“In my ideal world work becomes a matter of the expression of our gifts, motivated by passion, called for by the needs and not coerced by money.”
– Charles Eisenstein
We had to take an alternative route because a landslide had brought down part of the road.
“Can you see it? Down there?” My dad was pointing down the steep hill. Nestled amongst fruit trees and thick vegetation we could just make out a small house. It was difficult to distinguish from the backdrop of dark, green mountains.
“That is where I was born.”
We walked on further, trudging through the mud. Up in the mountains of San Juan de Rioseca it rains a lot.
“Look over there,” he said. “That’s the Rio Magdalena.” The sun caught it at a bend, sending a brilliant flare of light from Colombia’s mighty river to my iris.
We continued walking through the cloud forest, flanked by jungle, toward my uncle Julio’s farm. On the way we passed a tiny, tidy construction site and met Viktor. He was wearing a broad-brimmed hat, wellington boots and a shirt and jeans dirty from the jungle path. A machete hung from his waist. He greeted us with a broad smile. After explaining the plan of the house he walked with us futher into the jungle.
Eventually we arrived at a small house, built by my uncle Gildo and members of the local community 15 years ago. It was there that we met Julio, my unbelievably fit and healthy seventy-nine-year-old uncle, his wife Rosa and perhaps the happiest person I have ever met: my cousin Feniz, who is married to Viktor.
Feniz and Viktor had decided to move away from the city. In the city they could have earned a lot more money. I asked why they had moved to San Juan de Rioseca.
“Because everything we need is here.” Viktor explained. “It is not all about money. It is peaceful and we have time.” As he spoke Feniz was smiling. In fact, in the two days we spent with them I’m fairly certain she was smiling the whole time.
Together they farm the land, which supplies in abundance and indeed filled our bellies with fresh casava, sweet plantain, avacado plucked from a nearby tree and eggs plucked from their nearby chickens. They also have a small community of friendly cats and dogs. They can communicate with uncle Julio and Rosa with a holler through the jungle.
They were endlessly patient as we tried to communicate in Spanish. We talked about our travels and about Colombia, about their life here in the jungle. They showed us their chickens and their wedding photographs and answered a lot of questions.
“What’s that?” Emma said, pointing to a bulbous fruit hanging from a nearby tree.
I cannot remember the name of it.
“Can you eat it?” Emma asked.
They chuckled and explained that you can’t eat it but you can make cups and bowls from it, once it has been dried out and hollowed. Emma and I grinned at each other. We are fans of people who can make things directly from nature.
We woke early to the tapping of rain on the corrugated tin roof. With a strong, sweet coffee we watched the clouds pass through.That night we watched my dad, his brother and Rosa play and sing old folk songs as distant electrical storms punctuated the perfect dark of the night. A small community of bugs made light work of my skin. We fell asleep easily in the loft of the small, modest house, to the sounds of my dad’s snoring and the song of the jungle.
It was time for us to leave the farm. Thankfully, a heavy rain scuppered those plans and for a couple of hours we chatted under the eaves of the house. I mentioned to Feniz and Viktor that we could see how happy they are. They thanked us and explained that they do not need money to be happy. They need each other, their family, their community and the jungle. That is everything they need.My uncle has worked for virtually all of his seventy-nine years. He is easily one of the strongest people I have met, quicker and more agile through the jungle than any of us. He does not make much money. No one here does. Most of the things they need are growing on the farm, or are within walking distance. By most accounts they are very poor people. Yet they emanate such happiness and gift such hospitality. Occasionally, local farmers would pass by and everyone would greet each other warmly. Indeed, in the town later on it would become clear that this is a close-knit community.
As we left the jungle, I thought about everything that they had done for us. They had fed us their food, which they had grown themselves. They helped us with our Spanish. Feniz made us a gift. It cost no money to make. But much time, effort and love were invested and it will now be passed on.That day Feniz gifted to Emma a small, beautiful bowl made from the fruit she had asked about the day before. She had engraved it with our names, the name of the town, the date and a pattern of diamonds and hearts. This gift meant more to us than anything they could have bought us. The engraved diamonds are imbued with a greater value than any precious stone. The hearts and the date- the whole thing, in fact- is an emblem of our time together.
We left wanting to help in some way, to gift them our time and our abilities, to repay their kindness. And some day soon we will do just that. What Feniz and Viktor, my uncle and Rosa and so many other people we have met along the way have shown us is a glimpse into what Charles Eisenstein envisages in the quote that heads this post, and in the short clip below.
Often on our travels we have been lucky enough to feel part of a community that revolves around generosity, sharing and mutual care. We have been invited into homes, fed by strangers and spent many, many hours learning from other people’s experiences. And we leave these people wanting to contribute to that community, to inject something back into it. It is an experience that is informing our future. Eisenstein, who is the author of Sacred Economics (which you can read online, here, for free), sums up more succinctly than I can what we were privileged to be part of:
“A real community is a gift economy where you can help your neighbour, or help someone in the community, or give something to them and they don’t pay you, but they feel gratitude towards you, so they want to do something for you too, they want to take care of you too. Or even if they have nothing to give to you, somebody else in the community sees that you are being generous and so the community takes care of you. And if you’re not generous, if you’re selfish, then no one wants to take care of you either. So in a gift culture, the more you give, the richer you are.”