Coming Home

March 05, 2014  •  3 Comments

My return flight was scheduled to leave Manaus at the miserable time (for a morning person) of 1:05 a.m. I had Voelly, my original taxi driver, pick me up from the Hostel at 9:30 so I would be somewhat awake for going through check-in and security at the airport. As we talked in the car, Voelly said that the next time I come to Manaus, I should stay at his house—for free. I have met some truly wonderful people in Brazil. Checking bags and getting boarding passes at the small Manaus airport was not the efficient process I'm used to at U.S. airports. When I got to the single American Airlines gate, I was thirsty and a bit hungry, so I bought an overpriced cup of juice from the one food vendor there, who was doing a brisk business selling drinks and snacks.

I had a long wait in Miami before my connecting flight, and after walking through the entire large terminal to find something I wanted to eat (Chinese food seemed to be the best option among all the unhealthy pastries and fast food), I settled into a seat near my gate. I listened to a group of four somewhat-young-but-aging businessmen talk about multi-million dollar deals, how to succeed in business, the history of recent Russian political leaders (one of them was very knowledgable), and a bit about their kids. Their conversations were interrupted frequently as they took phone calls. On my other side was a young woman talking on the phone to her husband; they seemed to be arguing about the way that they were communicating. I watched people rush past on the way to their gates. I realized how few people I had seen wearing business attire over the past two weeks (only the waitstaff in a couple of the restaurants in Manaus).

Throughout my trip, I noted the great contrasts between life in Manaus and at Xixuau compared to life in the U.S., even in a smaller town like Chapel Hill. After spending two weeks away, the contrasts are even more stark. We are spoiled by choice in so many ways. After I got home, I went out to do some food shopping. Weaver Street Market (a local cooperatively-owned grocery store) has eight kinds of rice in their bulk food section. I can get almost all of my favorite fruits and vegetables year-round, regardless of their growing season. The cereal isle in the regular supermarket has at least 50 varieties, and the milk section has four brands of organic (cow's) milk, plus a dozen “milks” made from various nuts, grains, and legumes. Even in Manaus, this staggering array of choices simply doesn't exist. It's the same with other products, from clothing to electronics to appliances. Stores there are small and tend to carry the same limited items as each other. At Xixuau, there are no shops of any kind. They buy the few supplies they need and can afford in Manaus, and meet the rest of their needs from the river and forest.

I also can't help but think about the contrast of lifestyles, particularly comparing Xixuau with my home. There is again a huge difference in the number of choices available not just in what I can buy, but what I can do. On any given evening or weekend, I have hundreds of options, from dancing to concerts to theater performances to outdoor activities to restaurants to movies . . . I could spend hours just looking through the choices. At Xixuau, there is plenty of leisure time, but much less to do. They watch some TV and listen to some music, but seem to mostly just hang out together. At one point during the week, I asked Chris if the villagers ever have the desire to move into the city so they can have the houses, cars, TVs, and lifestyle that are considered the good life by most of the world. He said that a few of them have tried over the years, but usually come back before too long. Part of the reason is that many of the villagers are illiterate (though that is changing with the youngest generation, who are attending their school when young and go to school in a village in the countryside outside Manaus as teens), so the only jobs they can get are doing manual labor for low pay. As a result, they end up living in slums and struggling to get by. They come back because, according to Chris, they have a better standard of living on the reserve.

It's an interesting view of what makes for a good standard of living. Being stuck in poverty is obviously problematic, but in terms of the basics of housing and possessions, people don't have much more on the reserve than they do in a city slum. And life in the city brings more choices for how to spend one's time. What makes life at Xixuau so much better is the environment. It's a beautiful place, and feels clean and wholesome, despite the dirt on your feet and the limited diet. There are few activities to do in your leisure time, but no one seems bored or restless. There are few opportunities to “move up in the world” or “improve” one's life, but little desire for anything different. And most of all, there is a supportive, loving community. I've been taking a new look at choices, opportunities, and what makes for a good life. I see how often we, with our many opportunities, squander our time and money on choices that don't truly contribute to a good life. I already see myself making changes as some of my old habits and activities no longer hold much interest. All the “worthy” postings and cute videos on facebook may be enticing, but life is short, and that's not how I want to use my time. There are countless hours of programming on TV, much of it entertaining, but I'm going to limit myself to the shows that I really want to see. Shopping brings hundreds of options for nearly any product I might need or want, but I find it exhausting to spend much time getting wrapped up finding the perfect thing for the best price. When I see how content I can be living with very little, I have to question how much time I want to put into buying things. It seems that one of the most powerful choices we have is the option to live simply, have less, and do less. We can choose to step off the racetrack and live better by letting go of the desire for more.

For my last few days at Xixuau and the journey back to Manaus and my home, I was feeling a bit disappointed with my trip. I wanted to enjoy every moment in the Amazon, and I thought that I would fall in love with Xixuau so much that I couldn't wait to go back. That didn't quite happen. But since I've been back, I find myself missing Xixuau. I miss the beauty of the scenery, and even the hot, humid air. I miss the simplicity of the buildings and the lifestyle, with so much less work to do and fewer belongings to worry about. And I miss the friendliness and warmth of the people, who treated us as guests in their home and did whatever they could to make us comfortable and happy. Perhaps I will go back soon after all.


Comments

3.nechama(non-registered)
Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, what you have written here resonates deeply. What really hit me hard was the description you gave of the young woman next to you in the airport. That she was on the phone seemingly arguing with her husband about their not communicating... Such irony.
2.A Still Mind
Pat, it's a little hard for me to know for sure since I had a very limited ability to talk to the villagers, but yes, they do seem to be very happy. I never saw an argument or fight. There was little complaining. Children ran around playing and rarely cried. Everyone seems satisfied with what they have and how they live. There was a sense of ease and comfort that contrasts greatly with the busy, hurried, restless feel of most people in the U.S.
1.pat heinrich(non-registered)
How about happiness? We're the people in the village happy?
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