“What parts of the simplicity of life here will you take with you when you go back to the States?” my teammate Peter asked me the other day.
Peter is new to the work, the team, the community, and life in the campo (countryside), and therefore is still adjusting to many of the big lifestyle changes one must make in order to (happily) live here. During our time in the Peace Community, us gringos (originally a term referring to folks from the U.S. but around here used to refer to all foreigners) don’t have many of the things that we’re used to from what I tend call our “normal life” back in our home countries: we don’t have the luxury of a refrigerator, microwave, oven, dishwasher, washing machine, nor a clothes dryer. Our house (pictured at left) is made of wood slats with a corrugated tin roof, each room lit by a single naked bulb. Any groceries, household items, office supplies – anything we buy – we have to carry up the mountain.
Despite all the things we don’t have, we arguably have the best house in the village, and count on many comforts our neighbors don’t have: a seat on the toilet (that’s not to say that the flush system functions, however), a computer, two tanks to collect the water piped in from mountain rivers as opposed to just one tank in most houses (see photo at right of our clothes-washing sink and drinking water filter system), a back porch overlooking the garden, a gas cooking range (nearly everyone else cooks with firewood, though a few have electric ranges). Luxury is relative.
When Peter posed the simplicity question we had also been discussing climate change, after many of our campesinos neighbors had commented that the weather this year has been markedly different than in years past, so I knew Peter was also asking the question in terms of reducing my impact on the environment.
I think consumption – both of energy and of things – is a big culprit of our impact on the environment, and without washing machines and dishwashers it’s easy to use less energy. Besides, in Apartadó, the small city nearest to the Peace Community where we grocery shop and have periodic meetings, the only things I feel compelled to buy are the occasional beer or slice of pizza. (Helped, I’m sure, by the fact that I do not share the sense of fashion in this region: off-the-shoulder tank tops haphazardly painted in sparkly designs or super-tight jeans with all kinds of flashy snaps and pocket designs? Not for me, thanks.) When I go back to the states (or even to Bogotá), however, I will of course be confronted with the temptation to throw out the window all of the lifestyle changes to which I’ve adapted over the last 10 and half months. On a brief trip to Medellín a couple weeks ago, for example, I was reminded of how strong the drive to consume is in cities: everywhere I looked were ads, shopping malls, sales, stuff and more stuff to buy.
The people here in the Peace Community are poor, and though one wouldn’t necessarily call them environmentalists in the traditional sense of the word – they think nothing, for example, of throwing plastic candy wrappers onto mountain paths – they do have an admirable ability to find a million ways to reuse. Clear plastic cooking oil containers are transformed into candle protectors on windy nights; plastic dish soap containers become pots for seedlings; backpacks and satchels get repaired and re-sewn endless times; old t-shirts are torn into strips to serve as dishwashing rags or forehead-sweat moppers.
So, Peter, I would like to learn that ability to creatively reuse everything, and I do want to continue with my newfound passion for gardening (assuming I can find somewhere to grow veggies in Bogota or San Francisco!). I also think I could be ok with air-drying my clothes, assuming I can find enough space in an apartment or backyard in which to do so. That doesn’t mean I’m committing to living like a monk, however! I certainly intend to jump right back into using high-speed internet again – this dial-up thing is awful! – not to mention the fact that some of the things I live without here are actually quite practical and help reduce my impact in other ways – fridges, after all, keep food from spoiling, and I won’t always have tons of little kids constantly popping in the kitchen to whom I can give leftovers.