In Belize I gained an appreciation for a sense of place and community. Running a jungle lodge on 100 acres of rain forest with two other couples showed Bob and I what was missing from our lives back home. We come from a mobile, fragmented culture where many feel isolated. In Belize we were all inextricably linked to the land and together cared for the horses, gardens, and infrastructure. We also saw the power of a “can do” approach to life. The Mayans knew their environment intimately and could figure out how to solve most problems using materials from the land. Our first foreign country together was a big eye opener.
Our next expat post was China where we became aware of saving face and giving big face. The Chinese go out of their way to avoid embarrassing themselves or others. In other words, they always take the “high road” choosing dignity over embarrassment, humility over bragging. After six months in Tianjin, we were well on our way to acquiring the habit of common decency, a trait also sadly missing in our home culture.
On Guam we witnessed the destructive power of entitlement. Guam is a U.S. territory in the north Pacific with a strategic military base and so receives healthy support from the U.S. Government. Virtually all locals are employed by GovGuam and they do not take their jobs seriously. Our landlord for example spent a good amount of time tending his 300 fighting cocks while “on the job,” breaking to return to work and punch out. The island was in tatters from a typhoon that swept through years prior and crime flourished while the cops hung around the station trying to decide which stocks to invest in. The demotivating effect of hand outs was evident everywhere we looked.
In Hawaii we saw how insular islanders can be. Many locals were convinced they were direct descendants of royalty despite evidence to the contrary. They also believed many aspects of their environment originated in Hawaii. Aloe vera, an African plant which came to the islands via Chinese immigrants was claimed as indigenous to Hawaii. They exclaimed, “That’s so Hawaiian!” over ubiquitous habits like sharing food and exchanging hugs.
On a small island off the coast of Nicaragua, we learned that anarchy works as long as there are strong leaders. It was thrilling to see the council of elders in action, making decisions, solving problems and meting out justice. Little Corn Island weathered hurricanes, poverty, drug runners, gun play, and petty thievery – without police, medics or fire fighters.
So assimilated these lessons and adjusted the direction of our life. We knew we wanted a connection to the land and wanted to throw in with people who also felt tied to that land. We found a rural neighborhood with hard-working, well-traveled folks and bought a house next door to a farm. Employing the people skills we learned in China, we threw in with our neighbors and began working towards common goals involving local food and community resilience. We make decisions and solve problems as a group in a manner similar to the tribal justice we experienced on Little Corn Island.
Anthropologist Joseph Campbell wrote about the concept of the “heroes journey” in which an individual leaves home and returns years later, stronger and wiser. I am convinced our life would not be nearly as serene today had we not experienced other cultures. Surely our years of international travel was our heroes journey.