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In the Playground of the Incas

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

February 2022, Issue 3 “It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed” - Thomas Moore


By Harper Klay, Shonkinite Founder

7 minute read

Click on the video to listen to this sketch in the author's voice

Sun, humidity, and warmth dominated my thoughts.

After months trekking the Peruvian Andes, the cold climate hurt my bones. I said goodbye to my acquired Israeli backpacker boyfriend, agreed to meet him in the Galapagos, and got on a bus to Quito. Spoiler alert: I never made it to the Galapagos. Israeli boyfriend cheated on me with a German backpacker the night I left.

On my border bus from Peru to Ecuador, I met an Israeli couple on their extended honeymoon. There are lots of Israelis in South America. After required military duty, they bust out of their pressure cooker of a country for an extended trip in the Andes or Himalayas. This lovely couple was a bit older and more mature, well educated with an air of poise and power. They were not the usual youth I was running into who were daring and loud, detoxing the intensity required of military duty.

As the hours on the bus passed we swapped experiences and tips on trails, places, and adventures in South America. They were on their way to Vilcabamba, a small town in southern Ecuador, and invited me along. Rumor was there was a nice place for an extended stay. The added mythical reputation was an attraction.

The sun had set when the bus dropped us off. Loaded with our backpacks and front-packs we followed a moonlit path. The warmth of Ecuador was what I was yearning for. A calm came with distance from the jagged Andes. The moon on the equator appears bigger and more vivid, and never directly above but on the horizon. It is magnificent, almost other-worldly.

We climbed the wooden steps to a lodge nestled in hills with lamps lit and tables covered by homemade tablecloths, surrounded by long wooden benches meant for collective gathering. A stout woman with luminous wavy white hair walked out, opened her arms to me, and in a California-American accent said, “Welcome home.” There was an ominous weight to the way she welcomed me. I was identifiably American, and she identifiably had a purpose beyond the bed and breakfast in southern Ecuador. It was rare for me to encounter Americans on the backpacker circuit, much less one that owned a hostel.

For $7 a night I had my own bungalow with a rainfall shower and cozy bed. Nestled in a picturesque hill alongside several other bungalows, I was in paradise. My dreams were vivid and continued with nightly travel outside of my body, a type of unfiltered clairvoyance routinely happening post car accident. Putting myself in new and foreign environments jolted me into the present and I felt less crazy. The first night in Vilcabamba, the knowledge of cheating came to me in a dream. I knew what my boyfriend was doing. When I reached Quito a month later the manager’s message reached me to confirm my knowing.

I settled into Vilcabamba. I read in hammocks, hiked Mandango Mountain with Irish backpackers, and ate delicious farm fresh food. Along the sidewalk artisans and vendors showcased their products. A Columbian artisan had two wooden masks. On the top of each mask was a carved figure from the Nazca Lines, the monkey and the hummingbird.

The Nazca Lines are a collection of ancient geoglyphs in southern Peru. The best way to see the lines drawn in the sand is by air. There are many theories as to how and why the geoglyphs came to be, but this artisan knew they were made by aliens.

Aliens were also the topic with the white-haired hostel owner. A self-proclaimed child psychologist with an Honorary Doctorate in Humanities from a Nigerian Archbishop, she was on a galactic mission at the equator to limit weapons in space. Her husband, an actor I recognized from a childhood sitcom, shared her belief but lightened the place up with offers of cheese and wine.

They invited me to do San Pedro, the Saint Peter cactus. The theory is that just as Saint Peter holds the keys to heaven, the effects of the cactus allow users to reach heaven while still on earth. I declined, aware that my head injury was the equivalent of permanently being on psychedelics.

The locals despised the white-haired woman and the people that arrived in Vilcabamba for her reasons. She claimed she was a protege of Dr. Wernher Von Braun, the famed Nazi space architect and rocket scientist secretly moved to the US and assimilated into NASA. A member of the Nazi Party, his experiments involved slave labor at Holocaust concentration camps. She now routinely hosted Israelis on the equator. Her real focus was building a landing strip for alien arrival, thus debunking the myth of world religions.

The alien landing strip plans did me in. I looked down at my key chain shaped like an alien spaceship. I hadn’t noticed the key chain before. Throughout my travels, I never knew how long I would stay in a place until an exacting moment. The flying saucer key chain was my sign. It was time to go.

The next day, with my backpack and front-pack loaded, I purchased the Nazca masks. Those masks are now on my windowsill in Bozeman, Montana, a capsule of memories in the Incas Playground. Thank you for reading,

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