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In December, we skipped the malls and instead crossed the Andes, dropping at last down into the Amazon, where dark rivers run swift through a great green gloom that dispelled mythology at every turn. To call what we found eye-opening is the last word in restrained understatement. Expectations have never been more thoroughly shattered.
It appeared at first that we'd entered a profoundly impoverished realm. While the jungle itself overflowed with riches, the scant human presence we found clearly did not. Houses on rainforest's fringes were little more than cinder block shells from which tousled children in haphazard clothes peered through off-kilter windows. Farther in, chiseled boards and weary thatched roofs surrounded dirt floors that seemed the epitome of third world desperation.
But digging past these surfaces, we discovered their deception. The tiny cluster of huts we encountered six hours deep into the forest was built around a crude dance hall and a courtyard soccer field. Another outwardly forlorn village was home to an agricultural community that made its own art, chocolate, and one of the best meals we've ever had, a feast of fresh fish and fruit and yucca plucked from the Earth that morning.
And then there was Sebastian, our erudite host at the lodge, who surprised us by revealing that he can't find the help he needs. No one wants a job because no one needs one. The forest provides everything from shelter and medicine to a 12-month growing season that overflows with more food than people can eat. When outside goods are required, a cow is sold or a few flakes of gold are sifted from the riverbanks. In short, Sebastian says, the people lack for nothing that matters and nobody really needs the paychecks he offers or wants the Western goods a paycheck can buy.
This is not to say that life in the jungle is all rainbows and unicorns, but it's certainly no rat race either. It exists in the center of an unspoken compromise in which a different set of tradeoffs than we typically make here in the western world have been accepted. Instead of financial abundance, the people we met have the prosperity of community. Rather than accumulate goods, they accrue the time to enjoy it. Villages are centered around gathering spaces. Facilities like kitchens and bathrooms are often shared, and everyone seemed quite content. One's eyes simply have to learn to look beneath the misdirection of the region's roughhewn surfaces to find the reasons why.
As we immersed ourselves deeper in the rhythms of the forest, the contrasts to our own ways loomed ever larger. In the Amazon, everything looked poor, but life itself was frequently quite rich. In the West, where so much appears gilded, the lives beneath the plenty are often impoverished in important ways. Where I may plug in and pursue the capital necessary to maintain a modern lifestyle, the people of the rainforest don't even own a socket. And I wondered: How might I become a bit more like them and a bit less than I've been? Is there a middle ground? And what would I have to do to find it?
It turns out the path to this place is closer than you'd think. I'll show you where I'm looking next time.