Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

GUEST COLUMN: Going Abroad and out of Comfort Zone Helps Reveal What's Important, and What's Not

Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

GUEST COLUMN: Going Abroad and out of Comfort Zone Helps Reveal What's Important, and What's Not

Article excerpt

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. I went into places like Santiago (Chile), Lima, Guayaquil, San Jose (Costa Rica), Panama City, Veracruz, Santo Domingo and others that leave me tired today just to think of traveling to.

But, whether landing in Merida, 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.

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 the Catholic La Salle brothers' retreat in Managua, Nicaragua, in 2004.

I learned that I missed little by not keeping up with news from home. Back in the States, I was a newshound. I soaked up who said what about whom, what Arab sheik or Islamic terrorist threatened to destroy Israel today, the rising price of gas at the pump or the last sick serial murderer caught in 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 Lima, to where I was teaching across the city at the University of Lima. My biggest concern was keeping my laptop charged before the terrorists dynamited more power towers and plunged the city into darkness once again. It was a dangerous guessing game.

When the sappers of the Shining Path struck again, 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, I had to figure out how to shower, shave, brush my teeth and stay reasonably clean, often in the dark.

The idea of being occupied with watching the news, tweeting, texting, emailing and waiting anxiously for every last piece of news flashing through the ether was like from living on another planet. My view was getting focused 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; shaving in the dark.

When I saw a new movie about the escalation of violence between the terrorists and the military trying to destroy them, the Shining Path struck again. 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. …

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