When my son was 14 years old, I took him to the Darien Province in Panama, a dense rainforest on the border of Colombia. It is a wild, untamed place of incredible raw, natural beauty, with few roads and fewer signs of government influence or control. Sparsely populated by native indigenous tribes who practice traditional agricultural techniques handed down through generations, it is rarely visited by outsiders. Travel is primarily on dirt footpaths or by dugout canoe along the narrow rivers that meander through nearly impenetrable jungle.
It took us all day by canoe and foot to reach an indigenous Embera tribal village. We were to spend the next four days in one of their open-air thatched-roof huts, built on stilts to protect from flooding.
As our canoe traveled up the shallow river, vines stretched from tree to tree, gradually blocking out the sky and causing deep shadows to stretch before us. As the river constricted further, we heard drums beating in the distance. We glided closer, and the vines from the trees above seemed to envelop us as the drums beat louder.
In a small clearing were four men clad in small red loincloths. They announced our arrival to the village with various handcrafted percussion instruments. Off to the side of the river were at least twenty tattooed, bare-chested women, with silver and beaded necklaces. My young teenage boy took one look at those women and exclaimed, “Daddy, this is going to be the best trip ever!”
The village was incredibly poor and, yet, unbelievably rich. It had about a dozen open-thatched homes on stilts. No doors. No windows. No locks. No crime. There was nothing to steal, as the villagers had few possessions.
Our days were spent just doing what they did, with them. We took hikes with the kids, gathered crops with the men, and pounded corn with a mortar and pestle along with the Embera women.
Their custom was that when a man and woman got married, the entire town stopped everything for the day and built them their own thatched-roof hut. There was such a strong sense of community, and it seemed as we walked around the village that absolutely no one was even conscious of their lack of possessions. No one there was focused on the hardships my son and I felt they endured just to survive.
That was our perspective. The villagers didn’t share it. They did not seem to view their daily life in the context of hardship. They smiled even when we were not looking. We could hear their laughter as they went about their day. In the evening, they gathered to tell stories and enjoy the dusk. They seemed really, honestly happy.
On our last day, we waited for hours on the side of the river for the tidally affected water level to rise so the canoe could make its way upriver to us. The village school let out at noon and the young boys ran to the river, took off their underwear, put it on their head and jumped into the water stark naked. They were instantly covered in mud and glee.
“Why did they put their underwear on their heads” my son asked me.
“Because that is their only pair,” I replied. “If it gets muddy, they’ll have nothing to wear, not until someone takes the dirty clothes to the river and cleans it again.”
My son was silent. This last exchange, and perhaps the cumulative effects of the trip, had clearly hit him hard. I looked at him and asked, “Who has the better life, you and your friends with your big houses in California? Or these boys with their one pair of underwear on their heads?”
My son watched the boys laughing and splashing. After a time, he responded slowly and reflectively, “I don’t know.”
At fourteen years old, my son had just received the gift of perspective.
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