A Pleasant Vision

“The cool, ocean breeze blows the wisps of water onto my face and my hair with the soft rustle of the wind refreshing and relaxing me as the sunset envelopes the bright horizon leaving just one solid line of distinction on the horizon to separate the sea from the sky.”

The sand beneath me is coarse yet soft as it envelopes my feet and legs whole as I begin to pull myself up after admiring the waves lapping up to cool my body and soothe my worries as if I were in a welcome trance. Looking around at the vast sunset before me, the canvas of colors from blue to yellow to orange to pink, light up the seascape village I find myself near to but still so far away from. The cool, ocean breeze blows the wisps of water onto my face and my hair with the soft rustle of the wind refreshing and relaxing me as the sunset envelopes the bright horizon leaving just one solid line of distinction on the horizon to separate the sea from the sky.

I am wearing all-white as I pick myself up out of the sand and I see the shimmering lights behind me of a picturesque village where there is laughter, unknown music, and the smell of delicious food cooking over an open flame. After the sun sets over the village, I feel the distinct urge to go towards the village where everything and nothing seems familiar to me at the same time. The shimmering lights help me as I climb from the base of the beach up through the rocky hillside feeling at ease even as my bare feet climb over the rocks and shrubbery covered boulders.

As I climb higher and higher to the top of the hillside that juts out of this mountainous formation, the sound of people in different languages laughing heartily, the sounds of beautiful music playing in a sweet symphony as to not clash with the people’s joy. The smells of enticing foods, which become more and more familiar to me that come either from a distant past or of a future yet to come. The arduous hill climbing causes me to stumble and rest prematurely but I am undeterred. I do not bleed and while I tire, I do not fall back. Eventually, I make my way to the entrance of this pristine yet unfamiliar village with cobbled streets and stucco walls. Each of the village homes I walk past have large windows but no one’s inside, the walls are white or pastel-colored, and the arches speak to a grandeur of which I immediately fall in love with.

The windows and doors are arched with beige or dark red clay roof tiles with outdoor space with gardens likely filled with lush tomatoes and other plants to grow one’s own food. Surprisingly, I encounter women and men dressed from different eras on these cobbled streets who greet me in the languages of my ancestors. They have carriages and horses with them and exchange pleasantries with me as I pass them by on the way to the party. While I do not know them, they know me and perhaps they’ve known me my whole life. Even though I am tired from my journey, my hunger and thirst apparent to them all, they whisper words of belonging and encouragement in my ears and tell me that, “everyone is waiting for me.”

Who is everyone? Is it my friends? My family? My loves of past, present, or future? Where am I? Questions wash over me, but I am not anxious. It’s that strange sense of anticipation that comes after a fortuitous journey where my last destination is not known but I have no doubt of where it is that I am supposed to go. I am here for a reason and while I do not know when, where, or how I got here, I finally know that I have a destination in mind that may be what I was looking for all along.

Once I get there, the high, wooden entrance of a pure white village house made of solid brown doors swing wide open for me as an honored guest. There are sturdy, mahogany tables filled with known faces who have known me throughout my life and unknown yet familiar faces who I may be related to by blood or folks who I don’t remember as a child or baby but have also met them at one point or another. The tables and chairs seem to go on forever up to the edge of the hillside looking out on the moon, the sea, and the stars as gloriously bright as can be with no way not see hundreds or thousands in the night sky. Ornate dining sets have been set up with wine goblets and delicious foods with peaceful music playing in the background and it seems everyone is waiting for me to arrive to begin the meal together.

Everybody at each table is dressed up in their own regalia from the era they lived in and are at the age that they most would like to be remembered by. Surprisingly, while each person is exchanging languages with each other that they themselves may not speak, they are somehow being instantaneously translated so everyone can understand one another even while having not been from the same century or same continent.

It dawns on me that this is exactly where I’m meant to be. The food is as delicious as can be, the wine and other drinks plentiful, and everyone is enjoying each other’s company with pure joy and happiness lighting up the evening. They all know me as if I were a family…which I am. Many hugs, kisses, and handshakes are exchanged as each of my ancestors and family members encourage me to join them at the table through a night that seems to stretch across time like a flowing river.

I am the latest to arrive to the celebration here, but it feels like they’ve all been waiting a while for me to join them here at this heavenly setting. There is no mention of anything negative in the conversations I have. We don’t highlight my or their own Earthly failures, setbacks, heartbreaks, and tragedies. There is just happiness, joy, warmth, and discussing the fine setting and meal we find ourselves enjoying together after having been apart. There are no hard feelings, no pain, no remorse, no odd person out, as we are a whole family again united after all this time, which feels like just yesterday we were all together but may have been decades, centuries, or millennia since our paths have crossed. If this is heaven, I ask myself, it is certainly a pleasant vision of it.

Hay Vida En Las Calles

During my visit to Salento, Colombia, a beautiful town located in the foothills below the Andes Mountains and adjacent to the famous Cocora Valley, I picked up on a slogan that I found very endearing and memorable. “Hay vida en las calles” was posted on an advertisement on one of the vendors there who was dishing out ice cream, snacks, and other goodies. “Hay vida en las calles” translates to the English language as “There is life in the streets” and I found that to be a very positive sign and one that gets people out of their homes and into the parks, squares, and plazas where the basis of all community life is formed. While life in the streets cannot be found everywhere, I found this prevalent attitude consistent in many towns and cities during my travels in Latin America.

The emphasis on communal spaces and public gathering places is something I really admire about Latin culture and I find it to be a healthy feature of any society, which has strong communities and families. Being able to leave your homes every now and then to walk five minutes away to be in a public park or a town square should be natural and available to more and more of us.

As is well known in psychology and sociology, Human beings are social creatures and we want to be around other people even after we have had some alone time. In order to do so, responsible local, state, and national governments should provide that to their peoples in order to build more trusting and kind societies. In societies where people are isolated, lonely, and without opportunities to meet people and build new friendships, problems related to anxiety, depression, and even violence are likely to rise.

In countries such as the United States and other Western countries, statistics related to anxiety, depression, and loneliness are rising and part of the reason I think for the rise in these issues is related to not being able to gather and socialize in a public place. The atomization related to suburban living, the lack of public transportation options, and the decline of shopping centers all help to contribute to this rise in loneliness. I mention the closing of shopping malls because due to technology giants like Amazon, small businesses and large companies alike are closing their doors causing people to order anything from food to clothes to Amazon Echo from their homes.

While shopping malls and outlet stores aren’t an optimal way to build a sense of community, they still brought people together and were a place to hang out. The question remains regarding how will we replace these stores, strip malls, and outlet centers if they all go out of business? A revitalization of public places from small towns to big cities will not just be a prudent step forward but help societies deal with rising anxiety and loneliness rates. There should be life in the streets.

Whose responsibility should it be to encourage this kind of ‘life in the streets’? I believe it’s the local government combined with local businesses who can really make it work. Also, local community groups and organizations can play a big role in making sure everybody feels welcome and to promote activities, discussion groups, and issues in the community that need to be resolved. The average citizen living in the town or city can contribute to by hosting ‘block parties’ or contributing food or drinks. We ask our taxes to pay for roads, schools, and parks, but why not also a community gathering place, indoors or outdoors, where people can be social, discuss issues, and make new friends.

Without investing in our citizens by providing a ‘public square’, we are really selling ourselves short and it could hurt the fabric of our communities, towns, and cities in the long run. Without a way for people to interact and socialize with each other for free and without needing to buy anything, society as a whole can really benefit. It may sound like a ‘utopian’ idea to some but I think it makes a lot of sense in terms of the potential benefits to people’s mental health.

When I was in Salento, Colombia, for example, there were numerous food vendors, there was live music, and people were chatting with each other on benches. Children were playing in a nearby playground and the air was fresh and clean. The noise of the cars and the buses was off in the distance and it was a sea of calm where there were plentiful trees, flowers, and you could hear the birds chirping. People need that kind of space to gather, talk, listen to music, eat food, and watch their children play peacefully.

In my travels through Latin America in the past few years, I have seen this in multiple towns and cities where there is an emphasis on using the public squares for the public’s benefit. While this may not be a universal thing across the entire region, it is a priority here and one that I really appreciate coming from a culture where these gatherings are in decline. The good news should be that with greater effort and investment, we can bring the public spaces back again in the United States and elsewhere.

Further automation and loss of jobs in the retail and manufacturing sector is a tragedy and one worth acknowledging. My hope is that the loss of these retail and commercial spaces can be put to some good use and even lead to different kinds of jobs to take root, ones that are more social and that benefit people more, especially young children and the elderly. Being able to revitalize certain neighborhoods with greener public spacers where people can gather, eat, play, talk, and even dance would help curb the loneliness epidemic that we are seeing in Western societies. If there is life in the streets, people will show up and they will be better for it.

Part of the beauty of travel is seeing how other cultures value family and community life and make it a high priority. I believe that you can take these positive values from other cultures and place them within your own. It must involve buy-in though from the people themselves and they have to feel that it was the next step forward in improving their community. With the rise of automation and the closing of large shopping centers, we may be at the point in time where we can turn these empty buildings and useless parking lots into real gathering places in the future.

Without social interaction and a sense of community, people will suffer as a result mentally. This has been shown in many studies and in many surveys. I think it is part of who we are as social animals and being isolated in our homes and in our cars for 90% of the day will not make us healthier. For what I saw in Salento, Colombia a few years ago and what I have seen in other towns in Latin America, placing a high value on social life within these communities will make people feel a sense of togetherness and cohesion. A greater emphasis on community gatherings and social spaces would create a large ripple effect that would drastically improve the greater society, the country you’re in, and the world.

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