The Land That Greed Forgot
by Paul Martin
Sister Jane Marie Luecke is professor of English at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 23, 1974, pp. 987-990. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found atwww.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Vilcabamba, a village that lies in a quiet valley in the Ecuadorian Andes, is famed for the longevity of its inhabitants. Its 1972 census showed a total population of 819, with nine of this number -- two women and seven men -- more than 100 years old. In the United States we have fewer than 7,000 centenarians. To match this tranquil village we would have to have more than 2.5 million. In other words, Vilcabamba produces centenarians at a rate 366 times greater than we do.
A striking difference. But more impressive is the phenomenal condition of Vilcabamba’s old people. I visited the village last fall and spoke with some of them. There was Micaela Quezada, a spinster whose baptismal certificate, on file in the local church, attests that she was born February 19, 1870. She has lived in Vilcabamba all her life, working for some years as a seamstress. I watched this 104-year-old woman thread needles and read newsprint, without difficulty and without glasses. Her health is obviously good and her memory is clear on events of years ago as well as on recent happenings.
I talked with Miguel Carpio, possibly the oldest man in the world at 127, and listened to him sing and play the guitar. He told me he had a few aches and pains but generally feels pretty good. Don Miguel has long had the reputation of being a ladies’ man, and he still likes to flirt with the women, even though, as he says, he "can’t see them too well anymore." Since the church in the community did not open until 1850, there are no birth certificates to verify his age and that of some of the other longevos. However, Micaela Quezada said that she has known Miguel Carpio all her life, and he is considerably older than she. He too has a fine memory for the past, remote or recent. While I was talking with Miguel his 75-year-old grandson came riding into the town on horseback, looking vigorous and fit and exuding the vitality of a man far younger than his three quarters of a century.
I talked with Rafael Vasquez, a youngster of 84. I asked him to come with me to the park in the center of town and let me take pictures of him working there with his machete. The park was surrounded by a fence and the gate was locked; so he nonchalantly strolled up to the fence and climbed over. Like most men in the village, he has farmed all his life and kept active with hard, physical labor. And, like all the Vilcabambans I spoke with, he was relaxed, open, very pleasant and helpful, and obviously in top mental condition.
A Healing Environment
Before going to Vilcabamba I spent several days in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and there met Jorge Santiana, one of the nation’s leading cancer specialists. Dr. Santiana told me that in three trips to Vilcabamba he had carefully examined these incredible oldsters and found no trace of skin cancer in any of them. This freedom from skin cancer is unusual in people who are not only extremely old but, living as they do close to the equator, are subjected to direct sunshine the year round.
I heard of a prominent Quito cardiologist, Miguel Salvador, who took a team of technicians and heart specialists to Vilcabamba in 1969 to study its oldsters. After thoroughly testing 338 men and women the team reported that none of them had heart problems or circulatory difficulties, that their metabolism was excellent, and that the condition of their arteries was such as ordinarily would be found only in much younger people. Dr. Salvador returned to the area a year later for additional testing and concluded that the extraordinary health of the inhabitants is due to gentle climate, calm environment, pure water, clean air, hard physical work and a tranquil attitude. Vilcabamba’s altitude is about 5,100 feet above sea level and its water supply comes from two sparkling rivers, the Uchima and the Chamba. The soil is rich in minerals, so that farming is carried on without chemicals. The men and women of the area sleep eight, to ten hours a night. But, as Dr. Salvador exclaimed, "To sleep six hours in Vilcabamba is worth eight hours anywhere else."
Tales abound of sick people who came to the "sacred valley" and there recovered completely from severe heart ailments and crippling arthritis. Carlos Tosi, a 46-year-old native of Cuenca, a town 135 miles away, arrived in Vilcabamba in 1971. He had suffered three nearly fatal heart attacks and was barely able to walk. Having exhausted all conventional medical treatments, he came to the quiet village because nothing else held out any hope for him. He spent his first week there in bed. The next week he was able to walk, though slowly, to the park, to sit in the sun and visit with the affable local citizens. About two months later he began to play volleyball and to take long walks along the mountain roads. After six months in this healing environment he returned to Cuenca and has lived there in excellent health ever since.
Jaime Vaca, of Quito, was born with a faulty heart, which hampered him in every way. In 1969 he underwent heart surgery in Brazil, and returned to Quito no better than before. The next year he moved to Vilcabamba. Several months there transformed him. He began to enjoy the finest health he had ever experienced. In time he married one of the women of the town and plans to spend the rest of his life there.
A Concern to Prevent Exploitation
So many cases of this kind were described to me by people in Vilcabamba and in neighboring Loja that it was impossible to discount them. Loja, a city of 60,000 and the capital of the province of Loja, lies 25 miles from Vilcabamba and is accessible only by a narrow, winding dirt road that serves as a natural barricade. Flying there from Guayaquil, a seaport and Ecuador’s largest city, I met the governor and the prefect of the province and the mayor of the city. All three told me that they are concerned to prevent any exploitation of their small neighbor that might destroy its unique healing quality.
The governor, Colonel Victor Hugo Vega, is a native of Loja city and has lived there most of his life. A thoughtful man with a deliberate manner, he said: "We’re all very interested in the phenomenon of Vilcabamba and want to make it available for anyone in the world who needs it. But we want to avoid any abrupt changes and make sure that it is preserved for the coming generations. Any sharp alterations in the community are likely to destroy the environment that apparently plays the key role in its ability to heal desperately sick people."
The mayor of Loja. Ruben Ortega, is an enthusiastic, affable lawyer. He has taken more than a dozen victims of heart trouble over to Vilcabamba. "They have all improved after several days," he told me. "The old people there remain absolutely lucid even when they are well over 100. Their thoughts are clear and their memories are sharp. Manuel Augustin Polo, who lived in Loja, had an extremely bad heart and had gone to Mexico and the United States for treatment without any improvement. He went over to Vilcabamba in 1957 when he was 70 years old and in a few months moved to Loja, completely recovered. He remained healthy until he died in 1970 at the age of 83."
A railroad worker from the southeastern United States, Frank Krammel, arrived in Vilcabamba in the summer of 1970. A tall, thin man in his 60s, he was so badly crippled with heart trouble that he was unable to walk even a block without resting. He spent three months in the healing atmosphere of the village. Gradually his condition improved. He found himself able to move about with increasing ease, and finally to walk two or three hours a day. He returned home completely recovered.
Most of Vilcabamba’s own senior citizens retain their teeth along with their vitality. Vilcabambans’ diet is high in starch and surprisingly low in protein. Most families have their own farms and grow and eat their own produce -- corn, potatoes, papayas, oranges, grapes and a starchy vegetable called yucca. Investigators report that the mineral-rich soil in this Ecuadorian Eden produces exceptionally nutritious fruits and vegetables. It also produces sugar, which is used unrefined, and coffee, which is brewed so thick and strong that visitors expect it to seep right through the cups. One of the area’s dietary staples is a banana soup, which sounds unusual and tasted the same way when I tried it.
Linked to Eternity
Hard workers, the people of this region remain relaxed. Their tranquil, timeless approach to living, which seems to link them to eternity, is a reflection of their strong religious faith. Manuel Patino, a quiet, gentle little man of 95, still farms eight hours a day six days a week and goes to church every Sunday. He would like to live "as long as God wants me to." Rafael Vasquez, the 84-year-old who climbed the fence so effortlessly, said: "We live long here because there’s something good here. I was born to work and take care of my family and want to live as long as God gives me." In splendid physical and mental health, Rafael sleeps eight to ten hours a night and has been married 60 years to the same wife.
Clodovea Heredia, a charming old lady who gives her age as 100, was once a seamstress, like Micaela Quezada, and like Micaela she easily threaded needle after needle as I watched. Evidently Clodovea too still has perfect eyesight. In conversation she is alert, for her memory remains clear despite the ten decades behind her. "God has favored us with long lives," she told me, ‘and I would like to live as long as he wants me to, 50 more years or until tomorrow is all right."
Face to Face with the Laws of Ecology
My sojourn in this tiny Andean community gave me an acute case of culture shock. I found the facts of Vilcabamba difficult to reconcile with my own experience. When I left the area I headed for Peru aboard an Iberia plane. I spent several days in Lima and, subsequently, a week in Colombia, and all the time I was haunted by a lingering disquiet. The unease persisted after my return home to a Chicago suburb. Was the lesson of Vilcabamba simply one of natural diet, pure water, clean air, physical labor and quiet living? That’s part of it, but only part.
The people of Vilcabamba would be called poor by all but the most poverty-stricken inhabitants of the United States. Yet they have no shortages; they have little but they have enough. They seem totally free from the greed that has driven us into profligate misuse of our resources. And that gets to the real lesson of this extraordinary place. Within limits, we can have whatever we want if we want it badly enough -- but we cannot determine the price. That we learn later, and gradually. And that’s precisely what we are learning, today. We have come face to face with the laws of ecology. The well-known ecologist Barry Common lists these three laws: (1) everything is connected to everything else; (2) everything has to go somewhere; and (3) there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
These Ecuadorians appear completely devoid of fear and anxiety. They live calmly in the present, without regrets about the past or worries about the future. Partners with nature and in tune with their surroundings, they remain uniquely free from physical ailments and mental breakdowns. Everything is connected to everything else, and I have come to the conclusion that their phenomenal health is a reflection of their freedom from greed -- a freedom that, along with the profound faith in God they demonstrate in their daily lives, keeps their environment pure, their wants simple and their lives purposeful. Their keen awareness of what’s really important has kept them from duplicating the basic errors we have committed.
Greed is a primary manifestation of the ego’s screaming battle to have its own way, and it inevitably leads to the fear and ignorance that are glaringly evident in the highly educated confusion in our culture today, in our poisoned environment and wasted wealth, and in the affluent uncertainty that afflicts us as it turns out that too much is never enough.
Among others, Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley have insisted that reducing greed is the first step in breaking loose from the ego’s choking grip and moving toward sanity. We’re generally reluctant to try to reduce our greed, because at least in its early stages, greed is pleasant. Unchecked, however, it gradually smothers us. The more we get the "things" we think we want, the less we are able to experience the contact with God we really want and must have to live. We become ignorant of who we really are and frightened lest we either lose what we have or be unable to get still more.
To Enhance the Spiritual Life
Greed has three facets: love of things, love of fame, and love of pleasure; and these can be attacked directly with frugality, anonymity and moderation. Reduction of greed will be translated into stepped-up vitality, diminished self-centeredness and a clearer awareness of our real identity. For a permanent commitment to working with the tools of the spiritual life provides a disciplined basis for liberation from greed’s tentacles.
If I consciously try to simplify my life, I shall effectively weaken my dependence on possessions and on other people’s opinions. Then my identity no longer derives from things or from the attitudes of others but, to some degree at least, stems from a clearer understanding of the truth of my relationship to God; and this understanding can sharply decrease the fear generated by ignorance of who I really am. It will only come, however, out of persistent striving for freedom from the wants and dependencies that inevitably block it.
This simplicity extends into the realm of ideas and knowledge because here too greed creates the ignorance that makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to comprehend and appreciate the transforming power of fundamental spiritual truths. Note, however, that "keep it simple" does not mean "keep it superficial"; it means recognizing that more knowledge often means less understanding. For example, while our highly trained physicians seem to know a great deal about sickness, the longevos of Vilcabamba instinctively know more about health than any medical men I ever met.
There is no cheap grace. Reality is not given; it is mined, like gold. Spiritual growth is synonymous with increasing sanity, and it comes from unremitting effort to strip away false ideas and spurious goals. As we make such effort we shall find freedom from the fear and ignorance that are inextricably tied into the package of greed. We shall know increasing vitality, growing sanity, greater health and vastly expanded usefulness. And, as the ego’s shrill clamor for possessions, pleasure and recognition subsides, the voice of God grows more distinct and the concept of his guidance moves from abstraction to daily experience.
I can profit from the vision the longevos of Vilcabamba hold out -- the vision of simplicity and peace created by freedom from needless, heedless striving. Too much can never be enough, whether of things, knowledge or recognition. A conscious, direct attack on these false dependencies through spiritual discipline will weaken my craving for temporal trivia as it strengthens my dependence on God. Slowly but certainly, it will give me the things I really want and must have to become what I should be.