I‘m in the sweet little mountain town of Boquete, Panama for two weeks, part of my quest to experience more of life and chase my elusive dream of Spanish fluency, whatever that is. Trips like this are always eye-openers for me. I get to see how the vast majority of earthlings live, and, recently, how the roiling confluence of that lifestyle with the relentless current of the new “world culture,” so long on aspiration but so short on patience, is affecting their simpler, purer—some would say more sustainable—traditions.
But this trip is already proving to be more than merely instructional. Just this morning I had an epiphany.
Habla Ya, the fine Spanish school I’m attending, arranged for me to stay with a local family. Señor Guillermo Bell Miranda is a coffee farmer, working the land atop the steep cerro just behind his home. He and his extended family couldn’t be nicer or more generous with their home, their time and their help with my Spanish. Nonetheless, I had just two requirements for my lodging: a bed at least six feet long, and WiFi (so I can keep up with my commitment to regular posting on OneMansWonder.com With classes taking up most of the day, and the prospect of a few excursions into the gorgeous area surrounding Boquete in the mornings, I was counting on being able to connect with the Internet every evening, in the privacy of my room.
The bed is long enough. But the Internet connection, a sluggish, intermittent, dial-up service, requires 17-year-old Antonio’s shoving a well-used CD onto my laptop and installing some huge program.
My reaction to all of this—well within reason, I thought—was to let Lorena, la directora of the school, know that we’d have to find some other arrangement that would accommodate my needs. After all, who’s the customer here? Wouldn’t anyone in his right mind hold a supplier more or less to the terms of a contract? I assured Lorena that the last thing in the world I want to do is to offend the Bell Miranda family, but work is work.
Just then, another staff member in the office, overhearing our conversation, came over to explain, in what I took as a paternalistic tone, that I couldn’t blame the Bell Mirandas nor any average Panamanian family for not knowing all the ins and outs of Internet connections.
My Spanish always collapses to the level of rank beginner when shaken by any degree of emotion. Explaining that to the young man, I let him know, in English and in no uncertain terms, that I wasn’t blaming the family at all. And I didn’t need to be told that the school’s inability to meet my very few requirements was my fault. At this, Lorena jumped in to suggest that they might, indeed, be able to locate another family with WiFi. I reiterated my concern with hurting the feelings of Guillermo and his family with my decision, but she assured me they could explain the situation to the family with minimal offense. So I agreed to that solution and thanked her.
I retired to the student lounge (where WiFi is available), and started writing about my first couple of days here. I couldn’t think straight. Too many feelings plucking at the edges of my concentration. I tried to imagine two weeks at my adoptive family’s home with nothing “productive” to do in the evening, especially considering that they all retire by 9:00 or 9:30.
I recalled, from all my experiences in Mexico, how enigmatic Latin American values can seem to a norteamericano, but how, at some level I’ve only occasionally been able to embrace, they made sense. Then I saw a crystal clear image of Guillermo’s and his family’s faces when they learned that I’d found their home unacceptable.
That’s what did it. In that split second of clarity, everything resorted itself in my mind. I released my hold on my frustration, disappointment and self-righteousness, and let acceptance and flexibility gently nudge them aside. And, after all that consternation, the answer seemed so beautifully simple. I wondered why I cling so to the illusion that I can control my life.
So now I’ll spend my evenings patiently and happily with this kind, generous family. I’ll write what I can without access to information and photos. I’ll read my book—very slowly, so it’ll last the two weeks. Then I’ll use my free mornings to get online at school. Self: see how easy that is?
The cosmos wasted no time in rewarding me for my little awakening. For the rest of the morning, as it turns out, in the busy student lounge, I had the chance to meet many of the staff and my fellow students I’d never have met otherwise. Lorena thanked me more than once for my understanding. And tonight, arriving home after classes, everything seemed different with Guillermo and the family. Was it just me, or can they see the change in my attitude?
Funny, you can read about how to behave gracefully in other cultures. You can learn some of the language and customs. You can try doing in Rome as the Romans do. I know these things, and have wrestled with culture shock before. But, at least for me, it’s taken that little extra jolt, that little injection of emotion followed by reflection, for me to actually get it. Now if I can only remember it.
Jeffrey Willius is a seasoned writer, graphic designer, inventor and inveterate observer of life. He produces the popular blog, One Man’s Wonder (http://www.onemanswonder.com/), his reflections on life, Nature and new ways of seeing. His first book, Under the Wild Ginger, is receiving wide acclaim for its exploration of the common ground shared by Nature and spirituality. Willius lives in Minneapolis and Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico.
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