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.”
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?
Talbott 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.”
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.