From the family farm near Cochabamba where I WWOOFed for two weeks. It was an amazing place: a large variety of organically grown crops and animals to help sustain a family of five, run by a stay-at-home agronomist dad and his working biologist wife. The site produced almost no waste. Food scraps get composted or fed to animals, urine and dishwater are filtered for irrigation, dry toilets are cleared out every few months to make fertilizer, and inorganic stuff like plastic is stuffed into empty coke bottles that are then used as construction material.
So back at the farm I drew the above, uh, “diagram” in my notebook. Showed it to my travel-mate Sean.
He said: “It looks like an acid trip. ‘Everything is connected, man!’”
I responded: “Nah man, it’s not that. Whenever we go to a new place—like Chala today—I always find myself trying to figure out how well people there are living, but don’t really know where to begin looking. So I’m trying to organize my thoughts a little.”
Sean: “Well, people need three things. A place to eat, a place to sleep, and a place to poop.”
Me: “That’s enough to keep you from dying, but life is more than that.”
S: “Are you on some kind of personal quest to find the meaning of happiness?”
C: “That’s not why I made this, but yeah, basically.”
S: “Well, I’ve probably told you my philosophy a bunch of times.”
C: “I’m not sure you have.”
S: “It’s all about empathy and appreciation. The more empathy you have, the more you will appreciate the world we live in.”
There was some elaboration of this idea. I asked: “But why is that the true purpose of human existence?” Some talk that I can’t remember about neurons, and then Sean explained that his goal in life is “textured consciousness.”
S: “It feels good to learn new things, and that adds layers that your brain uses to appreciate things more. That’s why I want to travel a lot and do lots of different things. It’s a human tendency to form patterns and habits in your thinking, so I want to make an effort to break those patterns. Then I’ll have a more textured consciousness. For instance, since arriving to the farm I have gained more appreciation for cumbia music and for motorcycles, and I’ll use that to deepen my appreciation of other things.”
C: “But implicit in that is an entire philosophy about what the purpose of humanity is, and how we should spend our lives. I have some things I could say about that, but for me I guess it’s still an open question.”
S: “Well, for me it’s textured consciousness.”
Terraces for crops? An amphitheater? The ruins are totally unmarked and locals told us they are not well studied. In addition to the construction pictured, there were dozens upon dozens of stone huts spread out over a mile of rocky oceanic bluffs, with front openings about three feet high and insides perhaps eight feet in diameter. Scattered around them were collections of seashells, shards of pottery and often even human bones. We found part of a skull, several vertebrae, fingers and a tibia. The structures were built by the Wari–a civilization that covered much of the Peruvian coast from about 500 to 900 AD–and were perhaps used by the Incas as well.
From the bathroom of the guesthouse at the farm. When we first arrived I wondered if Alvaro—our dreadlocked, solitary, intellectual and wonderfully accepting host—intended the empty space as some sort of statement. No, he said, a previous volunteer broke the mirror while trying to clean it. But after two weeks of relaxed work in the mornings followed by hearty meals, reading on the beach, afternoon hikes, and games and stories shared by night, I thought the framed nothingness was a nice reflection on the farm’s hermetic lifestyle. As if to say: “Neither vanity or insecurity here.”