Have you heard the famous story about a Harvard business graduate and a poor fisherman? If not, start by reading it. Because already twice this trip I have felt that I’ve met a living example from that story. Yesterday, finding myself in the home of a twenty-something fisherman on the small coral island of Caye Caulker and learning that he goes fishing three or four times a week I asked what does he do on the other days. ”Hang out with friends, eat good food, drink some rum, go partying, hook up with girls, have sex” was his answer.
I would imagine that many young guys would dream about that kind of simple life filled with earthly pleasures and taking place on the stunningly beautiful Caribbean coast of Belize. But if you find that kind of lifestyle attractive ask yourself why are you not living it?
For most of the young western guys living that dream would be possible: There seemed to be plenty of fish in the ocean and the skill needed to get it up from there is not exactly any rocket science. Besides, living in Belize is cheap compared to western countries so one can make ends meet with going out fishing only a few times a week. Many western travelers staying on the island were saying that living here is awesome and that they would like to stay for a longer time – yet everyone of them were going back home to get back into the corporate treadmill. What is holding us back? I’ll tell you in a minute.
The second encounter with happy fishermen was perhaps even more ’authentic’ and happened in the tiny, remote and rural village of Orinoco on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua where I was the only tourist. Observing their daily living I couldn’t help but being impressed by their life. Here they are, living in extreme poverty by all Western standards. Yet they don’t seem to be lacking much: their food is good by any standard – fresh seafood, organic fruits and vegetables -, they live close to their extended families and friends with a strong sense of community, and the weather is pleasant. And above all, to achieve this lifestyle they work much less hours per day than we ’wealthy’ westerners.
The reason me and other travelers impressed by the coastal lifestyle of Nicaragua and Belize are not relocating is that the western standards of proper living have an internal hold of us. I couldn’t enjoy being a fisherman in the long run, despite the beauty of that way of living. Why? Because certain sense of progress, achievement and career advancement is lacking from that life. With that way of living I would ’already be there’ and we in the west are told that what we want in life is always ’behind the next achievement’. Ours is a world of go-getters, hunger is what keeps the wheels greased. Be a tiger, not a happy sloth! It is this attitude we carry in our souls even on our vacations. We are able to chill out only because we know that it is only a temporary break-off from the ’real life’. And real life is a life where you should have a clear sense of progress.
There was not a trace of this strive for achievement in the village of Orinoco – they were happy to work only to the extent that they have some food on the table. Some days a few hours, on others more, some days not at all. And on Caye Caulker the fellow tourists I met were all telling how the slow pace and chilled out atmosphere grows on you from the moment you step your foot on the island. They learned not to look at the watch and many of them realized at some point that they had spent much more days on the island than they had planned for. Yet when their time was up they returned to their home countries with the more achievement-oriented lifestyle again grabbing a hold of them.
So what is the takeaway? Am I suggesting that every western person should break the chains our culture has captured us with and escape into a more easy, less stressed and happier lifestyle? If I would, I would be practicing hypocrisy because I myself am still possessed with a strong urge to achieve something in my life. But awakening to the knowledge that there are alternatives available is relieving in itself. With alternatives in view one can take a more relaxed attitude towards one’s choice of living. If at some point I realize that I am not achieving what I want to achieve that is not the end of the world. Winning the rat race is not the only way towards fulfillment. By changing the way I want to live my life I can be as happy or even happier in that new situation.
And most importantly, when you truly realize the existence of other ways of living you loose your innocence. From that moment onwards you are making a conscious choice about which of the alternatives you are committing yourself to. I know that with enough time spent on this island I could internalize its way of living and from that moment onwards the western striving would seem alien to me. So change is possible even thought it requires time and effort. The fact that I am not trying to change is already a choice, a commitment to my current way of living. So ask yourself, is life of ease your cup of tea or are you willing to consciously commit yourself to a more stressing lifestyle of pursuit?