Thursday, April 15, 2010


The town Vilcabamba is home to the oldest people in the world; people reach old age and just keep on living, routinely toping 100. After visiting, I understand why. This valley in the southern Ecuadorean Andes, also called “The Valley of Longevity,” is perhaps the most relaxing place I’ve ever been. Rather than try (and certainly fail) at conveying to you the absolute beauty and tranquility of this place, I’ll leave it to photos to try and do it justice (these fall short, too, by the way):

Beyond the breathtaking scenery, my favorite part of Vilcabamba had little (or perhaps everything) to do with Vilcabamba itself. Our final evening there we were invited by a fellow traveler, a woman we’d met less than 24hrs before, to partake in an profound personal journey she’d just decided to undertake: shaving off all of her long, beautiful blond hair, and in-so-doing removing the constraints (or safeguards?) of traditional beauty and learning what their existence, or a lack thereof, really means in our society. She’d been toying with the idea for a while, apparently, but never taken the plunge. However, something about Vilcabamba, or, more likely, about the unique community she’d found in just a couple of days there signaled to her that it was time. So, with the support of 10 or so of us (relative stranger) women (and, it’s worth adding, to the dismay of a few male onlookers), she took this liberating step, grinning uncontrollably the entire time. She was grinning and laughing the entire evening afterward, actually.

Participating in this ceremony—snipping a few of her locks as the scissors were passed around and watching her physical transformation—left me wondering if I’d ever be self-confident and/or brave enough to take such a step, whether I could ever intentionally place myself at odds with female ideal of beauty and learn what its presence (or absence) really means for societal access and success. Today I know I’m not... down the road? Not sure. What about the rest of you?

In addition to making me think about my acquiescence to oppressive societal norms, this experience also sums up nicely an unexpected and quite pleasantly surprising aspect of this adventure: the myriad meaningful connections made and fulfilling interactions had along the way. If you’d asked me before this trip, I’d probably have answered skeptically about the likelihood of having substantive exchanges in a couple of hours spent with complete strangers. I probably would have cited the incredible places and extraordinary sights as the main reasons for traveling.

At the end of this trip, however, when I recall favorite parts, they’re not memories of an interesting building or a beautiful mountain, but rather the time spent with people, both Shepard and the numerous fascinating strangers I met along the way. I’m realizing that, as in most areas of my life, for me the raison d’voyage (can I say that?) is, after all, about people and the things they, even in a few hours or days, share with me and teach me. And that even if I never see or communicate with many of them again, the value of having shared the kinds of experiences one has when traveling with them is a perfectly worthwhile and satisfying end in itself. And what a pleasant realization that is!

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