Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bare Feet & Cell Phones

Not long ago, I was listening to a radio interview while driving home. The woman being interviewed had just returned to the United States after spending a few weeks vacationing with her husband in Central America.

I listened while she told of the fabulous luxury hotels, white sand beaches and fine restaurants she and her husband had so recently enjoyed.

They had a gloriously wonderful time but were struck by the terrible poverty they had witnessed just outside the confines of their luxurious paradise. She and her husband had seen large families living in small block houses, clothes hanging outside on clotheslines, chickens loose in the yards and kids running around barefoot. My god, she said, these people could not even afford to put shoes on their children.

The interview centered around the subject of what we as individuals, and as a nation, could do to help these "developing" countries. The commentator wrapped up the program by giving out the name of a few "relief" organizations that their listeners could contribute to in order to ease the conscience.

I had to smile.

I had been there just 3 years before and had seen the same things, but I saw them through different eyes.

My trip to Central America had been about something else. I wasn't interested in staying ocean-side in those tourist traps. I didn't want to spend my time sunbathing, snorkeling, drinking wine and eating fine foods—though all those things were there to be had. Why would I want to come all that way to do the same things I could do in my own country—in Miami or San Diego? I had come for a different purpose. I wanted to see real life there—the life of the people.

Did I witness poverty? That depends on your point of view...

Sure, I saw the small block houses tucked away in the forest.

I saw clothes hung outside to dry on the line.

I saw the chickens running loose in their yards.

I saw the burros they used to bring their goods to market.

I saw the country schools in the middle of nowhere...

...and children as they walked home, dressed in their school uniforms.

And yes, I saw families all living together.

But, was all this so bad?

Did anyone ask THEM?

I spent my days walking mile after mile of gravel roads and back-country trails. This is what I saw:

I saw multiple generations all living on the same, family-owned land—but generally they did not live in just one house but in two, three, or even four separate homes.

I saw happy, contented families spending their days together—the men tending the orchards, the women tending home and family.

Look at this beautiful older woman as she weaves straps for a new basket her husband just made with his own hands.

I saw unparalleled beauty all around.

The land was full of orchids...

...gorgeous vegetation...

...bananas and fruits of all kinds.

There were flowers of every color imaginable.

I saw children flying by me, running down gravel roads laughing and chasing one another, completely oblivious to any other way of life—and yes—they were barefoot.

I stumbled upon hidden treasures like these—places to frolic and play that I would have killed for as a kid...

Beautiful swimming holes...

Fabulous waterfalls with fresh, clear, cool, mountain water cascading down into sand-bottom pools.

Could it get any better than this? You can't get this at a luxury hotel!

And if that wasn't enough, I found a natural hot springs and mud bath available for just 25 cents (free if you live there).

Local kids, soaking in the natural hot springs. Thank God most of the tourists haven't found this sanctuary yet.

And yes, there's about ingenious! One day, I came upon this fabulous walking bridge off the side of the road. The local folks had built a suspension bridge over the river to get to guess what...another incredible engineering feat yet to come...

Here are a few shots of how the bridge is made for all you engineers to marvel at. Notice the cement columns that support cables that go over the top and anchor into huge, heavy concrete dead weights.

The steps leading up to the bridge.

The underside.

Here is how they lashed the planks together on both sides and down the center.

The bridge is a couple hundred feet long and really fun to walk across! It will support a full load of people all going to where?

To a swimming pool of course!

And look at the simplicity of how this swimming pool is fashioned. They simply dug out the area they wanted for the pool and lined it with rocks and cement (both sides and bottom) then dammed up the stream. To do this, they left an 4 foot wide opening at the lower end of the pool and stacked up boards to hold back the stream as it filled. You can see from the picture that it doesn't have to be perfectly sealed. The water from the stream just seeps through the boards and goes over the top as needed.

What's brilliant about this design is its simplicity. It fills naturally without pumps, and when it's time to clean out excess sediment and leaf residue from the bottom of the pool, they just take out the boards and let it flush itself out! It is truly brilliant. And the best part is that hardly anyone from the outside world knows where this place is! (Sorry, I'm not going to tell where it is, either.)

Now, let's review the conclusion everyone seems to come to when they view pictures of, or pass by, rural areas of Central America (or other "undeveloped" countries, for that matter)...

I will be the first to say that it is not all wine and roses out there. As in any country, there are people there who are desperately poor, but just because we happen to see some kids running barefoot down a trail, families living without air conditioning in a house less than 2000 square feet, or mom, grandma, and baby all sitting on a porch together, doesn't mean that they are living a miserable life.

In many ways, they have it much better than we do. They live life. We, on the other hand, live in a world of sterile, square boxes. We live in a box, work in a box and drive a box. In the evenings we sit and stare at a box till we fall asleep—then wake up and do it all over again.

So what do we do? We do our damnedest to try to convince them to want to be like us. We want them to become a "developed" country. Why? So we can sell them all our crap. And in doing so, we ruin them.

It's a travesty. We SHOULD have a guilty conscience, not because we have it so much better than they, but because we sugar-coat our lifestyle and shove it down their throats with all our fancy advertising. We stick it in front of them EVERWHERE, even in the remotest regions of the land.

I don't know about you, but I find it a shame when visiting these areas and see a bus full of school kids all texting away on their cell phones or have to do a double-take because there are TV antennas sticking out of those straw huts...huh?

Or when I visit the Kuna Indian villages in the Caribbean Islands—after seeing them selling their molas on the mainland dressed in their traditional, colorful clothing—only to find half of them running around in Yankee baseball caps, dorky t-shirts, shorts and Walmart thongs. It's like running into the Dali Lama wearing pink tights and a green tank just doesn't seem right.

But I know, most of you will disagree with me. Most will have, what is in my opinion, the narrow view that we here in America have it so much better than everyone else in the world. And maybe you're right.

So go ahead, let's turn them all into us. Let's give them all cell phones, televisions, and computers. Let's build them some crappy prefab boxes and completely eradicate their cultures...

...and for God's sake, let's get those kids some shoes.

Image source: HERE


PiTo said...

Great post Michael! Are we going to force them to go green next? What about their carbon footprint?

Jill said...

Excellent post. Like you said, there can be real poverty in the region and that shouldn't be glossed over, but in my experience (I stayed in a village in El Salvador), even those struggling areas have a vibrant family and community life with children who love to run around barefoot. The saddest thing I saw was that the people in the community WERE striving to be like Americans, because of the faulty ideas we've sold them, and even had TV's to garble up our mindless distractions.

I think we could all use a little more time barefoot and see if that helps us reconnect with the world around us.

Anonymous said...

Going barefoot is best for kids' developing feet. Wearing shoes, especially without socks, can lead to all sorts of fungi and disease, along with foot deformities and flat foot. They grew up barefoot, their feet are tough enough to walk on glass (well maybe not large, sharp pieces). Their biggest danger is stepping on a snake, but even with shoes, they're wearing shorts. The snake could also bite their unprotected legs. They're most likely to have parasites enter their feet in the water, but you don't wear shoes in the water anyway. This whole "we must give them shoes!" thing is overrated in my opinion. Unless the spends their days walking over toxic trash and oysters (which some do, I'll admit), they don't really need shoes.

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