“All the best stories are but one story in reality – the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape.” — A. C. Benson
It had never occurred to us to ask, “Where do conspiracy theorists go for early retirement?”
Then we visited Vilcabamba, a little town in southern Ecuador.
Across the developed world, there’s a rich business in convincing prospective retirees to up stakes and retire overseas. The concepts of lifestyle arbitrage and starting over are compelling to many: a retirement savings account might buy a better lifestyle abroad than it could back home while the economic hatch provides an escape into a new life.
Throughout our travels in Asia and Europe, we've met many people doing just this. Then in Latin America, the deluge: from sun-baked houseboat retirees in Rio Dulce, Guatemala to middle-aged real estate flippers on Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua, retirement south of the border is de rigeur.
On the surface, Vilcabamba seemed to fit the same retirement-ideal profile. Its aesthetic recalled the desert southwest: red rocks, blue skies, dry air. Its moniker, The Valley of Longevity, suggested it might just be a good place to grow old. And the whole package – we’re told — is relatively low cost.
But there was something different about Vilcabamba. Something – let’s say a la Roswell, New Mexico.
We couldn’t sit down for a meal without being cornered by a stranger hoping to inform our understanding of the world with an unsolicited dump of the world’s latest conspiracy theories. In a few days, our education included everything from the illuminati and their plans to cull the human race by propagating tainted H1N1 flu vaccines to a 1950s U.S. government cover-up of the orgone accumulator.
We even learned about the fascism of the pelvis.
Add to this the widely circulated 9//11 and UFO theories, and you’ve got yourself a night on the town.
“It’s all true. You can look it up on the internet,” we were told repeatedly.
Oh, the irony of selective skepticism.
The whole experience fired our curiosity. Why might those prone to conspiracy theorizing seek utopia in this far off land? To find out, we buttonholed one of Vilcabamba’s foreigners as he was making plans to set down roots in the area and we asked him a few questions.
Note: The internet is a tiny place. Names have been changed to protect both the guilty and the innocent.
Uncornered Market (UCM): In our travels so far in South America, Vilcabamba appears to be home to a very high concentration of recently arrived expatriates.
Pat X: In fact, the ex-pat community amounts to less than 300–maybe less than 250.
UCM: Out of a local population of 4000, that sounds like a lot.
UCM: What is it that attracts so many foreigners to Vilcabamba? How do people hear of Vilcabamba in the first place?
Pat X: A rumor's going around that Mandango, the sandstone formation above the village, contains a crackpot magnet. If that's not provable, then you'd have to look to International Living and other real-estate promotions, equally over-romanticized personal blogs, and word of mouth among the disaffected types that seek refuge in remote places presumed capable of supplying real and abstract amenities.
UCM: How did you find out about Vilcabamba and why did you choose it?
Pat X: I wandered through and was appalled. In fact, I'd never consider living on this ship of fools.
UCM: In the short time we stayed in Vilcabamba, we met a variety of characters. How would you characterize the expats who have chosen to live there?
Pat X: Exactly as you have: as characters–many of whom seem paranoid, or xenophobic, or deluded, or unprepared for foreign life, or on the run from personal inadequacies that they blame on something or somewhere else. Mix and match as you care to. A few exceptions exist: some learn Spanish, integrate into the outlying communities, and, usually, avoid the village whenever they can.
UCM: At a local restaurant, we noticed a sign in English asking people to stop gossiping about each other. We thought that was a rather adult way to diffuse a situation. What is the story there?
Pat X: To call it “adult” would be to idealize the population it was addressing. The notice came and went–the gossip stayed.
Think of it as a permutation of “nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live here”: the Ecuadorian locals are left out, for the most part–they're deprived of land because it's either sold or too expensive to buy, and except for those in tourist-related niches, they're out of the rich life. In fact, they generally can't even graze their cattle on unused land because the foreign buyers won't go for it. So, if you put aside the few foreigners who have managed to join the community (and by that, I mean participate in and even properly benefit it), then what's left is the sort of person who chooses to live permanently in a place that's really meant to be temporary.
UCM: Are there different “camps” of expatriates?
Pat X: Of course. Most are divided by the conspiracy theories they espouse; and these groups, if advanced, may have subdivided into sects. For example, there are divisions among the UFO believers, and those espousing miracle solutions (e.g., to medical or energy problems), and those believing in separate agencies that are planning the conquest/destruction of–again, feel free to mix and match–humankind, good people (i.e., themselves), the poor, the rich, the whatever.
UCM: What are the top conspiracy theories circulating in Vilcabamba these days?
Pat X: “They” are conspiring to keep “Them” from giving us X or to deprive/hurt/kill “Them” with Y. “They” are any group to which power may be assigned (including aliens and other-dimensionals; and “Them” are everyone championed by whoever's espousing the theory. “X” might be free clean energy, miracle cures and whatever other utopian benefit the theorists believe in but don't in fact work to create or even know much about. “Y” is any substance or system deemed deleterious.
For example, the World Health Organization is using airliners (alleged by some to be only the white ones–though when sunlit at a height of seven miles, all look white) to spray humans with (poisons, mutagens, nanobots, additives, etc.), and that this explains the contrails that planes emit. And let's not forget world-wide fascism, economic collapse, anarchy, and various other doomsday scenarios, from all of which their evangelists think Vilcabamba will provide refuge.
Recently it was averred that Michael Jackson was murdered because he was going to denounce the H1N1 vaccine–but if, as some allege, he was an extraterrestrial, how could that be?