I got my head in the clouds

(Craig Campbell)– A few weeks ago I wrote about the difference between active and passive discovery. Well, this spring break certainly marks a flurry of activity.

After nearly missing my flight out of Hartford Friday morning (thanks, Ziggy Taxi) I crossed the border and landed in San Pedro, Honduras. This week I’m visiting my sister, who is spending her first year out of college teaching 5th grade in a rural village here. I met her in the airport, handed her a stack of cash, and stood back as she handled all the food/transportation/business arrangements, considering my Spanish vocabulary is severely limited. I’m reluctant to even mutter the few phrases I do know, worrying I’ll sound like this (but in Spanish):

After travelling to Gracias, a town west of San Pedro, we woke up early Saturday morning and were motorcycled one-by-one into the hills on the city’s outskirts. After meeting a non-English speaking guide, we proceeded to backpack up the Cerro Las Minas, which, at nearly 3000 meters, is the tallest peak in Honduras.

After about 20 minutes of hiking a steep path, we rejoiced in finding a building where we could rest and hydrate and munch on some trail mix. Turns out we had only reached the visitor center, and that we hadn’t even begun the “climb.” Oops. Naturally our tour guide expressed doubts that we would make it to the top by nightfall (even though it was only 8 am) so we mustered our spirits, stretched our calves, and climbed through three layers of cloud forest to the peak of mountain. We arrived about four hours before expected, and reveled in the rolling vistas visible at the summit. At this point, we had much of the afternoon to kill before it would even be dark. So we just sat, the three of us, and enjoyed nature, silence, and each other. Just being still, appreciating the surroundings.

Since we had nothing else to do, and a campfire was out of the question since everything was soaked by the clouds, we were forced to crawl into our sleeping bags when darkness descended at 7 pm. As I lay there for the 5-ish hours that I couldn’t fall asleep, I thought a lot about the value of “nothing.”

Just two days earlier I had been at Amherst, fighting the clock in to finish a paper, a math take-home exam, and a cover letter – all while trying to be outside and enjoy the weather, of course. Each minute was scheduled; every second I was doing something. And then there I was on this mountain with absolutely nothing to do. And it was so different, and nice… for a second.

I think that we romantically inflate the notion of stillness, of laying everything down and looking around, of doing nothing. Rest, recuperation, and the occasional escape are all necessary, but I don’t think that they’re at all synonymous with inactivity. Sitting there doing nothing at the top of the mountain, I wished that I had a book or an iPod, or knew effective ways to meditate without falling asleep. Not because I was bored – that’s not an accurate description of the feeling. Rather, I was just itching to be productive, to make something, to do something creative. The same way I disapprove of passive discovery (opposed to active discovery) I also don’t see the benefit of paralyzed discovery, or exploration via stillness. (A clarification of vocabulary: meditation is not the same as stillness, as I use it here. That’s a different kind of active motionlessness that I do not equate with “doing nothing.”)

After spending the night at the peak and watching a gorgeous sunrise in the morning, we haphazardly slid down the mountain paths, and immediately hopped on board a big yellow school bus that would be taking us back to the little town my sister lives in. In 75-degree weather, ambling along dusty dirt roads, the bus squeezed 3 people per seat in addition to the passengers filling the aisle. After a delayed departure, it made frequent stops in towns along the way, where we were greeted by large crowds of Hondurans waiting to board the overcrowded bus. We arrived at our destination 4.5 hours after we set off. We had travelled 28 miles.

At this point I was reunited with my iPod, and was too sick to do much else. But there were all these people that I witnessed outside the bus, standing around, loitering, doing nothing. And even if they had gotten on, they would have been crammed into a vehicle slowly navigating the serpentine dirt roads of the mountains, taking an excessively long time to make it from point A to point B. Just sitting on a bus, biding time, still doing nothing.

It’s circumstance. Neither they nor I asked for slow moving public transit. It’s a condition of poor infrastructure, resulting in an discrete loss of productivity. It’s an inefficient system to which they are (and I was, for a moment) consigned. It’s not a cultural difference; it’s not a happy throwback to a time when things were “simple” and slower. Doing nothing is stagnation and not moving forward. And not moving forward, in relation to all the entropy constantly in motion around us, is the same as moving backward. It’s too damn bad, and I’m not about to offer any solutions; it just got me thinking. I’ve said this before, but this weekend reinforced my conviction: I’ll always choose activity.

But this revelation isn’t to say I’m not enjoying Central America. I’m loving it! This trip abroad is just what Pandamonium needs right now.

(As a post-script, the reason this post comes a day late warrants a story. After finishing writing last night, I went to the church, one of the two public wi-fi hotspots in town. The gate was locked so I hopped the fence and logged onto my wordpress account. A man who I assumed was the guard approached me and said something I couldn’t understand, to which I just shrugged, pointed to the wi-fi tree, and said “Internet.” He walked away as I continued, but then turned off a light, picked up and cocked a shotgun, and headed into the darkness… I figured it was time to go. So here I am this morning, posting at the school, the other hotspot here.) Anyways, stay tuned for post-Honduran reflections next Monday!