What’s Important, and What’s Not

Posted on October 28, 2013


For many years I traveled quite a bit in my job as an historian of Latin America.

I flew mostly on a north-south axis into Latin America, but occasionally across the Atlantic to Spain and Europe as well. I wrote about some subjects set in colonial Latin America, and so some archives and sources I worked in were in the “home country,” largely Spain.

England has some great archives and libraries and, of course, London is a nice place to visit too. So I traveled there once or twice, to work in the library of the British Museum and the Greenwich Museum of Maritime History. I saw the Cutty Sark for the first time there, moored for all time, and I thought it was just the cover of a bottle of good Scotch. One learns while traveling.

Mostly though I went into places like Santiago (Chile), Lima, Guayaquil, San José (Costa Rica), Panama City, Veracruz, Santo Domingo and others that leave me tired today just to think of traveling to. But, whether landing in Mérida, Yucatan—a jet hop across the Gulf of Mexico from New Orleans, or the airport of La Paz, Bolivia, a breathless 12,000 feet high on a plateau of the Andes Mountains of South America, I detached myself from things back home.

Once I arrived, I plunged into my work, making myself at home, whether with an aunt in her small apartment in Santiago in the summer of 1974, or in a Catholic La Salle brothers retreat in Managua, Nicaragua, in 2004. Perhaps it is just a boarding house or hotel along the way from when I first went to Spain to work in the Archive of the Indies in the fall of 1970.

There we lived in a nice apartment on Calle Sol, Sun Street, with a view out the back on the old city wall that dated from Roman times. It cost me $60 a month, which was ok on a budget of $400 a month. That’s when I began to focus on what was essential in my travels, and put peripheral things aside.

I learned that no news to keep up with on the home front did not put me in peril of missing something. This was mostly before, I must add, personal computers, cell phones, and other devices became ubiquitous, before email, Facebook, Tweeting, instant news, gossip, and images of various disasters at one’s fingertips, literally.

It was like I disappeared into a happy valley of solitude, even surrounded, as I usually was in a big city, by high rises, buses, people, lots of people, the hustle and bustle of the rich and poor going about their business.

What was happening in the street in Lima in 1988 for example was a lot more germane to my health and wellbeing than trying to keep up with news from back home.

Back in the States I was a newshound, soaking up who said what about whom, or what Arab sheik threatened Israel, or the rising price of gas at the pump, or the last sick serial murderer caught in Orlando, or maybe even Boise, Idaho.

In Lima in the fall of 1988, the Shining Path terrorist movement was trying to destroy the country, but I was really more interested in finding the best bus from my home away from home in Barranco, a suburb of Miraflores, itself a suburb of Lima, to where I was teaching across the city at the University of Lima. My biggest concern was keeping my laptop charged and running the next time the terrorists blew up more power towers and lines somewhere and plunged the city into darkness again.

When that happened, if you were on the street, at night, it was important to get home as soon as possible. I had a small garden apartment behind the pool of my landlady who lived in the home, and it was safe, unlike the streets at night.

Then if the power was off long enough, one had to figure out how to shower and stay reasonably clean.

The idea of being occupied with watching the news, tweeting, texting, emailing and waiting anxiously for every last piece of news coming through the ether was like from living on another planet.

My view was getting filtered and focused down on what was essential in life.

It was, I thought occasionally, like the life of the poor. Survival is of the highest consideration. The next meal, not the next tweet or talk show.

So, the longer I was abroad, the more focus I put on what was important. Keeping the laptop battery charged; having the right change for the bus; taking a shower—a spit bath really—in the dark.

When some of us went to see a new movie about the escalation of violence between the terrorists and the military trying to destroy them, the Shining Path struck again, and our movie, La boca del lobo, slowly ground to a halt as the theater went dark.

No one panicked. We waited patiently for the emergency generator to kick in and then followed the dim lights out into the night, but not before getting tickets to return for the next showing. One plans even during a war against terrorists.

That I was looking at a movie about terrorism, and then had to leave the movie house because the Shining Path had pulled the plug again, the irony was not lost on anyone I suppose. But when the lights came back on, we found a good coffee shop and enjoyed the rest of the evening, there by the seaside on the Pacific.

Today I am badgered by the media, by obnoxious solicitations over the phone, by dozens, scores, hundreds of emails (even with the best spam protectors in place), by twenty-four news shows, and even my favorite sport, golf, is non-stop. Drivers swerve all over the place as they text, and in the airport hardly anyone just kicks back to watch the passing crowd. Everyone seems to be in a hurry, talking or texting.

So I have learned to deal with a lot of the distractions, such as the inbox of my email, by asking, “do I really need to know or read this? What if I were in Guayaquil or Managua or Puerto Plata?”

And my answer is invariably, “no. Reading what the Washington Post’s bloggers have to say on the latest outrages by congressmen and presidents is really useless to my life.”

So I get another cup of coffee, open up my Bible online, and read a few passages that have not changed over hundreds, indeed thousands of years. They get my focus on what is important yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

It reminds me of walking through a war weary Santiago on cold, wintry evenings in June of 1974 with my Aunt Nora, headed to one of her favorite restaurants and learning that the best Chilean wines were not exported. Now that was worth knowing!

I couldn’t change a battle-scarred Chile, still darkened by the military coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power on Sept. 11, 1973. That’s right, it was a date burned into Chilean memories years before 9/11 shocked us.

But as Nora and I enjoyed a glass of good wine, we spoke of her brother, the errant Uncle Antonio, her daughters in Spain now married to foreigners, her own husband who had served with Pinochet as a young officer in the Army years before, of the quotidian things of family and the fabric of memory.

I remembered all that very well and wove it into my own memory housing family history, the good, the bad and even the ugly worth remembering.

We all are storehouses of the past, far more entertaining, and often even uplifting, than the latest blog, tweet or email. Just imagine you’ve been transported to a place like Guinope, Honduras for a week, like I was on a mission trip last summer. I stopped thinking of “hmmm, my cell phone doesn’t work,” to “hmmm, I wonder if the power will fail this evening. Can the cooks get our supper together in the dark without electricity? I’m hungry!”

Or, better yet, go on one yourself. It doesn’t have to be associated with a church; sign up for a secular mission to teach someplace, to help rebuild a storm-wracked town or city right here at home.

Get in touch with your own Aunt Noras. They generally like their younger relatives, and may know where some of the best wine or cider is made in the country!

Published in OpEd section of The Tuscaloosa News Sunday November 3, 2013 as Going Abroad and Out of Comfort Zone Helps Reveal What’s Important and What’s Not