One of the first things I did when I moved back home was to visit my dad’s old friend, Mr. Roy Williams. Ever since I could remember, Mr. Roy stood behind the bar at his small saloon drinking and serving beer and soft drinks to anyone who was buying. On the speakers of an aged radio was the constant drawl of old country music and on the walls, paint from decades past peeled away in curling flakes.
Going into Roy’s bar was like a time capsule. In the 16 years I had been away, nothing had changed. The leak above the bar still dripped when it rained hard, the peeling paint, the sad country music; even Roy himself with his plump face, round belly, faded Hawaiian shirt only halfway buttoned and his smiling half moon eyes seemed unchanged by time. It was a comforting place to go after my dad passed away, my mom moved, the highway was built, and so many other things had changed.
I leaned over the counter and ordered a beer, and Roy, an east Indian man in his late 60s, beamed when he saw me and spoke so fast that one word blended into the other, as was his usual way.
“So when you going back?” Roy asked after some time.
“I’m not.” I said. “I moved back home. I live here now.”
The jovial look on his face melted away. His eyes, once pushed into crescents from smiling, rounded.
“Everything okay?” He asked.
I assured him it was, and that I had even found a good job at the cacao processing company up the road.
“You can tell me if you’re in trouble,” he said, still in a sober, fatherly tone. He turned down the country music and I could hear the chickens clucking in the yard, the occasional bark of a dog, and smell the smoke from someone’s fire hearth in the air from cooking lunch.
“ No, it’s not that, I just missed the clean rain and the fresh fruit and the waterfalls and —“
He leaned on the bar looking me in the eye trying to scan for something between my words. There was no one else in the bar.
“People nuh gone da states an’ come back ‘less they have problem. Everyting you want up there why you come back here? Nothing d happen in this village! If you get a chance, you leave.” He paused. “But it look like you wah d try come back so I just wa ask— Wha happen?”
I didn’t know how to respond. There was nothing I could say to convince him that I was not running from anything personal, rather the impersonal blanket of vulgar capitalism and unchecked racism—concepts that although a smart man, after years of unquestioned colonization and isolation any man would find hard to understand.
I was more running TO something rather than from it. But to old Mr. Roy, who has spent the past 45 years standing behind a bar in a rural village in southern Belize, listening to chickens and dogs and country music day in, day out, that concept was a difficult one to explain.
I left the bar, my stomach feeling heavy and my head throbbing. I was suddenly aware be being alone, and completely misunderstood. I was just at the beginning of unveiling the mindset of those around me in my old home, which made me feel even smaller and even more alone.
I have always been attracted to a certain scramble of chaos: The beautiful but broken, the ravaged but joyful. Because, as so well put by Kahlil Gibran, pain carves out room for joy, and so one can only feel joy to the extent that one has felt pain.
I made my decision long ago to choose my own path, to navigate life on my own terms. I made the decision without even realizing it was a decision to be made. I don’t question this any more. Once I owned my choices, it was a lot less agonizing. I was relieved of a shackle of self-doubt.
When I left Detroit and moved to the jungle of Belize to my old home, I wrote something of a manifesto, a mission statement to which I would live by. That was, loosely, to reduce my cost of living so low that I could have access to more freedom and autonomy and cut free of at least some of the grip of the capitalist empire that was cannibalizing its own planet. I could enjoy life doing the things that make me, me instead of spending 80% of my waking adult life pushing for someone else’s agenda.
It all started with a theory I had about the definition of wealth—that access to natural resources subsidizes cost of living in a way that translates to sustainable wealth in the sense of a certain quality of life. To flip the paradigm of “poor rural villager” to “wealthy person emancipated from the chain of modern living and technology or the rat race that constantly makes you feel “not enough.”
I have, over the last 2 years, given a lot of thought to this and studied it closely first hand. I have been and still am, testing this theory. It comes up to a balance of complex paradoxes. Life on earth is hard. There is no escape to that. But how do you want it served to you: On your own terms or at the will of another’s? It involves larger systems, not individuals—because we are cogs in a machine. We can choose not to be as big cogs as some others. We are never alone or fully offshoots. But we can wind it down, limit our consumerism immensely and live a sincere wholehearted life.
So, essentially, that’s what I am going for. Winding down. I had concluded that small farming only works if you wind way down: subsistence farming is the term.
People use subsistence farming as an example of poverty or being “poor”.
But what is poverty? It’s a sensitive question. How many things are we told that we need or made to need after the rain becomes undrinkable and the rivers are poisoned?
Is poverty not having enough resources for a healthy, safe, good life? Food to eat? Place to shelter yourself? Safety? Access to entertainment?
In my view, poverty is being stripped of your natural resources and thus being made reliant on the hand that feeds you, forced into selling minutes, hours, days years, decades of your life in order to survive. But in Southern Belize, the rain is still drinkable, people still build houses out of wild palm leaves, creeks and rivers web and pulse through the forest with fresh, unpolluted water were people bathe, drink and wash their clothes. Chickens and pigs run freely until a wedding or an event calls for their body’s nutrition. And most of all, people have autonomy—a certain self-freedom. Men go to work in the scathing sun and do grueling labor from 7am to noon. Then they go home and lay in the hammock for the rest of the day. It’s a freedom not granted to even the highest earning wage slave. Either way, the life and work is hard. But the difference is autonomy.
I want to write a series of essays that show money is not the answer. My audience would be people caught in the rat race, wondering when they will “make it” and what making it even looks like.
By any stretch of the conventional social climber’s imagination, I have not made it: I live in a 19’x20’ house and I have no appliances like a washing machine, dryer, refrigerator, or oven. I have very limited solar electricity and no running water. Half the time my clothes smell like mold because it rains all the time. On any given night, I wake up to scorpions clicking across the walls.
If I write about redefining success and wealth as it relates to myself and my own goals, what would people learn? What would I learn? Who would care? I need practice. What questions am I seeking to ask and/or answer?
People do ask me a lot of questions: they ask why I decided to move back to rural Belize and live in the bush, off the grid: Was it hard? How did I do it? Did I feel like I made the right choice?
In a series, it will show that living your own myth is a way to build a different kind of wealth. Your own is one hardest paths to follow; It means rigorous questioning of yourself and the surrounding world to the point of exhaustion, reaching into thin air for answers that, ultimately, you must mine from within. Nothing is pre-cut or laid out. Every infinitesimal gesture is pure work.
It is terrifying and painful and it is often lonely. But it is equally rewarding and through pain is the deliverance of deep pools of joy. As mentioned before, life is a constant balance: Happiness is pain, bad is good, love is hate—just different ends of the same spectrum, one unable to exist without the other.