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Welcome To Vilcabamba
"The Sacred Valley of Longevity"

This Is A Privately Circulated Blog, scribbled exclusively for Friends & Familiars, that peers into and pontificates about Expat life in the hinterlands of South America. If your eyesight is less than optimal (like mine), then just click the type size up a notch on your browser..

Here you will find a series of curmudgeonly commentaries that I've posted from atop my rickety old soapbox for the past few years. And yes, there are indeed political rantings, so place your seats in the upright position and fasten your seat belts .... it may be a bumpy ride.


Here We Go .... Again!

I was born into this world at the beginning of the Great Depression of 1929. As a child I grew up knowing only one President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. And now in 2009, some 80 years later, I am again facing what many are saying will be "The Greatest Depression", and I have lived through twelve Presidents with the thirteenth about to take office. Everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed!

By the time that first market crash had bottomed out in 1932, stocks had lost nearly 90% of their value. However, by a combination of good judgment and good luck, my family had exited the market just two months before my birth … their "wealth" intact. The writing was "on the wall" for anyone to see …. few bothered to even look.

Now, fast-forward eighty years to yet another bubble and another depression. Armed as I was with a clear memory of the terrible economic toll taken by the Great Depression, the financial storm clouds I saw gathering on the horizon back in 2004 were sufficient warning for me to follow in the footsteps of my parents, It was time to "get out of Dodge!" And so here I am, in Ecuador - safe and sound.

This time the "writing on the wall" was instead the analysis of a few financial newsletter writers on the Internet. The predictions were, however, exactly the same …. the bubbles were bursting, the stock market was about to crash. I did as my family before me had done, cashed-out and found myself a safe haven to ride out the financial storm .... or at least I found a place where I could have fun dancing in the rain.

Now, according to my friends back in the US, everyone is stressed to the max and worried about what the future holds for them. Not me!

It's not because I don't care or that I'm not concerned about my friends and former neighbors who are indeed suffering. It is because I'm totally immersed in a new culture and lifestyle, one not dominated by CNN, financial markets or terrorism. Folks around here watch TV, when they even have one, for sports and soap operas, not for the latest Dow report or the ubiquitous Homeland Security alerts. I myself do not even have a television set or take a daily newspaper. Instead, I get a cross-section of opinion on the Internet and enjoy important, thought-provoking books on my Kindle Reader.

From my vantage point here in Ecuador, I'm simply an interested spectator. I'm no longer directly involved in the political, social or financial pressures and tensions. Here in the peace and tranquility of Hacienda San Joaquin, I'm part of a society that truly takes things easy. It's sometimes called the "mañana" syndrome. The one phrase I keep hearing from my local neighbors is "no problemas". Just think about that for a second: No problems!

Please don't get me wrong …. I am NOT a bystander when it comes to life itself, only life's anxieties. In fact, in my retirement I now have the time (and means) to enjoy a rich, active lifestyle to the fullest --- like lingering over morning coffee, long walks along the river bordering my house, traveling throughout South America and writing for my enjoyment.

And here's something important: It's not too late for you to "get out of Dodge", too; especially if you are not encumbered with family, not up to your ears in debt and able to retire comfortably on not all that much. I find that with only my Social Security (without needing to dip into savings) I can live here like a King. There is no doubt at all that it's all going to get a LOT worse before it gets any better. Don't dilly-dally, hoping things might get better. It's important for you and your loved ones to face reality and make the proper life choices right now. As the famous Nike ad says: JUST DO IT!


I Had To Eat My Words

Sometimes we have to "eat our words", and even find them to be quite appetizing. By that I mean that we say something that we later find not to be as true as we had first thought. A case in point is the place where I am presently living here in Ecuador.

I remember saying in a previous post that I had visited an exclusive, high-end gated community called Hacienda San Joaquin, which --- while I thought it was quite beautifully developed and had all of the emenities one could ask for --- was simply not someplace that I would EVER chose to live in. I based that opinion on the fact that it was mostly a "wealthy gringo-filled" development set apart from the local community. And, of course, I felt that this was not my cupp'a tea.

However, so that you can better understand what I meant by "high-end", let me share with you some of the descriptive prose in the Hacienda's internet advertisement:

Hacienda San Joaquin

The private entrance to Hacienda San Joaquin is located about two miles from the village of Vilcabamba, where the road ends in the small  and friendly community of Chaupi. Gated and deed-restricted, the Hacienda is at the end of the road and has no thru-traffic.

The ranch is bordered and protected on three sides by the Andes Mountains and on the fourth by the Vilcabamba River. The elevation of the property rises from the valley floor at 4,839 feet to the mountain top at 6,512 feet. Most home sites are at around 5,000 feet.

Every measure has been taken to retain the serenity and peacefulness that is the essence of Hacienda San Joaquin. The riverfront and hillside homes are located on less than half of the 700 acre property. The majority of the ranch remains as a private reserve for the exclusive use of the residents and their guests. All infrastructure is in place, all roads are well-lit and asphalt paved. 

The River Park and the Equestrian and Hiking Center are also available to the residents and guests. At the heart of the property is the world-class Equestrian center. It features a separate covered entrance-way for both vehicles and pedestrians. There are two stables (forty stalls), an organic ranch store and an outdoor cafe with wonderful views of the Andes Mountains.

The home sites are lush with vegetation, birds , butterflies and honey bees. The residents of the Hacienda will be able to keep horses at home or board them in the stables. They will also be able to farm organically in the fertile soil. Thanks to the very favorable climate, residents are able to grow just about anything, including papaya, mango, guava, avocado, cherimoya, bananas, coffee, oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, lemons, limes, berries and all kinds of vegetables and flowers. 

-------------------------------(snip) ------------------------

So-oooo, how in the world could I say that this place was simply "not my cupp'a tea"?  Why wouldn't anyone not love to live in this idylic spot?

My initial fantasy was that, like when I lived in Hawaii, I would become a part of the local indigenous community; learn their language, understand their ways, become part of their culture. The problem with this was that THEIR ways were not quite as easy to accommodate as I had thought they would be. To be perfectly frank, theirs was a VERY poor lifestyle, while my own .... even as simple as I was trying to live it ... was light years distant from the way they lived. The fact is, I was considered a "rich gringo", who didn't speak their language, living at an exclusive Hotel/Spa, and NOT at all an integral part of the local community.

Then, out of the blue, I discovered that there was a beautiful house for rent at the Hacienda San Joaquin property .... the very place where I was certain that I didn't want to live!

Let me pause for a moment here and set the stage a little better. I had been living for the past two months at a magical little hotel and spa, the Madre Tierra Hosteria. What with the daily room rate, my three meals a day, laundry, internet connection and the like, I was spending about $1,100 a month.  Not bad at all, when compared with what a similar situation would cost back in Hawaii. But then came the house at the Hacienda ... and what a change!

The monthly rent for my house at San Joaquin was $350 (including a new washer/dryer, which meant no more laundry charges), utilities (gas, water, electric) $50.00 and internet $35.00. My total food purchases for the month ran $125/00. So now we're up to a whole $560.00 ... against $1,100 at the hotel. 

With THAT kind of savings, I hired a full-time, six-day-a-week cook and housekeeper for $200 a month. Total for everything in my new home at the Hacienda, $760 or so. And that, my friends, is far less than I was paying for just my rent and utilities in Hawaii. Fact is, my last electric bill in Hana was for $385 for one month's electricity!  Now you are beginning to see why I moved to ecuador for my "retirement" years.

So here I am, living in one of the most beautiful and exclusive developments in all of Ecuador, with a whole house to myself (instead of a hotel room) a wonderful local lady to cook my meals and keep me and my house tidy, organically grown food delivered to my door almost daily, high-speed internet to keep me somewhat connected to the outside world, peaceful and quiet surroundings, etc. etc.,  ALL for almost half of what i was paying for my Madre Tierra accommodations .... and less than a THIRD of what it was costing me to live in Hana.

The view from my front door ... big lawn, white picket fence, the works

And my neighbors are not just a bunch of "wealthy, stuck-up  gringos" after all. They are folks from the US, Europe, Asia AND Ecuador of all ages who have turned out to be VERY like-minded (intellectually, spiritually and even politically!) Perhaps when I finally learn the language (which my cook/housekeeper, Marcia, is helping me with) I might be tempted to move back to Vilcabamba village ---- but I somehow doubt it.

To learn more about the magical Valley of Longevity and Vilcabamba, CLICK HERE



How To Fly The Friendly Skies

Everything was finally packed away in my shipping crate, except for the two suitcases and a backpack with my computer that I intended to carry-on. And now, finally, I was ready for the twenty-two hour flight(s) from Maui back to Ecuador.

OK, here's where I share the "Ultimate Travel Secret" with you. And there is only one prop needed ….. a cane. So here's how it goes.

Just before embarking on a previous flight to South America, I had stumbled down a flight of stairs (well, only two steps to be exact) and severely bruised my heel. I'd been given a cane by the local health clinic to ease the pain of walking and was using it as I approached the airline ticket counter to check in. As the agent was peering down into her computer monitor, trying to find my reservation, she suddenly glanced down at my cane, then up at me.

"Would you like assistance", she asked. Now I remembered that every time I flew, an announcement would be made just prior to boarding …. "We are now boarding our First Class passengers and those needing assistance.". So I said yes, thank you, I'll have some of that. I hate to wait in line.

The next thing I knew an elderly man, even older than me, came shuffling up to me with a wheelchair. "Hey", I said, "I don't need a wheelchair, just a little assistance." With a weary sigh, the old fellow told me to just sit down and enjoy the ride ….. especially through TSA Security, he added with a twinkle in his eye.

So off we went to the security checkpoint, where what looked like thousands of harried travelers stood waiting to be checked through. However, just as we reached that line, the airline porter made a sharp right turn, ducked under a security rope, and wheeled me into a special area to be checked and scanned in what seemed to be less than ten seconds. There was no one else there at that check-point, just little old me in my wheelie and two TSA people, one on the X-ray machine, the other to make the required security search.

I offered to get out of the wheelchair to be patted down, but the TSA guy said no, he could "wand" me right where I sat. The fact that I might be sitting on a bomb didn't seem to occur to him. And for once, the X-ray person did not even pause upon seeing my sleep apnea respirator (which does look like a VERY suspicious thing to be carefully checked. I was simply hurried through.

At first, I couldn't figure out why the TSA people didn't want to give me the usual pat-down, etc. Then it dawned on me: no one likes to touch sick people. And if I was in a wheelchair, I must be "ill". Hm-mmmm!

Next thing I knew we were at the gate, checked in, and taken directly to the door of the aircraft where I got out of the wheelchair and "limped" aboard …. even before the First Class folks. They had even given me the front bulkhead seat with plenty of extra legroom, the one usually reserved for the lame, the halt and "those needing assistance".

OK, to make a longer story shorter let me simply say that at each terminal I was met at the aircraft door with someone with yet another wheelchair and shuffled off to the next gate for boarding. Now here is where it get really good. When I finally landed at the Quito airport and was wheeled to the baggage area where I was met by my hotel driver …. a miracle occurred!

I got out of the chair, stood up, folded up my cane, took a tentative step forward and then walked quite briskly over to fetch my luggage. I was seemingly miraculously healed! Hallelujah , hallelujah.

The poor Ecuadorian porter who had pushed me through what seemed like miles and miles of corridors could not believe his eyes. He crossed himself and muttered a couple of "por Dios", then pushed the empty wheelchair off to be used by someone else who really needed his services.

To be perfectly honest, EVERYTIME I fly, that's what I ask for, a little bit of assistance. And if you want to avoid the indignities of TSA body pat-downs and the miles of airport corridor traipses, then I would suggest that you do likewise. Metal, fold-up canes are cheap!



Several readers have left comments on this weblog recently, mostly asking for additional information. However, none have left their email addresses. If you'd like a reply (whenever I can get to it), you'll need to include an email address with your comments. This will NOT get published, nor will your comments.


Previous Trip from Maui to Vilcabamba in May, 08

Travelgram ... From Hana, Maui to Vilcabamba, Ecuador:

Interesting trip from there to here. It started off quite well, considering that I was lucky in drawing a seat-mate who was an ultra high-tech "Road Warrior". This guy had a bag of tricks that looked like a mini-version of Radio Shack ... stuff I'd never even heard of, let alone actually seen in action. And THAT'S saying something!

For starters, he had built his own laptop. A 17" screen that was sharper and brighter than even my own Mac Powerbook Pro. Whisper quiet, too. Seems that he'd switched out the standard noisy cooler fan for his own custom version of an electronic refrigerator. He grumbled that it added a few extra ounces of weight, but also allowed him to use his computer at near sub-zero speed and operational quietness.

As soon as we were aloft, and the seatbelt sign was extinguished by our unseen flight Captain, he cranked up his wonder machine, slipped in a disk, and began playing one of three episodes of the "Jason Bourne Conspiracy". He invited me to plug in my headphones, tipped the laptop around so that I could get a better look, and we were instantly off to electronic fantasy land.

Three disks (six hours) later we were approaching Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Whoosh! The time had certainly flown, as had we.

The journey on to Miami, some three hours later, proved to be a different experience. I had the window seat next to a woman who made me look skinny, a woman whose girth was so great that she had to pay for the seat next to her and lift the armrest to allow all of her to squeeze into the two seats. I won't elaborate further, except to say that I have never heard so many weird noises coming from one human being in my whole life. It was an idiot symphony of sound; an odd combination of grunts, wheezes, gurgles and gasps accompanied of sighs, farts and moans .... couldn't figure out if the latter was from pleasure or pain.

Needless to say, I willed myself to sleep as quickly as I could under the circumstances, that being the outlandish noise at my right elbow. I was comforted by the thought that my sleep-apnea induced snoring would add a little basso profundo to the melodious sound coming from the poor woman.

Oh, did I mention that the noise suppressor earphones that I purchased from the now defunct Sharper Image worked like a charm .... or nearly so, in the case of the cacophony of sounds that the makers of the earphones would have never imagined in their wildest engineering dreams would be necessary to try to suppress. I slept fitfully until we landed in Miami, dreaming of whales wallowing off-shore in Lahaina Town, Maui.

At the end of that mini-adventure, I was rewarded by the spectacle of this mammoth bulk of a woman trying to waddle her way down the too-narrow isle. And THAT sight assured me that I would start my own dieting plan that very day ... or maybe the next.

The flight from Miami to Quito Ecuador also proved to be challenging. The time for scheduled departure had long since come and gone, with us still sitting there on the tarmac at the loading gate unmoving. After some twenty minutes, the Captain's voice advised the passengers that one of the jet engines would not start, but that American's maintenance crew was working on the problem. Another twenty minutes, still working on "the problem". Finally, an hour and fifteen minutes later, the Captain indicated that the mechanics had fixed the engine (or at least so they thought) and we could take off. But then the mechanics found something else wrong, and we sat there for another half hour before lumbering down the runway and taking off into the rain-blustered skies of Florida.

Hm-mmmm! Now despite my very best efforts to remain in a positive frame of mind, all I could think of was the engine sputtering off somewhere over Cuba and us having to make an emergency landing in that "evil communist country of El Presidente Fidel Castro", where we would be taken prisoner by the CIA at Guantamano Bay Military Base and never heard from again. OK, so maybe that's a little more fanciful than need be, but I was indeed more than a bit apprehensive about the malfunctioning jet engine. We made it, with me staring out the cabin window at the engine for most of the trip, giving it my most positive energy. OK, laugh if you will. But we got there alright, so doesn't that prove the power of positive thinking?

Now, a quick word about the difference between our country's TSA Gestapo along with our gun-totting black-uniformed US Customs folks and the Ecuadorian version of same. We arrived in Quito, Ecuador at about 9:00PM, what with "the problem" and all. A short walk led us to the hall where Ecuadorian customs people (mostly beautiful young women with bright Colgate toothpaste smiles) greeted us. A quick peek at the passport, a visa stamp, and a "welcome to our country, Senor". That was it. Then we trudged off to claim our luggage, and one last security screening.

The x-ray image of my sleep apnea machine set off some bells and whistles, and I was escorted over to a table while a plain-clothed young customs guy apologized for having to peek into my suitcase. Can you imagine?

As soon as I told him what it was, and after a quick look, he gently put back the clothing, smiled his thanks, and waved me through.

Was it a case of the Ecuadorians not being properly security conscious? No, the Uzi-totting uniformed Policia watchfully surveying the crowd made their security efforts abundantly clear. It was an attitude of "welcome to our country, it is nice to have you visit us" that made the difference between our TSA and the Ecuadorian version thereof.

At least this trip, US Customs didn't demand to know how much currency I was carrying out of the country. Guess that I didn't look as prosperous this time. Or, since our US dollar is worth so little these days, maybe no one really cared.

OK, just so you don't think that I've been hoodwinked by the charming Ecuadorians, let me now tell you about the screw-up with my ticket reservations from Quito to Loja in the Southern part of the Andes. To make a VERY long story a bit shorter, they lost my reservations. Twice! The first and only flight was completely sold out and I couldn't even make it as a standby. So back to the hotel where I'd spent the night upon arrival in the capital city of Quito. And the next morning I woke up at 3:00AM to make certain that I'd be first in line. The flight departed at 5:30AM and I was supposed to be there two hours early for ticketing, processing, etc.

My taxi dropped me off at the airport at 3:30, only to discover that the terminal didn't even open until 4:00AM. At the appointed time I huffed and puffed my way over to the ticket counter with my two huge bags of luggage in tow, greeted the lovely young ticket lady with my best "Buenos Dias, Senorita" and discovered that once again the computer indicated that I had no reservation. None, nada, zilch! Later, I was to learn that I had indeed had a confirmed reservation, both times, but their antiquated computer system couldn't find me. Something to do with "gringo" names in a Spanish computer. Uh huh!

Anyway, at the totally stricken look on my face, she quickly assured me that this particular flight wasn't filled, that I would have "no problembo" in getting a seat. An hour later we landed in a high Andean valley a couple of miles away from Loja, Southern Ecuador's third largest city, safe and sound.

So-ooooo, what'a ya think? End of my woes? Not on your life. After my luggage finally came around the bend of the conveyor belt, two young pre-teens grabbed my over-stuffed bags and headed for the door. Fortunately, I remembered that this was not a would-be theft attempt, but the Ecuadorian way of providing "rich-looking" Americano gringos with baggage service. It's called entrepreneurship, Latin American style. With them two of them pulling my weighty bags, we made it out of the Loja terminal and into the taxi area.

Immediately, three different taxi drivers began shoving each other out of the way as they smiled and promised me a safe and secure ride to my destination. One sprightly older man elbowed his competition out of the way and grabbed my bags from the two boys, who stood there with hopeful grins, awaiting their reward for service rendered. A buck each did the trick, and it was worth every penny. Those bags weighed a ton!

Once inside the cab and starting away from the terminal, the driver said that the fare to Vilcabamba, some 42 kilometers (26 miles) away, would be $40. I replied that I never paid more than $25 before, and he replied in VERY broken English that "la inflationado" had raised the price. Likely story! We eventually settled for $30. A half-hour later, after a thrilling high-speed, traffic-weaving, heart-wrenching ride we arrived at the Hotel Madre Tierra in Vilcabamba, the "Sacred Valley of the Ancients". I was finally at my long awaited destination.

Hasta la vista!


What and Where Is "Shangri La"

It must be a generational thing, but I'm somewhat flabbergasted that a good number of the readers of this blog are unclear about what the term "Shangri-La" means. The idea of an idyllic place referred to as "Shangri-La" has always been part of my cultural/literary experience since childhood, so I'm really quite surprised when I discover others don't share this deeply imprinted memory.

What exactly is "Shangri-La"? Well, for starters Shangri-La is a fictional construct described in the 1933 novel "Lost Horizon" by British author James Hilton. In the book, Shangri-La was a hidden-away secret valley deep in the forbidding reaches of the Himalaya Mountains. This unrecorded valley was supposedly located in the highest reaches of the Kunlun Mountain range. The Kunluns form a massive rampart blocking access to the icy barren expanses of the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. It is virtually unexplored by anyone other than the hardy mountain folks who live there. The perfect setting for a fictional utopia.

A quick pause here. Remember that in 1933, when Hilton's book was written, the United States was still in the middle of the Great Depression, and people everywhere were yearning for a better life, a Utopian existence far from the harsh realities of everyday life during this terrible economic depression .... even if it was fictional! Thus the book's, and later the movie's, "block-buster" status back then.

In 1937, when I was only eight years old, the film titled "Lost Horizons" came to the screen featuring an English actor no one remembers, Ronald Coleman. It was a film in black and white, and the acting was really quite stilted, but it nevertheless captured the attention of my generation as nothing else had ever done. An equally unknown actor in this day and age was Sam Jaffe, who played the part of the 250 year-old Abbot of the "monastery" in Shangri La so perfectly that I can actually see him in my mind's-eye even now. It was this actor's job to impart the spiritual aspect to the film, and his part "stole the show" as they say.

The movie version (which I saw several times at .25 cents a ticket) tells the story of a group of airplane passengers whose airplane is hijacked. The plane eventually crashes deep in the Himalayas, leaving the surviving passengers stranded in a blizzard. The group is miraculously rescued and taken to a secret valley that was mysteriously sheltered from the cold (and from civilization). This place was called Shangri-La.

A popularly believed inspiration for Shangri-La is the Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan, close to the Tibetan border, which Hilton visited a few years before Lost Horizon was published. Being an isolated green valley surrounded by mountains, enclosed on the western end of the Himalayas, it closely matches the description in the novel.

The name Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise, but particularly a mythical valley isolated from the outside world. Shangri-la is often used in a similar context to which "Garden of Eden" might be used, to represent a perfect paradise that exists hidden from modern man. It can sometimes be used as an analogy for a life-long quest or something elusive that is much sought after but seldom found.

In the novel "Lost Horizon", the people who live in Shangri-La are almost immortal, living years beyond the normal lifespan .... just so long as they don't leave the sanctuary of that valley. Doesn't this sound a lot like the "Sacred Valley of the Ancients", as Vilcabamba is often called?

Hey, it's close enough for me!


The Making of an Art Dealer

"So-ooooo, how does a guy with your wild and wooly background end up being an art dealer?", asked a reader of this Blog after perusing my Ancient History section. A fair question, but not so quickly answered. It does, however, make for a great story, so I'll share it with you.

Back in the late 1970's, I had moved to Maui, Hawaii after an amicable, yet still intensively emotional divorce .... to sort out my life, dust myself off and get ready for my next life adventure. Thanks to someone insisting that I purchase an Irish Sweepstakes ticket just before leaving for Hawaii, I was able to "retire" for a few years of beach-bum leisure. But after my golf score and my boredom crept up the chart to meet my all-too-quickly declining un-invested capital, I realized that it was time to get back in the game. Ah-hhhh, but what to do?

At that same time, my next door Maui neighbor, Kim von Tempsky, was telling me all about the HUGE amount of sales that were taking place in the art gallery he directed, and suggested that I try my hand at selling "pictures". Not having a better offer, I decided to give it a fling.

Was I an art history major in college? No, but back in my more adventurous early years I had been a police detective chasing down art thieves, which gave me at least a layman's familiarity with fine art. And I had of course been selling myself (a tough product if ever there was one) all my life. So the "Art Of Selling" wasn't a complete mystery to me . . . . many years later I would even write a book on the subject.

Now here's where synchronicity and blind luck comes into play.

On my first day "on the floor", I was instructed to simply watch how the other salespeople handled customers, to listen to their well-rehearsed "pitches" and get a feel for working the gallery and its customers. In other words, keep my ears and eyes open and my mouth shut!

About two hours into my first shift a very grubby, unshaven, wrinkle-suited fellow wandered into the gallery. The sales consultant who was "up" (meaning first in line for the next customer) took one look and promptly left the gallery for a coffee-break. That left me and what was obviously a "street-person" alone in the gallery. The guy moved slowly through the gallery and paused in front of a VERY expensive Picasso original painting. He stared at the painting for a few moments, and then suddenly turned to face me (I was keeping close track of the old bum to make sure that he didn't try to steal something.)

"Hey, does you 'vork here?" he demanded in a thick and slightly slurred accent. I reluctantly admitted to "vorking" there, and the rumpled old man pointed to the Picasso and asked what "da pitcher" was and who did it. I replied that it was a painting done by the famous artist Pablo Picasso .... I'd at least learned THAT much during my training sessions. "How much 'dat Picasso?" asked the fellow. I reached around behind the painting and found the price card. "For-rrrrrrty thous-sssssand dollars," I stammered. That was a lot of money I thought to myself, as I shared the price with the old bum. But he simply nodded, and pointed over to a rare print by Marc Chagall. "How much 'dat one?", he demanded. I peeked at the price card ...."$18,000" I replied with less hesitancy this time. At least, I thought to myself, the old bum had good taste and it let me practice my "spiel" without fear of losing a sale.

After about twenty minutes of this, the old man turned to me and said, "OK, I take this and this and this and this", as he pointed out one after the other of the pieces I had priced for him. I was, of course, completely flabbergasted! "What do you mean by 'take'", I asked. "I buy them all!", he responded with a grin. Then he introduced himself!

Turns out that he was a rare gem dealer who spent his time in the South American jungles buying up uncut diamonds from the native miners and then selling them to the Hasidic diamond merchants in New York City. It was, he told me, a very dangerous undertaking with a rather high "employee turnover". The Amazon jungle was a harsh place to do business; a rough, tough, lawless environment where your life was on the line everyday.

He'd been doing that for the past five years and had amassed a small fortune, almost losing his life several times in the process. To celebrate his safe "retirement", he had flown to Maui for a weeklong fling of pure drunken debauchery, which he was just now ending. Thus his slovenly appearance. As it so happened, he needed some art for the bare walls of a beach-front condo in Florida, which he had just purchased .... for cash! Remember, this was before the Patriot Act and the "know your customer" financial security rules removed $100 bills from most merchandise transactions.

WOW! Talk about not judging a book by its cover. Unbeknownst to me, I had just discovered my own diamond-in-the-rough!

The funniest thing of all was that since I wasn't really supposed to be "selling" anything (and I had not), no one showed me how to write up an invoice or even where they were kept. I had to call the director over and ask him to take it from there, which he did .... to the tune of a $185,000 sale, all in cash! (that's just short of half a million bucks in today's depreciated dollars). To make a long story a bit shorter, my first 10% sales commission check was for $18,500. Need I say more? Seems that I'd found my new niche, and I was off on yet another career -- one that is just now coming to an end.

Of course all through the 1980's art sales boomed, with prices fueled by the Japanese going through the roof being. The Japanese were among the biggest buyers of Impressionist and Modern art, and, with their booming economy of the 1980s, they had the ability to fund their insatiable appetite and paid record prices for the works they wanted … remember the $78 million Renoir and the $82.5 million Van Gogh that Ryoei Saito, a Japanese businessman, bought in May of 1990? Hey, I was helping to sell those "pitchers" to the Japanese tourists on Maui.

Those record-breaking prices lasted for a full 14 years. In 2004 a Picasso sold for $104 million, which I'll bet made my ex-diamond dealer VERY happy indeed with his $40,000 purchase . . . if he held onto it. However, once the rug was pulled out from under the Japanese economy, it crumbled and the art market followed quickly behind. Many of the less important works they bought were just never worth the prices paid, and they could not recoup the money spent.

But during all this, the lawyer from Honolulu who owned that gallery was indicted for selling fraudulent Dali prints and the business fell on hard times. So now being quite disillusioned with the "corporate art jungle", but feeling quite at home as an art consultant, I moved along to set up and curate other art emporiums there on Maui. But now I dealt in "local" art, including some of the most respected artists and master artisans in all Hawaii. The high-priced Dali, Chagall and Picasso paintings and prints were left to others to peddle to unsuspecting wealthy tourists. I had a new niche market to explore, one that I'm delighted to say proved highly successful .... although the prices of the art being sold was rather inexpensive compared to the glory days of my first art sales.

I remember, during the early 90s, sellers coming to our Hana gallery with tiny, crappy (for lack of a better word), Renoirs they bought for more than $500,000 or leaping whale paintings by Robert Lynn Nelson that they purchased for $150,000 - trying to sell them for less than half. Those works should have never been bought for those crazy prices in the first place! However, as I learned early in the game, the customer is always right .... even when he's wrong.

I will, however, now leave the art market to those I have mentored over the past several years. It's rather nice to leave at the top of my game! Success is indeed sweet, and what better place to enjoy the fruits of my "artistic" labor than in Vilcabamba.


Travelgram #4 (It's The Water!)

In one of my previous Travelgrams, I touched lightly on the subject of Vilcabamba's extraordinary water. It is probably THE most important component of the reputed longevity of the valley's inhabitants. There are, of course, other reasons given.

Since the early part of the century, foreign scientists and visitors have come to study the Valley. Their aim has been to research all aspects of the geography, climate, soil and water conditions in the hope of discovering the key to the longevity of it's inhabitants.

Japanese scientists that came to study "los Viejos" (The old Men"), soon realized that the valley is charged by negative ionization. This was in part due to the evening electrical storms that grounded on the Mandango, the massive peak over-looking the valley. For this reason, the air in Vilcabamba feels so crisp, so clean as after a strong cleansing storm. "The "old men" live many years in Vilcabamba because they breathe this pure air and drink the pure water that produces a "chelating" effect on their bodies", concluded the Japanese.

Scientists from the U.S. found that the secret to the longevity of the people in the valley was due to the perfect mineral balance found in the drinking water. Articles have appeared in Readers Digest, National Geographic and in other important publications of the world, they all have had their theories about the Longevity of people in the "Sacred Valley" of Vilcabamba. However, most of these experts agree that the water that flows down from the High Andean glaciers to the valley floor is perhaps THE most important element.

In 1982, the renowned medical researcher Dr. Morton Walker arrived in Vilcabamba to investigate the cell mineralization of the local residents and its relationship with genetÌcs and the natural environment. Though Dr. Walker was not in Vilcabamba for very long, he managed to pinpoint numerous very interesting facts that establish the direction of future research here. For a long time there had been some controversy over whether the supposed longevity in Vilcabamba was due to genetic factors. Since this area has been hailed in Ecuador and Peru for many generations as a sacred place where old people abound, some scientists were sure that it must be a gene that was responsible.

Morton Walker took hair samples from the nape of numerous residents of various ages. These samples were carbonized and analysis was performed in a California lab.

The results showed exactly why the folks of Vilcabamba have healthy, long lives. When examining the data on children, one finds the kind of random mineralization that is common everywhere and is mostly due to genetic variation. By the time that they are young adults, there are many similarities in their cell mineralization. Once the people of Vilcabamba are 50 years old, their body minerals are virtually identical, and accumulative toxic metals are at very low levels.

Dr. Walker also had samples of the river water and various foods analyzed to see how their mineral ratios related to the cell minerals in the populace. These were even more revealing. The ratio of minerals common in all the old people was the same as the mineral ratio of the local water. Foods that were irrigated with river water also had the same basic ratio.

So, what's going on at the cellular level in Vilcabamba? Dr. Walker was already studying the relatively new field of mineral chelation at that time. It was not difficult for him to connect Vilcabamba and natural chelation. The people of Vilcabamba were getting a sophisticated chelation treatment from their environment for free. Dr. Walker claims that the ratio of calcium, magnesium and manganese in the water is virtually perfect, preventing calcium from leaving the bones once it is absorbed. This obviously is the reason that Vilcabambans, who consume less than half the calcium that most Europeans do, never suffer from osteoporosis. Hey, it's the water ---- that tasteless, odorless, colorless and calorie-free liquid that every human being on earth must imbibe to sustain life.

And there is no substitute. There are more than five billion people on this planet and every single one of those people needs about 2-1/2 quarts of water... every day... to keep healthy and stay alive.

No water, no life.

But, so what? There's more water on earth than there is earth, right?

Yes, that's true. However, 97% of all that water is sea water. And sea water, of course, is just chock full of salt. Anyone who drinks only sea water will soon die of thirst and dehydration as that person's body tries desperately to flush out all that excess salt. Of course, we humans can use sea water... if... we remove the salt. But, that is very expensive!

Sea water is not a good choice for agriculture or industry either. It kills most crops and literally (and very quickly) rusts out most machinery.

In truth, only a mere 3% of the world's water is fresh, not salty. But, almost all of that fresh water is locked up in glaciers and ice caps or is deep underground. Which means...

Only A Measly 1% Of All The Water On This Planet Is Easily Accessible To Mankind!

And, much of that water is so polluted it is killing thousands upon thousands of people every day... plus... it is making millions of us horribly sick. Think I'm exaggerating?

So, how's the purity of the water supply in your own city or town? Very likely, your city simply can't do a perfect job of cleaning up your water supply. The problem is just too overwhelming. So, what they do is, they dump chlorine in the water! Which, in a way, is good ... because chlorine kills a lot of those nasty, disease-causing bugs in the water. But hey, you know why it is able to kill all those bugs? It's very simple...

It's Because Chlorine Is POISON!

But wait! Don't go getting angry at your municipal water company. They are very likely doing the best job they can, considering the huge problems they are trying to solve. Yes, it's true: Chlorine is bad for you. But, the "bad guys" that would otherwise still be alive in our water supply... if... it wasn't chlorinated... is truly the stuff of which nightmares are made.

When you start talking about E-coli, amoebic cysts, cryptosporidium, giordia and so on, you are talking about "biological villains" that cause...

Health Problems You Don't Even Want To Know About!

So why is the water in Vilcabamba not equally as contaminated as in the United States? What is it about the food and water of this place that makes it special?

Fifteen kilometers above Vilcabamba is the continental divide and the highest local peaks. Up there it is almost constantly precipitating in one way or another. All water, including rain water, has some mineralization. Only water distilled in a lab is pure. So, when our rain, drizzle or sleet fall on these mountains it is already carrying some dissolved solids. The ground on the very high ridges of the Andes is covered with thick grass-like plants that grow and die; but since they can't really rot at the temperature up there, they just continue to grow one on top of the other. What this creates is a deep vegetable sponge that filters and mineralizes the water as it passes through. The Andes in this area were covered by glaciers during the last ice-age. These glaciers carved out shallow basins in the rock at about 3,000 meters of elevation. Now, they are lakes and the water has virtually the same mineralization as the river water in the valley below. The kinds of rocks that make up the lower terrains of the Andes are not particularly reactive to H20. So, all the minerals in Vilcabamba water, and the most important ones in the irrigated food chain are coming from a vegetable source. These grasses of the Andean tundra and the forests that grow in wind-protected clefts are feeding on glacier-ground rock particles of an ancient age.

Fortunately for Vilcabamba, far below, there are no dikes of precious metals lacing the upper watershed. Otherwise gold miners would have long ago contaminated the high creeks with mercury and other toxic by-products found all over the Andes. In fact, gold is found almost every place else around, besides the Vilcabamba watershed. Also, these highlands are too rough and rocky for agricultural purposes. Therefore nobody's been fertilizing or fumigating up there. No one even lives up that high, since pasture animals cannot survive on this rough grass. Its minerals are balanced, but it has almost no protein. This tundra, cloud-forest area is useless, besides producing some of the best water on the earth's surface .... if not THE best!

So why hasn't some enterprising entrepreneur simply bottled up the water in Vilcabamba and added it to the other 350-some brands of bottled water in the world? They have! But the cost of transporting heavy five-gallon plastic containers of water to the US market is simply too prohibitive, unless you don't mind paying $35.00 a gallon for water!
So most of this bottled Vilcabamba water stays right there in the valley to be sold as "Gringo Water" in the hotels and restaurants.

And that, dear reader, is one of the reasons I am spending so much time here in Vilcabamba .... drinking the purest, most therapeutic water to be found on Planet Earth. Will it help me to live to a hundred? I don't know. But in any case it sure does taste sweet, and I seem to be gulping down more than my fair share of it.


Travelgram #3 (Shopping Paradise?)

Hola Senors y Senoritas:

Last night I heard a dog bark. Strangely, I don't remember hearing any barking before yesterday . . . but then the dogs obviously bark in Spanish and I don't understand Spanish!

My point is that this tiny village of Vilcabamba is very quiet within this valley. There is an occasional knock-knock of a carpenter's hammer and the growl of a diesel truck laboring up a grade, perhaps even the grunt of a pig and the high-pitched cluck of chickens, but for the most part it is considerately quiet around the Hotel Madre Tierra where I'm staying.

My daily exposure to the language is slowly but surely paying off. I have asked Paulo, my waiter in the hotel's dining room to speak to me only in Spanish, and that's made for some comical exchanges and even funnier results. What is happening is that I'm now using my hands and face to help convey my meaning, which is not the usual means of North American communication. Mostly, it's just my mouth that moves when speaking in English. But my ear is not as yet tuned to Spanish, so when Paulo asks me if I want something I don't always get what I thought I was agreeing to in Spanish. I have had to learn to use pantomime to make sure I understand or mistakes occur. Even so, about half the time I find something on my dinner plate that I have no idea what it is or whether I actually ordered it. Simply smiling idiotically and nodding one's head when asked a question that one doesn't understand can have unexpected consequences.

On yet another subject:

I find myself thinking of how much time is spent in traveling to do shopping, particularly when we live in small towns without many consumer businesses. We who live in rural areas such as my "other" home in Hana, Hawaii, are more aware of this than folks from the cities. And as the price of gasoline continues to climb, we are going to become even more tuned-in to a need to curtail some of our longer distance shopping. Here in our little village of Vilcabamba, for the most part if you can't walk to it you don't go.

Where I am right now, in a Ecuadorian village of probably 3,500 souls, there are no "convenience stores", no 7-11's or minit-stops. The village even passed a law that forbids gasoline service stations. Not a shopping paradise to be sure.

Reminds me of Hana, some 57 miles away from food and necessity stores; except here in Vilcabamba the distance is only 25 miles and travel time is only about 45 minutes by auto or a full day's journey by foot to Loha, this area of Ecuador's largest city. There are a lot of folks here in this small village who have NEVER been to Loha, who have never even left Vilcabamba to do a day's shopping.

But what it lacks in stores, Vilcabamba makes up in entrepreneurial peddlers of every kind. You do not need to drive to them, they bring stuff to you - and at greatly reduced prices, since there is not any of the usual business fixed-overhead expense involved. Allow me to elaborate:

Early this morning I heard a man shouting. It was a vegetable peddler hawking his wares. Next came an elderly man with fresh eggs, closely followed by two young women offering just-baked bread. There was my breakfast. Total cost: small pocket change!

Yes, I was charged a "markup" by the hotel for cooking and serving the food that was brought fresh to the kitchen door. But still, with coffee (no, Don Pedro and his Columbian mule did not bring it) and a bit of fresh fruit in yogurt, my breakfast only cost me $2.00. And THAT is less than what one cup of Kona coffee would have set me back at any US hotel.

My point being that one of the reasons these folks, who live in what we would call poverty, are existing in exceptional health is due mostly to their not being consumers of processed foods, to their growing all of their own food organically in soil that is bursting with mineralization and lots of healthy organisms. Vilcabamba's pure water source, claimed by health authorities throughout the world to be THE best on the planet, probably helps the growing process, too.

Whoa, I don't mean to imply that there aren't any pre- processed foods available. There are. But the cost is greater than the local people can afford, so they don't buy the stuff that you and I usually pickup on our weekly trips to COSTCO. Unfortunately, "fast-food" in Vilcabamba is now a fact of life. The young people here are beginning to slurp down diet colas and gobble twinkies .... and the encroachment of ill-health is the result. That is one of the horrors of the Americanization of the culture. In another generation, there may not be any healthy Old People left in the famed "Sacred Valley of Longevity".

However, at this point those of us who are in our "later years" do benefit from the ultra-healthy environment, food and magical waters of Vilcabamba.

Oh, by the way, in a previous Travelgram I mentioned a 101 year-old man with a walking stick. Actually, there's more to the story. It seems that the old man and his wife were approached by a couple of tourists from the US, who asked in very fractured Spanish how old the elder was. He said he was 76, and the tourists left. The old man's wife started screaming at him, asking him why he told those people that he was only 76 instead of his actual 101. He calmly replied that he was not happy at constantly being photographed (for free) because he was so old, so he simply lied about his age and was left alone. His wife screamed at him even louder, saying that since she was 92 he would be married to a woman old enough to be his mother and she would have none of it. So now the hombre viejo (the old man) says he's 105, to make his wife happy .... and also demands to be paid for photos taken by the "gringos".

Such is the problem of attempting to judge the ages of Vilcabamba's inhabitants, who, unlike their counterparts in the rest of the world, often add a few years to their true ages if they can make a few extra pennies from the "touristas".

Hasta la vista,

Senor Patrick

Travelgram #2 (The Problems of Language)

In my first installment, I failed to mention some of the major problems I've run into by not being able to speak Spanish. I'll poke a little fun at myself and share one such misadventure:

Despite what all the travel guides tell you, it helps to know the language of a foreign country you're visiting. At least that's what I discovered on my first trip to Ecuador.

During my first two days in Quito, I found that much to my surprise a lot of Ecuadorians I met spoke pretty good English. At least I seemed to be able to make myself understood. But when it came time to take a taxi to the airport for the next leg of my trip, to Cuenca, disaster struck!

My taxi driver nodded his head enthusiastically when I told him the name of my airline, and off we went, careening at top speed along the ancient cobblestone streets with much horn honking and playing "chicken" at intersections, which seems to be the Ecuadorian national pastime for all taxi drivers. There are no stop signs at intersections!

At one point, the driver looked back over his shoulder and asked a question, but I couldn't understand him. So he shrugged his shoulders and continued his erratic course toward the Quito International Airport. A few minutes later we arrived at a very dilapidated building bearing the name of the airline. The driver piled all of my luggage on the sidewalk, held out his hand for payment, and then took off in a cloud of exhaust smoke. I looked around me. Something didn't seem right.

Maybe it was the long line of scruffy-looking people lugging cartons, bicycles and cooped-up chickens to a counter, folks who didn't seem to fit the mould of any airline passengers I'd ever seen. In any case, after a fifteen minute wait in a slow line, I finally reached the counter. But it turned out to be the wrong counter in the wrong terminal building. My taxi driver had let me off at the cargo terminal, not the ticket terminal.

After much gesturlating and rapid-fire Spanish by the cargo workers, I finally figured out that where I was supposed to be was clear over on the other side of the airport at the main departure terminal. That must have been the question the cab driver asked, which terminal did I want? Cargo was simply the closest, which made perfect sense to the driver. Hey, why waste gas on a cheap fare.

By now, the line of people behind me was cracking up at the dumb gringo standing amidst his pile of luggage with a look of complete bewilderment on his face. I had already heard that Ecuadorians had a good sense of humor, and I seem to have made their day. It was a touristo joke at my expense.

So I hailed another cab, but this time I showed the driver my tickets and did a creditable silent movie pantomime that indicated that I wanted to go to the Icaro Airlines ticket counter check-in. He smiled broadly and chattered back at me a mile a minute, not a single word of which did I understand. It was de'ja veau all over again.

We careened off at top speed, with squealing tires as an accompaniment to the tooting horn, and a few minutes later we arrived where I should have been in the first place.

It was a good thing that cab fare was so cheap in Ecuador, my eight mile trip to the wrong place had only cost $5.00. It was another $2.00 to get me from one side of the airport to the other. In New York, I'd have owned a piece of the cab company for the same trip. But at least I'd have understood the cabby . . . . unless he was a Pakastani.

That, dear reader, was just my first two days in Ecuador, where I quickly learned to say: Hablo espanole muy poqito! (I speak very little Spanish).


Travelgram #1 (I Find My Shangri La)

Ah-hhhh, Vilcabama! This place is every bit as magical and peaceful as Maui, but with a Spanish accent instead of Hawaiian pidgin. And a hundred times less expensive! The negative ions are whipping up a frenzy of healthy invigorating molecules, at least that's what the people here at Hotel Madre Tierra tell me to account for my flush of rapturous energy. No wonder this place is called the Sacred Valley of Longevity.

The owners are the actor Jon Cypher (stage and screen) and his lovely, quite extraordinary wife Carol Rosin . . . who in her own right is one of the U.S's "heaviest" ladies; having been the highest ranking woman in the areospace industry, Werner von Braun's (father of rocketry if you will remember) top assistant and spokesperson, founder of . . . oh heck, just go ahead and "Google" Dr. Carol Rosin and you'll see what I mean.

Jon is just an amazing person. You might remember him from playing the lead in the stage production of "The Man From La Mancha", or as the Chief of Police in the long-running series of "Hill Street Blues", etc. etc. etc. I have found in him a "brother" who has lived part of my own life-history. Hey, when you get to be my age it's hard to find people who know what you're talking about when you tell your tales (which is one reason I don't have any desire to hang out with nubile female twenty-somethings. I mean, what do we have to talk about?) OK, there are other reasons, but we won't go into THAT.

Anyway, they are in the process of renovating a world-class, intimate sanctuary that they call a hoteleria. The hotel itself is situated on a seventeen acre organic plantation, a veritable oasis of lush jungle foliage set within the equally beautiful Vilcabamba Valley.

Despite my best attempts to haggle for a higher price, I'm only being charged $40.00 a day for my room AND that includes breakfast & dinner. Lunch is extra, at about $2.25 for a veggie burger or a club sandwich on freshly baked multi-grain bread and large mixed salad. You should be aware, however, that these ultra-cheap prices for room and food probably won't last for long. These rates, for one of Ecuador's premier hotels and spas is bound to change . . . . but you can always mention my name as get a 1% discount (he, he he.)

Breakfast usually consists of fresh fruits in home-made Kifir (yogurt) and wholegrain toast and coffee. There are eggs if you'd like. Dinners vary from night to night, but have consisted of a big bowl of soup, a huge salad made of fresh-picked ingredients, and either a meat or vegetarian entree (or if you can't make up your mind, both!) Oh, and then to top it all off there is desert . . . muy delicioso and wonderfully goopy, which is perfect for sugar freaks like me. The dining room is a large tiled patio, where the guests sit family style at long tables. Sure makes it easier to meet the other guests . . . most of whom are Ecuadorian. You quickly learn the basic Spanish name for foods and beverages, or you starve! Oh, and there is NO tipping. A 10% service charge is automatically added, so no one has their hand out all the time.

Thank goodness for the stairs that I have to climb to reach my room, or my Burl Ives look-alike girth would be doubled in no time at all.

My first two or three days I could hardly pull myself up those stairs, even with the help of a walking staff that I'd bought in Quito for hiking, etc. Today, I'm hopping up the three flights of very steep cobblestone steps like a damned mountain goat. I'll admit that at "only" 5,000 feet it is a lot easier to get around than the 9,800 Andean feet of Quito. But for a sea-level kind of guy like me, it's still a breath-panting altitude for the first few days. My heart and lungs seem to now be at peace with Vilcabamba.

As for the hotel itself, which is now almost completely renovated from top top to bottom, it is both charmingly quaint and surprisingly "modern" at the same time. There seem to be some 27 rooms in clusters of three or four, all of them accessed by stone steps leading up from the reception, dining room and bar areas. Of course there is a tropical backdrop of thick foliage and exquisitely beautiful flowers running rampant throughout the hotel grounds. Much more lush and wild than even in the rainforest on Maui . . and the scent of roses and lilies and wildflowers is everywhere pervasive.

The rooms themselves are surprisingly large, almost suites, simply but tastefully decorated and furnished, surprisingly comfortable, with excellent Queen sized bed mattresses. There's a hammock and a small couch on a patio just outside my door, where I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time. Oh, and there is wireless for my computer right in my room, and so I'm writing this email to you while gently swinging in that private hammock.

Just above where my room is located is a spa complex, a mini version of the Golden Door, etc. It's all I can do to refrain from just being endlessly massaged, facialed (yeah, me!) whirlpooled and (would you believe) pedicured all day long. An hour and a half massage is $8.00, plus .50 cent tip.

The hotel staff are all marvelously friendly and accommodating, even if few of them speak more than a little fractured English. But little understanding is lost in translation, at least I seem to get what I'm asking for in every case and "mi espanole est muy muy poquito".

The people of Ecuador appear to be friendly and hospitable. The women are universally gorgeous and the men quite handsome, a mixture of Spanish and native Indian bloodlines that has produced an attractive and intelligent race of people. And everyone here is disgustingly slender and seem to be strong and agile without the need of daily grunt-trips to a local gym. Lots of VERY poor people, but I haven't once been accosted by a beggar. All in all, a VERY picturesque and charming part of the world . . . a place that I wouldn't mind spending a LOT more time in, if I wasn't already living in a certain paradise called Hawaii.

I don't know if my description paints a good enough picture of Vilcabamba and the Hoteleria Madre Tierra for you, but I seemed to have picked the PERFECT place for rest & relaxation. Hm-mm, could this be the "Shangri La" that I have been searching for all these years?

More later . . . after I've awoken from my afternoon siesta snooze! Manana or the day after may be more likely.

El Senor Patrick