Self-styled expats, Bob and I could have lived anywhere in the world, yet we repeatedly chose Third World countries as our targets. Belize called our name the first time, so we wrote the owners of a jungle lodge and offered a year of our services and expertise in exchange for room and board. It worked and we soon found ourselves managing a small resort in the middle of nowhere. Seven years later, itching to leave the Disneyland ambience of Maui for some place more real, we set our sights on Nicaragua and landed a job managing fifteen rooms on an 800-acre island in the Caribbean.
Once in a while we’d get a guest who found the abject poverty depressing. That comment would remind me of a fable about a fisherman who caught enough fish to feed his family and earn a little cash in a few hours a day. A businessman on vacation tried talking the fisherman into expanding his operation, working longer hours, building a fleet and making enough money to retire early. “Then,” he said, “you will have plenty of time to siesta with your wife and play with the children.” The fisherman laughed, “I’m already doing that, why would I work for twenty years to get what I have now?”
So anyhow, pinning up clean towels with the sun burning the back of my legs prompted me to ponder what drew me to Central America. It’s this; I like the challenge of non-voluntary simplicity. It’s a lot easier to live in line with my values when I don’t have a choice. In Belize we had to watch water consumption because come the dry season the well would dry up and our reserve tanks better be well stocked. In Nicaragua A/C wasn’t an option, you learned to lie perfectly still, spread-eagle to get to sleep some nights. Rarely did you burn calories without purpose. A walk in the woods yielded a bag of limes and avocados.
Turns out living lean is trendy in the privileged world. Community resilience is the new buzz. Homesteader groups are sprouting up all over. DIY workshops are heavily attended. Americans are getting in touch with their nearly-forgotten Yankee ingenuity. Victory gardens are making a comeback. Life feels more real when you’re eating tomatoes warm from the garden on home baked bread. Line-dried clothes smell delicious.
The first time we flew back to the States from Belize I was shocked. We drove past miles of perfectly groomed empty yards. Where were all the people? We’d become accustomed to life, and this place seemed dead. No one waved, no one was working over a cook fire or hanging laundry. There was no one. When we got out and walked we heard the faint sound of dogs barking from inside the houses. The landscape was devoid of all but the wild birds attracted to back yard feeders. No dogs, cats, kids, horses, women or men. Empty.
These experiences shaped how I live my life today, in community, with a garden, laundry line, and sourdough starter. A lot of expats don’t get to choose their destination. They go where the work is. I’m grateful we were able to choose places which fit our values; the poorer corners of the world, where everyone isn’t guaranteed the basics of life, where necessity births innovation. Call it poverty, but I call it freedom to slow down and enjoy the simple things.