The Tools of Living

Obviously, when he first got to South America he was a tourist. Tours, treks, hostels—he burned through money and felt joy in doing places—”I did Santiago last week. Did Patagonia…Did Peru…Columbia…I really want to do Brazil next.”—as if an entire country could be summed up so easily. It was less the experience as it was being able to say he had done it. He met friendly locals, cool business owners, and other tourists from all over the world. There was a real tourist culture that came from the feeling of knowing that you were all travelers—that you had left your old lives behind. You had balls because it did take a lot of courage to go out into the world on your own, or even with a close friend. Not groups of friends though, the experience was different. Easier, muddled, disconnected from the culture you traveled to. Yes, being alone was where you proved yourself.

The locals had a special tourist culture as well. They knew how to read foreigners, and how to sell to them. It was a salesmanship at least understandable, and at times the most unique, adaptable, weird bearded guy you’ve ever met. These guides, moto-taxis, hook-ups or “friends” could see a tourist coming from a mile away, and knew just what to say to force them to stop their intended march past. They knew how to surprise, how to joke, and how to convince in godlike ways.

The superficial hostel hoping didn’t last long. At around two months he became bored, started to see through the monotony of his travels. It takes a certain amount of unhappiness to motivate a person to reach for the next good thing. When his travels started to feel repetitive and mundane he realized it was time for the next adventure.

Jamie Howard came to South America after years of sitting on the desire to go, letting it build till it was ready to explode. It wasn’t that he was afraid to leave the country, he just kept getting held back. School, though unnecessary in his own mindset, could be useful in the future. It could make life a little easier down the line, and make getting a job teaching English a possibility. School was slow because he also had monetary restrictions—meaning he was broke. He had to be really. If he wanted the government to pay for his school he had to be poor, very poor, and he was not rich enough to pay for school himself. He was trapped on the cusp of poverty and comfortability. Real poverty was never an issue though, not in America. Jamie was always saving, he could save in nearly any situation, but from his income those savings equaled—not very much. The secret, he would say, was to live below your means, no matter what those means were. Jamie saved for years at those low means. South America was to be an escape from money and restriction, at least the way he imagined it. An educated guess he would say. In South America he imagined he could live cheaply, experience something new daily, and get a good paying job merely because of the language he spoke. He imagined money would not be a worry, and his life would be filled with a sun-soaked happiness.

Jamie found volunteer jobs on the internet. He had intended to wwoof from the beginning. He traveled out to local farms and got room and board for his work. He wanted it to feel like old cowboy times; just working the meal line; an honest day’s pay for and honest day’s work, but most the of the time it was more of an tourist operation. They were real farms, but there was an air of fakeness to them. That salesmanship again, present in the way he was treated. Maybe there were too many other white people there for him to feel special, he wondered. So he worked his way to new places, got better at searching out farms that felt more authentic, improved his Spanish, and made friends who pointed him in the right direction. Eventually he found himself a part of a family. A community too. A small rural town in Chile. He would help in their grape farms and the smaller family garden, which at two acres was not so small at all. He didn’t work too hard, and didn’t get paid at all, but his family was generous. The meals at home were delicious, and they even took him out to restaurants once in a while. When they did the family’s table was always the focus of the restaurant. His skin color made him a celebrity, and his new family by association, but it was not as bad as it was in other places. Here it was respectful, not greedy. His new family was poorer than he, but they did not try to take his money. He justified that it was a fair trade: he gave them work and made them special in town; they fed him and gave him a way of living that he could not achieve on his own. The truth was that the real trade was in the friendships they gave each other, the trade of cultures that enriched both.

Jamie told himself that he would write once he had the time and space to do so. South America was to be that space. He knew that there would always be other obligations, but he figured it would be almost easy while traveling. So much inspiration lay in wait for him on his journeys, and so much free time. There’s a big difference between writing for pleasure and obligation. The words just come out differently; they lack heart when they are forced. He had hoped pleasure lay in South America, and it did much of the time. He would wake up with the sun, the cultural norm where he now lived. Some days he had a hot cup of coffee, others tea and breakfast. He would go sit in the field soaking up the sun and looking out at the crops to be worked, or the mountains in the distance, their forested peaks behind flat farm land were picturesque. Or he would sit in the cool square shack he called home, big enough for his one person bed, a desk, and still room for working out or yoga. The floor was dirt, his bare feet planted on the earth. He spent plenty of time at his little desk in front of shutters that opened to fresh air and sunlight, without the barrier of a window separating him from the outside world. Some mornings he went on long walks, or went to town to get breakfast and be visited by curious townspeople who wanted to practice their English. Jamie did not write a novel, this was no writer’s fantasy of easily completed books, but he wrote what he felt and enjoyed the writing. It was beautiful like his surroundings. Beautiful like the beauty he began to find in his heart. A happiness in him that could well tears to his eyes at unexpected moments of overwhelming emotion. He had reached the point where his expectations, even the long-shot possibilities, had been surpassed. Where to go next, and when, were a complete mystery to him.

One morning, as the sun rose with Jamie, he had the urge to work. His shorts lay bunched on the chair beside his bed. He slid into them and walked out his door into the field without a shirt or shoes. He walked till he found root crops in need of weeding. He got down on his hands and knees, and dug his fingers into the soil, pulled it up and sucked the soil smell into his nose. So clean, he though. He worked for a few hours allowing himself to be side tracked with the movements of little insects foraging and worms wriggling in the upturned soil, with the good morning waves from his family, and with moments to take in the feeling of the breeze rushing across his bare sweating skin. His back ached and it felt good. He worked till he was done, a feeling he knew only when it came. When it had, he stood, breathed a deep and relieving breath, and went to the house for breakfast and cold tea. He had a full day ahead of him, what would he do? The possibilities are endless, he though.