Vilcabamba (in photos)

Sadly, I had a cold for most of our time in Vilcabamba… but it wasn’t enough to keep me from appreciating the beautiful countryside on display.  A great introduction to Ecuador.

Our excellent accommodation.

These funny little “air plants” grow all over the power lines. It adds a little Dr. Seuss to an otherwise bland urban element.

Vilcabamba – The Gringo Ex-pat Lifestyle

Craig has come down with a cold, so I feel I must take up the mantle of blogging in order to make up for his absence. Unlike me, however, Craig is pretty self-sufficient even when he’s down for the count. He doesn’t wallow or whine, and even wants to help me do the dishes when I’m trying to cook and take care of him. Maybe it’s a man-thing. In any case, he’s much more useful than I am when I’m sick.

Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go on a hike, especially since the forecast is usually rain here in Vilcabamba, a small town that reminds me a lot of Ollantaytambo, except with a whole boatload more of ex-pats.

Sunset in Vilcabamba. Dramatized thanks to some Google+ Photos filters…. whee!

Craig and I have met our share of ex-pats, and have even been asked whether or not we have any desire to become ex-pats ourselves. “Why stop traveling?” seems to be the sentiment behind that question. We’re always joking about settling down somewhere (Isle of Skye, in Scotland, is a place we keep circling back to), but I don’t think either of us has any desire for the ex-pat life, really.

And as our friend and fellow SAE worker, Bryan, says, ex-pats are kind of weird. There’s a certain mindset and character among those that want to settle so far from the familiar… Craig and I could probably never become ex-pats because we have plans for our future; plans that include going back to Seattle and resuming our life in a place that yes, has all the material comforts you could ask for, but is also home.

Becoming an ex-pat is a departure from everything you’ve ever known, and I think the people who end up living in foreign countries are the wanderers and drifters who eventually stay somewhere because they have nowhere better to go. Most didn’t plan on it, but they all ended up, somehow, staying put in a foreign country, perhaps because they never had that feeling of home that Craig and I want to eventually recoup. The pull of the strange and exotic had to have outweighed any other claims on their lives; otherwise, they wouldn’t be here.

Hills surround Vilcabamba. There’s a trace of a rainbow in this picture, if you can pick it out.

It’s always a bit unsettling to come across a town like Vilcabamba, which our guidebook describes as a popular spot among ex-pats. There are almost as many white people as not, and yes, some are tourists, just like Craig and me, but some are permanent residents. The latter are easy to pick out, because they are, for the most part, old, white, men. They like to wear flannel, plaid shirts, and they usually have beards. Sometimes, they seem a bit aimless, other times, they seem a bit obnoxious. Some only speak a smattering of Spanish, while others are fluent. But there is something unsettled about them still… as if they remain wanderers and drifters at heart; they’ve just grown tired.

There is generally among them a disdain for the typical, 9-5 workday life that they’ve left behind in their developed country homeland. It pervades their conversation, and I can feel, sometimes, the condescension, when I tell them that I was a nurse and plan on going back to the grind of eking out an existence among the mindless drones of modern society. It’s an intriguing thought–nobody would claim to enjoy the frantic pace of downtown office workers who rush through 30-minute lunch breaks, nobody likes to say they would rather have a 60-inch flat-screen TV as opposed to a 2-week trip to Nicaragua, and nobody would ever say they’d rather spend 8 hours in front of a computer than outside on a sunny day… and yet, this is what the majority of first-world countries choose.

And even though Craig and I are currently spending our way through a large majority of our life savings on this trip, I wouldn’t automatically discount ourselves from that majority. When I held a 40-hour/week job, I loved being able to buy things whenever they caught my fancy, I loved being able to eat out at fancy restaurants and go to the movies. I enjoy these little luxuries, just the same as anybody else. But why do I enjoy them?

Our hostel’s cat on the second-floor balcony ledge. It’s a hard life.

I just read an article called “Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed,” by David Cain, which claims that the reason for the 40-hour workweek, is to both limit our free time and increase our spending power. The first encourages the second, and so it goes on in a vicious cycle. Some interesting quotes:

“Under these working conditions people have to build a life in the evenings and on weekends. This arrangement makes us naturally more inclined to spend heavily on entertainment and conveniences because our free time is so scarce.”

“I spent much less per month traveling foreign counties (including countries more expensive than Canada) than I did as a regular working joe back home. I had much more free time, I was visiting some of the most beautiful places in the world, I was meeting new people left and right, I was calm and peaceful and otherwise having an unforgettable time, and somehow it cost me much less than my humble 9-5 lifestyle here in one of Canada’s least expensive cities.”

“We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.”

And yet, this same author has a “Bucket List” on his blog, and some of the goals include “Become a millionaire”, “Dine at a ridiculously fancy restaurant”, and “Watch a sports game from a luxury box”. Is he just a total hypocrite? I don’t think so… after all, there’s something to be said for having something to work for. Craig often talks about how much he disliked the 9-5 workweek and how antsy it made him… as if he was always straining at the bit for something better. And although working towards this trip didn’t alleviate all of his antsiness, he admits it helped.

Certainly, traveling the way we are opens our minds to the terrors of Mr. Cain’s stereotype: “…dissatisfied but hopeful, uninterested in serious personal development, highly habituated to the television, working full-time, earning a fair amount, indulging during their free time, and somehow just getting by.” We see a very different way of life down here, even in the more metropolitan areas of Lima or Santiago, that is a bit less materialistic, a bit slowed-down, and a little bit… just a little bit… more genuine.

But I don’t think that just because you enjoy watching Downton Abbey, like to have a cappuccino every day, or want to “Watch a sports game from a luxury box”, doesn’t mean that you’ve been engineered by “Big Business” to become the perfect consuming machine. It might, possibly, mean that, just as I was 6 months ago, you’re entrenched in a life that is so crammed with knitting and Netflix and baking the perfect sugar cookie, that anything outside of that comfortable sphere doesn’t really register.

Cat perspective.

So maybe I should cut those gringos a little slack. Perhaps they’ve found something down here that they couldn’t find amid all the noise and bustle of their home countries. Perhaps I’ll find something for myself from my brief foray into their lifestyle. That’s the idea, after all, isn’t it? To take a piece of the wildlife and nature and people that we encounter on our adventure, and bring it home with us.

Something to remember when I’m having a bad case of the Mondays back home. View from the balcony terrace in our hostel.