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Story Last modified at 9:49 p.m. on Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Maybe we can learn from our south-of-the-border neighbors


As you'll read on Page 1 of this week's Star, a group of Eagle River Area Rotarians headed to Mexico over their spring break, but not necessarily with the goal of sitting on sandy beaches sipping pina coladas.

Instead, they were part of Project Amigo, a nonprofit organization that, among other goals, helps residents of poverty-stricken areas improve their literacy.

To support the project, 15 locals either from or associated with Rotary, traveled to Colima, a state on the west side of the Mexican mainland. Within Colima is the town of Cofradia de Suchitlan, which is considered a very poor village, according to Rotary, and that is where the group centered its efforts.

They brought books, spent time in the schools and interacted with the children. They donated money to help pay for basic school necessities, such as school uniforms, supplies and transportation costs.

Their work, clearly, was aimed at bettering the lives of those living in an area where not a lot of money exchanges hands.

In reading the story, however, one comment struck me. Chugiak High freshman, 15-year-old Marcus Gamble, speaking on the poverty, said, "It was almost like they didn't know how poor they were, and if they did, they were still happy."

All evening, and into the next day, the comment lingered. What defines "poor" anyway?

While the Rotary was in Colima, offering their help, our family, too, was in another part of Mexico, kayaking the coastal state of Baja California Sur. These are clearly two different regions of Mexico, with differing economies, one mostly agricultural, the other geared toward tourism. Still, residents in the small Baja towns we visited share a common trait with the people of Cofradia de Suchitlan – a lack of material wealth.

We met local ranchers farming barren land and spent time in a small, self-supported community off the grid where the handful of residents there still haul water from buckets in a well they dug by hand.

But rather than see this as an obstacle to overcome, I found myself envying the simple, but hard, way of living of the people there. Walking through town, I noticed people were not attached to Blackberries or iPhones. They sat on benches playing cards and laughing. They drove by in beat-up pickups singing songs at the top of their lungs. They cooked simple meals of rice and beans from dented pots on old stoves that looked like they'd been dredged from a landfill.

And they smiled. All the time, they smiled wide, happy grins.

Later in our trip, we were invited to a birthday party of a girl our daughter had befriended during our kayaking trip. At her house, the family gathered around a patio, speaking rapid Spanish, smiling, laughing and eating. A buffet was set up on a lopsided table by a light switch powered by one bare bulb.

After dinner, Erickita opened her birthday presents – simple, but heartfelt gifts – a pair of barrettes, a notebook, nail polish, a bag of candy. The guests sang the Birthday Song, and the children played into the night, chasing each other and laughing until their parents picked them off one by one and headed home.

In homes across the country – likely the world – this birthday scene is similar. We've had identical parties – minus the rapid Spanish – at our house countless times.

For those with more money, the gifts might be more grand. For others who struggle, they may even be fewer. The idea of being "poor" then, is really relative. Sure, any parent would want more money to feed, clothe and educate their children. But money is not synonymous with happiness, and here is where we have learned to love the Mexican zest for life. There's value in not tying your happiness to what you own, how many possessions you've accumulated and how much is in your bank account.

When it was time to head back to Alaska, I peeled myself away from town, dragged my heels all the way to the airport. To say I dreaded the return is an understatement.

It's easy to assume this is because we were in a sunny, tropical location, spending our days enjoying the outdoors, reading books lazily, and, yes, sipping pina coladas on the beach now and then. Who wouldn't want to sit and do nothing?

But that's not really what I would miss. Vacations are a step away from reality. They give the person on holiday a chance to turn the switch to "off," unplug from day-to-day responsibilities and just breathe.

I had, indeed, done all of this. I was rested, relaxed and rejuvenated. If someone asked me to be the poster child for a "Vacation in Mexico" campaign, I would have happily agreed.

But what I really would miss would be that intangible, happy-with-less mindset that seems to prevail in the off-the-beaten-path places our family has visited in Mexico. Simplicity is celebrated. Time is appreciated. No wonder the colors are brighter, the smiles wider.

Maybe those folks in Mexico know good and well that they are "poor" in bank account. But they move through life happy anyway, seeming rich in that account that holds spirit.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, March 30, 2011.