After graduating from business school several years ago, I was more confused about what to do with my life than before starting. My diploma was supposed to answer all of my questions and guide me to the right path to follow. But I didn’t have the courage to choose a direction. I didn’t have the strength.
I needed a distraction, and so flew down to Bolivia to visit my best friend, Jay who was in the Peace Corps. We’d traveled together before, and always had fun and memorable adventures on our trips. But this one’s purpose was to escape decisions.
All I knew about Bolivia was that it was in South America and that Spanish was the national language. But what I didn’t know about this third world country was that many of its residents didn’t have television or electricity, most of the mountain roads were unpaved, and some bathrooms were nothing more than a hole in the ground.
I’d worked at summer camps before and didn’t mind roughing it when necessary. But there was one thing that was excruciating to me the first few days in Bolivia. It was the silence.
Jay’s house was in a small rural community where no one except for us, spoke English. When my friend would leave for work during the day, I was alone. With no television or anyone to speak to, silence attacked me from every angle, like a swarm of Malaria infected mosquitoes.
I’d been alone plenty of times before, but had always had something to occupy my time and thoughts. Be it driving, or eating or watching television, I could always concentrate on the task at hand to avoid letting my mind escape to thinking territory.
So I’d read anything and everything written in English that I could find. But after several days, fighting off the silence became challenging and exhausting.
When Jay would return home from work, he wasn’t in the mood to speak. He’d grown accustomed to his quiet life in Bolivia, and preferred to spend the entire afternoon and evening in silence.
“Are we monks?” I asked Jay. “Are you going to make me wear a robe and take a vow of celibacy?”
“Why do you have a problem with being quiet?” Jay asked back. “It gives you time to think and make decisions.”
I didn’t let on to my friend that he’d hit the nail on the head. That he’d discovered my greatest fear at the time. That I was jealous that he seemed to make perfect decisions so effortlessly.
The day I couldn’t take the silence any longer, Jay told me to pack up because we were going on a trip. He had to visit a native village deep in the wilderness of the Andes Mountains, and it would take us two days of bus rides, walking and hitch hiking to get there.
When we arrived, we set up camp in a one-room cinder block building that was used as a school. The rest of the structures were deep in the woods and made of adobe or tree branches tied together. There was only one store, which sold a few staple items like corn, coffee and kerosene.
“We have forty pieces of bread for four days,” Jay said during our first meal in the village. “That’s ten pieces per day, five per person.”
I had never had to ration food in my life, nor had my diet restricted to only bread and water. It didn’t alarm me, but I became aware that living in Bolivia was not at all like summer camp.
After a couple of days, Jay and I went to visit the village chief, who lived about an hour’s walk in the forest. On the way, we’d occasionally run into a donkey carrying a child, who was wearing brightly colored clothes donated from other countries. It wasn’t unusual to see t-shirts advertising Coca-cola or promoting Reagan for president.
When we arrived at the home of the village chief and his family, I saw that they too had received some of these donated clothes. The leader’s wife wore a burgundy polo shirt and navy pleated skirt, and he wore light blue ski pants, a navy hooded Puma sweatshirt and a bolero hat.
“It’s 85 degrees,” I said to Jay. “Why is he wearing that?”
“It’s probably the only clothes he has,” Jay said. “Not everyone has a choice about what to wear.”
We all sat down on logs arranged in a square. While Jay spoke to the chief in Spanish, I silently took in the new world surrounding us. The children were shoeless and the house was made of sticks, mud and straw. A few skinny chickens, pigs and donkeys slowly moved around us looking for food.
The wife disappeared for a few minutes and then returned with a burlap sack and handed it to me. The contents moved around, which caused me to drop it immediately and jump up from the log and step back.
“What are you doing?” Jay asked. “Pick it up. You’re being rude.”
“I’m being rude?” I asked. “The woman hands me a moving sack and I’m the one being rude?”
Jay explained that there was a live chicken in the sack, and that the chief and his family were giving it to us as a gift. I told my friend that it was a nice gesture and all, but that I doubted American Airlines would let me count it as a carry-on when I went back to the United States.
“It’s for us to eat here,” Jay said. “Didn’t you grow up on a farm? You can kill it and we’ll eat it later.”
“My family got our chickens dead and featherless from Piggly Wiggly,” I explained. “My grandma knew how to wring their necks to kill them, but she never shared her technique.”
“You can either kill it, or we’ll starve,” Jay said. “It’s your choice.”
I excused myself and walked to a small creek and sat down on the bank. The chief’s children were washing their clothes in the water, and then beating them on rocks. This was the richest family in the village.
At that moment, my guard was let down. Silence and thoughts filled my body and mind to capacity and then erupted into tears through my eyes. Perhaps it was the diet of bread and water, the humiliation of not having the strength to kill a chicken, or the impact of seeing lives without choice.
It was time to think and make decisions about my future. This choice was a gift that I couldn’t let rot like a piece of fruit in the hot sun. Not choosing my path would be weak.
One of the villagers killed the chicken for us, but before we could eat, we got word through a hand radio that Jay’s father died. On our journey out of the Bolivian wilderness, my friend asked me for some quiet time alone.
“Not a problem at all,” I said. “I understand.”
Silence is now a part of my daily routine. It helps me think about all of the choices I’ve been given, and guides me on my journey. With thoughts, there is clarity. With decisions, there is strength.
For more information on the Jacques Couvillon Journal Write, starting this Thursday, July 8th, call 646-387-2558.