What does it mean to be free? Three conversations I had in Guatemala with three women provoked this question.
Yoga Instructor – “Busy but Simple”
I attend a yoga class in the morning on New Year’s Day in San Marcos. I have a conversation with the yoga instructor after class. I tell her about my desire to explore other spiritual places like San Marcos in the world, and ask her for recommendations. She says, “there’s nothing quite like San Marcos.”
“What about other places? There must be places just as spiritual (if not more) than San Marcos?” I say. She replies that she’s heard of many similar places, but none are quite like San Marcos: good weather, good people, easy to manage living. Other spiritual places in the world don’t have all three attributes.
“San Marcos is small. Do you ever feel its too slow?”, I ask.
“No. I’m always definitely busy, but my life is simple, and I’m happy here” she tells me.
I learn that she has been living in San Marcos for three years now. She lives at the zen center with her son. In exchange for accommodation, she does chores at the zen center, like farming. She earns income by teaching a few yoga classes a week, and occasionally teaches at retreats. The remainder of the time she spends with her son when he is home from school. While she is busy, stressed out she is not.
Our conversation ends as she needs to head back home. I walk back to my hostel and sit down to have my morning breakfast in the nice patio area. Initially I’m sitting alone, but then I am joined by a woman named Gloria.
Gloria – “Not Being a Slave to the Machine”
I learn that Gloria is from Belize – a country adjacent to Guatemala. But she didn’t grow up there. Gloria tells me how she has lived in many places, most recently moving from New York to Belize.
“I’m now free”, she says.
We begin talking about society, and she describes how society is crazy, “It makes you a slave to the machine.” I agree with her, it does feel like a rat race at times. We talk about greed, consumerism, mass production, GMO crops, pollution, robots and technology displacing jobs. Scenes from Baraka run through my head as we talk, particularly this scene (don’t worry, it’s not gory):
Gloria shares how we are out of tune with nature, how New York is this urban jungle; she juxtaposes this with Belize (where she lives now), which is largely undeveloped, even compared to Guatemala. Belize is mostly jungle, lush, green.
Gloria tells me how she lives off the grid – solar energy being her electricity source, living off water from the land. I’m impressed that she was able to make such a leap.
“What do you do now?” I ask. “To make people come alive.” she responds. Whoa. I wasn’t expecting an audacious response.
Gloria is working on a business to have retreats in Belize where she can help coach people to find their life passion. While she is building this business however, she does take a lot of time to enjoy the present moment. This caused some friction with her business partner, who happens to be her brother. Initially, her brother would be working non-stop, whereas she would be taking breaks to enjoy the present moment, enjoying silence, enjoying nature (if you live a fast-paced life, this may be hard to fathom, and confused with being lazy). Even her brother was irritated with her, feeling she was taking it easy. They had a discussion that yes, the business was important, but so is enjoying being in Belize, and enjoying their lives, and the sacrifice they made to be there. Now her brother is learning to slow down and enjoy the present moment as well.
As I’m listening to Gloria, I feel that she is…too free.
“Don’t mind me saying this, but do you feel like you’re running away from society, living in Belize?” I ask. She replies, “I used to feel that way too. When I wanted to leave New York, I felt it would be running away, and so it made it hard to do it. But now I think it’s the best decision I ever made.”
It took her time to muster the courage to follow her heart to live a simpler, truer life. She mentions that it comes with adjustments (or sacrifices as some may see it) living in an eco-friendly manner; simultaneously though she feels she is now living more sustainably and in tune with nature. I’m surprised that she has made this leap at the age of 27 – she is wise beyond her years.
As we reach two-hours of deep conversation, she has to leave to meet a friend, and we bid each other farewell.
After Gloria leaves, I question myself – am I a slave? Do I feel free? If not, what would I do to be free? Would I be ready to make a big trade-off in lifestyle, leaving San Francisco for a small town like San Marcos? No, not yet.
The Italian Woman – “I am free”
A few days after meeting Gloria, I have a similar conversation with another woman about “being free”.
I arrive a bit early to the cacao ceremony. I sit on one of the steps by an older Italian woman. She asks me how long I am staying in San Marcos, and I ask her the same. “I live here” she says. We start chatting about our lives, and at some point in our conversation she makes an interesting statement: “waking up everyday to go to work is insane”, her voice rising. She says it so confidently that I immediately think that maybe, I am insane.
Before you begin to think of practical questions like, “well, how else would you make money to survive? Rent, food, etc.?” If you step back and look at many people’s lives, there is a feeling of being obligated to wake up in the morning, to arrive to work at a certain time, and other expectations. At the end of the work day there is the commute and the errands. Many things compete for a person’s time – errands, family and friends, events, your hobbies. In this sense, you’re not in control – many factors control you. By the end of the day, your energy is depleted – and then you have to wake up early in the morning and do it all over. Thus the term, “rat race”.
I ask this woman how she makes income. “I own an apartment in Italy, and I am renting it. The income I make off of it is all I need.” As I begin to think of the risk of how her income is not diversified, solely relying on a single tenant for income, she says, “If I don’t get rent from the tenant, or something happens to my apartment, I’m not worried. I don’t need it, I will find other ways.” She says it so confidently that I don’t doubt her; the way she speaks and the vibe I’m receiving from her, I feel she truly is free.
I didn’t have time to probe deeper on the details of her situation, as the cacao ceremony was beginning. But I got a lot from our 20 minute conversation.
These stories aren’t about escaping life at home to go to Guatemala and live happily ever after. Themes I see across these three women’s stories:
- The feeling of being enslaved back in their respective homes prior to Guatemala/Belize
- Seeking a life of simplicity, of meaning, and to be free
- Their solution was to relocate to another part of the world that allowed them to live in a way more aligned with their needs
Has society in some parts of the world become too complex, too stressful, too fast-paced, that many are barely coping? Does the structure of our society need to evolve so less people feel this way? Have we lost being authentic and genuine with each other? I’m not going to try to answer this question here; this a discussion you can save to explore around a campfire. Maybe you already have.
The conversations with these three women and learning about their stories have planted seeds in my head. Questions for how I see my future – for which I currently have no answer. Yet.
Questions, questions. Reminds me of a favorite quote of mine:
“Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”