March 20th, 2015
My tire slips a little in the mud underneath my wet feet standing on metal foot pegs but I keep my balance. I try to wipe my visor with my soaking glove and only manage to smear water across the scratched and permanently dirty helmet windshield. I’m trying to spot the bench made out of recycled plastic bottles which marks the entrance to the ecovillage. Between dodging rocks, keeping the motorcycle upright in the muddy road and looking through a layer of foggy glasses and dirty smeared visor, I can’t be sure if I’ve already passed it.
I keep going just as the rain does until the recycled bench finally appears. There’s no entrance gate to the village, just a steep driveway of slippery rocks that I carefully manoeuver down. I park the bike in a flat grass area below and quickly put a tarp over it to protect the exposed padding of the seat. I haven’t bothered to get it fixed despite suggestions by multiple people I’ve met on the road this last year who have taken personal interest in me getting it reupholstered.
Now with the bike covered up I look around to find the same comfort for myself. I head up a stone path toward a large circular open air kiosk with corrugated roofing and vines hanging over the edge, acting as thin walls. The improvised wall of vines partially blocks the view of a group of people standing underneath the tin ceiling.
It’s been a few days since I’ve actually talked with anybody other than food vendors or gas station attendants. I don’t particularly feel in the mood to make new friends but I do my best to mentally prepare for all the pressures and joys of community in these days to come.
I heard about this place called the Ecoaldea Feliz, or Happy Ecovillage, near the last small town I was staying in so I decided to come check it out. I was given an email of one of the residents here and through online communication was told I’d be very welcome to either visit or volunteer some days in exchange for food and a place to put my tent.
I’m not sure exactly what to expect from this place but the name Happy Ecovillage has given me some clues as to how it might be. I have spent some time in different environmentally conscious, intentional, hippy communities in the past and those memories are painting a projected image of what the experience might be like. I decided in my email to go for the latter choice of volunteering for some days. I get to the top of the hill in front of the kiosk and take the step into another little world.
I arrive at the edge of the kiosk and stand underneath the roof just enough to be out of the rain yet also out of the center of attention. Underneath the kiosk’s roof is a large circular cemented space with a colorful mandala painted in the center of the floor. One large table fit for 20 to 30 people stretches across one side of the space. There is a group of about 10 obviously foreign people listening as a beautiful Colombian lady in typical flowing hippy garb who most likely lives here speaks to them in a tour-guide’s English.
They are grouped around what seems to be the dish washing area on the opposite side of the dining table while the lady is explaining the process in which dishes are washed to use the least amount of water. A few in the group seem to be fascinated with the water-saving process and that the soap is made here on the property.
“Oh my god I looove this soap, it’s so natural, only made with sugar oil and bicarbonate!” I overhear one girl from the group exclaim to her friend in an accent very familiar to me. I notice she said the word “bicarbonate” in a lower and less excited tone than every other word in her sentence.
I have no idea what bicarbonate is or if it’s considered natural, or what being natural even means and I have the feeling she doesn’t know what the stuff is either. I imagine the four syllable chemical compound has slightly tainted her romantic image of the ecovillage but seemingly not enough to affect her positive emotions attached to the image of the place.
The dishwashing tour ends and the hippy lady announces that lunch will be in one hour. She suggests that everyone take the time to explore the grounds in the meantime. The crowd clears, I snap out of observer mode and approach her to introduce myself. I am met with a massive smile and a name; Camila. I explain that I’ve come to volunteer a few days and she excitedly brings me inside the kitchen adjacent to the kiosk and in an overly-welcoming manner. She introduces me to a few of the residents here at the ecovillage who are preparing the lunch.
I’m greeted by everyone in a manner almost as friendly as Camila’s and feel a bit more at ease that some ice has broken and the anticipation of having to meet new people is past. A man named Dario asks me if I’d like to help prepare food and I gladly accept the task to ease the getting-to-know-one-another stage.
I sit down at a wooden table with a lady named Yoluka to chop carrots and start making small talk. I ask her if the carrots are grown here at the ecovillage and she answers “no” with some visible shame in her expression, but adds that some lettuce is indeed grown here. I may be one of the only people here who is not let down by this point. I don’t really care personally, I was just trying to be flattering since I was sure the answer would be “yes”, and that food grown here would be a point of pride, being that this is an ecovillage, which I thought would imply some level of self-sustainability.
I sort of shrug and smile to let her know I’m not disappointed and quickly ask her about herself to change the subject. We exchange stories and she is excited to hear about my story of traveling through Latin America on a motorcycle. She looks at me like I’m as cool as Che Guevara and it makes me feel good. Another part of me feels empty about feeling good because I know she really just finds the image of what I’m doing cool but doesn’t really know me.
I guess being the image of a free spirit is a cool thing and maybe I shouldn’t shrug it off as I often do but I’m scared of letting things get to my head because I know myself. I try to move along from the subject of motorcycles as I tend to do when people get too excited about it. I don’t want the overly-positive surface attention right now.
I stop cutting for a second and massage my chopping hand.
“Hurts from cutting the carrots huh?” Yoluka asks me. “You should cut with your other hand. Being ambidextrous is great for the brain!” She informs me.
“Ya good idea” I respond.
“That’s why I play music, to exercise both parts of my brain!” She happily tells me.
“Oh, that’s good.” I say. “Is that your ukulele in that case?” I ask her pointing to the little black instrument case laying beside her.
“Oh yes! do you play too?”
“Uh, ya, actually. I brought a ukelele.”
“A dios mío, I love you!” she can’t control her excitement or her smile that cannot possibly stretch any further.
I hear myself telling her not to judge me for something as superficial as a hobby and she looks quite taken aback but her smile forcibly remains. I immediately feel bad for allowing the overload of positivity to be taken badly by me and then taken out on her and try to make it up with a lukewarm smile.
The fact that my spanish is less than perfect helps ease what sometimes can pass as a miscommunication. Every now and then I am thankful for the ambiguity cushion of second languageness.
We finish our chopping and dissecting of the less-than-local carrots and I go to the dishwashing area to try out the bicarbonate soap on the kitchen utensils. A few minutes later the conch shell is blown by one of the chefs to announce lunch and a couple of minutes later arrive the group of American tourists.
I watch them crowd around in the buffet table while one of the residents talks about the food. I catch the sight of one particular guy who is just staring blankly at the food and it doesn’t seem like he’s even paying attention to what she’s saying about it. I wonder to myself why this large group of American college students is here. I wonder what I’m doing here myself and my thought process gets interrupted by an invitation to hold hands in a circle around the meal before it gets served.
Camila, the tall flowing lady, gives thanks for the food and for the family we are all sharing it with in an almost perfect English. She finishes and just when people are about to let go of their partner’s hand, Yoluka quickly announces that she wants to sing a song and that she wants us all to sing along.
She begins leading the group with a song about thanks. I’m surprised she can even hold a note with the size of smile stretching across her face. I’m almost certain the melody of the song, which, based on the only lyrics, is probably called “Thank you for life”, comes from a children’s nursery rhyme but is sung in an even more joyous and cheesy manner than the average child could accomplish.
I look around and see some of the more enthusiastic of the group chiming in and doing their best to pronounce the few spanish words. The hungry bored dude in the group seems uninterested in the song. Yoluka’s excitement makes up for the less enthusiastic of the crowd creating balance within the group, if such things can work in that way.
The circle breaks, everyone lines up to load their plates and the overall group of people perfectly and naturally segregate into two subgroups; the residents and the group of American tourists. I don’t feel I belong to either but I decide to join my fellow patriots, seeing that we are all guests here. I find the only available seat next to hungry bored dude and across from bicarbonate girl. I ask in my California accent if the seat is taken and one of the more enthusiastic girls who did her best to sing along in spanish earlier answered. “¡Sí!”.
“Thank you” I respond back without a trace of foreignness to my English.
“De dónde eres?” She makes her best attempt at a Colombian accent.
“Soy de los Estados Unidos” I tell her in spanish that I’m from the U.S.. She looks confused so I say “California”. Half disappointed to not be able to practice her spanish with whom she hoped was a somehow white local and half relieved to not have to try to speak spanish, she begins chatting with me, hitting me with all the standard one-traveler-to-another questions. Once again, I get the usual and shock and awe for riding a motorcycle through Latin America.
“How did you cross the Panama Canal?” another girl across from me dubiously asks. I get this question all the time, my story gets doubted not because it is such a far distance to drive or because they believe it is dangerous but because so many people believe the Panama Canal simply cannot be crossed.
“There’s a bridge. The canal is just the size of any other major river.” I politely explain, half understanding that there is no reason one should know that fact and half surprised that hardly anyone would assume there would be an impassable canal dividing the center of a country.
My level of enthusiasm about my motorcycle journey doesn’t seem to match theirs and the girls pick up on my lack of willingness to talk about it. They begin to talk among themselves and I am half relieved to not be the center of attention and half disappointed to not be the center of attention.
The dude with the blank stare on my left hand side is the only one not partaking in any conversation so I begin to chat with him and ask him his name; Jakob he tells me. I ask him about their trip and learn that they are traveling as a group of ten through a program at their university in Connecticut to show an alternative side of Colombian culture. Whenever I see people in group tours, I think how horrible of a way to travel that must be because you easily get stuck to prearranged plans and to hanging out only with those from your group.
After thinking about it a second, I concede to Jakob that it seems like a really great way to spend a spring break. Maybe it is was Jakob’s humble way of being that inspired me to recognize that there is no right or wrong way about traveling and to admit that out loud. He tells me that they linked up with local NGO’s to visit troubled areas of the cities and learn about the conflicts going on.
I feel slightly ashamed for thinking for a second how dumb it was that they are traveling as such a big group and that everything is pre-programmed. I realize I’m so quick to criticize others because I look at my own trip as a privileged luxury with no way of justifying it even if I did work for some years to save up for it. So when I see a group of Americans from a private east coast university being bussed around Colombia and staying in nice hotels, deep down, I dislike them for their privilege and try to separate myself from them, feeling uncomfortably too similar.
“How did it make you feel to be in those impoverished urban areas?” I ask Jakob.
“It’s intense. I felt guilty.” He replies in a sullen and meek manner.
“What makes you feel guilty about it?” I ask, identifying with the very feeling he is referring to.
“I dunno, I guess that its unfair that they are struggling to survive and I am on vacation staying in a nice hotel and have a home to go back to in the States.”
“I understand, I feel the same way sometimes.” I let him know. “And do you feel that this guilt is helpful?” I ask.
“Um. I guess I never thought about the guilt being helpful or not.” He responds slowly. He doesn’t say anything else and we both sit in silence for a second until I feel compelled to speak.
“I ask myself what the purpose of this guilt is too, especially when I don’t find myself doing anything proactively about the situation that is making me feel guilty.” I begin telling him. “When I think about the way things are in the world and see these differences in access to resources, education and wealth highlighted right in front of me, it becomes blindingly clear how unfair it is. Businessmen and politicians from our country have been coming to these lands we are currently traveling through for hundreds of years extracting resources and becoming rich at the expense of others. Just by living in the States I’ve received the indirect benefits of the actions of those fellow Americans before me and have been lifted up by the suffering of others. Just by living, breathing, wearing clothes, eating food and enjoying the fruits of the developed western world, I’m indirectly causing the suffering of less fortunate people elsewhere. I could go live in the forest by myself to not support “the system” or I could dedicate myself to activism so that I could justify the suffering I indirectly cause by balancing it out with actions of good. Both of those paths are equally intimidating as they are admirable but I unfortunately have to admit that despite those feelings of guilt I don’t find myself going down either path. I can’t see any good in feeling guilty all the while if my guilt isn’t turning into direct actions.”
I pause for a second realizing that I’m ranting but Jakob’s face is attentive and his expression tells me to continue. So I do…
“I once heard somebody say that ‘the way to world peace is by first taking care of your piece of the world’. Starting with yourself, making sure that you are at least happy, which is already a big enough feat to accomplish considering how messed up the human brain can be. The next step is to treat others in your immediate world well, to make your little piece of the world a more beautiful one, to fix your own life and your own little world before you go trying to fix other’s worlds. I’ve accepted that my very existence is causing suffering to people, animals and the environment and the very least I can do is make sure those sacrifices will have been worth it, if such a justification can exist. I don’t really know what ‘being worth it’ can actually mean, but what a slap in the face it would be to those who have suffered, to complain or be unhappy after receiving all these benefits just for being born in the States, being given opportunities that others only dream of.”
I look at Jakob. “I never thought of it that way.” He says pensively.
“Ya, I mean sometimes I feel like a big jerk for leisurely riding my motorcycle around these places where no matter how hard one of these locals works, they’ll never have the luxury of doing the same vice versa’d trip in my country. But just because it is unfair doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. I don’t know if it would be better to stay at home. It’s meeting these very people that is making me more aware of the unfairness and in turn making me realize how lucky I am. This experience is making me realize how much of a responsibility it is for me to at least be happy. I would like to be a mother Theresa or Gandhi but I’m simply not, nor would I expect the majority of people to be, but being happy is a challenge enough, as well as making others happy around you. Maybe this is all just my justification for not allowing a guilt to overcome me or becoming a force to change the world…?”
“No, no, I think it makes a lot of sense.” Jakob protests.
“Maybe. Sometimes I feel like a big scumbag for not fixing the problems of the world but I feel the least I can do is treat people kindly in my immediate world and try to make better and better daily decisions while I continue to learn. I’m just consuming gas and food and plastics and unknowingly supporting corporations that mistreat humans and animals and environments. It’s all just so overwhelming to think about…”
Jakob gives me some sincere look of understanding and we finish eating our vegetarian lunch of transported food in silence, masticating the idea of peaceful world pieces and fruitless guilt. I squish my feet against the ground and feel water sloshing around in my supposedly waterproof boots. I feel lucky to be here right now eating a nice meal with a group of friendly people.
It’s crazy how much water the soles of these shoes hold, they’re like sponges. I’ll wear my other shoes tomorrow. But then they’ll probably get wet too. Maybe I’ll have wet feet for my whole stay here. Oh well…
“And the direction of East represents our logical side, while the West represents our emotional side…”
I got lost again but I’m back on track now. Yes, emotional side, west… Dario has been talking for a long time in an airy spanish about the belief system that seems to be most widely accepted and engrained here in the village. Everything he is telling me is so interesting that each idea deserves its own train to head down a tangent line which I keep riding and having to return on.
“And North is our thoughts manifested into actions, while the Center is the relationship between all the directions of the compass.”
Dang it! I missed what south was. I’ve already asked him to repeat himself a good few times now. I’ll just let this one go, another factoid of conversation lost in the southern winds.
“And all these directions are where we look to for guidance, for problem solving, for keeping us in the present.” Dario’s whole face smiles as he looks me warmly in the eyes. His stretched cheeks have about a five-day beard, that balances out the lack of hair on his balding head. He seems more youthful than the average person in their forties.
“And, do…do you all share these beliefs here at the village?” Dario patiently listens as I slowly form the sentence in spanish.
“Well, this is a free place for anyone to believe whatever they want. You don’t have to share beliefs to be a part of the community.”
“I like that” I reassure Dario.
“Sí, it is a beautiful place to be, to connect with nature, to be present, to share relationships, to share with a fellow being like you.” Dario is good at making me feel welcome. I smile.
“And may I ask something?” He is a fast talker, so for me to be able to form a full sentence I need to announce that I’m going to ask something to not have to compete with speed.
Dario is almost taken aback for me feeling the need to have to ask permission and insists “Of course!”
“Well, what about when two people’s beliefs are so different that they collide?” I slowly ask.
“Ahh… that is why the most important direction is the center; balance, relationships, letting go of the ego and seeing the issue through together.” He tells me through his smile.
“And what if one person is not willing to let go of their ego and they don’t care about having a relationship?” I ask.
“Well, I believe we create the reality we live in. There is a reason that you don’t see war or drug abuse or violence here. I left the city, television, the news and other negative influences behind so that I wouldn’t think about them and allow them to manifest into my reality. This is a special space and it attracts what it wants to attract.”
“I believe we create our own realities too.” I tell him. He smiles and seems happy that we share a belief. “But I also believe there is a limit to it, a range. I believe I found this place because deep down I wanted to, and the world works in a magical way. But at the same time, if I was on a plane which was crashing toward the earth, I don’t think that however hard I prayed or intended, I wouldn’t be able to create the reality of survival.” He listens patiently as I slowly choose each word.
“That is because deep down, as you are crashing toward the earth, you don’t truly believe you will survive.” He says calmly.
“So if you believe you will survive, and truly believe it, then you’ll survive?” I ask incredulously.
“Yes, but that would never happen.” He replies.
“Oh.” I don’t know what else to say.
I look around and realize how beautiful the open-air dwelling is that we are sitting in. A tall A-framed roof supported by bamboo posts and draped with a ceiling of old reused plastic banners from grand openings of stores and outdated deals. There is a workshop and tool shed with tons of wood lying around. Dario and I are sitting on worn-out antique furniture on top of a carpeted platform. It curiously seems like the setting of play and we are in some abstract theater piece.
“I’m going to offer you a medicine that will open your pores and wake you up, give energy to the brain.” Dario reaches in his hand-woven wool bag and pulls out a jar containing a dark powder. “It comes from the tobacco plant, a powerful spirit plant, with great healing powers.” He takes out the powder on a little spoon, holds it up to his nose, mutters an inaudible prayer and snorts the tobacco hard through his nasal cavity. His face looks like mine when I reluctantly take shots of alcohol in pressurized social situations. His eyes begin to water as he reloads the little spoon with the spirit powder. Another good snuff and a quick shake of the head.
“Here” He coughs out as he presents me with the jar and spoon.
“Oh no, I’m fine thanks, I don’t feel sick.” I refuse the offer kindly.
“Oh, its ok, you don’t have to be sick, this is preventative too and just has overall healing powers” He defends the case for the tobacco powder.
“Well, I don’t know, it’s just another substance I don’t need.” I tell him.
“I respect your choice. Everybody chooses their own reality.” He pulls the jar back toward him and loads another spoonful for a final snuff.
I hear the conch shell sound in the distance announcing that dinner is ready. I feel bad because I meant to help out but got caught up in conversation.
“Oh, I should’ve helped out with dinner” I confess to Dario.
“Ahh… that word ‘should’. Hmm… That is something I have eliminated from my vocabulary while being here.” He tells me with a slight smugness. I wonder to myself if he’s on the lookout for this word so he can tell others not to use it.
“Oh, well I guess it’s not a good word to use.” I concede.
“Indeed, it takes us away from the present moment, getting stuck in the past or future.” He adds. “I should’ve done this, shouldn’t have done that. It serves no purpose.”
“Ya, but I guess, the reason I said it was so that next time I’ll remember.” I try to justify my use of the word “should”.
“That is being stuck in the future my friend, the only moment that exists is now. And it is dinner time now, so let’s go eat.”
The warmth of his smile nudges me back in the present moment as I let go of shoulding the “should” and realize I’m hungry.
“I don’t like the word ‘economía’ (economy), it’s too inherently selfish. I prefer ecosínuestra.” Yoluka explains as Camila and I listen over our plates of food at the dinner table.
“No entiendo.” I admit I don’t understand what Yoluka is talking about.
“Well, instead of the ‘no’ in ecoNOmía, which brings a negativity to the word, I use ‘Sí’. And instead of ‘mía’ (my), which is selfish, I use ‘nuestra’ (we) which is more inclusive. Eco-sí-nuestra (Eco-yes-we).”
“Oh, that’s kind of cool.” I admit. I like playing with words and mixing them about.
“Yes, economy is just such a harsh and dominating word, it makes sense that it comes from the English language” Camila comments.
“Really, the word ‘economy’ comes from the English language?” I try to hide the disbelief in my tone.
“Yes, your language is the first to even come up with the concept of economics.” This is the first time I’ve seen Yoluka without a smile since I met her. She seems a bit upset about fact that economics exist and I’m trying not to take it personally that my native tongue evokes such an emotion in her. “The idea of economics didn’t even exist in indigenous cultures here before English and your country forced it upon them.” Yoluka’s bony finger is suddenly pointing at me inches from my face.
Her confidence makes me doubt my definition of ‘economy’, I always just thought it generally meant the whole system of trade of goods and services. I imagine that every culture in history partook in some similar activity and just had their own word to describe it. Besides, its hard for me to believe that the word economy is not older than the English language. I have no idea if it is or not but I choose not to inquire further as it is obvious that both of these ladies have some deeper resentment of my native language and just by opening my mouth I seem to be causing offense.
“Oh I never knew that.” I softly reply.
I feel lonely in this place. Camila and Yoluka begin chatting to each other about how good of friends they are and giggle about some inside joke I don’t get. Camila shifts her body over slightly to subtly exclude me from their conversation. I shift away awkwardly to respond to her nonverbal message. Part of me is relieved to not be part of the conversation and part of me is sad to not be part of the conversation.
I finish my plate and clean off the residue at the dishwashing station in silence. It’s too early to retire to my tent and I know I’ll just try to read under the dim dying battery of my headlamp, allow my thoughts to distract, then toss and turn in my moist sleeping bag for some hours.
I dry my dish and walk around the kiosk pretending to be interested in photos on the wall and little spiritual trinkets lying around. On the large communal table are a few exclusive subgroups of chatters in their own little worlds.
I walk over to the wooden marimba on the opposite side of the kiosk and wonder if I need some special permission to play it. I look back to the little groups of fat chewers and decide to just go ahead. I pick up the mallets and timidly hit one of the wooden bars. A beautiful single tone rings from underneath my hands. I wonder if this will bother anyone. I try a different note and just the simple interval between one note and another is enough to evoke and amplify deeper emotions within me.
I slowly begin to explore the sonar world of these resonating pieces of wood and eventually make my escape from the less-than-sensitive world around me. I can express my emotions more precisely through these mallets than trying to form sentences to the living emoji smiley faces at the table.
The clamor of subgroups gathering dishes knocks on my periphery but I don’t answer. The harmony is affected but the influence only passes through and moves along. Peripheral sounds fade and time takes a break to listen to the wooden stick orchestra.
Another influence enters my periphery but this time occupying my visual range in front of me. Yoluka approaches, visibly concentrated on the music. I look her in the eyes and welcome her without stopping the playing. She picks up an unused mallet from the table and slowly begins a wordless conversation. I simplify my vocabulary to allow her space to express and we grow from there. We exchange feelings and ideas we hadn’t hitherto been able to express to one another and it feels good to be heard. The conversation takes its natural course and concludes with a sense of closure.
I enjoy the two seconds of silent residue left in the wake of the music before Yoluka lets out an enthusiastic “Que bonita!” Beaming at me. I smile back and agree that it was indeed beautiful. I thank her sincerely for sharing that communication with me and feel lighter.
“Que bueno, I will go for my ukulele.” She excitedly tells me.
“Sería bueno” I reply that it would be great.
A half an hour later I find myself sitting in a circle of music; guitars, ukulele and percussion. Yoluka is leading the group with songs about happiness, love and corn. She moves her entire body with every strum of the small poorly tuned ukulele. Her nasal voice is as out of pitch as it is happy. Her smile is constant, unwavering, penetrating the ambience of the kiosk. Her head exaggeratedly rocks back and forth at her own rhythm as she sings about how much she loves corn in a preschoolish melody. I accompany her with chords and melodies on a borrowed guitar. I don’t think I would be able to bear the smiley nursery rhymes about corny happiness so long if I didn’t have an active participation. I’m happy to just focus on creating interesting accompanying melodies within the limitations of the two repeating chords she’s playing in her loose rhythm.
The small crowd applauds and Yoluka is ecstatic. Her happiness is contagious and I can’t help but to crack a smile too. Before she begins the next song I politely ask if I can tune to her, trying not to kill the moment with my scrupulous attention to pitch that nobody else seems to notice or be bothered by.
“Oh of course!” She doesn’t seem to be bothered by the interruption. “Here, I have a tuner. But I tune to 423 hz!” She pulls out a little plastic electronic tuner and hands it over to me.
“423 hz?” I ask. I know that what she is referring to is that in western music, the note “A” or “La” is standardized at 440 hz, which is the measure of the tone in frequency or wavelengths. I am just wondering why she would change the standard of the frequency down 17 hz.
“423 hz is more resonant with our true nature” she matter-of-factly announces.
“OK, sure” I have no reason to argue that point even though I believe staying on pitch and/or a nice melody will probably do more for my true nature than 17 hz difference of frequency.
Despite the out-of-pitch corniness of the evening I feel so thankful to be in a social setting of new people as well as thankful to be hidden from these very people behind a wall of sound. The tones and timbres are the safe buffer protecting my fragility and sensitivity in this moment.
I’m happy to find myself in a kinder world of music and I think to myself that maybe Dario was right about us creating our own realities. I like to believe that at least. The thought comforts me to a tranquil and humid sleep in my sticky tent.
“Aaahhh…” The sound of several voices do their best to create a unison of pitch thrown off by just a couple of girls in the group. I know exactly who they are and for the fun of it I am trying to figure out how different the interval is that they are chanting in.
I’m looking right at one of the girls from just a couple feet away but her eyes are closed. Everyone’s eyes are closed in the group. The only reason I know this is because mine are not. That is not the only aspect that differentiates me from them in this moment. Everybody’s arms are extended, palms open, facing the roaring river before us. My hand is occupied holding the audio recorder which is capturing and at the same time indirectly tainting the purity of this moment. I choose not to “Aaahhh” along with the crowd because I know I’m being recorded and don’t want to hear my voice later.
I watch the girl’s face slightly cringe in a flex of purposeful intention. I also may be alone in this crowd as far as where my thoughts lie. Everyone here is focusing their concentration toward the healing of the rushing water and I’m just thinking about recording the moment on this controversial electronic device in my hand.
I’m enjoying the temporary privacy of everybody’s eyes being closed right now. I feel like I’m a kid again in church. I would always look around at people’s faces while the whole congregation recited prayers in unison. I never understood why everybody had to recite the same difficult-to-understand prayers in a language unfamiliar to those praying or why it had to be done at the same time.
It’s so nice to be able to look right in a stranger’s face without the repercussions of being looked back at. It’s a small crowd of about 15 people of all ages from the small town we are in and surrounding farms, including the ecovillage. We are all standing in a semicircle on this bridge facing the roaring river.
Today is International Water Day and we have descended from the Ecovillage to partake in the ceremony of water healing in the local town. Some of the locals who, like me, have never heard of this holiday have stopped by to watch the spectacle.
I take advantage of the fact that nobody is looking and reach my phone over the heads of the healers and snap some photos. I wonder if anybody will be offended if they happen to open their eyes and see a random gringo taking photos of this sacred happening. In this moment, taking a picture is more important to me than pretending to be solemn and sacred about the water. I find the scene beautiful and feel compelled to capture it.
It’s beautiful to see a group of fellow humans huddled together with a common intention of sending healing energy to water. I respect the intention but I can’t get myself to do it. Afterwards there is going to be a group effort of cleaning trash by the embankments and I will wait to partake in that part of the ceremony.
While the aaaahhing continues, I slowly back away from the group and walk over to the side of the river so I can get a picture facing everyone. I catch sight of the forcibly shut eyes of one of the volunteers from the ecovillage who arrived yesterday from the city with his girlfriend. This is also his first time to partake in a group ceremony of sending healing energy to water and he is playing the part well.
His hands are outstretched like a zombie with an expression of forced sincerity. He loves the aesthetic of the eco-friendly world and of ancient native rituals and it seems that his girlfriend does too. I can’t tell if he’s trying to impress her or her him or both impressing each other with their serious sincerity and sensitivity to mother nature.
Watching the overly sincere impressive zombie couple makes me feel thankful to be free. I’ve succumb too many times to partaking in socially pressured cultural rituals that seem in the moment to be the “right” or “cool” thing to do. From trying to chase the coolest in fashion, to spiking my hair, watching this TV show, bullying on some poor kid singled out by the “cool” group, going to this concert, reading that book, playing this sport, not hanging out with those people, rejecting these popular beliefs, accepting those less popular beliefs, pursuing this girl, rejecting that girl, being cool, being holy, listening to this guru, laughing at that one, being the self I’m told to be, rejecting the self I thought was me, loving the right things to be loved, hating the right things to not be hated.
My mind wanders to the last time I remember being in one of those moments. It was only last night and zombie boy himself happens to be involved…
. . .
Dinner is over and everybody is planning on heading over to one of the ecohouses to watch a Hollywood action film after our hard day of work. I’m planning on taking advantage of the fact that my camper neighbors will be occupied for a couple of hours so I can play guitar in my tent. As everybody is getting ready to go over to the house I say good night and tell them to enjoy the movie. For some reason this elicits a strong reaction in the new volunteer that arrived today.
“Wait, why aren’t you coming with us?” He asks, half surprised and half pitifully.
“Oh, I kind of just want to be alone for a while.” I watch his face get really concerned and sincere.
“Man, why don’t you just come with us?” He doesn’t make any selling point, he just asks the same question but with a very inviting tone.
“I like movies and all, I guess sometimes I just wanna be alone.”
“Alone? What are you going to do? Just come on!” I just barely met this guy today and he is talking to me with the regard of a good friend sincerely concerned with my well being. I don’t want to tell him that I am wanting to play guitar in fear that he might insist that I share a song tomorrow. He seems to be the kind of guy that would be an over-insister.
“I don’t know, I was just gonna hang out in my tent…” The answer is obviously not sufficient so he just puts his hand on my shoulder and slightly nudges me in the direction that he and his girlfriend and a couple other people from the group begin walking in. The next thing I know I find myself walking down the muddy trail through the foggy moist night toward the ecological movie theater. Bitten by the zombie, my sloshy wet feet find themselves walking in a single file line behind the group, being pulled by an invisible taut thread.
We arrive at the beautiful house of one of the residents of the village that lives and works in the city but comes here every once in a while, apparently to watch blockbuster films. I feel a bit uncomfortable stepping into his home considering that in the past two days of seeing him around the property, the stylishly dressed hip subgrouper from the innest of in-crowds here has never said a word to me. We step inside the dark house.
The movie has already begun and everybody looks cozy in their prime front-row seating. We disturb the coziness of the setting by our rackety entrance. I see Camila’s visibly annoyed face look over at me, the last to enter. She probably thinks I’ve been dying to get a fill of culture from my own country, in my own greedy language, not being able to handle the less than comfortable farm life. She knows that she can live without movies, explosions and stars because she is a resident of the village and probably resents the attachment she assumes I must have to western popular culture.
I find a seat closest to the door with the intention of a quick escape and settle down to watch the movie. A really good looking bartender is flipping bottles in the air and saying the coolest lines to some lady that responds with perfectly entertaining dialogue.
A few minutes in I realize that one of the dogs from the property had followed us in to the warm house feeling his wet nose nudging at me. I pet him and he lets out a little howl of attention seeking or hunger. Immediately there is some commotion on the other side of the room and I hear “what is the dog doing in here?”.
I ask from the side shadows toward the crowd if the dog is allowed in here and Camila looks at me, bereft of smile, and plainly says “no”. Without saying a word I use the opportunity to make my escape and take the dog outside. I feel bad for the little guy for being rejected and somehow feel I’m taking a part of the burden. In the cold outside air, I give the dog an extended hug outside the door of the beautiful home and invite him to walk with me back to the camp area. My squishy feet slip and slide up the steep muddy trail back toward my safe haven. I’m being pulled by the loose invisible thread of a dog’s non-judgemental and unconditional love to a complete stranger.
. . .
My feet are crusty and dry. I’m crouched down beside the river feeling the hot sun against the nape of my neck. I snap a photo. Stationary, chanting zombies with closed eyes make for good photo subjects. I look at my phone to see how the picture came out and suddenly notice that Camila is in it. She wasn’t here earlier. I look up to the real life image and see her extra dressed up in her day smile and flowing beauty.
She cheats for a second and opens her eyes, catching mine. I suddenly feel vulnerable and realize that once everybody opens their eyes I will be right in their line of vision. I sort of hide the phone and smile back at her. I feel judgement coursing through my body. I slowly get up and walk down to hide myself in the protection of shade underneath some trees on the river bank.
I can still hear the “Aaahhhing” faintly over the rushing water. The heat is off my back, I feel free and cool here. I watch the speeding water and think about my life. In a moment, I feel a rush of happiness coarse through me, cleaning out the judgements. My ritual is solo and simple but it has meaning to me. This shaded embankment is my sanctuary, my holy ground and my thoughts are my prayers. My future, past and other selves are my congregation. Scriptures and dogmas change and adapt to each new little world, to each new human drama, to each arrival and flight of spirits.
The cessation of chanting interrupts my prayers and my inner mass concludes so I can rejoin the walking train of fellow ecovillagers back up the mountain. I get back up to the bridge as everybody is hugging sincerely and catching up. I stand on the shady sidelines waiting for the train of beings to depart. I could just go now, alone, but I realize I actually would like a congregation greater than my selves. Sometimes I do want to add new priests to the order and new scriptures to the religious drama as long as it’s on my terms.
I’m back in another abstract theatrical dialogue sitting on worn out antique furniture atop the carpeted stage. The recycled shop banners above are protecting our heads from the heavy rainfall. My feet are wet but not soggy inside the aired-out rubber clogs lent to me by one of the kind residents. I look out of the workshop, through the vertical river of rain to the grass area where my tent is set up and think about the water that is probably entering through the canvas flooring.
“This place is an energetic vortex which attracts just what it needs to attract and nothing more.” Once again I’m receiving the ecovillage welcoming lecture but by somebody else today. Fabio’s worn hands make wide gestures that complement his impassioned speech. His wrinkled and bearded face make exaggerated gestures. He looks angry and ecstatic at the same time.
“That is why you don’t see a gate here. It is open for everybody. Every person with any belief is welcome as a fellow brother or sister among us.” Somehow the speech is not as powerful hearing it for the second time even if it is delivered by a different lecturer of the village, the eldest in this case.
“We all come from the same beginnings, when reptoids landed on this planet and evolved into the beings we are today.”
I have heard Fabio talking about alien reptoids in other conversations in these last days and it is hard for me to tell if it is some metaphor for something else or if he actually believes we are alien reptoids. I’m not even sure what a reptoid is but can only imagine it looking like a reptile.
“I’m not sure if I understand” I let Fabio know. “Are you referring to real reptoids?” I ask. Fabio looks confused as if that is an absurd thing to ask and I realize that my question was probably worded unusually in spanish because I asked if he was talking about “reptoidios reales” which actually means “royal reptoids” not “real reptoids”. Considering that we are already talking about some far out things, it is probably not too far-fetched for me to ask if the reptoids that came from outer space are royalty.
He gives me this look I get sometimes for my lack of ability to communicate clearly in spanish and sort of brushes the question off as he continues on about aliens, spiritual vortices, acceptance and natural organic oneness. During his speech he pulls out a pipe and loads some tobacco. He offers me a dose of nature and I politely refuse.
“Tobacco is actually very healing and powerful.” Fabio explains as he holds out the pipe in his rough pigmented hand that looks like it has aged 20 years more than its actually age.
“No, I’m OK thanks”
“That’s OK. It’s fine.” He shows me his palms in a defensive gesture. “I respect your decision. This stuff is only bad for you if you believe it is.” He defends the substance.
The conch sounds in the distance from the kiosk interrupting our conversation. I’m relieved to escape Act 2 of the growingly abstract dialogue happening on the little theater stage in the workshop.
“Shall we eat?” I suggest. Fabio looks a bit disappointed because he seems to have been about to unleash a rant on creating our own realities. I’m thankful to have created the reality of the conch shell and lunch.
Force Field Fissure
“It is a tradition of the native people of these lands to partake in this ceremony, so it is practiced and respected here.” Gabriel, one of the older, more veteran of the volunteers here, explains to me with a dramatic tone. He is telling me about a native custom adopted here at the ecovillage which entails being buried completely underground for 24 hours or longer with just a pipe in the ground to allow for air flow. The intention is ridding oneself of sensory input and being connected more closely with the Earth.
“One guy even did it as long as 36 hours” Gabriel adds the impressive factoid of feat by one particular honor-earner of the community.
“Wow, that’s crazy.” I truthfully respond. I’m glad this particular ritual is not included in my personal religion, it sounds horrible.
I take another bite of my quinoa vegetable soup. Everybody is having their own little conversation at the table and today, after being here for some days, I’m lucky enough to be a subgrouper as well. On a separate table on the other side of the kiosk I see Fabio sitting with a younger guy who just arrived today, most likely another volunteer. Fabio’s body language looks exasperated while the newbie is timidly cowering. Fabio eventually gets up and with a look of frustration, guides the newcomer to the serving table to get lunch.
“You’re from L.A. right?” Gabriel interrupts my quiet observation of the unusual interaction on the other side of the dining area.
“Uh, ya” I snap back into conversation mode.
“Oh man, I love Six Flags Magic Mountain. Have you ever been there?I used to have a season pass when I lived there and went all the time. The have the best roller coasters.”
“Uh, ya, it’s a pretty cool place, I’ve been there once a long time ago.” It’s funny to meet someone here that is familiar with one of the local amusement parks close to where I grew up.
“I would go when everybody was working and go right to the front of the lines. Did you know the superman ride is made to experience zero gravity?”
“Oh really?” I do my best to express interest but am probably not doing a good job. I don’t think Gabriel notices my bad acting skills, I can see that he loves talking about roller coasters as much as he does about fast cars, action movies and military jets. In these last days I’ve gotten snagged in Gabriel’s hook of far-fetched stories and rants about cool technology, pseudo spirituality, love of metal music, live burials and now roller coasters.
I take advantage in the first moment of pause to excuse myself and retire to the dishwashing station. The circular station has three sinks, one for soaking, one for soap and one for rinsing off the soap. I find the open spot at the bicarbonate soapy sink and become part of the chain of dish cleaners. The new guy approaches the station with his dirty dish and Patricia, one of the resident’s begins to explain how the process works.
She explains to him that he needs to first submerge his dirty plate and wipe off the crumbs and dirt before passing it onto the next station. He nods his head to acknowledge understanding, then proceeds to open the faucet of the wrong station and use brand new clean water to do the original rinse of his plate.
Immediately, Patricia scolds him for using clean water after her having just explained not to. His face looks a bit fearful and confused, then he visibly has a moment of understanding and reassures her that he gets it. He rinses his one plate and then hands it to the person manning the next sink and walks away, leaving room for somebody else to step into that part of the chain. I remain in my chain link until all the dishes are done as seems to be the normal procedure here.
I take advantage of the in between time after lunch and before work starts to use the wifi in the kiosk, loading pictures and checking mail. Daniel, one of the other volunteers with whom I’ve become closer to here, approaches and asks me to help him help the newcomer in setting up his tent down below. I wonder why somebody needs three people to set up a tent but of course agree to help.
We get down to the camping area and find the new guy standing beside a lifeless flat tent staring blankly. I walk over to him and introduce myself. “Yeison” he tells me his name, pronounced like “Jason”.
“Why does your accent sound funny?” he asks me. “Where are you from?”
“The United States” I tell him.
“HAHA!!!” He laughs and points at me. “Gringis” He calls me a derivative of the word Gringo, which is the Latin American slang term for anyone from the States or sometimes even Europe depending on who is using the word.
“Uh, yes, I’m a gringo” I confirm.
“HAHA!, I’ve never met a Gringo in real life” He tells me. “Hey how much is a ticket from the USA to here, you must have a lot of money.”
“Um, I’m not sure, I drove here.” I tell him.
“Drove here! But how can you drive across the ocean?” He incredulously asks, chuckling at me. I’m still surprised at how many people I’ve met on this trip and at home believe that the United States and South America are separated by an ocean. Whether its because of the Panama Canal, or this mysterious ocean, many people find it hard to believe I drove here.
“Well I put my bike on a boat” I tell him. I’m referring to the ferry between Panama and Colombia, which although is connected by land, is impassable due to dangerous geurrilla controlled jungle in an area called the Darien Gap. I don’t bother explaining that, although I did indeed take a boat, there is no ocean separating North and South America.
“Gringo loco!” He lets me know I’m a crazy American.
“I guess so… So what’s going on with the tent?” I change the subject.
“I don’t know, I didn’t bring the poles.” He looks at the flat canvas tent lying on the floor.
“Oh, OK, hmm… Let’s see what we can do.”
“I brought bamboo poles and some string” Daniel interjects.
“Oh, great.” Daniel and I both take a look and come up with a plan of how to rig up the tent while Yeison watches from the sidelines.
Daniel and I work out different strategies of nailing the poles into the ground and tying up the strings to support the boneless dwelling. In the meantime, Yeison bombards me with questions about Hollywood and Californian chicks. Every time I ask him to define some particular slang terminology he uses from his particular region of Colombia, he lets out a good laugh and makes fun of my Spanish.
Yeison’s bullying doesn’t bother me as much as I would think because it is pretty obvious to me that he is a bit slow. He is not mean, it just seems to be the way he knows how to communicate.
Daniel and I try to include Yeison on the project of setting up his poleless tent so we ask him to hammer the bamboo poles into the ground. He looks like a child holding the hammer and I’m afraid he’s going to smash a finger in the process. We are patient with him and encouraging.
Halfway through the project, Fabio approaches and sarcastically says that we are good Samaritans by helping out Yeison and implies that we should leave him to fix his own problems. Fabio turns to Yeison and tells him that it was his own responsibility to come prepared and we are not here to babysit. Yeison tries his best and makes a futile attempt to explain himself that is just interrupted by Fabio saying that he doesn’t want to hear it and walks away.
Daniel and I give each other a look of sympathy for Yeison. I try to help Yeison move on from the negative experience.
“Did you get that pole hammered nice and firm Yeison?” I ask him.
He answers yes while shaking the obviously loose pole.
“Here, let me see that” I reach my hand out for the hammer and with a couple good hits, drive the bamboo into the ground.
“So what made you want to come here to the Ecovillage?” I ask Yeison.
“My mom sent me here. She told me it’d be good for me.” He answers more quietly than he’s been this last hour. “Hey, do you have a pocket knife Gringis?” He suddenly changes to a more excited tone, seemingly just having thought of a great idea.
“Uh, ya, here” I pull out my knife from my belt and hand it to Yeison. He grabs it then crawls into the barely standing tent held up by our unfinished jerry-rigged support.
“What are you gonna do?” I ask, not sure giving him a knife was a good idea.
“Just watch, you can do anything with a pocket knife.” Yeison says confidently. “I was in the army!” He adds. I watch the shape of Yeison’s body through the tent walls and hear stabbing sounds in the floor of the tent. He reaches outside for one of the bamboo poles lying on the floor and erects it in the ground right in the center of the tent where he punctured the holes on the floor.
“You see” He comes out of the tent beaming. The tent behind him standing tall in the center and drooping down on all sides.
“Now there is no place for yourself to lie down.” Daniel tells Yeison. Yeison looks at the sorry excuse for a tent that now has a hole in the floor and seems perplexed.
“Don’t worry man, we’ll figure this out.” I reassure him and ask for the knife back. We spend the next hour or so rigging up the poles and a tarp for the heavy rain that is bound to come tonight. In the meantime, I get to know a bit about Yeison. I learn that he was kicked out of his high school for having problems with other students. Then he joined the Colombian army and was eventually kicked out as well. I feel for him and hope that he has better luck in this community of seemingly accepting and loving people.
“OK, I think we’re all done” I announce after tying the last knot. I feel proud of the improvised dwelling we rigged up, and happy to have helped someone in need.
“Here, let’s put your back pack inside” I suggest to Yeison.
He hands me his pack from the floor and it looks like an elementary school student’s colorful fun backpack with super hero figures on it. I see a book hanging out from the mesh side pocket and pull it out.
“You reading this right now?” I hold up the brightly colored Disney children’s book with Mickey Mouse on the front cover.
“Ya man, Disney is the shit.” I love those stories.” Yeison excitedly tells me.
“Cool” I say encouragingly.
The conch shell sounds in the distance announcing dinner and I’m surprised at how long we spent setting up, breaking down and setting up this tent.
“Great, just in time” Daniel says. “Shall we…”
We get to the top of the hill to the dining kiosk and see there is some commotion going on. Faces look worried and although dinner is ready, people are moving about. Julián, one of the residents comes over to me and asks for my help. He takes me over to a storage room and pulls out a stretcher.
“Whats the problem?” I ask
“Dario’s partner Lina is having issues with her pregnancy and she already had a miscarriage last year.” Julián lets me know as we navigate down the steep earthen steps toward Dario and Lina’s home by the river.
“Oh no, I hope she’s alright.” I don’t know what else to say.
We arrive at the house where a handful of people are standing around. I see Dario packing things with a worried face while one of the women is comforting Lina. He looks stressed out about the reality unfolding before him.
I stand outside and feel uncomfortable for being a newcomer volunteer in such an intimate space while a sensitive problem is underway. One of the other residents called Diego begins talking to me.
“I hope she’s OK” I say to him.
“Ya, I hope so too. It’s a beautiful house though huh?” He asks me.
“Uh, ya, very nice” I see Lina’s face in pain through the window.
“You should take advantage of the fact that everybody’s in there and go check out the house, it’s beautiful.”
“Oh, OK, well, ya, I can see, it looks beautiful from here.”
“Go ahead, go in there man.” He suggests.
I feel weird about the idea but find myself walking hesitantly toward the door. I arrive at the threshold and peek into the beautiful two and a half story wooden home with high ceilings, hardwood floors and a large glass window revealing a breathtaking view of the jungly mountains on the other side of the river. The woman comforting Lina looks up and gives me a look of unwelcomeness and I feel like an intruder. I don’t know why Diego insisted I check out the beauty of this building in such a sensitive time, nor why I listened to his suggestion. I back away from the sensitive scene and head toward the dinner area.
After serving my plate, I look for a seat at the main dining table but notice that Yeison is sitting alone at one of the smaller side tables. I join him knowing that probably nobody else here will. He immediately greets me with what sounds like some sort of insult that I don’t understand.
“Que?” I ask him.
“Haha, Gringis!” He laughs at me for once again not understanding and I just smile at him. I imagine he must come from a very machismo group of friends that communicate in insults and with hits on the back of the head, something I’ve received a couple times already since meeting Yeison.
I know all Yeison wants from me is first attention, and then friendship. I don’t necessarily appreciate his manner of going about achieving those things but I can’t blame him for coming from the society he comes from and giving into the pressures of how one should act. It’s too bad he is not quick at adapting, at realizing that this world we are in now is much different than the small town Colombian farming community that he comes from.
He keeps talking at me and I sort of zone out and think about Dario and Lina. I imagine this must be a scary moment for them and it is a long drive to a hospital from here. I’m also wondering why there were so many people, especially volunteers that hardly know Dario and Lina in their house gawking at the semi-natural luxury interior during a tense and scary moment. I wonder if Yeison is alone in his inability to adapt.
I notice that a handful of the others are getting up to get seconds. I look around and see plenty of leftover food at the serving station. I find myself getting hungry soon after meals of vegetable purées, salads and hard work days so I decide to join the others in a second serving.
I timidly walk over to the station and join the others in serving my second plate. Immediately I receive a metaphorical slap on the wrist by Nelly, one of the residents here. She looks accusingly at me and tells me I need to ask before having seconds. I’m taken back to my childhood for a second where I remember being shamed by one of the teachers at my elementary school for taking too much food. I had always felt insecure about eating more than all the other kids and they called me porky pig.
My cheeks flush red and I apologize and try to explain that I figured there was enough since everybody else was having their seconds. I ask her if I should put the food back and she grudgingly tells me to just keep it. I awkwardly walk back to the small table separated from the group and sit back down with Yeison and and eat my shameful seconds in silence.
As my cheeks slowly return to normal color, I think about why Nelly singled me out in the first place. Because I’m new and she wants to set an example? To establish a clear distinction of power? Who must ask whom for permission for supposedly communal things like food? The more I think of it, the more unfair it feels that I should be singled out for assuming that I have equal rights to have seconds as anyone else here. Or was I in the wrong for misunderstanding this idea of there being equality and no hierarchy in the community?
As I near the end of my plate, one of the residents, Juan Pablo, Camila’s partner, gets up to make an announcement. He lets everybody know that tonight, in the Cauzmul, which is the holy prayer area, shrine and sacred gathering spot of the village, there will be a ceremony to send healing energy toward Lina and her baby. Yeison seems clueless as to what Juan Pablo is referring to and I think it better to let it remain that way as I don’t see it being such a good idea that he interrupt a sensitive prayer function with inappropriate questions and laughter. I finish my plate of undeserved shame and clean.
. . .
Smoke slowly rises from the dimly lit fire and up along the massive tree trunk which is the center pole holding up the thatched circular roofing. The chimney hole is in the very center and the straw ceiling overhead joins with a circular wall of bamboo creating a circle around the dirt floored fire pit area.
We are all sitting on logs around the little fire watching and listening closely as Juan Pablo performs some sort of rehearsed ritual. The light from the flames dances upon his sincere and serious face as he mutters some unintelligible, most likely native pre Colombian incantations.
In his left hand he is swinging back and forth some neat little rustic contraption that smoke is billowing out from. It reminds me of the ball swung on a chain that priests in catholic churches use to swing around and spread the scent of incense throughout the congregation. In his right hand he is shaking around a loose shaker in an inconsistent rhythm.
I look around one by one at the group sitting around the fire. Everybody has their eyes closed, I know this because mine are not. A couple of the resident’s look very calm and meditative. Julietta, one of the new volunteers who finally just broke away from the grasps of her conservative, consumer, white-collar, contrahippy parents is flexing her face to look as sincere as possible. Her dyed purple hair falls on her neck that is encircled by an indigenous style necklace. Her multiple braceleted palms are facing toward the straw ceiling, she remains as still as possible in her forced flex of sincerity.
I wish this fire was bigger, I’m cold, my feet are numb and my pants are drying in my tent so I’m wearing my ridiculous waterproof plastic overpants that don’t provide any warmth, plastic waterproof jacket and plastic crocs. My outfit makes me stand out while everybody has much more organic, hippy looking attire. Julián was the only one that made fun of me earlier tonight for my awkward plastic getup. I’m thankful to him for that since everyone else probably just kept their judgements to themselves and thought I was a weirdo.
I’ve always wondered where hippies get their clothes because they all seem to wear these same big, puffy, lightweight, pocketless pants. I wonder if some savvy businessman got wind of this niche market and mass produces them in India, not China, (India is much more spiritual and organic). I doubt that that is the case, but it amuses me to think about.
The rattling of the loosley filled shaker stops and snaps me out of my reverie. Juan Pablo opens his eyes as slow as possible and looks up with a well-rehearsed look of pure sincerity. Everybody follows suit and looks up toward Juan Pablo, the spiritual leader of the evening. He seems to love all the attention on him, Julietta is looking at him like a sacred priest or God.
“Let us all look toward the East, toward the direction of logic, appreciate our minds, harness the energy of the Earth, the Eastern element.” Juan Pablo says methodically as the group turns in unison toward one of the four doors of the Cauzmul. “And now toward the West, the element of fire, of our emotions. And let us feel those emotions…”
I’m in church again, kneeling and standing, kneeling, now sitting, genuflecting. A confident authoritative man is telling me to, so I will. I follow along like I always do, half out of fear of not being accepted by the group and half out of respect for the ceremony itself, or maybe less than half for the latter. We go through all the directions including up, down, and inward until we return to an at-ease posture.
When this part of the ceremonial process is finished, Juan Pablo begins pulling out of his hand woven bag of tricks, more ceremonial trinkets. It is a bag of powder who’s color is difficult to determine in the dim flickering light, but I’m guessing it is the same powder I was offered by Dario during my ecovillage introductory speech. The other is a curiously curved little wooden pipe.
Like Dario, Juan Pablo begins to talk about the healing powers of the tobacco spirit plant and speaks about what it will do for us when we take it, using a very suggestive and insistent choice of words. He fills the little curved pipe with a dosage of the holy powder and Fabio stands up to be the first recipient of the communion.
Juan Pablo inserts one end of the curvy pipe into one of Fabio’s nostrils and, while holding Fabio’s forehead with one palm, gives a hard blow, swiftly injecting the powder straight to Fabio’s dome. The action literally makes me cringe as I empathetically feel imaginary powder being shot rapidly up my own nasal cavity. Juan Pablo holds Fabio’s head firmly for a few seconds and then pushes it away harshly and suddenly while making a loud and harsh “Tah!” sound. The sound snaps me back into the first time I saw a hypnotist live; every time the hypnotist wanted to snap somebody in or out of a trance, he would make this sound.
Juan Pablo slowly makes his way around the fire pit, hypnotically inserting this powder into everyone’s nostril. He gets to Julietta. Her body language is afraid but she does her best to take the medicine like one of them. Hers is the most painful to watch. I politely refuse when Juan Pablo gets to me and Julietta sees how easy that was and probably wishes she used her strength in refusing rather than partaking. On the other hand, she probably will think about it again later and be happy that she can now tell fellow travelers on the road that she partook in an obscure consumption of a holy plant in a sacred ceremony and feel worldly.
Juan Pablo sits back down and administers the medicine autonomously. He packs the pipe a second time and takes a second shot up the nostril seeming to really love the holy stuff. He puts his powder pipe back in his bag and asks us to send positive energy along with him. He talks about a dam some foreign investors are trying to build over indigenous lands, he talks about water contamination, about indigenous rights, he talks about Lina’s baby making it safely to the world…
As he mentions Lina, I realize that we’ve been here a good hour or two, supposedly to pray for Lina and this was the first time he has said her name. Its almost as if he included her last minute as an afterthought.
I think back to the moment in which he announced to the group of 15 or 20 at dinner about the ceremony for Lina and how only seven of us showed up, half of us being new volunteers. It seems like Juan Pablo just opportunized on the misfortune of one of the fellow residents to rally an audience for his well-rehearsed holy show. I wonder if the other non-present residents are really just too busy tonight to be here or if they just weren’t in the mood for another one of Juan Pablo’s shows.
I’m surprised that a donation basket doesn’t begin to circulate around the fire now. I feel really bad for Dario and Lina but am cold am looking forward to this thing ending. I’m waiting for my favorite words from any church service I’ve ever been to; “mass has ended”. Although the words come in a different form, they finally arrive and we all give each other hugs good night. I get an especially elongated hug from Juan Pablo like we’ve been friends for years and we’ll never see each other again despite me never having spoken a word to him.
The murmur of an eager crowd whispering and chatting quietly is coming from behind the curtain. By the sound of it, the crowd is big. I’m not prepared for this. Suddenly the red velvet curtain open up and the audience is revealed.
The front rows consist of important looking men and women, some in military attire, eagerly awaiting the play. Film crews are off to the sides filming the play which will air live on TV. The rest of the crowd extends as far back as the eye can see in this fully exposed outdoor theater.
Their applause grows then dies down and some of the actors begin to speak in loud projecting voices in a rehearsed dialogue I am unfamiliar with. I know my line is coming up but I have no idea what it is supposed to be. I was given the script just an hour ago and it is all in Spanish. Suddenly, the actors turn to me and the audience is silent. I know they just asked a question but don’t remember what it was. There is a microphone an inch from my mouth that is picking up my breathing and amplifying it to the crowd.
A distant clear, single tone begins to ring out. It gets louder and louder. Suddenly the stage and crowd get brighter and brighter until it is blaring and I can’t make anything out. I open my eyes and see just the roof of my tent with the sun blaring through it. The familiar tone rings again and I realize it’s already breakfast and the conch is sounding. I quickly get dressed and run out to the real world.
Arepas again, I’m starting to like this circular bland corn staple of Colombia more and more. It’s been the main dish for breakfast since I’ve been here. Everyone is talking in subgroups again and I’m slowly transitioning from dream world to the real world.
My feet are incredibly itchy, helping me in the transition of snapping me back to reality. I look down under the table and my unwashed mud stained feet are covered in red bumps. It looks like I got the chicken pox just below the shins. I try to breathe for a second and to control the urge to scratch but cannot resist and give into the relieving feeling of nail against skin. I begin slowly as if I just have a little itch, try to play it cool but I quickly turn into a neurotic fiend. Julietta, the volunteer with the flexed face of sincerity from last night’s ceremony noticies my quiet struggle.
“Did you ask permission from the tree here?” She asks me.
“Que?” I don’t understand her question.
“The tallest tree. Did you ask permission from him to be here? I see that you’ve been bitten.”
“Uh, yes, I’ve been bitten quite a lot, but what tree? Permission?” I don’t understand.
“Oh, you’ve never heard of that? It’s an indigenous custom to ask the tallest tree in the area for permission to be in his forest. It’s how to prevent mosquitos from biting you.” She informs me.
“Oh, I had never heard of that.” I try not to betray my immediate thoughts of how bogus of an idea this sounds to me.
“It was the first thing I did when I got here” She proudly lets me know. I suppose the reason or her pride is probably because she doesn’t have any bites herself. I remember recently learning about microbes and how everybody has different tendencies to attract mosquitos based on microbial bacteria and blood type.
“Why is that? Why do you have to ask the tallest tree permission and what if it doesn’t answer you back?” I ask, not being able to resist my skepticism on the subject.
“No, it is actually true.” Gabriel, having overheard the conversation from the other side of me butts in with a serious looking face. Julietta looks a bit relieved to not have to defend the claim alone. “It has been a custom in this region for many years and it is true.” He continues by repeating the same thing with different wording and no new reason.
“OK, I understand it is an ancient tradition” I concede. “but how is that possible?”
“Listen, last year I went to the Amazon with my sister” Gabriel moves his chair closer to me and leans in in a manner that shows he is about to break some revealing truth to me. “I told her to come along with me to ask permission from the tallest tree but she didn’t believe me. I didn’t get bit once on that trip and she was covered in bites.” He leans back in his chair with a smug smile, feeling good about proving a point. Julietta is looking at me with an I-told-you-so kind of look.
I feel the logic loving part of me boiling up and preparing for a debate and then something comes over me. I like Gabriel and Julietta a lot and I’m outnumbered and outsmugged. This debate suddenly seems pointless so I find myself just saying. “Oh, interesting.” Which is a true statement.
My foot still itches but I don’t dare scratch it in front of them. I focus back on the half-eaten arepa on my plate and continue eating. I finish quickly and go to wash my dish so I can get around to scratching my unwelcomed feet.
As I’m walking toward the dish station I notice Yeison sitting alone on a table on the other side of the kiosk. He looks sad and lonely and I feel bad for him. I look back over to the table of in-crowders and think that surely a few of them have noticed Yeison on his own yet nobody has invited him over. I feel bad for him and almost upset that nobody seems to want him here.
A surge of itch snaps me out of my state of empathy. I quickly and selfishly set my plate down and go around the backside of the building where nobody can see me and indulge in scratching the heck out of my foot. I don’t want anyone to tell me I should overcome the itchiness with my mind or that I should’ve partaken in some tribal tradition of someone else’s tribe. I enjoy the freedom of my own ritual, the white line of nail on red sensitive skin. Polka dots on a swollen foot, indulgence and relief, alone behind the stalls of the waterless eco-toilets on the backside of the communal kiosk.
I sneak out the backside of the kiosk and begin walking around the property to kill time and be alone before the work day starts. The grounds are beautiful; every path leads down to a different quaint little area where one of the residents has their humble yet beautiful homes. Bordered by the road on the north, the river on the east, the jungle on the south and the lake on the west, it is difficult to choose an area to wonder.
I decide to go down to the lake and as I approach I see the children of the ecovillage fishing. I stop and watch from afar to enjoy the scene rather than be a part of it. Yoluka’s boyfriend Adrian is showing them how to put bait on their hooks and helping them cast the lines. They don’t seem to be doing a good job of keeping quiet to not scare the fish but it doesn’t seem to matter because everybody looks like they’re having fun.
Random shrills of laughter fill the cool humid air. Lilies float peacefully atop the mostly tranquil water, save for the casting of lines that cause little ripples that spread in every cardinal direction and everywhere inbetween. The myriad species of trees surrounding the lake rustle softly in a growing wind. The Earth underneath me is soft and forgiving from days of hard rains. I’m actually not off to the sidelines, I’m in the center of it all.
I spot a ripple in the water which doesn’t seem to have been cast by one of their lines and think to myself that they may get lucky, for a fish might be swimming below. Another ripple occurs in a different area of the water, then another, then a drop on my head, and I suddenly realize that it is actually the beginnings of a rain.
Within a few seconds the few ripples turn into hundreds and it begins to pour. I run toward the first shelter I can find which happens to be the workshop/abstract theater in which Dario and Fabio gave me my introductory lectures.
Inside, Diego and Julián, are sitting down on the makeshift stage chatting. I ask to join them and sit down quietly as they continue to perform their on-stage dialogue to an audience of no one. Diego adjusts in his chair a bit, seeming to have his train of thought interrupted by my presence but continues with whatever he was talking about.
I’m just as silent of an observer as I was with the fishing children despite sitting very much in the middle of this social setting. Part of me feels bad for taking up space in their social bubble without contributing but I also don’t feel like forcing the socialness out of me in this moment.
Diego makes what seems like some sort of an excuse of having to do something up at the kiosk and heads out into what has now turned into a full on hailstorm. Julián and I are left alone on the makeshift theatrical stage performing a silent piece. The only sound heard is the pounding of the hailstones on the recycled banner roofing.
I stare blankly into the pile of wood and think while Julián knits away at some piece of cloth in his hands. I have been much quieter than my usual self these last days and often fall into the role of listener/observer. The other night while sitting around the fire with Dario, my silence bothered him to the point of getting visibly angry. He was annoyed to have to do all the talking, but not annoyed enough to stop talking.
Julián doesn’t seem to be uncomfortable in my silence and it makes me feel less on edge. I don’t think that Julián and I are both in quiet moods, I think Julián is just reading my energy well and grants me the stillness I am tacitly asking for.
I look out to the camping area underneath the deluge and hope that my tent will withstand the onslaught of ice stones falling from the sky. At best I will have another muggy night tonight. I think about Yeison and imagine that there’s no way his jerry-rigged tent with a hole stabbed through the bottom will survive.
Somehow I feel Yeison and I are very similar. Or maybe I just see things in him that I can relate to. Things that make us human. I often feel like an outcast even in the face of welcoming smiles. I choose not to believe them, or, I give into the deep fear of rejection and deny the reality of actually being accepted. We both have this fear, only for Yeison it’s being manifested into reality while mine is snug inside the confines of my psyche.
We both have thin canvas ceilings holding back the hard pounding of falling ice. Any moment our ceilings can cave in, except that mine is a 180 dollar, skillfully engineered, tried and tested adventure tent reinforced with carbon fiber poles while Yeison’s is a budget supermarket knock-off held by string and bamboo poles. Why should I have this tent?
After a long while I break the silence on stage by asking Julián if there is anything that needs to be done in the workshop, seeing that he is the de facto carpenter of the village.
“Well there is always something to be done around here but don’t worry about it.” He tells me softly.
“But I’d like to do something if I can.” I reply. There is a four hour minimum requirement to volunteer as a work-trade for food here and I figure I might as well put in some time if I’m going to be sitting here and occupy my wandering mind.
Julián thinks for a second and looks around the shop then tells me there is a bench that has been needing to be repaired. He shows me where the tools are and tells me I can use any piece of wood I find. Minimal words are exchanged for a few minutes about where things in the shop are found and Julián goes back to knitting, leaving me to it.
Carpentry is something I had always been interested in from afar but has somehow always skirted by me. Despite my limited knowledge, I feel comfortable working in front of Julián. I’m sure that I’m working much less efficiently than he would and making rookie mistakes left and right but he silently grants me the freedom to make those mistakes on my own.
As I saw wood, hammer nails and watch the bench slowly take shape and become sturdy again, I feel a similar sturdiness take shape within me. The repairing is cathartic; the freedom to be in silence without being preached at or judged is healing and the steady rhythm of ice against banner is therapeutic.
Although no words are exchanged, I feel a comforting effect from Julián’s presence simply by him precisely not doing anything but being. There is no approving or disapproving, just an acceptance that creates space to allow for healing.
An hour or two pass in this calming ritual of silent communion until I hammer the last nail and test out the renewed bench. It occurs to me that the hail had stopped at some point without my being aware of it. The air is calm and still.
Julián notices me stop and looks up from his hand made beanie in the making.
“All done? Looks good.” He says.
“Ya, thanks” I say, backing away from the finished piece of work.
“Well I’m going to head up to the kiosk, just lock up the tool shed when you’re done putting things away.” He says as he gets up to leave.
“Thank you.” I say.
“No need to thank me, you just fixed the bench.” He replies.
“No really, thank you” I insist. I don’t quite know how to explain what he has done for me in this time.
Julián shrugs his shoulders and waves me goodbye as he heads out.
I finish putting everything away and locking up then head back to the camping area to put on work clothes for the rest of the day’s work. On the way to the tent I spot Yeison standing around listlessly.
“Hey gringis!” He calls out to me in my semi-duragotory nickname.
“Marica, my tent got totally soaked.” He points over to his floppy tent barely standing.
“Oh no” I walk over to his tent and just see a huge puddle right in the middle of it. “That sucks man.” Part of me wants to laugh but I feel bad for him again. “Well what are you going to do?”
“Let me just sleep in your tent” He insists without any sort of preface.
“Oh. Um… Well have you tried fixing your tent or making it sturdier?” I ask, a bit shocked and thinking about how prized the tranquility is of the only private space I have in this place.
“Ya but, it would just be easier to sleep in your tent.” He lets me know.
“Well have you asked any others?”
“They’re all just going to say no.”
Unfortunately I believe him and recognize that I do feel bad enough to give up the bit of privacy I have here to help him out, as unappealing as that sounds.
“Well you should try figuring out another arrangement.” I tell him. Although I’m willing to share with him I’m not ready to say that quite yet so he can at least try to figure out something else first.
“C’mon, you have a big tent.” He insists. He’s totally right, there’s more than enough room.
“I think you should just at least try to figure out something first and if you can’t then I’ll let you, but only if you try.” I admit, despite my wanting to let him know there is an easy way out.
Yeison’s body language suddenly stiffens up in fear and a second later I find out why as Fabio appears from behind me.
“Did you figure out your sleeping arrangement?” He asks Yeison in an annoyed tone.
“Uh, um, well…” Yeison looks at me awkwardly and ends up saying “I’m figuring it out.”
“Well figure it out fast, we can’t be having all the volunteers help you do something you should’ve already been prepared for when there’s other things to be done.” He exasperatedly tells him. He then turns to me and says in a kinder tone. “Try to finish whatever you’re working on by 4pm, I would like you and a couple of the other volunteers to come to town with me this evening.”
The idea of going to town and changing scenes sounds appealing to me but I feel bad knowing that Yeison is obviously not invited.
“Bueno” Fabio says with a smile towards me and then walks away.
I awkwardly stand a second with Yeison until I finally say. “Well, good luck on the sleeping situation, I’m going to work.”
I walk back up the hill where Daniel is already working, shoveling rocks and sand into a wheel barrow to mix cement. I join him and we shovel, load, mix and move the building material for hours. We pass the time sharing stories, talking about the ecovillage and feeling bad for Yeison despite him not helping us out.
After the nth time filling the barrel and taking it down the rocky hill to the foundation for the new bathrooms being built, Daniel asks me what the deal is with the girls sitting watching us while we work. A group of the residents have been on their computers and chatting to each other watching us shovel rocks for the last few hours and although I noticed them before, I didn’t think about them too much.
“Why are they just sitting there while we load rocks all day?” Daniel complains to me in confidence.
“I don’t know” I confess. “I’m just doing the work they ask me to and I don’t know how it really works here as far as division of labor.”
“Ya, but we are working so hard. It’s unfair that they’re just sitting around. I thought the idea was to divide the tasks evenly.”
“Ya, I guess” I admit. “I don’t know, I’m happy to feel useful around here. It’s true that it doesn’t really make any sense, this whole nobody is a leader, no hierarchy social structure. I’m only here for a few days so I don’t really care. I’m just trying to enjoy the work itself and not think about it.”
“Ya, ya, you’re right, no point in complaining about it. It still seems unfair to me though.” Daniel reluctantly concedes.
After a few more ups and downs with barrows full of dense rock, the conch finally sounds, long overdue, and we head for the kiosk.
During the meal, I hear the laptoping, chit-chatting girls talking about a festival that seems to be going to happen here soon.
“What festival are you talking about?” I interrupt them.
“Oh, you haven’t heard of the ‘Be Happy Fest’?” Camila asks me surprised.
“No. ‘Be Happy’?, Like, instead of ‘Sea Feliz’?” I’m curious why the title of the festival will be in English instead of Spanish.
“Yes, ‘Be Happy’, It’s a positive title because we just want everyone to be happy.” She replies through a big smile.
“But why is it in English instead of Spanish?” I clarify.
“So it can be universal, open to everyone, even those who don’t speak Spanish.” Camila replies, defending their reasoning for using a cold greedy language for naming their festival.
“Oh, well that doesn’t really include any Chinese guests does it?” I half joke with her.
“Yes, I suppose so.” She doesn’t seem too happy with my smart alecness.
“Yes , there will be about 100 people here, with music and workshops and in the Cauzmul we are going to have a 31 hour straight drumming session.” Nelly, one of the other residents, adds.
“31 hours of drums straight? That’s a lot. What is the significance of 31 hours?” I ask.
“I’m not sure actually, but it will be a beautiful time, you should definitely stay for it.” Nelly suggests.
“Oh, well, I don’t know, I kind of have plans.” I make a weak excuse to get myself out of what sounds to be an over the top experience for me. The fact that it is called “Be Happy” makes the festival sound much less appealing as well. I just imagine a bunch of spiritually dressed travelers telling me to be happy, to sit for 30 hours in front of drums and insisting that I do yoga, talk to trees or some other custom I have nothing to do with.
“Well, it’d be great if you joined us.” Says Camila, making me feel welcome and special despite the obvious fakeness of her smile.
“Thank you, I’ll think about it.” I honestly reply.
I excuse myself to go wash dishes and at the dishwashing station I begin talking to Patricia, another one of the residents here.
“I heard that Yeison asked you to stay in your tent tonight.” She tells me in a hushed tone.
“Oh yeah, well I hope he figures out something else because I’d rather sleep alone, but, ya, I will let him stay if he has no other place to stay.” I tell her as I scrub the dirty dish in my hands.
“Well, we ask you to please not let him.” She tells me frankly.
“Oh” I’m sort of taken aback at such a direct request and at the fact that she used the word “we”, implying that this was discussed with others from the village. “Why?” I ask.
“Well, we don’t want him here and don’t want to make it easy for him to stay, so it would be a big help if you didn’t make him any more comfortable.” She says straight up.
“I understand that he hasn’t been a big help around here and that he doesn’t fit in well but his tent just got soaked. I won’t let him stay outside if he’s got no other place to go.” I tell her just as straight, sort of shocked to have been asked such a request.
“Well, he is a problem here.” Patricia says defeatedly, looking down at the plates she’s rinsing. She hands over the plates to the next station and walks away without saying another word or looking at me.
I finish up and head back down to my tent to get ready to go to town. On the way down the hill I suddenly feel a smack on the backside of my head followed by childish laughter. I turn around and Yeison is standing right behind me wearing a big grin.
“Please don’t hit me.” I ask him patiently.
“That wasn’t hard at all Gringis.” He defends.
“Still, I’ve asked before, it’s not about the pain, it’s about invading my space.” I explain to him.
“Oh, c’mon, don’t be a wuss” He taunts me.
“Look, I understand your intentions are to get my attention, I know you’re hitting me just because you like me and want to be my friend. I don’t think you are being mean or want to hurt me. It’s just unfair that instead of giving me the choice of being able to decide to talk to you or not, you simply invade my space and make that choice for me. It’s just about respect and personal space, I’m not mad. You’re still my friend.”
Yeison’s expression changes to a more serious and understanding tone with a hint of realization.
I put my hand on his shoulder. “It’s alright Yeison. How’s the tent situation going anyway?” I ask.
“I’m leaving tonight actually” He tells me with a bit of sadness in his tone.
“What! Why?” I ask surprised.
“Fabio talked to my mom on the phone and convinced her that I should go home.”
“Oh, I’m sorry” I can’t think of anything to say.
“It’s probably better for me.” He says. I feel bad for just having told him off for hitting me. I can see he just wants to be loved.
I see Fabio approaching us from behind Yeison and warn him. He turns around to see Fabio coming and begins to fidget, casting his eyes toward the ground.
“You almost ready?” Fabio asks me in a high-spirited tone.
“Uh, ya, I just need to grab my sweater.”
Fabio nods his head, glances at Yeison in a dismissive way, then back to me and says “Well we will be leaving in 15 minutes.”
“OK” I answer as Fabio walks away. I turn to Yeison.
“Well, it was nice to meet you Yeison, I probably won’t see you again, but good luck with everything.” I tell him, causing him to look up from the floor.
“Gracias Gringis” He gives me a good smack on the should and immediately apologizes, forgetting that we had just talked about me not wanting to be hit.
“No worries. Well, I’m gonna get ready. Um… bye then.” I feel awkward as I reach out to shake his hand.
Yeison awkwardly leaves and I’m left with a weird feeling. Part of me doesn’t want to join this exclusive journey to town that Yeison wasn’t invited on for the sake of solidarity or principle. I’m not sure exactly what principle I’d be upstanding by not going to town with Fabio and the others but the outing feels tainted now.
I grab my stuff and meet Daniel, Julietta and Fabio at the non-gated entrance to the ecovillage. We greet and begin our hour long descent down the mountain to the little town below. Daniel and Juleitta walk side by side and I am paired up with Fabio. Immediately he begins venting to me about Yeison.
I listen patiently as he lists off the reasons why Yeison needs to get his act together, how he doesn’t have a clue about anything, how immature he is and how glad he is that Yeison is finally leaving. It is obvious that Fabio is upset by the whole issue and that he feels responsibility for taking care of it because he is the organizer of volunteers. After a good half an hour of ventilation, I ask permission of Fabio to ask a question.
“I hear what you are saying Fabio, it is true that Yeison is all of those things that you’ve described and I don’t blame you for wanting to have volunteers that actually help and get along with everyone. But, if I may ask, would it be fair or honest to claim that the ecovillage truly has no gates, that it really does allow anybody to enter?”
“Of course it is open for anyone to visit” Fabio defends. “The question of whether or not they can stay is another story.” He says with a smile.
“Fair enough” I reply.
The descent is beautiful. We pass by one humble farm after another. The homes are simple and quaint with lots of vegetation everywhere. Although after-rain mist is partially shrouding the view, the jungly mountains on the other side of the valley can still be seen.
I look behind us and Daniel and Julietta seem to be deep in conversation. I forgot that a few stray dogs had started following us in the beginning of the walk and are still hanging around. My feet are sloshy from walking through the recently rained on mud path.
“So, what is the purpose of our visit to town?” I had forgotten to ask exactly why Fabio asked us to accompany him and had agreed to come just for the adventure.
“I do a radio talk show once a week in town called ‘Risoterapia’ (Laugh Therapy)” He tells me.
“Risoterapia? That sounds interesting, you talk about the benefits of laughter on the air?”
“Exactly. It’s something I love to do, make people laugh and spread joy.” He says proudly.
“That’s a great thing.” I agree with him trying not to think of Yeison or the concept of hypocrisy. “Well thanks for inviting us.” I add.
“Of course, it makes the show more interesting to have guests every once in a while.” He says.
Guests? I feel the familiar drop in my stomach whenever I have been asked a question in class or put on the spot in front of people. I feel taken by surprise. I’m supposed to speak Spanish on radio without any sort of preparation?
. . .
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome back to the weekly hour of laughter. My name is Fabio and I’ll be joining you all on a journey of joy this evening.” Fabio’s loud, clear, radio voice booms into the microphone in front of him. His words blur into an unintelligible series of sounds that are scrambled by my nervous brain.
I know any minute a question will be directed my way and that simple fact has confounded my ability to comprehend words especially in Spanish. I look over to the other side of the table where Julietta and Daniel are sitting in front of their own microphones and imagine they are feeling the same way even if they may not look it.
All of a sudden Fabio turns toward me and makes a bunch of sounds that I suppose are forming a question. While my head swirls in a nervous dreamlike fashion, the microphone which is one inch away from my mouth picks up my breathing and amplifies it to the audience on the other end of it.
The pressure of the situation pulls me back to reality like an itchy mosquito bite and all the sounds that my brain was just inundated with retroactively piece together the bits and pieces to form a meaning. My blank stare of an answer for the last 3 or 4 elongated seconds finally gets interrupted by my response to the painfully simple question.
“Uh, mi nombre es Paraic, y soy de los Estados Unidos.” I answer with my name and where I’m from.
“Great! Welcome to Colombia.” Fabio’s smile comes out through his animated voice. “And as I understand, you are on quiet the adventure with a motorcycle. Can you tell us about that?” He asks.
I’m relieved to get a question that I have acquired an automated response to over the last few months of answering daily and quickly summarize my trip.
“Wow, what an adventure!” Fabio toots my horn. “And tell us, how did you get past the Panama Canal?” He asks.
Once again, I’m hit with a question I’ve received so many times and although it can, and often is, annoying to be asked, I’m relieved it is an easy one.
“There is a bridge that crosses over it.” I answer simply. Judging by Fabio’s face I realize that was probably not a good radio answer so I quickly add: “Most people think that crossing the Panama Canal is a problem but the real issue is getting past what is called the Darien Gap, a jungle area between Panama and Colombia with no roads. The only way around it is to be crazy and go through it or take a boat, which is what I did.”
“What a great story!” Fabio doesn’t leave a millisecond between my last word and his first. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, we have a great show lined up for you this evening full of jokes and interesting studies on the healing power of laughter…” Fabio continues on with the show.
The ice has broken and my normal intellectual abilities to understand and be understood are restored. It always surprises me that the anxiety of anticipation is much stronger than the actual situation that is being anticipated. I relax in my seat as I listen to Fabio revel in his element.
He talks about laughter’s effect on stress, health, improvement of relationships etc.. He asks Julietta, being that she is from Argentina, whether she thinks that Colombians laugh more in general than Argentinians. She confidently answers that Colombians are happier in general which seems to please Fabio and perhaps the Colombian listeners.
Fabio turns to me to ask me to make the same comparison about the United States. The first two people that pop into my mind are Yeison and Fabio himself who laugh more often than most people I’ve met. I couldn’t say if they are happier than say Jakob, the American university student I met on my first day at the ecovillage. I end up answering that it is hard to make such a claim since I’ve only been in the country a few weeks and have met a very select few individuals. Fabio doesn’t seem too pleased with this arbitrary response. Perhaps those kind of responses are not meant for radio programs.
At one part of the segment he plays four minutes of prerecorded jokes 30 seconds each, back to back, and asks that the audience count with their fingers how many times the jokes make them laugh. At the end of the four minute flurry of jokes he grades the scores of how many fingers the listeners have up. He says that if you laughed five or more times then you are a normal happy person. If you laughed between one and four times, then perhaps you are a bit stressed about something and need to relax. Finally, if you didn’t laugh once, Fabio tells the audience, then you are unhappy and there is something wrong with you.
I look at my three fingers held up but don’t get too down about it seeing that the jokes were quiet difficult to understand and I actually don’t know how much of my laughter actually came from nervousness. As Fabio goes on though, I can’t help but to think about the laughless person or people out there who’s fists are still closed and left hanging. I imagine a sad person tuning into the “Risaterapia” hour to be cheered up, not finding the humor in these jokes, and finally turning the radio off with a new or reinforced label put upon them that there is something wrong with them, that they are not normal, while Fabio proudly goes home knowing that he improved people’s lives.
My moment of hypothetical empathy for the laughless labelled person gets interrupted by my responsibility to react to what is going on in my immediate world. Fabio is asking that we all spend a minute to just laugh about nothing or anything, but to just spend a whole minute straight laughing. He does a drum-rolled anticipatory countdown and begins the minute.
Despite how awkward sounding of an idea this is to me I flatter Fabio and the audience by doing my best to force a laughter, feeling the responsibility of having a microphone in front of me. The first 10 seconds grow into a steady laugh between Fabio, Julietta, Daniel and I. The following 10 seconds steadily decline into a collective chuckle and by the 30 second mark the studio is quiet save the silly circus music playing in the background. I feel like one of those news anchors whose wide smile awkwardly fades into a frown after some painful seconds when the studio technicians don’t cut to commercials fast enough.
“Well ladies and gentlemen I hope that felt good!” Fabio booms into the microphone clearing the awkward air in the room. “As the hour comes to a close I’d just like to make an announcement that next week you are all welcome to join us at the ecovillage where we will be having our ‘Be Happy’ festival with workshops, healthy food, swimming in the river and even a 33 hour straight drum session. All are welcome!”
It seems the drum session has increased by two hours since I last heard about it which makes it precisely two hours less appealing. I still don’t understand why anybody would want to listen or especially play drums that long.
“But before we say good night, I’d like to put my guests on the spot just one more time and get their opinions of the laugh hour.” Fabio announces.
Daniel and Julietta answer first, both saying that they think laughter is a great thing and they love the idea of ‘laugh therapy’. I also answer similarly but at the end of my answer I look at Fabio and ask permission to ask a question.
“But of course!” He responds.
“Well, its about the test we all took earlier when we listened to jokes and held up however many figures for each of the times one of the jokes made us laugh.” I manage to barely get out at a speed much slower than radio standards.
“Yes, go on.” Fabio urges me to hurry up a bit.
“Well… what would you recommend to the people who didn’t have any fingers up at the end of all those jokes? And, what is a positive thought they can leave with instead of that they have something wrong with them?” I say at an exactly zero percent increase in speed despite Fabio rushing me.
Fabio looks a bit taken aback to be subtly criticized on air on his show. “Well, very good question. Well, for the listeners out there who couldn’t find the humor in those jokes; you just need to breathe, slow down your life, try meditating or yoga, eat well and come pay us a visit at the ‘Be Happy’ fest next week at the ecovillage of Happiness!” Fabio slips in a last bit of advertising for the upcoming festival which is an important source of income for the ecovillage community. “And that’s all the time we have for tonight folks! Thanks for joking and” (HAHAHA) Fabio lets out a loud silly laugh. “We’ll see you next week!”
Fabio makes a signal to the studio technician on the other side of the soundproof glass who has looked bored out of his mind throughout the whole program and he quickly stuffs the rest of the food he’s eating in his mouth, freeing his hands to fade into commercials.
We step outside into the fresh night air and are greeted by the dogs who followed us down the mountain and apparently have been waiting for us outside the building. We make our way back through the town toward the muddy road that will lead us back up to the village with the dogs close behind.
Before we get to the mud trail, we make a pit stop at the local grocery store so that Fabio can pick up a couple bags worth of candy and chocolates. He notices me watching him as he sets the large quantity of plastic wrapped sugar on the small register counter and defends himself.
“Most of this is orders for others back up at the ecovillage.” Fabio explains himself with an ever so slight tinge of guilt.
“Oh.” I don’t bother to explain that the reason I’m looking at the chocolates is not because I’m judging him for it but because it looks so good after a week of vegetables, bland arepa and quinoa. I consciously allow Fabio to feel whatever guilt he’s built up in his head about the hypocrisy of preaching eating healthy and indulging in candy without saying a word.
We head up the trail and I walk with Julietta followed by Daniel and Fabio followed by the few dogs. Julietta and I begin talking and I ask her how she is liking her time at the ecovillage.
“I love it here!” She answers with enthusiasm.
“That’s great. Do you think you could live an extended period in a place like this?” I ask her.
“Oh totally! It is so pure and connected to nature and the people are all so friendly and beautiful!”
“Ya, you’re right, it really is a beautiful place.” I agree. “You wouldn’t miss things from the city?” I ask.
“Not at all! Traffic, television, chaos, horrible food, depressed people, crime and cement, cement, cement. No thanks, I feel much better here. ” She seems disgusted even bringing up the idea of the city.
“What about chocolate?” I jokingly ask.
“Haha, maybe that, but it seems like there’s no problem getting it here.” She nods toward Fabio behind us.
“Do you think a city is not natural?” I ask.
“Of course it’s not.” She answers quickly, wondering what kind of question that is.
“I mean, is it less natural than say, the buildings in the ecovillage?” I continue.
“Of course. Cities are covered in cars and cement, there’s hardly any green.” She defends.
“But cement is just made of rocks, from Mother Nature, and besides, all the foundations of the homes in the ecovillage are made of cement, we were mixing and laying it all day today.”
She lets out a “Hmm…” and concedes “Ya, I see what you mean. But it’s different, I mean there’s so much green and a river and lake and ya, they have to use a little cement, but it’s not like how much a city uses.”
“So what makes a place natural or unnatural is not what materials are used to make it but the proportion of those man-manipulated materials to natural occurring ones like trees and rivers?” I ask.
She looks a bit confused, perhaps because of the way I worded things but answers “Ya” with an unsure tone.
I don’t mean to drill her on technicalities of things, so I say something positive to clear the little bit of tension in the air. “But ya, this place would be a beautiful place to live.” I reassure.
“Ya, I love just going down to the river to meditate. Isn’t it so beautiful down there? I spent some quality time there today.” She tells me.
“Nice. Well, I haven’t actually been there yet. But I’m sure its peaceful.” I confess.
“What! You haven’t been there!?” She says in disbelief.
“No, I mean, I’ve seen it from atop the hill but I haven’t made it down there yet.” I admit.
“Wait. What! You really haven’t been there!?” She asks again with just as much disbelief.
“What? Seriously? It’s so close to where you’re camping. It’s so beautiful!”
“I’m sure it is, but, ya, still haven’t been there (since you asked me two seconds ago).” I think the last part silently to myself after answering the same question for the third time.
“You HAVE to go!” She demands.
I don’t have to do anything, I think again to myself, but answer out loud; “Ya, maybe I’ll try to go before I leave.”
“Maybe!? No. You HAVE to go! Trust me!” She urges a second time.
This time I more or less voice my real thoughts about the river. “I’ve been to lots of rivers and I do love them, but I don’t know, if I feel like going I’ll go, but I’m not too worried about it.”
“Oh…” She seems a bit disappointed by my answer. “Well you should.” She suggests again, getting the last word in.
I always wonder what makes certain people get almost angry at me when I haven’t tried a food, seen a movie, read a book, heard a band or been to a place. Some people will ask the same question three or four times in a row seemingly with the expectation that the answer will somehow change. I don’t think it is a bad thing, I just think that sometimes it feels so good to be the bearer of good news and the knower of something unknown to someone else that some people just want to stretch that pleasurable moment out of bearing and knowing as long as they can.
This particular issue of me not having been to the river lasted five times longer than it needed to which means that Julietta felt better five times longer than she would have. I try my best to not be annoyed by the interaction because I know her intentions are not to annoy, but to just be happy and I can’t blame anyone for that.
I’m always trying to analyze and find inconsistencies, hypocrisies, personality “defaults”, fakeness, unfairness, ill-logic, insecurity and all the other things that bother me in other people precisely because they exist in myself. They are so much easier to spot looking outward and make more clear the inward. The fact that I still love myself despite all the shortcomings helps me to love others with the same or similar ones. I know I just want to be liked and loved and I’m trying, so I have to assume everyone, or at least most, have similar intentions.
It’s not that Julietta’s excitement about the river and her enthusiastic insistence is a bad thing or a short-coming necessarily, but unfortunately, I find myself annoyed by it, or at least wanting to criticize it. I’m sure I’ve been the excited over-insister many times with and without realizing it. Gosh, I overthink things too much, I just want to hug Julietta and tell her I love her for being herself. No, she doesn’t really know me and she’ll think that’s weird. Oh, who cares what she thinks, that would be a really beautiful thing to do. Well I do care what she thinks actually, I don’t want to make her feel uncomfortable.
As I too often do, I end up saying nothing, opting for the safer route while denying Julietta of a small yet potentially powerful gift of words and a hug. As the road curves I spot the bench made of recycled bottles marking the entrance to the village that guided me in finding the place nine days ago. It will be sad leaving the place and some of the people when I go tomorrow. But on to another little world and unique dynamic of personalities and sceneries.
We descend the slippery stony path through the dark of night and eventually arrive at the kiosk just in time for dinner. Camila is standing in the center of the kiosk and greets us all with a big smile telling us we were great on the radio show. Apparently they were listening here.
Her smile fades instantly when the three dogs who I had forgotten were following us come running into the kiosk wanting to play. There is a bit of commotion with the other dining residents, saying that we need to get them out of here now and we should never have let dogs follow us home.
My momentary feeling of being accepted is pulled out from underneath me and I feel like a Yeison. I seem to be the focus of the negative attention concerning the dogs as Fabio seems to have disappeared. I once again feel bad for the most recent rejects of the village but this time have the responsibility of casting them out myself.
I assure the diners that I will take care of it and walk back up to the road with Julietta and Matias, one of the little boys who was fishing at the lake earlier. We arrive at the entrance and the fact that there is no gate to keep them out of the village complicates the problem as they are going to want to follow us back into the selectively welcoming community.
Immediately Matias starts yelling at the dogs to go away and picking up stones to throw at them. I crouch down to his level.
“Matias, its true that we are going to have to yell at them so that they go away but can we try something?” I ask him.
“Ok” He lowers his handful of stone he was about to throw and asks. “What are we gonna do?”
“Well the dogs are not going to understand why we are throwing rocks at them so can we first try asking them nicely to go and make sure to let them know that we love them?”
He doesn’t hesitate in agreeing with the idea and calls the dogs over. I give one of the dogs a hug and begin explaining quietly that unfortunately they won’t be able to stay with us tonight, that they’ll have to go but that we still love them. Matias copies my actions.
“Do you really think this will work?” Julietta asks half dubious and half impressed at the idea.
Careful not to let Matias hear I answer. “It could, but I doubt it. The dogs are going to be just as clueless as to why we are kicking them out despite our explanations. But I do believe they can read some kind of emotional energy and maybe feel our love as we gently kick them out of here.” Julietta really seems to like the idea of sending love to the animal, she is a vegetarian after all. “Or maybe telling them we love them is just gonna make it harder for them to stay away.” I add.
I guess I just feel weird seeing this kid stand at the entrance to his village throwing rocks at uninvited guests and yelling. The events of the last days cause this sight to trigger something in me to want to change the situation.
Matias, Julietta and I finish hugging and loving the dogs and tell them they have to go. The poor things look so confused as we begin to raise our voices and kick rocks toward them. I know they’re just stray dogs but I feel worse than I would’ve expected to do such a simple thing as to shoo a dog. It takes us a long time, perhaps longer than it should, to finally get them to walk away.
I wonder how Fabio feels to have to be the hand that casts out the unwanted. Does he throw rocks out of love for his village and family? Does he take pleasure in the rock throwing, or has he become numb to this feeling I’m feeling right now? Does he love Yeison I wonder?
I get back to the dining table and eat my dinner mostly in silence. The rest of the gang is already gone, off in their homes enjoying the intruderless environment. Although no rocks have been thrown my way directly, I feel it is time to go. I clean.
Everything is packed, the humid tent and clothing, the borrowed guitar that helped keep me sane is returned, I’ve said my goodbyes to most of the village before they set out on a group nature hike today. The village seems eerily quiet. Usually there is some kind of bustle of kids running around, wheel barrows going back and forth, the electric saw in the workshop or music coming from the kiosk. It’s just me and my mud-caked worn motorcycle with chewed up padding for a seat.
I’m not in any sort of hurry as it is only a two hour drive to Bogotá from here. I stand around expecting something to happen that lets me know I can leave. I kill time by double checking the bike again to make sure everything is snug.
Everything is OK and it seems that there is no reason I should wait around so I put my helmet on. When I lift the visor I see Julián walking down from the kiosk. I pull the helmet back off and wait for him.
“Wait, take this!” Julián calls out. He comes over and hands me a couple of candy bars for the road. I thank him and we begin talking. For some reason I feel compelled to speak frankly with Julián about my thoughts and feelings during my time spent here at the village.
I talk about the situation with Yeison and how it seems inconsistent to me that the village is supposedly open to everyone. I talk about feeling judged for not subscribing to some of the traditions and beliefs held here. I tell him that I find it beautiful the way his kid and the other children of the village are raised in a tight community full of love and surrounded by nature. I tell him that I felt used by some of the residents to be preached at. I thank Julián for the day where I stayed quiet and fixed a bench in his presence and how much that meant to me.
Julián listens patiently to the good and bad opinions being vented out at him. He thanks me for sharing my opinion and tells me a bit about his personal story for being here. He and one other resident are the only two original founders that began here eight years ago with the simple intention of creating a community of people that want to be happy. Since then, many people have come and gone, all with their own ideas and viewpoints.
Over time, Julián says he has found it easier to just accept the differences, within a reasonable range, instead of trying to make others believe his beliefs. He says that everybody comes with strong opinions about how an ecovillage should be run, criticizing the village for not growing their own food, being efficient enough about how they use their resources or how the system of leadership should work. His purpose was to find a place to be happy and he’s happier when he doesn’t get bogged down by the less important issues and just allows people to be themselves.
As he speaks about it, I think back to all the little arguments I overheard between residents throughout the time here and don’t remember Julián ever being a part of them. He just listens and allows people to be, letting them realize their own mistakes or not realize them while learning from them all the while. He’s not actively trying to change all the bad he sees in the world around him, he’s just doing his part at making his little piece of it a beautiful one by living and letting live.
He says that he understands that his way of being is inconsistent and far from perfect but all he can do is keep trying to be peaceful, to listen to others, to learn and to love. He thanks me for being a listener and now a sharer during my time here and wishes me a good journey.
With the helmet back on, I look at the world around me through my filthy visor and try to see the beauty of the surrounding jungle. I start the engine and give a friendly honk goodbye as I head up the rocky path. On to the cement city world of chaos, hurting the earth with every mile I drive, causing pain with every breath of existence, trying to make peace with myself and with this very world I’m killing in whatever imperfect, hypocritical and inconsistent pace I end up moving along in.