Living an examined life

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With Thailand on my right, and Laos on my left, I type these words while seated on-board a slow boat drifting gently down the Mekong River.

We are nearly an hour into our approximately 14 hour journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Despite my usual fears, our vessel is actually very comfortable. All nine of us on board have our own table as well as a double seat which looks to have been removed from a van or small bus. The gentle breeze, the rumbling engine, the subtle side-to-side  rocking of the boat, and the spectacular views of riverside villages have completely silenced all passengers. Some (including Marina seated in front of me) are absorbed in their book, others listen to music, while some write in their journals.

No one dares to break the silence.

There’s something quite amazing about traveling slowly, knowing that you have no hurry to get to your destination. There are few distractions. You quickly forget the urgency of life back home and settle into a more meditative state. Your mind – usually flexed with tension of looming deadlines, responsibilities, expectations, incoming emails, etc. – finally stretches out.

Thoughts of weekend plans, that erroneous cell-phone bill you need to call about, or the repairs needed on your car fizzle away to obscurity as you ponder your path in life, reassess your values, carefully recount the errors you’ve made, and focus on what you really require to be happy and content in your life.

An unexamined life is not worth living.

– Socrates

This is the gift of prolonged travel – whether by bus, boat, train, or plane. Many people embark on longer journeys with the purpose of “finding themselves”; the notion being that somewhere on the treadmill of modern life they’ve managed to become lost.

But all most of us require is some time and solitude, and the opportunity to examine our life from an aerial rather than the usual street view.

I can’t pretend that travel is the panacea for all of one’s problems; the problems you leave behind when you strap on your backpack are waiting to greet you upon return. However, if you’re feeling lost, lacking purpose, or uninspired, a sabbatical of some sort might be just the cure. You needn’t go far – maybe a staycation is all that is necessary. Just some time to break away from the monotony of everyday life.

Beware the bareness of a busy life.

– Socrates

Peter

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On life perspective: Arequipa’s reality check

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“Stopping the cocaine trade in Peru is equivalent to economic suicide,” calmly explains our guide, Miguel.

We all listen intently, while sitting in a white Mercedez van which has stopped at an overlook of one of Peru’s many shanty towns.

“12% of the Peruvian economy, in one way or another, depends on cocaine.”

Marina and I exchange glances, eyes wide open in amazement.

“I’m sorry to say but cocaine is good for Peru. Every time some young person in your country starts to use cocaine, some starving Peruvian gets a job.”

That is a harsh reality.

If you’ve ever vacationed in Cuba, Mexico, Dominican Republic, or any other developing country, you may have been surprised on your initial visit by the dramatic divide between all the amenities at your waterfront resort and the complete lack thereof for most of the inland inhabitants.

Often times, the tourism industry, much as the country’s government, hides the unfortunate reality facing the majority of its population while it shuttles the tourists from one isolated spot to another.

Today, we took a tour which exposed this reality in Peru.

After being a typical tour guide in Arequipa (the Rome of America) and often being asked questions by tourists regarding the welfare of the local inhabitants, Miguel decided to offer an alternative to the usual scenic and historic tours in the area.

Thus was born the “Peru Reality Tour.”

While it was not on our itinerary, it may have been the most personally impactful afternoon of our trip.

At one of the first stops, we visited a nearby quarry, which is worked by some of the poorest of Arequipia’s inhabitants.

“They make one sole for an unfinished stone brick, but if they clean it up and polish it, they can earn 1.5 soles,” informs Miguel.

Behind him, a father and son team chip away at the silica rich stone using a blunt mallet and other improvised tools such as a steel pick which originally functioned as car wheel axle. The father, wearing sandals which he made using pieces of old tires, performs the blunt work with the mallet while the son perfects each brick with the steel pick.

They work like this for 12hrs each day, 7 days per week, 365 days of the year.

At 10 soles a day, assuming no days off, these men will make approximately 300 soles ($100) each per month.

Unfortunately, the bare minimum cost of living in Peru is about 750 soles per month.

They can take no vacations, they have no ability to save their earnings towards making some future purchase; there’s simply no light at the end of their tunnel.

They carve the brick today, so they can afford to eat tomorrow.

That’s it.

In addition to a devastatingly poor wage, the work of the quarrymen is extremely dangerous.

As they work away at the brittle stone, neither the father nor the son is wearing a face mask.

The result: high probability of developing silicosis, a lung disease developed by the chronic inhalation of silica dust from the stone.

While the son is wearing sunglasses, his father works with his eyes exposed to the blinding reflection of the sun off the white stone.

The result: an increased risk of cataracts.

Each year, approximately 3-5 people die while working the stone at the quarry. They have no employment insurance.

As I stood there, listening to Miguel, watching these men work the stone from a few meters away, an intense sense of guilt had struck me; tears welling up in my eyes hidden behind my sunglasses.

How embarrassingly spoiled was I to live in Canada, have access to abundant and varied food, potable water, heating, medical care, clothing, safe shelter, television, internet, etc.

And yet, I’ve been complaining.

I’ve previously spoken about my disillusionment with academia and my need to explore alternatives for potential career paths – this complaint was the major instigator of this summer’s hiatus.

What a fucking joke!

At least I HAVE options.

My parents, who grew up in communist Poland, had far fewer options. Their situation was much closer to that of the quarry workers I was now observing, that to my own, back in Canada. They took a phenomenal risk and escaped from their home country with me in tow (I was 6 years old).

Their main goal?

To give me the opportunities they were robbed of.

To give me options they never had.

And here I am with plentiful options, and what do I do?

Complain about how tough I have it.

I could not have been more naïve.

Tonight I sleep ashamed.

Peter

(If you are ever in Arequipa and want a different tourism experience, contact Miguel and ask about the Peru Reality Tour)

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