Sampela — a community of 1000+ Sea Nomads living in a small stilt village roughly a mile from land.
I’ve only ever been exposed to a quick paced lifestyle in a world that relies so heavily on commercialism and constant communication. At home I’m constantly surrounded by bustling masses of stressed out people talking on their cell phones, rushing from place to place while avoiding eye contact with the hundreds of strangers that come across their paths. A place where kids are unwillingly dragged to school by impatient parents and the never ending struggle to acquire money dictates people’s lives. A place where people rarely relax and, when they do, they do so by completely shutting down their brains, isolating themselves and watching television. Where I come from, people rarely exert more energy than walking to the supermarket in order to get food — an alarming variety of “fresh” and packaged, chemically-contaminated, imported produce. I’ve become so accustomed to this seemingly ubiquitous and almost superficial lifestyle that, for a long time, I really struggled to see the harm in it. Fortunately, though, various experiences — many of which have been on my gap year — have taught me to question these normalities. But it wasn’t until experiencing Sampela that I truly became motivated to change my mindset and my way of life.
Within seconds of arriving in Sampela it became apparent that it’s a world of its own — something that community members take pride in. They’ve lived on the ocean for hundreds of years. And, for the majority of their history, they lived on boats and lead a completely mobile life. They would travel, with big pods of boats, from place to place depending on their prey, tides, weather etc… They often traded fish and other sea life with “land people” for necessities such as water and clothing but they never took more than they needed and rarely with the intention of making a profit. They became experts in reading weather patterns, fish migrations and so much more. Their spiritual beliefs revolve around the ocean — making it a sacred place. So when they were eventually forced by the government to settle down, they decided to keep their traditions going and build a community in the middle of the ocean. And it seems as if they’ve successfully been able to connect with their roots. In Sampela, many people still refuse commercialism, they fish in order to get just enough money to feed themselves and their families. Many people also still believe that the most important education is education passed down from generation to generation about the sea. 80% of the population try local rituals before turning to western medicine. Most striking, though, was the overall happiness, contentment and tight knit relationships. People weren’t stressing about meeting deadlines, many of them don’t even know their own age because they tell time based off the tides. They enjoyed themselves and each others company and helped other. Obviously not everything was perfect, but so much of it was an improvement to my lifestyle.
“I will never again go to a place as magical as Sampela,” a fellow student said to me today. And, although it’s hard to come to terms with, I think she may be right. None of us were happy to return to land an to come to terms with the fact that we are not Sea Nomads, we’re land people.
After having spent a week in San Lucas Tolimán, I’ve taken quite a liking to the small Guatemalan city. My journal boasts lines such as “ravishing views,” “never want to leave,” and “welcoming, lovely people.” I write about Felipe, the owner of our hotel, who, upon noticing my sunburnt legs, took off in the dark to cut me a fresh aloe leaf. And I mention Jorge, the local shop owner, who hugs me with gratitude every time I bring another friend by to check out his beautiful bags. I describe how safe I feel here, how at ease I am.
It’s amazing how much can change in a split second.
As droplets of rain begin to patter against the dock, Sam and I amble away from the lake in search of shelter. Thunder booms above us and lightning glimmers from afar. Our legs react to the impending storm, moving faster and reaching farther with each step. As we discuss our destination, I feel a sharp tug on my shoulder. I glance back at the black hooded figure clutching my purse and yell. Childhood lessons crowd my mind: ‘never fight back’, ‘your safety is more important,’ ‘give them what you have.’ I relinquish my bag without hesitation.
Adrenaline surges through my veins and before I can even process what has happened, bystanders start calling out to me, “did he take your bag?” “Yes! He took it! He took my bag!” I cry out and follow a stranger as he takes off around the corner in pursuit of the black hooded man. We quickly come to a halt once we see the thief at the opposite end of the street, hundreds of feet away. “Ya se fue…” The man laments. I stand silently watching as my phone, debit card, kindle, and camera vanish into the distance.
I walk back to Sam, blinking back tears. The only word I can make out is a long, agonizing “no.” I think about the hundreds of photos lost, the cliffhanger I left off on in my book, and I can’t help but regret how little I fought.
Above all, I feel betrayed. I loved this place and now it will never again hold the same magic for me. San Lucas will no longer be the place with humbling mountains and caring, bountiful people. It will be the place where I was mugged. I think about how unfair this is, how one man could tarnish the image of a whole city so callously.
Interrupting my fuming thoughts, locals call out from the street, from behind tortilla stands and through their windows “my sister went after him!” “My dad and cousin are searching!” “The whole town is looking for him, you’ll get it back!”
The sound of their hopeful voices momentarily drowns out my helpless dwelling and floods me with a newfound determination. I hear the slow rumble of motorcycle approaching from behind and glance over as the female driver comes to a stop beside me. “Get on! We’re going to the police station” “Okay! We’re going to the police station!” I yell back, excitedly affirming the plan to myself. I hoist my leg up onto the seat— ” Addie no!” Sam yells, “red rules!” I only then remember the Dragon’s rule — no motorcycle riding. I awkwardly fumble off her motorcycle, “I can’t!” “Why?” she asks in earnest confusion. “the programa! No puedo, no puedo” I cry out, knowing a full explanation would take far too long. Her face remains contorted in confusion. I tell her I’ll hop in a taxi and follow her there. “Ok” she relents and takes off down the road. Sam and I hop into a tuk tuk seconds later. ” To the police station!!” I exclaim, and sensing the urgency in my voice, he begins to weave agilely through people and cars.
Once we arrive at the station, the motorcycle lady, Yazelin, has already explained the situation to the officers. ´´What was in the bag?´´ one of the policemen asks while his partner radios his officers on the ground. ´´My camera, wallet, kindle, iphone,´´ I respond, my voice cracking as I recall everything. The other policeman walks inside, radio in hand, and tells me that the robber fled to the coffee plantations, that it´s unlikely I´ll get my bag back, and to post an announcement online. Any hope I had before evaporates in that moment and leaves me feeling hollow, helpless again. My thoughts return to the contents of my purse, how stupid I was to have carried virtually all of my valuables with me for no reason at all. Suddenly, an idea pops into my mind and my eyes widen, ´´do you have a computer?´´ I ask the policeman, explaining that my phone has GPS. He goes into the back to talk to his chief, who comes out and unlocks the computer for me. I sit down at the desk, my fingers typing faster than ever before. I log on and am about to locate my phone when two women, one carrying a baby, burst through the door. ´´Her bolsa! We have it!!´´ I jump up from the seat and run over to the women, my body flooding with nerves and disbelief and happiness. I give them both a huge hug and follow them out of the police station.
The five of us squeeze into a tuk tuk and drive off. ´´What happened? Who was it? How´d they find him? Where are we going now?´´ I bombard the women as we drive. They tell me someone punched the thief, that we´re going back to where I was robbed. They have smiles on their faces, elated to deliver such good news.
My hands ball up into fists and anticipation runs through my veins as the taxi comes to a stop on the side of the road. Fifteen guatemalans stand in a semicircle on the sidewalk. I hop out of the taxi and peer between the gaps in their legs. Resting on the ground behind them, like a coveted treasure behind bars, lies my bag. A bearded man in the assembly recognizes me and hands me my dirt-covered purse. I glance at it in amazement and open it to find everything still there. ´´Was it you?´´ I ask the man, prepared to show my gratitude to him in every way possible. ´´No,´´ he responds, pointing to three adolescent girls dressed in traditional Guatemalan clothing standing beside him. ´´They tackled him. They got it.´´ I look over at the girls, my jaw gaping. Their thick, floor length skirts are strewn with mud, their beautiful blouses the same. I make eye contact with them; they can´t be older than sixteen, seventeen. I step forward to give the girls a hug, but before I put my foot down, the man signals me to stop with his palm. ´´Cuidado,´´ he warns, pointing at the ground, ´´she was really scared,´´ he says, referencing one of my three heros. I glance down, a pool of vomit covers the sidewalk near my feet. Sidestepping it, I hug the girls, give them all the money I have in my wallet, and thank them in as many ways I can think of in Spanish.
As I walk up the street, clutching my bag tightly in my arms, an incredible sense of awe overcomes me. Those girls were so brave, they ran straight into danger, into overwhelming fear and uncertainty, all for me, an american tourist they had never met. Why?
I still haven´t figured out the answer to that question, and maybe I never will. Were they as angry with the black hooded man as I was? Were they overcome with a moral drive? Are they just purely, wholeheartedly selfless? I don´t know. But I do know that San Lucas will never just be the place where I was mugged. It will be remembered by the entire town coming together, by the women who showed their strength and bravery, by the inspiring culture of helping one another above all else.
As I rest my head on my pillow, exhausted from the mercurial day, I silently thank the black hooded man. I myself had only lifted the cloak of San Lucas, finding beautiful views and kind people. He unveiled it completely, revealing the bottomless generosity, unity and strength of these people and the marvel that is their hometown.
One of my favorite things about words is that they can hold such strong meanings and emotions behind then sometimes. Sometimes a word will rattle around in my head for days, for reasons I am not entirely sure why honestly. On the trek Laura commented how the river water looked like seaglass and as we climbed over mountains and down into the rainforest that word echoed in my head.
Growing up I always held really strong emotions towards the word “Community”. I have not moved too much in my life but the moves or changes between schools have been just significant enough to leave me wondering what my community is. When I was asked the other day what I identify my community as I honestly got a little confused. For the community in Ausunción is much more established than any community I had ever stayed in or participated in before. These people for the most part spent their entire lives here. They grew up together, went to school together, worked together, and participated in community events together. While I grew up with a pretty amazing community for the last 4-5 years I have lived 3,000 miles from that. I go to school in a different town from the one I live in. My friends are all spread out over the state. I do not have a solid base because I simply did not grow up in Rhode Island. This is not to complain. Not at all and I hope no one reads this in that way. I am amazingly grateful for the new friends and experiences that I have because of moving. This is just to explain the way things are.
So when we talked about the way that people in Ausunción view their community I realized that we probably have very differnt outlooks. One thing that I loved seeing in Ausunción was that on the weekends the community gets together to help out with projects that would benefit everyone. From clearing areas for a new soccer field, to making drying racks for food. Everyone works together. Which is something really awesome and something that I had not seen much of before. Maybe this is because I am confused about what my community is but still I loved it. We were only there for a few days so I will not pretend that I am a part of that community but getting the feeling of participating in something that would help everyone there was a very cool feeling.
I still have very strong emotions about the word “Community” and will probably for a while. But the emotions behind that word have changed slightly. Something that Dragons seems to keep doing to me; changing my perspectives that is. Words still rattle in my head, and now they seem to have even more ideas behind them.
Presenting Last Week’s Activities and Thoughts
Monday: Had Hip Hop class with Sup, the dancer we had a dance class with on March 17th. We watched Ryan and Ben have a moonwalk off (Ben won) and a wonderful, almost-pee-your-pants, hilarious slack-jaw dance off. We got a serious workout from laughing so much and from “interpreting” instead of “doing” the moves that Sup patiently taught us. Personally, I was disappointed when I got home and realized I had not gotten a six pack. On a more serious and educational note, we watched the fourth part of the China Documentary that we started in Lashihai. The fourth part started at the beginnign of Mao’s leadership and ended at his death. Afterwards, Luke asked us to observe the faces of the people we would pass on our ways home and to think abbout what their storieswere and what their eyes had seen.
Tuesday: ISP Day. During our midmorning break, there was a HUGE thunderstorm. Thunder, lightning, the whole shebang. Annya was quite excited because it does not rain much in Lima. I am assuming that our ISPs were enlightening as always and that we all enjoyed the cool temperature in the afternoon that came after the morning rain shower.
Wednesday: We interviewed and shared tea with five incredible women that afternoon. Claire, the woman who organized the meeting with Luke, brought her four English classmates, Sonia, Joy, Wendy, and Nina, with her to practice their English with us and in the process, share their life stories. For some context, Claire saw us on the bus on our way to the Program House from the Kunming Railway Station on February 26th. She started to ask Fye where she was from and eventually inquired about Ben’s family. Before we got off the bus, she asked Fye and Ben about our program and then Luke got her contact information. She and Luke kept in touch and then, we found ourselves, sitting in a circle with all five women, doing an icebreaker. Over the course of two hours, they told us their stories and how the Cultural Revolution changed their lives. Claire, whom I interviewed, talked about how they had “empty minds” because the schools were closed. When the schools reopened, they filled their “empty minds with knowledge.” They were “envious” of us having this opportunity to see the world and gain experience. Joy told us,”Experience is wealth,” and I think that that touched all of us. It made us reflect on from where we come.
Thursday: Last ISP day for many.
Friday:Last Chianese classes. We celebrated by taking our teachers out to lunch. It felt unfinished for me because there is so much more to learn. We will miss standing up and saying “Laoshi hao” when the teachers enter the Program House and listening to the sweet music of Wu Laoshi and Zack Singing together during break time. We are inexplicably grateful and lucky to have been taught by our teachers. Thank you, to infinity and beyond. After lunch, we discussed travel plans and next week’s schedule, looking at Kunming through a different lens.
Everyday, we commute from our homestays to the Program House for classes and activities. We pass different people and see different buildings and intersections. I asked people to pick their favorite parts of their morning commutes.
Bryn: Seeing people whipping tops, practicing taiji/wushu, and playing badminton in Green Lake Park.
Anna: Interacting with the guards at my gate and smiling and waving good bye to them.
Sarah: The kids lining up for breakfast at the erkuai place.
Zack: The struggle to be let in by Ben/Ryan or whoever, seeing people opening their shops for the day, and watching them tidy up and doing things you would not see done in the States, like polishing door handles.
Annya: The challenge of getting onto a crowded bus and the success of achieving it.
Graydon: Watching the parents and their kids whiz by on their motor scooters. They stare at me and when I smile,
Franny: Seeing all the children in their school uniforms with their cartoon backpacks holding their parents hands, singing/humming/practicing English as they walk to school. It makes me reflect on my childhood when I was their age.
Ben: Being up before everyone else.
Fye: Grabbing breakfast off the street and making bao with the bao people!
Ryan: Saying hi to the police officers along the way.
That’s all! Off the Guizhou!
Yesterday we traveled the length of Varanasi by boat from the Krishnamurti Center (Raj ghat) down to our home in Assi ghat. We pass all 80 ghats (stone steps leading down to the river). I watch life on the ghats, the place that seems to define the city. It gives me some small insight into what makes Varanasi so special, so hard to define, so impossible to capture.
The blazing sun starts its decent behind the city as we step onto the boat. The boatman swiftly winds the crank making the engine sputter to life. Several two-man fisherman boats maneuver beside us; one man steers with a long bamboo oar while the other throws and pulls the net through the murky water.
Before we reach the bridge that marks the beginning of the city, I notice a sewage runoff emptying into the Holy River. Varanasi dumps fifty million gallons of sewage into the river every day. India has just begun to confront its water pollution problems as its cities develop into major metropolitan areas. Many people still believe that Mother Ganga can clean herself. We pass underneath the massive, two story bridge as a train chugs by below a stream of cars and auto rickshaws.
Past the bridge lies a small slum. The makeshift huts are made from torn tarps, bicycle tires, and other scraps from the ever growing piles of trash that the city produces. Women wash clothes on stones in the shallow water and children play beside two half buried vessels that jut out from the sand bank. I imagine the river flooding during monsoon season, wiping out their homes and I wonder what will become of their livelihood. I’m thankful that my home has never felt so temporary, dependent on Mother Nature.
Now we pass the first ghats. They have wide, short steps which make less than ideal cricket courts. Nonetheless, teenage boys gather by the dozens every evening to play for hours, perhaps imagining they’re India’s newest cricket star. I watch one boy hit the ball into a nearby chai stand. The chai walla doesn’t seem to mind as a small outfielder chases the ball, dodging the hot tea pot in attempt to make a play.
Jeff and I read aloud the names of the ghats, bewildered as to where one ends and the next one begins. They all seem to flow together as one, ever changing ghat. Steep steps lead up to small temples and beyond that shallow steps lead back into narrow alleyways lined with small shops and houses. Kids, fisherman, shopkeepers, tourists, Muslims, Hindus, cows, and dogs simultaneously walk, run, and sit on the crowded ghats. I marvel at the peace there is within the diversity and it restores some of my faith in humanity. A huge, majestic Bodi tree juts out from a solid wall, its roots somehow finding a way to cling to the crevices between the bricks. I see it as a symbol for living in the developing world: survival is that much more beautiful against a rough surface.
Men and women bathe separately on the last steps before the water, scrubbing their narrow framed bodies with soap before dunking their heads three times ritually beneath the surface. Boys cover their bodies with soap before running and jumping off stone ledges into the deep water to rinse. The spectacle looks so fun that I want to join them, momentarily forgetting the disease and waste that flows through the water.
We pass a bright pink building decorated with purple and orange daisies. It looks like something from the 70s, not something that belongs in an ancient city in India, but it’s here all the same. There’s Lal Ghat (Red Ghat), but it’s steps are painted bright green. I laugh inwardly at how it represents India; first impressions are soon shattered as layers of the culture unfold before you. Something that appears green at first may in fact be red.
The sun sinks behind a 300 year old Mosque, illuminating the perfectly rounded towers. I remember visiting the Mosque during our Muslim week (what seems like ages ago). I stood on the balcony, looking out over the ghats, down at the boats in the Ganga. The city was so different to me back then; it was overwhelming, too foreign to appreciate, too smelly and dirty. Now, one week before we leave, it feels like home, so much so that I think part of me will stay in Varanasi, even when my body is long gone.
We reach the burning Ghat. Six funerals burn before our eyes; six bodies disintegrate into ash that eventually settles in the Holy River. It’s hard to look away from the bright fires. I watch from twenty feet away, so close the fire of the cremations heats my skin, but I still feel disconnected from the sorrow and the death. At other times I imagine that the woman burning is my mom or my sister and I wonder if watching their bodies burn would feel like a sacred experience or a cruel one. Maybe both.
We steer past tourist boats and I watch people take pictures of the Ghats with their expensive cameras. Can’t they see it’s impossible to capture this moment through a lens? I want them to put their cameras down and just enjoy the ride. We take pictures so that in the future we can look back into the past. But what about the now? I’ve learned that the now is pretty special and it has a lot more to offer than a photograph. How do we live in the now? I think it starts with self awareness. On this journey I’ve heard many different perspectives on the path to self awareness. Buddhists would say meditate. Hindus might say pray. Krishnamurti says each person must forge their own path and no dogma can lead the way. I don’t know what my path is, I’m just here, now, trying to enjoy the ride.