I am wind. Nothing more than a refreshing touch for the sons and daughters of neglect and anarchy. Now I’m gone. A lifetime there would not have let this well of passion run dry, but the wind must move, or it is no longer wind. But those sons and daughters, and the creative ether floating between the crows of roosters and the rush of the sea, have united together and liberated me. These 28 months of words, of thoughts, of stories, of poetry, and of dreams, remind me that every month of this existence was time when I was alive, fighting to erect monuments to hope in the hearts of people who will never be heard. We built them together in these two wondrous years, that even I will come to forget. But although forgotten, I’ll feel their weight with me always, because I carry this invisible monument, this swollen heart, and I too have hope for the future.
On the dusty floors of an empty house, they will find the shadow of a life that I left behind. My prized name brand jeans were left in a pile of abandoned things, with mud stains, torn strips of fabric where the barbed wire fence humbled me, and blue pipe glue stuck to the thigh. There was a bottle of cologne that I had never used. It was probably once valuable, but all I can smell is alcohol. I kept trying to find space in my bag to take my dented machete home. Living simply teaches you very quickly how trivial most of our possessions really are. My suitcases were once full of important things, to the point of bursting. Almost two and a half years later, a less cluttered life helps me to see more clearly. Value is as capricious as a kite by the sea, and culture is the wind swaying it to and fro. Is anybody holding the string?
Over the course of time spent abroad, an image sharpened in the mirror. I no longer needed the electronic things, the fine fabrics, the security, the comfort. I will have those things again, but I will never need them. What I needed was time to learn. I was a castaway dreamer in a gray place, that smelled like exhaust, new leather shoes, and a different kind of slavery. And Love, the kind of Love that makes us willing hostages, bound together, as life just moves around, like a protruding rock, stubbornly parting a river- could it ever be anything more than a stunted sapling in a place where optimism and dreams could not take root? Time. Space. Freedom for my heart to beat, for my mind to wander, to journey deeper into the essence of human happiness, and of suffering. I owe this place so much. I owe these people everything. The more I tried to give, the greater my debt grew.
But I’m back now, 28 months later. I didn’t need to smell the leather shoes to know that everything has changed. I think all that was missing was the confidence to know that I can choose where, and how I live. It’s the fruit of a reckless love of life, and it always leaves you with the realization that you are free. Now there’s a bit of love, and laughter, and more love- so that the world doesn’t look so gray. But most of all, courage is here now. The courage to not only see who you are, but to assert it at all cost.
In face of this heart wrenching conclusion to almost everything that defined me over the past two years, it is important to write about the new beginnings. Octavio began to explore his own country, visiting the beach with me for the first time in his life. Six new UVA students moved into Corozo, and began a metamorphosis that I know all too well. I said goodbye to four walls, but have gained a new home- the space between Kati, Canela, and I, which will rest somewhere along the DC metro route, where poor people and smelly dogs are welcome. After traveling to the heart of adventure, after dreaming, and fighting for social justice, it would not be easy for me to bus dirty dishes off tables again, but I’ll do it if it becomes necessary. Or maybe I’ll get lucky, and get the job I’ve been striving for. This dream job would allow me to continue being a champion for justice in the forgotten corners of the world, where the word “progress” is not yet whispered, for fear that it may become a broken dream. From the office, I would learn. From the phone, I would fight. And when my plane lands in those dark corners, my eyes would be opened once again, and I’d remember how small I am. But maybe I will sculpt a few more invisible monuments before it’s all through. That’s the new horizon, that’s the new dream. And vague as it sounds, this new horizon has a name, but I still fear to whisper it.
Kati and I have been easing ourselves back into this new world, as slowly as time and money allows us. We’re not well equipped to survive in these concrete labyrinths, because we are Neanderthals with flip phones, with only a piece of toilet paper pinning the battery in place, and at least mine has NO INTERNET access. I’ve got phone numbers, an Indiana Jones lego game (well, a demo anyways), and my only “ap” is the calculator function. Even the people who have lived through the Smart Phone revolution over the past three years must be aware of how far reaching this transformation is, but imagine being absent through it for two and a half years, and returning, expecting to find things more or less the same. I don’t know almost anyone anymore who doesn’t have a Smart Phone. This universality makes even a week spent in the city without a Smart Phone feel almost daring.
I’m experiencing culture shock all over again. Nowadays, everyone obsesses about these things, called “aps”, and I don’t know where I can find one with my flip phone. Apparently, if you get enough of them, you can eliminate every source of discomfort or inconvenience in your life, and at the very least are cooler than everybody else. Since arriving, conversations have never sounded more electronic, with my words being punctuated by a lost pair of eyes and digital interjections. I believe the new convention is that the knife sits upon the napkin to the right of your plate, the fork to the left, and the escape from everything around you is always in your hands. At the first sign of a lull in conversation, or when the next digital harbinger of inane personal updates chimes in, how can you remember the flavor of your food? Or the charm of your company? Maybe there’s an “ap” to solve the problem. In this new America, mysteries are not discussed, they are solved in nanoseconds on your screen. Stories are not shared with enthusiasm, and wild hand gestures, they are watched on youtube. Smart Phones are now indispensable tools for everyday conversation. Kodak moments are not experienced, they are pocketed like collector cards. As long as you are willing to fragment everything magnificent down to a few pixels, they can live forever, right? I’m pretty sure Lord Voldermort tried something similar with his soul, and look where it got him. What language is being spoken now? What does Instagram, Uber, and What’s Ap mean? Where can I get an ap? Will it help me communicate with my friends better? I was only gone two and a half years. I haven’t even mastered texting with T9 yet. Since when did not owning something make everyone, including myself, so uncomfortable?
Breath Dan…. Breath. I guess this makes me a luddite, and history will reduce unsavory manifestos like this down to nothing more than speed bumps on the road to progress. I will one day own a “space phone” too, because apparently you need them to survive in our new world, but I’m going to wait as long as I can. Will I be able to control the phone or will it control me? I see the benefits of this change, bright as day, you don’t need to remind me what is gained by it. Let’s just remember to discuss what is lost as well.
Before the weight of the world befell us, Kati and I decided to take one last hiatus from real life- a camping trip out west. After seeing so much of the world, we decided it would be a crime to not experience all of the natural grandeur of our own country. What was once envisioned as a road trip that would stretch from Canada to the Grand Canyon, with every national park and compelling urban area between, was scaled back to a two week long camping trip from Denver to Montana, with the occasional visit from friends. This will at least save more adventure for later. The highlights of the trip were our friends, Rocky Mountain National Park, The Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Glacier Mountain National Park.
We traversed the floral dream of alpine tundra in the Rocky Mountain national park, counting how many snowy ridge lines proudly jutted out between our smiles and the horizon. At 13,000 feet above our memories in the Dominican Republic, we heard what we thought was thunder, and looked out of our tent to see a distant rock slide playing in the snow. Not a blade of grass dare grow around our tent, where boulders, and the Dove Glacier mingled to form a positively lunar landscape. And as we slept in the tent, I could feel my heart beating for want of oxygen, and the raw skin on my heels that would soon become blisters. All of the muscles in my shoulders that were sore from lugging the weighty luxuries of canned ravioli and ripe apples to the top of this peak, but it is in this discomfort that I find paradise time and time again.
In the Grand Tetons I mistook a curious porcupine prowling around in the bushes for a Grizzly Bear, and we found a hidden and verdant valley between the jagged icy peaks, hidden from less determined tourists. We walked alongside elk, black bear, moose, and bison. The caldera of the super volcano in Yellowstone Park was covered in steamy pits of water and bubbling pools of mud and sulfuric acid. We saw enormous geysers of water that were announced with fumes of rotten eggs, and all of the colors of the rainbow splayed out as thermophilic bacterial mats. The most gorgeous display of natural wonder was Glacier Park, along the Canadian border. A more elegant array of snow covered peaks and mountain lakes can not be found. The hike from our first camp site to Jackson Glacier was surreal, and I’m happy to say that we were able to share the dream with our good friend from the Peace Corps, Alex, accompanied by a few of his friends. We finished with snow in our boots in late July, and felt what future generations will only experience through photographs- the melting shadows of a once proud Ice Age calling out to us, reminding those who will listen of how indomitable and mighty nature can be.
The wind ceases to be wind when it stops moving, and to keep growing, so must I keep moving. My host mother Tona said it well, “para seguir, tienes que superar esta vida”, (to go forwards, you need to overcome this life). After living like a nomad for months, and adventuring, and trying to make a difference in the world, I feel like I was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I will enjoy a sobering dose of stability in my life, but as comfortable as I get with this stability, I will always remind myself to keep moving. Maybe not physically, or geographically, but I must move mentally, so as to not become a slave to routine. There are too many experiences waiting for me to allow myself to be confined to the same ones over and over again.
How do I conclude these past two years of life? How do I thank everyone who made these two years wonderful? Will my mind and heart move on? Or will some part of me always linger back in the campo? I felt at home there, like I belonged there as much as anyone else. Even though I was a mystery to many people, I was at least a familiar mystery. I had my place, and so I dissolved into the backdrop as much as those living, rustic statues, completing their daily journeys upon four legged time machines, marching into obsolescence. I achieved a degree of unity with the land, and the people, and now words seem pathetically inadequate. Manuel passed me a note before leaving, that read, “there are so many things that I want to tell you with regards to thanks, but I can’t find the words. It only consoles me knowing you understand.” I do understand. When we are truly one, silence is the only thing that is genuine.
For my heart, for my mind, for their hearts and their minds, there’s nothing of significance that my words can convey. But the breeze stirs again, and I am moving, and as I move I will change, but I will always feel the weight of this swollen heart.
This will be my last blog post on the Road Less Traveled, so I may challenge myself to find something new to fill the void, and in doing so, continue moving, continue learning, continue growing.
For those of you interested in seeing a little bit of footage from the inauguration of the El Corozo water system, and a description of the project. You can find it here. Fundaccion Reddom posted this video on Youtube a week or two ago- the awesome techno music it’s pretty wonderful, too.