The first stop on my journey was a small apiary and walnut farm on the outskirts of Codigua, Chile, approximately two hours southwest of Santiago. The farm rests at the base of an enormous hill, one of many that populate the region. Though it is far larger than anything that exists in Ann Arbor, the hills of the area are dwarfs when compared to the domineering Andes that loom to the East. That being said, these hills are big enough to require winding valley roads, and verdant enough to instill a sense of tranquility in those who travel among them.
It was this backdrop where I chose, rather impulsively, to begin my adventure. I really didn’t know what to expect when I sent my host, Jaime, the first email asking to come work on his bee farm, but I have to say it worked out incredibly well. My first two weeks on the farm were like an incubator for me. I found myself learning the culture and language of Chile in a relatively safe and especially beautiful place, exploring the nature and wildlife of the area, and indulging in delicious food made by Jaime’s wife, Mayela. I was also lucky enough to have as much fresh honey and as many organic walnuts as I could eat, and I ate a lot.
During my time on the farm, Jaime was kind enough to welcome me as family, and soon I fell into their happy routine. A schedule that I must confess, I now miss. Each day I would rise around 7:00 AM and study my Spanish for two hours before getting out of bed. Around 9:00 AM I would walk out into the great room of the ranch and make breakfast for myself. This usually consisted of hot tea, with honey from Jaime’s bees and fresh squeezed lemon juice in addition to fresh baked bread opped with avacado, cheese, butter, honey and walnut, or tomato and garlic. We would spend the next hours working.
Usually in the mornings I would do something simple and repetitive, like cleaning hive boxes or building frames with a hammer and a bag of nails. I spent hours doing these tasks. Before I left for this trip, I had always had a distain for monotony, but in practice I found that the rhythm of that work was immensely calming. I could retreat into my thoughts and contemplate, or simply let my thoughts drift away to be replaced by the sounds my own breathing, the repetitive scraping of chisel on wood, or the pounding of the hammer.
Around 12:30 PM we returned to the house for Almuerzo, the largest meal of the day. Mayela would always cook incredible meals. Afterwards we had an hour to rest. I would retreat into my room and often passed that time writing or reading.
Around 2:00 PM we began work again until 5:00 PM when we would eat dinner and begin to relax for the night. This afternoon work was almost always related to the bees. It was when I learned the most about them. Some days we would make our way, hive to hive, treating for mites. Other days we would focus on growing queens, or on prepping the colonies for a buyer that might arrive. The goals were always different, but they often required many of the same practices.
In beekeeping, patience is essential. When working with a hive, often the first thing you have to do is find the queen, she must be isolated during the work, because she is necessary for the colony’s survival. To displace her, means death for all. Sometimes the queen can be immensely difficult to find. Imagine a three dimensional game of Where’s Waldo, except, the characters on the page attack you, and they are all dressed exactly the same. It can be a challenge to focus enough to find her. You have to scan every inch of a colony composed of individuals that look almost exactly the same for one that is only slightly different in form, and that requires patience and attention to detail, a relaxed demeanor, and a mind that is focused solely the task at hand.
Beekeeping also requires a certain level of tranquility of mind. Quick movement and sudden jolts are immensely distressing for the bees. If you find yourself caught in a swarm, you cannot run. You must breathe, smile, and have faith in your protective equipment, even as you watch twenty different stingers meant for your face, poke their way through mesh that’s only seven inchs away. If a bee does make its way into your clothing—or, as in my case, eight bees all at once-- again you cannot run, you cannot shout. As you feel stingers puncture your skin, and the venom injected into your flesh, you can only breath and walk slowly and surely away to a safe place. Opening a hive can sometimes feel like chaos, as the bees defend their home, flying quickly and rapidly dive bombing your head and buzzing in your ear. But it is essential that you can ignore that and focus on what you came for. You must be able to work calmly, yet efficiently, in the face of chaos. And I think that is a good practice for the career I want to go into, emergency medicine, and in life. Those who find tranquility in chaos are well suited to the unpredictability of both.
Those afternoon hours were some of my favorite on the farm, they were a good chance to practice those skills. But not only that, they were an opportunity to contribute something to the world. Bees are so important, they pollinate seventy different types of crops, and are the primary pollinator in commercial agriculture, not to mention they produce delicious honey, and have several applications in medicine. They play an important role in the symbiosis of this world, and as someone trying to see as much of this world as I can, I am happy that I had a chance to work with them so closely. To learn from them, and to indulge in the tranquil routine of their care.
It’s been two weeks since I left, more specifically two weeks of bouncing around cities (literally and figuratively) in busses and cabs. I’ve slept in different places: on floors, couches, hostel beds, and for the first time last night, on a bus. All things considered, I will admit that I miss the routine of the farm. I miss having the extra time to relax, to think, to cook healthy food, to watch the sunset, or walk a dog. That’s not to say that I don’t feel happy where I am. Each day I smile and pause just to remind myself of how lucky I am to be walking the streets, hearing the horns, watching the street dogs and birds. I still have a sense of internal tranquility, but I will confess that I miss the reflection of that tranquility in my surroundings.
When you find yourself on a farm, especially a remote one, you are really living in a small world. The problems of this tiny world are proportional to its size, and the people who live in it feel bigger. The challenges that this smaller world faces are surmountable, and it is easier to find a sense of fulfillment. On the farm, often my goal for the day would be to remove a sticky substance called the propolis that bees produce from a certain number of hive boxes before the end of the day. And although this was tedious work, I didn’t feel like I was wasting my time. As the stack of dirty boxes diminished and the stack of clean boxes grew,I could see my work having a tangible impact on my world, the farm. Pretty soon all the boxes were clean, and I felt fulfilled.
I remember accompanying Jamie, my host, and his son, Pablo, to the top of their hill on the second day I was there. The view from the top across the rooftops of Codigua and the farm houses scattered among the countryside, sheltered from the horizon by the foothills, was absolutely beautiful. But what impressed me even more was the reason we had traveled up the hill the in first place. During a recent earthquake--they are common here—a large basin of drinking water at the top of the hill had shifted so that the water level was tilted in the container. A new stronger pump needed to be installed. I smiled when I realized that we were there to fix the drinking water system for the community living on the hill. A task far too complicated for many of us in the United States. I remember being so impressed with how casual this was for them. Just another day in their life. It was the same when Jaime needed a new incubator for young Queen bees. Instead of going out to buy a new one, we spent a day converting and old refrigerator. Why go out and buy something that you can build?
I think that has a lot to do with time. When you own on work on your own farm, or your own business, you own your world. Your time belongs to you, and you have the freedom to teach yourself new skills because if you want your world to be successful, you have to.
The culture I grew up in is so compartmentalized that we don’t do this. We don’t take the time to learn these new skills and this makes us dependent on our societies, trapped in them. Our economy is based on specialists who provide services to others but not themselves, plumbers, hairdressers, doctors for your heart, doctors for your teeth, doctors for your brain, mechanics, teachers of specific subjects, police for a city, police for a border, police for legal vices, police for drugs. When something doesn’t work properly we call the person who knows how that specific system works and they come to fix it, and we don’t take the time to learn what exactly it is that they did. They do their job, we continue to do our job, and we all remain co-dependent. We can’t do certain things for ourselves so we are forced to continue living within our own societies, forced to accept certain norms. We lose some of our freedom.
Why are we okay with not knowing? Why do we accept these deficiencies? And I think this is because the urban world feels so much bigger. For example, on the farm there are a few water pumps, they are critical to survival and a huge part of the world, we learn about them to fix them, to replace them, out of necessity. In the city there are thousands of pumps serving millions of people. But there are so many different kinds of pumps, what would be the point of learning only one? If you want to put pumpfixing on your resume in the city you have to understand the different types, how they work. One pump on the farm becomes hundreds of pumps in the city, and the task that on the farm that was easily manageable and fulfilling is now insurmountable in an urban setting.
I can extend that to how I currently feel about cities, especially after living on the farm. I have said in the past that I don’t want to miss out on an opportunity to do anything, but in the city that is impossible. Cities are so much more grandiose, there is so much more to see and do, and it can be overwhelming. On the farm when I stopped to write a blog post, the house was quiet, the rest of my world was relaxing, but as I sit here and type this, the sounds of engines, jackhammers, dogs barking, and people shouting outside remind me that there is currently entire world having life experiences that I will never share in. And I find that immensely frustrating, because despite the fact that I know that blog writing is a time for me to reflect, that I know I will be happy for having typed this, and I know that it is unrealistic to expect to be able to do everything all at once, I’m greedy and I want to know the world. My heart wants this world, this whole world, the entire planet Earth, to be the world that I live in, that I understand, and my brain can barely comprehend the magnitude of that task, all it knows is that that will take time, and every day that goes by is another day that I won’t get back, another day less to accomplish that task.
I think about how long it took for me to feel ready to leave the farm. After two weeks on the farm, I was only just starting to feel like I had had all the experiences that I wanted, that I had taken advantage of the opportunities available there. And even then, those were simple: go to the river, climb the hill, see the sunset from the hill, explore the brush, get a video of a queen bee, go for a slow walk, practice Spanish. To be honest there are still more experiences that I could have had there, but I needed to move on. And now I find myself bouncing between cities, with infinitely more experiences available. And I can’t help but feel I’m missing out, or not doing enough. Like I’m not making the most out of this incredible opportunity.
I think that this sense is compounded by the fact that my language skills are so bad. I miss out on a lot here because I can’t communicate effectively. The first time it really affected me was at the birthday party for my Jaime’s son. Their extended family came, and they enjoyed happy conversation around a communal table, but of course I couldn’t join them. I had so many questions, so many thoughts I wanted to share, but there was no way for me to express them, let alone understand any response that I received. And this makes understanding the human element of the places I visit more complicated. So often, I have wanted to be present with the woman begging on the street, the officer patrolling the square, the parent watching their child play, and talk about their world, but I just don’t have the skill, yet.
Often I feel like a child, wandering the world without his mother. I have little direction, little instruction, and I find that I am fumbling my way through the simple tasks of daily life: going to the store, ordering food, giving directions, making friends. I am so limited in all of these because I can’t express myself.
And this sentiment has followed me throughout my trip. I feel an enormous sense of guilt for not speaking Spanish, or at least one other language, like so many of the other travelers that I have encountered. I absolutely hate when someone has to switch to English for me, or even worse, when an entire group has to switch to speaking English for my benefit. I hate the sense that I am imposing on peoples conversations, that I am forcing other people to struggle to express themselves because I am not as cultured as I should be. I had one host jokingly say to me, “You know how I know you are from the United States? Because you travel 8,500 km to a foreign country that doesn’t speak your language and you expect to be able to find someone that you can talk to, you expect to be able to find someone to accommodate you. Only people from the United States do that.” And maybe that’s a bit harsh—Australians definitely do that too—but he’s not entirely wrong, afterall the United States is the only country in the Americas whose people have the audacity to claim the entirety of the “American” identity. A habit that I found very quickly offended people in Chile . From now on I no longer claim the title of “American,” I am only “from the United States”.
Because of this sense of guilt, for the first time in my life I have developed some level of social anxiety. Group meetings are awkward, asking for assistance in a store is a challenge, and obtaining a SIM card for my phone has been a multi-hour ordeal every time that I have done it.
And this also negatively affected my usefulness on the farm. I couldn’t do the more complicated tasks because I couldn’t understand the instructions, and I couldn’t learn as much as I could have because I couldn’t do those tasks. I was very much limited to menial manual labor, and, though I worked harder than I probably otherwise would have had I spoken the language well, I still felt incredibly guilty about my lack of proficiency.
I am so painfully foreign here. I remember at one point Jaime was talking to his friend, and their conversation turned to me. Jaime explained that I was from the United States and that I had terrible Spanish. His friend had a look of confusion, and then Jaime said “Workaway.” And his friend just smiled with a knowing look.It was at that moment that I realized I was filling the role of cheap foreign labor, doing the uncomplicated tasks that the more educated and well off didn’t want to do, a role often filled by Spanish speakers in my own country. I contemplated the irony of the situation and also the value of finding myself in this position, but also felt a twang of guilt as I realized that while I found myself in this situation as an indulgence of my own interests, there are many people forced into it out of necessity. That’s not to say that I shouldn’t have been there, doing that work, I don’t think that is the important thing. What’s important is that that brief exchange between those two men was a jarring reminder of exactly how privileged I am to have this opportunity, and I am happy that I had the chance to be reminded of it.
I also want to stress that, although I am having these conflicting feelings, and I am facing these struggles. I am absolutely happy. I knew when I started that I would face challenges similar to these and they are developing me and growing me as a person. And I expect it to get even more difficult. Chile and Argentina are relatively will developed place, as I make my way farther North, the norms that I am accustomed to will change, and I am excited to see how I will change with them.