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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.


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