In May I spent three weeks traveling through the Caribbean, Costa Rica, and Panama…
The faded yellow pickup truck rumbled down the bumpy dirt road. The hot and sticky air I shared with the six other people crammed into the cab weighed down on me like a thick blanket, and I awkwardly tried to shift the bag in my lap to my other, less sweaty, leg.
Despite the lush scenery passing by the window, I struggled to keep my eyes open. It had been a long day of travel and I was exhausted, but we were finally headed into the jungle. Every time I forced my eyelids open a new scene was before me, flashing through my vision like a slideshow; cows grazing in tropical pastures, fields of banana trees with bunches of ripening fruit, and the occasional farmer casting an apathetic glance at our truck all trickled past us.
“This is it,” she declared. “Mila Siete–Mile Seven. Home.”
I’d been prepared for this; I knew my long-time friend Hallie lived in a hut in the jungles of Panama as a Peace Corps volunteer, and I’d been looking forward to this trip for months. It’s still a surprising feeling, though, to grab your backpack and watch the only sign of civilization heading off into the distance, leaving you surrounded by nothing but an abundance of greenery that appears eager to swallow you whole.
She led the way up a steep dirt path, one that she frequently has to clear with a machete, until we reached her hut. Basically a wooden patio on stilts, the “house” was no more than 12×15 feet with a thatched roof and a small enclosure for her bedroom. There was no electricity, of course, and her “running water” consisted of a bucket on the roof to catch rainwater and a few PVC pipes to carry it down to a sink. Despite its primitive nature, though, the place still had a rustic sort of charm. It’s her home, after all, and she had done a good job of personalizing it. Chalk art adorned the walls, two hammocks swayed in the breeze, and her bubbly little puppy, Roma, galloped down the path to greet us with sloppy doggy kisses.
We tossed our bags and relaxed in the hammocks for a while, worn out from a long day of bus rides and a somewhat treacherous border crossing from Costa Rica. The warm, tropical air buzzed around us and exploded with life; colorful birds called loudly to one another and flitted through the tree branches; I spotted a giant termite nest hanging from the top of distant tree; beetles scuttled across the table and I tried to ignore the giant spider hanging patiently in his web nearby.
Hallie lives with an indigenous tribe in a small village simply called “Mile 7”, because that’s how far along the jungle road it is. She is there to work on environmental projects and right now is helping them build an aqueduct. She’s also trying to convince them to stop pooping in the river– their water supply– and persuade them that that’s why they get so many parasites and their children often die. She tells me it’s an uphill battle.
We walked down the road toward the village; a few children saw us and came running, calling excitedly, “Hallie! Hallie!” Up ahead we stopped at each hut along the way, taking the customary time to talk to the villagers and catch up on gossip; finally, Hallie would introduce me.
Every time we approached a hut, there they would be, the villagers, just sitting on the steps or on a chair near the door. Sometimes they would have a friend over, but often they would just sit there, alone, or holding a baby. There was no TV, no stereo blasting music, not even a radio. They sat there quietly, simply staring ahead or watching their children playing. I wonder what they think about while they’re doing all that staring; what would I think about, if I had that much time to think? Would I solve world hunger or discover the path to enlightenment?
“They’re probably just thinking about the weather. Or their chickens, or their pregnant neighbor,” says Hallie.
Cynical, yes, but probably true. The people of Milla Siete don’t usually get past an eighth grade education, and the girls tend to start having babies by age 15. They are farmers by trade with an unfortunate, though not entirely unfounded, reputation for laziness. Nevertheless, it is their way of life and though it drives Hallie crazy sometimes, she has come to love “her people”.
When I met another of the Peace Corps volunteers, I asked her what the new tattoo on her back said. It was a simple line of script in a language I didn’t recognize.
“It’s a saying in my tribe’s language,” she explained. “It means ‘People are good’, like inherently good.”
I like that. These days, when it seems so much is going wrong in the world, when the news only focuses on the negative and the few evil people out there seem to hog the spotlight, it can be easy to forget that people really are good.
The Peace Corps volunteers are good, for volunteering themselves to try to better someone else’s lives; the people of Mila Siete are good for simply living their lives in a peaceful manner, for focusing on only the basic tenants of life and not desiring a wealth of material things. Their way of life may seem so different, so inconceivable to us, but in the end we are all the same, all trying to live a decent life, all just trying to be good.
I only spent a day in Hallie’s site, but it was a window into another world that provided a perspective I had been craving: a contentment with simplicity that I thought had all but disappeared on this planet.
While, admittedly, it’s not a lifestyle I think I could adopt at this point in my life, I admire and appreciate that it exists. The experience reminded me of one of my favorite quotes by Anne Frank:
“We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different, and yet the same.”
It is for this reason that I travel, and that I write; to remind myself of the essence of humanity and keep a healthy perspective on life, and to share my realizations with others in the hopes that, as idealistic as it sounds, the world might be a little better for it.
What simple things bring you happiness and contentment in this world?