2002-04-08 - 8:01 p.m.
Several days ago I arrived in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, completing a 22 month, 28,000km journey by bicycle from Alaska.
The final day on the bike was exceptional for just one reason; it was one of very few wet days of the journey, and the grey sky and low lying snow gave a striking contrast against fiery red autumn beech trees. Occasional drivers honked their horns and waved enthusiastically, aware that the day would bring me to the southern tip of South America. I wonder if any had imagined where I'd come from.
I rode the final few kilometers slowly, wearing a glazed smile, somewhat incredulous that I'd finally reached my destination. But I felt as much sadness as elation, aware that a fantastic segment of my life was coming to an end. Perhaps like life itself, I realized that travel is about the journey, not the destination.
My journey has taken me through most of the physical and human geographical extremes our planet has to offer. From the expansive wilderness and natural beauty of Alaska, northern Canada, the Andes and Patagonia, to crowded and sprawling centers of human population such as Los Angeles and Mexico city. I felt the dry, stifling heat of numerous deserts, the sticky, humid heat of the tropics, the toxic, polluted air of filthy cities, and the sparse rarefied air atop two 6000 meter peaks. I saw an extreme disparity of human wealth, from the excessively rich, shielded from the world inside enormous mansions with private security guards, to the desperately poor of most of central and south America, sometimes living in little more than a house of mud, or 5 straw mats fastened together to make a shelter. Often I found the poorest people the most accommodating, happy to share what little they had, and expecting nothing in return.
It is these people that have affected and influenced me more than anything else on my journey. In every country, I was met with enthusiasm, generosity or indifference, but seldom with hostility. I met people who have lived wretched lives, punished repeatedly by war or natural disasters, and exploited by local or foreign powers. Yet for all their misery, these people taught me a great deal about human resilience and happiness. Beyond the essential requirements of food, clothing, shelter and basic health, they demonstrated that real happiness has little to do with material wealth. They laugh, smile and joke just as brightly, and perhaps more honestly, than their wealthy counterparts in the developed world. They often live in beautiful, if challenging, natural environments, continuing a traditional balance with the environment which has provided them with most of their needs for generations. I felt a great empathy and appreciation for their understanding of what is important in life. They live simply, without the unnecessary luxuries, pressures and distractions of the developed world. They have little use for cable T.V, fast food, fashion, or a car. Sadly of course, these people are mostly powerless in the face of change brought about by those with money and influence. And just as much of their culture and natural resources were plundered by Spanish conquerors 350 years ago, today they face a similar threat of exploitation under the insatiable greed of capitalism.
Seeing the world from the perspective of the poor, and gaining a deep respect for the environment we all rely on, has forced me to question and re-evaluate many of the beliefs I was brought up with. I've realized that we live with extremely narrow perceptions of success, believing that the pursuit of monetary wealth and physical assets will somehow bring us long-term happiness. And while science warns increasingly of the impending destruction of the planet, we use our increasingly effective technology overwhelmingly against, rather than for, the environment. Corporately sponsored politicians and compliant media corporations assure us that 'capitalism' and 'globalization' bring 'democracy' and a better life for all, but the sharply conflicting reality makes their true intentions highly suspect. Throughout central and south America, I saw dozens of examples of corporate globalization, and the effects that Coca-Cola, American cigarettes, commercial tourism and marketed American culture have on local culture and traditional living, but almost none of the promised long-term benefits of health and education that globalization supposedly brings these people. The history of United States intervention in Latin American politics is something we hear little of in the developed world, but study the recent history of Nicaragua or El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama or Columbia, and we learn that 10's of thousands of people have been wiped out under American influence and support, all in the name of 'democracy', and trade. Consider the various wars and atrocities in the world today, and behind the rhetoric of world leaders, it isn't difficult to recognize the related motives which are the cause of many of these events. Consider the Bush Administration's rejection of the Kyoto climate change protocol last year. The short-term profits and financial greed of the few, threaten to deny most with the simple right to exist. A simple change in mindset from 'taking' to 'giving' would be both a prevention, and a cure.
My journey has taught me a great deal, some of which has been very difficult to accept, and at times made me very unhappy. I now face a difficult challenge in returning to a system that places more importance on money than meaning, and by and large, rewards selfishness over selflessness. But I return with the realization that we must re-evaluate our lifestyles, our priorities, and the objectives of our lives, if we intend to give any quality of life to future generations. I hope I'll be able to live a happy and productive life, and give something back to the people that have given me so much.
Ok. I can hear the groans. What can any individual do to change any of this? The answer is nothing if I remain apathetic, and even less if I ignore my conscience. Change begins with each of us. By increasing our awareness, and living our lives with a clear conscience over our actions, concentrating on helping others rather than ourselves, my hunch is that we will not only increase our own happiness, but those of everyone around us as well.
Perhaps I'm completely wrong. (It certainly wouldn't be the first time, although in this case it'll mean I'm about to begin a very long and painful lesson!). I must admit that life as a traveler is relatively simple, free of many of the pressures and responsibilities we face as part of a community. It becomes very easy to develop idealistic views on how the world should be, and to forget that travel, in most cases, is also a selfish luxury afforded only by the wealthy. But I am sure of this - the thousands of people I've met while traveling have demonstrated that happiness is based on two very simple qualities: GIVING rather than taking, and LOVING rather than fearing or hating. We in the developed world have TAKEN for too long. We now have the ability, the responsibility, and the increasingly urgent need to GIVE back.
As I pack my bags and prepare to fly north tomorrow, the clouds have lifted, revealing spectacular snow-covered mountains, the glassy blue Beagle channel, a clear blue sky, and the full, fiery red splendor of Tierra del Fuego's autumn beech trees. What a wonderful world this can be.
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