Monday, September 13, 2010

More Mid-service Musings

Mid-service med checks behind us (all good), it’s a natural time to reflect on what’s changed in the last year, and to ponder what’s yet to come. It’s a good time, also, to review the shocks and pleasures of this new life, and the adjustments we’ve made—most of which now seem oddly normal.

Random festivals, with brass bands and people dancing til all hours in, ahh, unusual costumes? Check. Normal. Really useful training opportunities that we have labored to create, but that few attend? Or to which they arrive 90 minutes late? Resigned to it. Indoor spaces more frigid than the outdoors, nearly any time of day/year? Acostumbrado, and I always carry that extra layer. Peruvian TV? Never get used to it!

The point is that we're now pretty well accustomed to this life. If someone told us that we were going to have to spend the rest of our lives in Chivay, living as we live now, it wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen. But—we also now have a much better idea of what we’d be missing.

At the halfway mark, thoughts about what we miss about the States have inevitably turned into thoughts of what we’ll miss about Peru when our service is done—but that’s a topic for a year from now. So far, in other words, it's been exactly the learning experience we were hoping for. We know a little more about ourselves and what's important to us (just a little more private space, please?), and a lot more about the world around us, what makes a way of life beautiful, and what detracts.

In his book, “Deep Economy,” author Bill McKibben cited a couple of studies that resonated with me. In one, a worldwide inquest found that self-described “happiness” rises in tandem with income only up to a fairly modest amount, where one’s basic needs are met, and beyond that point the data scatter. Another study has been tracking how “happy” U.S. citizens report themselves to be, beginning back in the 1940’s. That number peaked around 1957—shortly after I was born, though I’m sure that’s just a coincidence—and though household income (adjusted for inflation) has more than doubled since that time, “happiness” has been losing ground ever since.

I never thought of the way of life we had in the States as “better.” It was pretty sweet, on balance, but what we gave up to come to Peru has been offset by the knowledge and insights we have gained, and a whole new set of satisfactions (OK, and stresses) that we couldn’t have imagined before we got here. We’re still open to exploring other ways of living, other ways of balancing the joys and stresses of various styles of life, but never with the idea that one might be “best.”

This comes from someone who has always gone for the “lifestyle sampler pack”: solid, middle-class-suburban upbringing; college on the six-year-plan, working my way through, followed by six years of seasonal work featuring a steady diet of powdered milk, bulk foods, and venison when I potted something during hunting season. We lived for two years in a log cabin (or, sometimes, in a VW camper) without electricity or indoor plumbing in a Montana ghost town, working for the Dept. of the Interior; we stayed in classy hotels in Europe, visited the White House, and hobnobbed with literary celebrities in mid-town Manhattan when I was president of a trade association; and we have spent decades as Main Street retailers, deeply involved in our small community in Montana.

So what do I now see as a good “way of life?” Enough friends, with whom we can share meaningful experiences and a fair amount of silliness; good, wholesome food, with plenty of variety (and the occasional descent into decadence); a community in which we can feel rooted and where we can make a difference; meaningful work with people we like; a healthful environment offering a variety of outdoor activities year-round; and a lively and varied cultural life of which we can both partake and in which we can participate.

Some of those are admittedly harder to achieve here; we’ll never be a part of this culture, and when we participate it’s usually something of a spectacle—Whoa! The old gringos are dancing Wititi just like us!—and much of the cultural background will forever remain opaque to us. I’m accustomed to making a spectacle of myself, but sometimes it does get tedious.

It’s harder to find good friends with whom to pass the time here, and some kinds of cultural variety just don’t exist. It can all be very frustrating--and yet analyzing that frustration can also be very enlightening.

What's important to the people among whom we live? Pretty simple: family, work, community, and their cultural traditions, in more or less that order. Of course, how they deal with those issues is what differentiates this place from any other, but I'm not doing a sociological study here, just walking around with my eyes open.

On the plus side for us, we eat much, much closer to the source than we did in the U.S.; the alpaca and chicken we eat every day were recently seen on the hoof, not grown and packaged in a “production facility” thousands of miles away. Some of the fruit we eat may be from Chile, but so was the fruit we ate in the States, and we’re a LOT closer to Chile, now! The rest of the veggies and grains in our diet are usually pretty local. Points off for variety in the diet; score some extra for a more rational distribution system.

I also enjoy the feeling that my environmental “footprint” has diminished significantly—the resources we use are far fewer here than in the States, and that’s important to me. I’ll probably shower more frequently when I go back, but I’ll use less hot water, I promise!

So, back to the themes from Bill McKibben’s book: we’ll return to the States in a year, much more focused on the things that make us “happy,” much more attuned to eliminating the things normally associated with higher income but that, in the end, distract or detract from quality of life. We know we can be happy with much, much less. We can live ever more lightly and “locally.”

Years ago, when we bought our house, it was a wreck. We didn’t have enough money to do a fabulous remodel, but we spent a lot of time and muscle getting rid of what was ugly. When you remove what’s ugly, what almost inevitably emerges is the beautiful. You can do that with your life. I’m working on it.