentist drilled the amalgam from my teeth and watching me puke my miserable guts up about three times a week due to one ‘medicine’ or another.

There was no ‘between’ the medicine. There was only the medicine.

And I don’t mean ayahuasca. I mean everything. Everything was medicine: the screaming whistle of the jungle bugs, the twisting heat, the soggy bed, the starlight, dripping off banana leaves, the hideous shit and puke and spit we lovingly poured into Pacha Mumma, who would know what to do with it.

And Viejo… singing as he tenderly stripped down his Yamaha. Viejo, caught in rapture at the tinkling of motorbike parts as they sun-dried on the washing line. Viejo, offering me a litre of pure tobacco juice, saying only ‘Drink. All. Vamos!‘.

And there were my own miserable thoughts as I wrestled with an inner dialogue that was variously unhappy with my body, my life, my circumstances, my pain, the heat or my diet of salt-less rice, fish guts, steamed plantain and vile or psychotropic juices.

I was prepared fresh medicines from turmeric, passionfruit leaves, resins and slimy things served in recycled jam jars by the doctor himself, and or by his friendly staff who sat with me while I drank tinDSC_0028ctures, hideous goop and poisons that did things unmentionable by a lady.

The mechanic held my hand when their effects were diabolical.

He enthusiastically inspected buckets-full of my vomit, searching for signs and clues and bubbles which would lead him to either frown deeply or throw out his arms in joyful rapture when he found de something that he was looking to get out of my body.

These triumphs were usually a puddle of froth or an asymmetrical slime blob that I had troweled the depths of my being to wring out in misery over a bucket. They were sometimes fragments of dreams.

The maestro played the harp when his plants were ruthless.I often begged him to stop because his presence seemed to amplify the agony of the process.

Then he would sit close by, gently de-greasing bits of motor bike.

He never once left me alone. He never once refused my questions. He called me Princessa, and was as concerned with my psychological journey as he was with my physical ones.

After he made me hallucDSC_0039inate, shiver and puke for a full day to get de bad liqueed out of my gall bladder he took me on the back of the bike on a day trip to a spring and restored my joy for life.

When he thought he had squeezed a good puddle of de bad out of me, he had me scrubbed raw with a laundry brush and commercial bleach, then wrapped in mud for a full afternoon before we drank the ayahuasca – which seemed mild in comparison to the other plants.

In the Western model this would all, I know, be considered quite ridiculous. Such a level of personal involvement with a patient would be frowned upon for sure, and if one were to be so indulged – just imagine the cost!

In the tourist model, there’s nobody can give you even half the actual experience.

But in the larger part of the world, and in the oldest medical traditions – the Chinese, Tibetan, the curranderos of the Amazon, the Australian Aborigine – from whom the pharmaceutical industry still takes it cues for synthesising medicines – what’s being offered by doctors and ‘healers’ would be equally unthinkable.

Listening, connecting, sharing the experience are as much part of the cure as the treatments.

In fact, any treatment or remedy that has not been made and blessed by the healer is considered next to useless.

Which is why I warn you -

beware who you drink with, where your plants come from, and how much faith you give to the new gringo market in ayahuasca.

 

The power of the bond between healer and patient is equal to the power of the cure – without trust and confidence, says the maestro, an illness can only be cut at the stem, it cannot be removed at the root.

A cure cannot come from a person who is ‘dabbling’ with the medicines. “Ayahuasca, she is dangersousssss. Oh, very she be danger. When you play with her, like with any strong woman, she can seduce you, she can be suck you into a very very bad world of delusions.”

Likewise, he says, a cure cannot come from a bottle, but only from a living dialogue between the patient and the healer, the healer and the Mother. He spent hours of his day caressing, listening, adoring his gardens, the clouds, birdsong and moonlight.

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Since this adventure I have been free of my illness and interested in the doctor/patient relationship which in indigenous medicine is not without its challenges.

When a shaman asks you to drink his deadly medicines he is well aware he causes fear – and it is this he wants to work with. The disorientation and surrender in a patient who is put in a threatening curing situation is the very means by which a shaman finds a gap in the ego wide enough for him to create change.

But not all shamans are equal. And many you will find are not shamans at all – despite their feathers and their pretty websites. So tread this path with care…

 

The Beautiful Suffering

Could the wounded human love story be the tearing open of the bud to a truly Divine Romance?

Huge, hard, kinky, tantra, boots and whips and puppies. Ice creams, gags, wax and weird conjugations of the kundalini…. since when did sensuality form this venomous helix with suffering? And where, on our wounded Earth, is all this going to end?

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Is it a secret to say that for so many of us those precious, early tones of longing for love got warped somewhere: on the dating scene, in marriage, in the loneliness of this modern three-way hi-way adventure in the bad, bad honeylands of craving? And if so, what next?

Out here in expat-land, on the frontiers of the new, ‘unshackled’ humanity, there’s plenty of talk about finding Love, but not much time for making it. Meanwhile, we bud into tribes of vegans, yogis, crusaders for animal rights, poets, ayahuasca junkies, singers and yes – ecstatic, sexy dancers.

The love-scene here’s as sad and demented as it is at your place. A hit and run sexuality spiced by fetish, lust and lonliness leaves its blue fingerprints on throats and hearts among us – just like everywhere else!

Tantra, Tinder, a wild imbalance of the genders, and this so-called ‘adult’ sex scene, which dabbles in the, errr… quixotic, leads to all manner of cringe.

dating

There’s no topic more deeply poured over in Ubud, anyway, as love. Or the lack of. Except maybe sex – and the unreliability of.

Beyond the norms of our home towns, ex-patriots everywhere explore free-range landscapes for new ideas in relationship, food, sex, money, health and spirit. But love – where to look? And beyond the luscious orgies of superfoods and smoothies, body oil and massage – how to nourish our longing for sensuality?

If they are honest, the free-rangers can report that changes of scenery and of lovers do nothing, actually, for a humanity deep in the lairs of depression. Erotica, gluttony, porn, lust and tantra promise a ‘purer’ exchange of the ecstatic, but more often mix a bitter cocktail.

I’m all for erotica… I’m cautiously for Sex San Frontiers, but does that really mean cocks and racks and candle wax? Does it mean that blokes really marry bitches, and women need to date like a man, and that adultery, one night highs and the grotesque, deformed expression of sexuality portrayed today in advertising are actually even satisfying?

burger   fashion

In the void of Love,it looks to me like delight and suffering have formed a most treacherous alliance.

On the churning seas of erotica, the lighthouse of sensuality is terribly eclipsed. Our boats of tenderness are adrift in a sea of chemistry and propaganda – so, where, oh where, is that safe harbour of the intimate?

Monogamy? Monogamy only recently received an exit visa from the wastelands of ‘old-fashioned’.

marriage egg

Marriage, of course, is recovering from a stab to the liver.

On this note, imagine if you will, marriage as the creation of a third living entity – a wedded ‘us’ as Joseph Campbell writes about. If this is so, then the recent destruction of so many unions through an orgy of divorce was one of the greatest recent acts of symbolic genocide on Earth. As we sought our individual power, and freedom from unholy unions, the sacred bond of marriage – laid open for refining in the 1960’s, was filleted by ‘progress’.

Marriage didn’t fail, it was hunted down at a delicate moment and slaughtered by economics, politics, Nestle, Ford and Unilever, who used it to enslave us all to suds and Saabs and sugar.

All this instilled a bitterness toward love that wept down three generations. And still, the casualties from millions of unions fear the fields of love are mined.

sad marriage

Yet we make this epic migration, beyond the golden band toward lasting human tenderness, don’t we? And perhaps this is our triumph.

Along the way, we find in casual liaisons a cortisone for longing.

We find in a bent erotics the claws to scratch our itch.

We discover, in our precarious courtships, that the seas of love are muddy.

Men blame women. Women blame men. We all blame social constructs and ‘stress and pressure’. Our confusion is irritated constantly as porn exploits this rift throubeer mangh fashion, ‘art’, music, cinema – everything!

Our own ideas of the erotic? Of sensuality? Of love? They are warped every day by a vile collage of images hurled out by a society deeply estranged from tenderness.

Romance? She hardly dares produce a single rose.

Sensuality, I’ve been told, is  ‘needy’.

Intimacy, her clingy cousin.

Together they are accused of setting traps in the pleasurelands – traps which glitter magically when exposed to that special light given off by perceived attempts at ‘commitment’.

And while the notion of the beloved has come under deep suspicion, except in the most poetic terms, along that squinted eye a profound and lovely teardrop trembles.

tear

Here in Ubud, and in so many places, men hunt women openly, and rack them up as ‘friends with benefits’, or friends whose benefits are in decline. People craving love, but suspicious of its demands instead stalk ‘encounters’ – leaving 52 shades of misery across the fields of our desire.

Women? Women crave to be chosen, to know they are chosen, and also to be craved. In these strange hunting grounds the rites of intimacy have shriveled into a mutual feast of predator and prey.

All of which, as we know, only sharpens the scythe of loneliness.

One balm for this, and evidence of our seeking, is the extraordinary new bond so many have found with animals.

There is en mass, across the world a deep wail issuing from all humanity about the suffering of animals. In them we have – at last – found a mirror for our souls, the true and living symbol of our grief, and our love and tenderness. In their stories we have found the call to scream our heartfelt  Noooooo!

orangutan   chicken   bull  dog

Animals are the excruciating image of the faces we dare not show. They are the image of our own innocence, loyalty, tenderness – of the love we had forgotten.

In pets we have found companionship beyond our hopes for marriage. And in the cruelty we do dogs, and elephants, whales and dolphins – even cattle, sheep and chickens, we see the reflection of our own wounds, and the urgent call to make amends.

sad elephant

And in so doing, we find in ourselves this deep and healing wail. This agony of guilt and sorrow and rage for all we have done in our conquering of Earth, to ourselves, and each other – through which we are crucified and raised up a level in awareness.

And right here – don’t miss it – there is a widening of compassion, a re-connection to nature, a chance for humanity, again, to feel the sentience of all souls. There is a magic beyond logic, beyond judgement – a truly holy eclipse of ‘I’.

Where we have lost each other, we may yet find a truly divine romance.

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Eroticaaaa…..

In case those most precious tones of your longing got trashed somewhere on a three-way hi-way onenightstand adventure in the bad, bad honeylands of craving.

In the garden, wet with rain, we went seeking a balm for our longing. There, folded in the petals of a flower, trembling in the heart of every leaf –  the letters of a poem from the beloved.

First,

find yourself humbled
aroused
electrified
by a petal….

wet with rain.

Then

 begin to express

 what you think it means

   – this   erotica.

 

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Sex. Talk.

In case those most precious tones of your longing got trashed somewhere on a three-way hi-way onenightstand adventure in the bad, bad honeylands of craving.


In the garden, wet with rain, we went seeking a balm for our longing. There, folded in the petals of a flower, trembling in the heart of every leaf –  the letters of a poem from the beloved.

First,

find yourself humbled
aroused
electrified
by a petal….

wet with rain.

Then

 begin to express

 what you think it means

   – this   erotica.

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Mr Walker’s Fingers

They sell the remote Andean paradise of Vilcabamba, Ecuador online as The Valley of Longevity – a cheap, beautiful, magical place where you can re-start your life, connect to nature and fulfill your dreams. But beware of sharks in the waters if you’re hunting for a peaceful place to relocate – all is very much not as it seems out here in ‘paradise’.

Strangled for a year by the ever-tightening secrets of my life as a nigger in Vilcabamba, I thought I’d peel away a couple more fingers to see which body they were attached to.

 “I’ll drag you out of here by your throat if I have to.”

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When you hear a line like that, first thing in the morning, you know you’re about to be part of something … universal.

It’s a bright, sunshiny day in uptown Vilcabamba, Ecuador. We are in the living room of a spacious family home full of soft cushions, children’s books, and racks of herbs and spices. The kettle is singing. A child playswith plastic farm animals on a soft rug at my feet as the happy dogs bathe beneath a looming view of Mandango mountain beyond us.

My hostess, whose brother is threatening to strangle me, is cooking pancakes.

Young Mr Walker had burst into our idyll while we were still blowing the clouds off our first cups of spicy Malacatos coffee. He had thrown open the front door and lost his shit all over the house in an outburst so livid it curdled his skin a deathly pale. Sweat poured off him. He marched across the terracotta. Chewy strings of grey spittle dangled like maggots from the corners of his mouth.

He swore. He spoke about me like I was a filthy dog, adopted from the dump. He spoke to me in a way that you will understand if I say it is the way white men have so long spoken to… niggers.

Like he had found a focus for whatever fear and venom had boiled up over his young life, and like I had, at last, given him an excuse to act with power, to act with clear force: to act  like a man.

We were three women; a four-year-old girl just picked up for a day’s baby-sitting, my young friend, maybe less than 30, and I – invited to share this house as a guest two days before, and spend a week or so there cooking together, caring for baby, swimming in rivers, dancing, drinking bad South American wine, and sharing our stories, like girls do.

She was minding the house for a wealthy American family who kept home part-time in Vilcabamba between business and political exploits in the States. There was a picture of them with Obama on the fridge. Smiling beside a plane.

There were also the little tea pots, the kitsch shelf ornaments, hand-sewn rugs, cook books, aprons, well-chosen lamps and worn novels that let you know you are in the house of people who care about people.

In the fruit bowl was a cheque made out to Walker for US$1000 – a vast sum in remote Ecuador, and no doubt a vital symbol of hope for the young man who had moved here with his mother, sister, now-wife and a child from Colorado to… what?  To what? To fucking what?

I’m so used to scenes of mayhem and bullying here, that while my adrenals wind up the generator again, I sit back and wait… whatthebloodyhellisitthistime?

Walker is one of those guys who likes to come off kinda herbal. He is tall, skinny, with a long auburn plait. His eyes are crinkled with sun and smiling. He’s one of those nice guys, the ones everybody likes so much because they’re easy – you know: neutral. One of those guys the neighbours would tell the papers seemed like such a nice man, such a quiet man, if he got busted for violating grannies or dragging somebody else’s wife into an alley one night.

But I am not a granny. And I am not a wife. I’m not even black!

“Get fucking out! I don’t care where. I don’t wish you any harm. But if you don’t leave here by the end of this day I’ll hunt you out. I’ll be everywhere. I’ll destroy whatever you have here. I’ll drag you down the street on your bloody knees,” he explodes.

What I am is single, unlanded, relatively sober and actually unpopular. In this vile little American frontier town I have no politics. Which means no allies. And short of the police, who would likely have this asshole thrown out of the country, and all his dreams turned to ash if I reported him – there isn’t a one soul left in Vilcabamba who would risk their financial and tribal affiliations with the nouvea regime blanco here to draw a line around me.

Walker knows it. And I know it.

In Vilcabamba I am ‘black’. Or ‘gay’. Or ‘Jewish’. Or fat. I issue the scent of
that peculiar kind of leprosy, vulnerability, by which bullies and conquistadors sniff out their prey in security of belonging to the confident.

There’s no real risk for Walker if he does tear out my throat. There’s no reason he can’t terrorise me – even in front a small child – the child of his own benefactor – or his sister, who seems to have seen this all before, the way she keeps tending the pancakes, and saying, “You need a glass of water. Please, just sit down and have a glass of water.”

monarch

Matt Monarch, the superfood guru, who lives in a gated gringo enclave in Vilcabamba. Matt (not his real name, actually) is high on the Latino hit list for most hated new arrival, and currently embroiled in law suits against his former business partners over a dirty little business known as Adyar Clarity. He is locally scowled upon, even by the gringos for his endeavours to develop the precious nearby Podacarpus National Park. Also busy establishing himself as a San Pedro shaman in Ecuador, to cash in on the psychotropic wave… he’s a busy little raw food guru.

There’s no real risk because I have not allied myself with the fairy-tale machine of the new American elite here, set to make their fortunes off this land where they have no respect for the law, and less for the police. Where they are rapidly building their New Age enterprises, banking on creating the new Ubud, or the New Aspen – where they can bitch about the fall of the United States, the evils of world government and industry, and cash in on a property bubble to realise their ferocious, earnest, violent vision of belonging with the rich.

Even if the most successful are tearing each other’s throats at to do it, as you can see here – in a bitter feud between two Vilcabamba superfood entrepreneurs, the very tip of a very murky iceberg.

There’s no risk, and anyway, I appear to be on some sort of Doctoral program issued by the University of Life to travel that narrow line “between humiliation and untrammelled fury” that Barack Obama maps in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, describing his quest to work out what to do for the powerless blacks and poor single mothers of the world.

But is this really a race issue, a poverty issue, this sort of shit? Is it a Feminist issue? A class issue? Is it an American issue? On my table right now are the biographies of Mandela, Obama, Maya Angelou, and a hair-raising little beststeller, Why Men Marry Bitches. And although the blacks, the poor, and other tribes and races have a valid hold on this territory, the landscape of the hunted, I’m there too, in this story… and we’ve all been, haven’t we? On the tooth-edge of the human will to violence.

I’m quietly of the mind to wonder if we, when we find ourselves here, are not suffering a racial, sexist, economic hatred – but the natural ferocity of a capitalist system. Is all this just the process by which those in any ‘club’ promising power, belonging and success use ‘others’ as dumping grounds, to blow off the nasty by-products of human ambition?

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If that’s the case, we need to quit the race conversation Now. And start some trans-history dialogues about what in the hell modern human security is really all about.

Here in Vilcabamba I’m in niggerland because I’ve been asking uncomfortable questions about the dispossession of the original community, outing online charlatans and other immigrant creeps prospering here while the locals clean their houses and lose their inheritance.

Online Gurus channeling intelligence from aliens, and big fat dollar bill from their online ducklings.

Online Gurus, Fat Josh, and Kacper Potawski, channeling intelligence from aliens, and big fat dollar bill from selling online super food, Ibogaine, far-out water and other weirdness online from their glamorous burrows in Vilcabamba.

I’ve been sniffing about in stories of murdered land holders, knife-backed social spirals, drug dealing, pyramid schemes, and cringing publically at the rhetoric of the New Ecuadorians, building what they call ‘community’ as they dismantle an entire region and ecosystem around them. I’ve been nauseous about their exploiting of ‘opportunities’ in this embryonic California, and totally under-estimating, it seems, what it is to be an American who will not fucking give up his entitlement to the wealth and supremacy his own land can’t guarantee him.

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If I was black, or gay, or fat or poor it would be easy to misinterpret my position, and that would be a shame – because you don’t have to be any of those things, actually, to be treated like scum by even the most pathetic white trash.

In Vilcabama, at the time, the word was that if I wound up in a ditch, it’d be my own fault. And Walker might even be a hero – at least to his wife and mother, already counting the pearls he will earn them from his business as the mushroom tycoon of El Dorado. And to certain others, whose little empires were offended when I asked the same questions being asked everywhere, really – whose back are you climbing on for your right to success? For your popularity?

And I’d be there anyway, in the ditch, with so many of the local Ecuadorians whose stories

Failed author and foul-mouthed local real estate agent, Nick Vasey, who has been publically initing violence against me for, oh, about two years now - thanks Nick ; )

Failed author and foul-mouthed local real estate agent, Nick Vasey, who has been publicly calling for violence against me for, oh, about two years now – thanks Nick ; )

and dignity are as vaporous to the new arrivals as mine are, that I should finally have found my place.

But these ditch-surfers are angry too – they just don’t have the bad manners to say so. Or the overview to know why.

They are angry as they realise their sons and daughters will never prosper here now the expats have arrived. As they realise that, despite the new-comers’ concern to assist them and their elderly, their sick and marginalised with gringo-know-how, their children are admiring the wealthy new drunks and the pot-smokers and being supplied acid and ass at gringo parties, their sick are losing access to local plants that cure and comfort them, and their adults may never be elderly because of new sicknesses and despair among them.

When I ask an Ecuadorian woman my age how she is one morning, she actually draws a line across her throat.

If she did that in expat public, the new arrivals would boycott her business and drown her like a rat.

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When you talk to the young Latino men around the fountain on late nights, when the boom boxes in front of the church are rebounding a racket off the surrounding Andes, about their future… some list the order in which they would punish, even kill, the Gringos who have pissed down their throats with the most acid.

If they admitted that in public, they’d lose their $10-a-day jobs building gringo mansions in conditions that will cripple them before they’re 30.

When you read gringo social media about the Big Issues in Ecuador, you are asked for your input on where to find ‘decent’ staff, how to not get charged ‘gringo-prices’ at the markets, where to find dental floss, and whether you want to buy an imported Labrador puppy for $1000 while the unwanted local dogs wretch themselves to death in the open streets from poison laid down for them by town gardeners.

You read outrage over the occasional home invasion, robbery or scam. The gringos scream blue murder when one of their own is violated by thieves or intruders – still not yet realising that these are the acts of people who are coming to see, with a mortal shudder, that when white people arrive on undeveloped land, it is called an invasion – sooner or later.

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But you’re not allowed to say that either. You offend all the charitable expat ladies, helping at orphanages, or politicising Ecuadorian women against the abuse of their husbands, and into menial labour at $2.50 an hour in their plush villas. You offend the gringo real estate agents, and the in-coming wave of despairing foreign nationals, looking for cheap reef to incubate their hungry alien colonies.

If you say that, you experience in hyper-colour, the same self-righteous rage that drives these new arrivals to abandon home to ‘make it’ here – no matter what obstacles have to be bought out, ploughed down or dragged down the street by the throat. A rage caused by the stomach ulcers in their own cultures, squirting acid after a post-Darwinian rampage of feasting on the weak.

In Ecuador the gringos say that if you don’t like it, you should piss off.

In Vilcabamba they say that I left because magic forces deemed me unfit to belong to their rarified, chosen elite and therefore banished me to the NeverNever. They say that about everybody who gets sick of the drinking, the violence, the drugs, the sense you’ve landed in Hell.

But if your problems, be they substandard dental floss, or threats to your life, are caused by a Latino – you should damn well scream for blood – the whole expat tribe will back you up. If you run into bad blood gringo, then you’d better suck it up.

It puts me in mind of abused women, kids raped at school, black minorities… people who are supposed to be diplomatic about abuse. People who, if they don’t keep their secrets, risk exile, punishment, humiliation. They are better at all this than I am – they are groomed to be.

Me, I’m pissed on all their behalves, and on my own too, because I’ve seen just about as much of this sort of violence  against the kid with glasses, the smelly girl at school, the spider in the bathroom as I am willing  to pretend is really about anything as clear-cut as race.

And all of you who blame the government for things like this are denying the fact that this is a tapestry woven of individuals seeking their own security, or privileges, or power.

glassesIt’s one thing to wonder where the fat kid is from school, when you never stood up on his behalf when it was your tribe who humiliated him.

It’s one thing to be sad, or even guilt-ridden about the state of the conquered peoples in your colony these days, now the deed is done. But –at the actual time of displacement of an existing culture, or of an individual – when the first arteries were cut, this is a most dangerous narrative indeed. That’s the kind of treason which the tribe – your friends, and not necessarily the hierarchy of power will address.

Walker is a victim of it, same as I am, in a way. He has a cash-powered, land-owning expat elite to show allegiance to. He has dependents, and an American pride to make sense of. He’s gambling everything he has on this Ecuadorian frontier. He’s just like the settlers who came to his own nation, and found that the sort of peace they wanted required a bloody fist, a civil war and an armed aristocratic cult.

Maybe this is his moment, after years of being the skinny wimp, when he can mix it with the cool kids.

But Walker, like every individual, had a choice. He had a choice he had to calculate for risk. That risk depended on the importance of his belonging to a power-broking tribe, his perceived value of me as a sentient being, measured against my status in community and dependent on the special intimacy of the terrified.

 

The Blood Edge… Ecuador’s Progress for the People

Seven years on….. trails of blood and the sweat of healthcare workers mark the way to President Correa’s constitutional promise of health care for the people.

Dr Maria Cordez works in a sparsely appointed concrete bunker in the dusty heart of downtown Raita, on Ecuador’s dreamy Pacific coast. The clinic serves villagers from hundreds of pueblos speckled higgledy-piggledy along the beaches and adjacent cloud forest, but not even the most desperate tourist would stop here.

An hour by public bus from a busy fishing port to the north, and an hour from a buzzing hippy hangout to the south, little Raita offers nothing of what brings the big dollars; whale watching, custom-made surf boards, fashion, gourmet coffee and any drug you care to party with.

Despite surging trade along the nearby China-funded super-highway, and massive new investment all over Ecuador by hordes of land-hungry new expats, the dusty streets remain deliciously quiet. What gringos have arrived to exploit cheap tierra do so quietly, to avoid the lustful attention of their compatriots, notoriously plundering similar regions all over the nation and cluttering the peace with their in-fighting and conspiracy theories.

IMG_6533There is one store, reliably stocked with beer and jam, but not much else. A few sleepy cabanas host surfers and Argentine minstrels, while the occasional blue-footed booby, blown over from Galapagos, lands here to die on the un-manicured beach.

On the day I visit the public health clinic, the little rutted street it sits on is blistering under an unseasonably ruthless sun. A bashed up motorbike is parked delinquent to the building’s rickety gate, which hangs open like a wonky jaw.

Dried blood spots graffiti the winding pathway to the entrance, passed a clutch of gossipy chickens and into a cheerless waiting area, decorated with a decrepit dental unit,  plastic wheelchairs and a strong scent of… what is that?

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The patients avoid this maw in the same way they avoid the full equatorial sun, and gather instead in an unlit corridor cluttered with broken medical equipment and browning posters. Serene golden mothers, sun-bitten fathers, aunties and grandparents snuggle sweetly up against the three drab surgery doors, cuddling and singing to their lovely-eyed children.

Raita’s new clinic provides free medical attention to thousands of people living simple, substance lives in the region. It is the frontline of social change, where medical staff battle to deliver the promises of charismatic President Rafael Correa’s boastful social revolution government.

This place is real-life evidence of how Ecuador’s progressive new democracy is really for the people. How his is a truly left, conservationist and humble pie political vision closely shepherded by a President who cares… which is why, he says, he is in perpetual campaign.

However…

Ecuador’s full-tilt dance with development tangos autistically with it’s hi-profile pledge of social change, and declaration of constitutional rights for the planet and all its beings, flaunted relentlessly by government spruikers and winning the President (if not the people) fame and fortune. The intoxicating Correal vision risks compromise every day by oil mining in the Amazon, expansion and illegal fishing in the Galapagos and a wildly undermined local economy.. it’s trail is horrifying to watch as it unfolds on the ground.

IMG_6763The tiny South American nation has private and public health sectors – the former heavily marketed to medical tourists and expats for cheap, quality surgical, cosmetic, dermatological and dental care on demand in 18 spanking new or up-graded hospitals. The latter visibly creaks.

Mercilessly under-funded, ruthlessly accounted and dangerously under-resourced, the public system has brave rhetoric but struggles to traverse the lovely nation’s wild geographies and live up to Correa’s own constitutional pledge, written in 2008, to provide, “permanent and timely access, without exception, to all comprehensive health care programs and services” for all citizens.

Raita’s is one of 250 promised regional health centres, and a vital source of help for wounds, trauma, pain, bites, burns, wounds, emergency dental care, education and cheap antibiotics. Given that public health is independently estimated to have reached only 50% of the needy, surgical wait lists surge as high as 4,500 names, and doctors in both sectors are stressed and nervous of further reforms, the people here are among the luckiest of the so-called poor.

Meanwhile, due to a fierce governmental campaign to attract swathes of Americans, fleeing their own dilapidated health system, economy and political hologram to the ‘good life’ in Ecuador, backed by the dubious writers at International Living, foreigners have indeed arrived and placed such a burden on both sectors that even the President raised an eyebrow.

There are at least 10,000 American expats in Ecaudor officially, and thousands more - they gloat about how they can live in luxury on less than US$1,000 a month here, paying next to no tax, receiving aged care benefits,  buying waterfont parcels for under $100,000 and paying $25 for consultations at up-market new hospitals for elective surgery.

I”It helps to be rich” wrote one gringo recently on an expats’ message board, ” and rich is what you instantly become when you move to one of the world’s poorest nations from the USA – even if you’re on social security, as plenty of arrivals are.

If you retire in Ecuador, every cliché you’ve heard about living large on little money–about settling into the lap of luxury on even a pensioner’s budget –is true!

 

writes International Living magazine

Consuming health services is favorite pass-time which North Americans are particularly miffed about not being fully able to indulge in back home. Dizzying numbers of them who now claim Ecuadorian residence are therefore enthusiastically shoving their Ecuadorian brothers and sisters aside for all the cheap cosmetic dentistry, hip replacements, heart surgery, dermatology, lab tests and pharmaceuticals they can dream of.

Meanwhile, the real Ecuadorians, with an average annual income of less than US$10,000, have had so little exposure to the benefits of medicine that they tend not to get help, even when they desperately need it. Correa’s health plan was designed to harvest from the wealthy, by giving them what they want at attractive prices, to give to the poor.

But judging by what’s on offer in Raita, government care comes with its own risks. Sanitation, power and resources are a mess.

Mercifully, folk who may never otherwise see a nurse, and most certainly not a dentist, may have no idea how miserable this offering is.

 

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Expected to provide a minimum of 10,000 appointments a year, with only two medical staff,  no receptionist, no dental nurse, no actual doctor, lab, phone, computer, cleaner, steriliser and often, no electricity either, the Raita clinic treads a fine line.

Across the developing world, the World Health Organisation says progress means escalating road trauma, increased accidents at fishing, farming and in industry, diabetes, depression, loss of land for the poor and an oral health crisis, caused by multi-nationals like Coca Cola, Danone, Tony milk and other peddlers of sugar. In the case of accidents alone, lack of treatment for the poor means injuries have become a higher cause of death in these regions than HIV/Aids, malaria and TB combined. In rural Ecuador, oral health is described by Dr Cordez as ‘a disaster’. She reports rampant decay, infection, disease and lack of hygiene in almost every mouth along the whole tropical coast.

Recently graduated from the glittery city of Guayaquil and sporting hip blue Invisalign braces, she is in her compulsory year of social service and on the frontline of Correa’s mission. She is equipped with an unventilated, dilapidated and badly-lit one-chair room with broken cabinetry, adjacent to that of a community nurse who has adorned her space with little paper butterflies.

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Both are required to see at least 16 patients a day, and are charming, but exhausted, rattled about how to attract that number of remote, hard-working, notoriously nervous patients to the clinic – and be there to treat them.

If they can’t prove the community seeks at least 600 medical contacts a month, the government will deduce a lack of need and close the centre. Just like that.

There is no education budget, or advertising of the free clinic, which is left to the medical staff. Nevertheless, what these two women provide in the region visibly changes, and frequently saves lives.

Today it’s another motorcycle accident. A family of three hit by a truck at an intersection on their clapped out Yamaha have been dragged in bleeding, numb and in shock. The youngest is tumbled onto a sagging gurney and washed off with saline as all the waiting patients – about 20 in all, rush in to watch, whisper, and quietly hand their faith to a medical service that is equipped to give nothing more than pain relief, band aids and a priceless dash of comfort.

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The other injured people wait quietly, dripping more blood onto the pocked lino, and smiling gently when they catch my eye.

The dentist isn’t in – she’s teaching hygiene at a nearby school, reminding children to remind their parents to brush their teeth, with local salt and chamomile flowers – since toothpaste is a luxury in places where three generations might share one toothbrush.

I meet her a week later, when all hell is breaking loose.

The screams escalated wildly for half an hour as I hovered in the waiting corridor with 15 other people, smiling nervously and taking turns to peep through a crack in the door at the horror-scene inside.

A 5-year-old boy visiting with 8 family members is having his turn in the chair, and none of what the doctor wants to provide. Which is extractions. Three of them.

Family and other patients venture in and out of the surgery to stare, coo or speak tough love to the writhing infant who drools blood, sweats rivers and is held down by four large women at every corner as Dr Cordez tries to prize his mouth open and take the last molar.

Little red bubbles bloom and explode on his firmly closed lips. When jamming and squeezing burst those terrible rosebuds he explodes with yells that rack his body and screams of “No quierre! No quierre!” I don’t want. I don’t want. I don’t want.

It takes the pretty dentist more than an hour to complete the grizzly job, there being no sedatives available, comforts, audio-visual distractions or counselling, and no possibility of a return appointment in calmer conditions due to the family’s costs of travel (at least $3 a person) and a lost day’s work ($10, at minimum wage). Not to mention the doctor’s own desperate need to fill the quota that keeps the clinic open.

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This is her seventh extraction of the day, and it’s only 1pm.

When it’s all over the family thank her with obvious gratitude, gather their babies and grannies, and leave after kissing and embracing me, one by one as they head back to lifestyles that only the rarest gringo here would care to even imagine.

Does the young doctor like the work? At the end of the day, her bloody instruments sit in a dry Tupperware in a waterless sink, her spittoon is caked horribly, yet she lingers happily an extra hour to talk with me. “I chose this profession because I love children, and Dentistry here is more practical than pure Medicine,” she says. “I love the service, with the people, and admire them – not because they’re poor, but because they are genuinely good.”

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On an average day she sees three root canals, seven or eight extractions, unanimous gum disease, “even in the babies”, and a constant relay back and forth from the chair to the circuit board to re-boot the electricity. She cleans up afterwards herself and walks home to her rented cabin by the beach.

“The standard treatment for pain here is extraction,” she explains. “For carries it’s extraction, for emergencies it’s extraction – we don’t have the material to fill cavities and anyway, the equipment isn’t working. I spend a lot of time at schools, educating, traveling to pueblos to let them know we’re here – all of that I pay for from my pocket.”

The public system is a far cry from what’s available in the city nearby where Dr Cordez has a swank new practice waiting for her, state-of-the-art resources, a booming cosmetics trade and a wealthy time ahead, if all goes to plan.

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“It’s hard work here for now,” she smiles, “and it’s hard to see the conditions, but I am lucky – there are other graduates who didn’t get such easy posts. Some of my friends are posted in the jungle, or the very deep Andes, and have to cross rivers, avalanches and forest just to get to work. For them it’s dangerous just to be there, for me this is a beautiful place, but a sad situation.”

At the end of my third day here, after four hours in the surgery, I am feeling ill – the stench, the blood, the broken cabinetry, the singing mothers, the rotten teeth, the beautiful babies, the caked-on drool…. and go home to vomit under a banana tree.

 * I’ve changed the names of people and the village, in respect for their security.

 

 

 

 

 

How a career man got a real life….

Eat a little dirt, crush a little road… getting the sack can balance your reality check book.

He boomed into town on a Kawasaki KLR 650.

Dust swirled along the beachfront. Electricity crackled the off-season air and the unmistakable scent of men on adventure spiced up the saltbreeze off the sweaty Pacific.

Eric Lange put a boot to the sand, ripped off his helmet and grinned at me with ice-blue eyes. He’d just finished a 9-hour day at his new office: the road, and I knew I’d met a man who really loves his job.

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Roaring up behind him were six riders including an American plastic surgeon, two CEOs and a dentist from Canada. They had cruised 160kms of the gorgeous Pan American Highway toward Peru on a guided motorbike tour through the high Andes to the tropical coast and were among the happiest-looking men alive!

Career dentist and family guy, Dr Andrew Hall, had a radiance that only natural sunlight, open road and premium organic mountain air can give a man. “What’s been the best part so far?” I asked later, as we all headed for the surf.

“”The guide, the route, the riding, the intensity, the freedom, the splendor, the beauty, the insanity of a thousand curves in one day of riding, the craziness of coming into cities at rush hour, the bliss of blasting along for kilometers after that in no traffic whatsoever.” he says. “I’m a new man.”

After 15 years building his business on a professional mission that “might make me rich, but nearly sucked me dry” – Dr Hall skipped work for this two-week tour in Latin America so he could “spend every day on an open road.”

“I don’t want to see a single between me and the world. I wanted dirt in my teeth and that old feeling of being free and strong in the wild.”

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I’ve bumped into a pack of intrepid executives using the real world to recover from their real lives on a tailor-made tour with Eric’s company, RIDE Adventures. On radical itineraries through mountains, across Altiplano, jungle, snow and desert, in terms of real-life adventure, these are the kinds of trips where the rubber really meets the road.

Eric specializes, mostly, in high achievers with a hankering for the world, for adventure, recovery and freedom – much like he did, when he was one of them.

Offering guided trips or logistics across Latin America, USA, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and making reconnaissance for more, Eric, 39, travels over 50,000kms a year for the business – and that’s just on bikes!

Founder, director, guide and pioneer in his field, every RIDE Adventure is a reminder of how close he came to missing out on the life he had longed for back when he was a six-figure man in the ‘real world’.

For Eric, it was a disaster of life-shattering magnitude that saved him from ‘reality’ and delivered him a lifestyle beyond his wildest dreams.

It took more than three hours (and a few tears), as he told me how he went from a University-educated executive role with an American multi-national, “looking for that feeling of success”, but feeling halfway crushed by it all, with a 3-bedroom tricked-out house, bikes, a flash car and healthy bank balance, but a sense of what he called ‘dread’, to being … happy.

“I guess I didn’t love my job,” he reflects, “but I was very good at it. I was doing it for the money – to make more, pay for the house, get more stuff, because that’s what you do, isn’t it? You grow up, get an education, get a great job, buy a place, meet somebody, be stable, smart with money, and one day… you’ll feel like a success.”

But in March 2008, at 33, he got a call that went more or less like:  “Sorry mate: you’re sacked.”

“Things were shaky in the world economy, people were holding tight to whatever security they had, so when I got notice that I was ‘terminated’ it was like a thunderbolt ripped through me,” he says. “I honestly couldn’t breathe.”

“I stayed on the line choked up, trying to convince the guy, to save my life. It was a very, very tough thing to accept. I had poured my heart into the company: lived where they wanted, skipped from airport to airport when they wanted, made my career the soul of my life for ten years.” The word that was being graffitied across his neo-cortex at the news was Betrayal.

So Eric did what thousands of men do every year in the increasingly competitive, sometimes ruthless world of business: he panicked.

“I saw an attorney: no joy. I told my parents: less joy, and that’s when some heavier than usual soul-searching began,” he smirks.

He went to visit a mate, and the mate said: ask yourself what you really want to do. “I mean, if you could do anything, anything at all – what would it look like?”

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And Eric, suddenly ‘free’, came up with an answer he remembers word for word. “I want to be outdoors, travel everywhere, meet everyone.”

To which his mate said, “Hey, I’ve got a buddy with a job just like that!”

Eric got a 6-month gig with a tour outfit that gave him a taste of the life he imagined, but didn’t quite fit his numbers. And then he jumped. “I knew I had to look for something bigger than that, I knew it was going to be about motorbikes, tours, adventure, the world – and that it needed to pay, but not straight away. I wrote down what I needed: ‘the perfect bike, the perfect price; cash’.”

Through a series of freak coincidences, with his house rented, its contents mostly sold and a night spent sleeping on the floor, Eric says, “I rode off from my life on an orange KTM named Julius and I’ve been riding ever since, “ he grins, and orders me a mojito.

“I am from a conservative family, I can guarantee my parents weren’t sleeping much. I headed out into the world through Mexico with Julius, speaking no Spanish except this phrase; El país más peligroso del mundo (the world’s most dangerous country). People said I was crazy, that I’d be killed. But instead I was met at the border by police officer Antonio who loved the bike and shouted out ‘Welcome to Mexico!’

“Life just got better and better after that.”

Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Argentina, Chile, Patagonia and Bolivia have ‘happened’, as well as friendships, inspiration, know-how, streetsmarts, luck, opportunity, and eventually a vision took shape, stabilized, took root and blossomed into RideAdv.

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The business is a rare bird in the adventure travel market, demands the education and skills that Eric honed at school and work, and returns freedom, travel, adventure, time with great people in breath-taking country and a very handsome salary… could that be what he calls success?

He stops to ponder. “The big question I have these days is: how do I live the longest I possibly can, because I Love My Life!”

Tomorrow, for example, Eric will work six hours online in a hammock, sustained by fruit pancakes. He will manage teams of partners and providers in 11 countries, as well as tending and growing the business, which has tripled per annum.

“It’s not about escaping work,” he says. “I love work! There is still uncertainty, change, issues, but I have a work-life balance that is about freedom and commitment, not about suffering at work and then having ‘a life’.

“What I learned is that it’s a big world out here, and whether you admit it or not, it’s full of great, happy people – opportunity, enjoyment, doors to open. Sometimes, whether you’re craving a taste of it, or if it ‘happens’ to you, the truth is that worst thing you can think of might be just what you always wanted”