By Lee Valenti
Carl said he was interested in hearing from "people who have successfully unplugged from Gringolandia." Well, Carl, you know America has a rich history of those that left civilization behind to pit themselves against the wilderness.
In my case, I'd first have to describe what I was 'plugged' into before I 'unplugged.' In 1975 I was teaching at a university, successfully pursuing an academic career. I had been involved for years in civil rights, anti-Vietnam movements, women's rights and environmentalism. However, there was no viable manner of combatting the growing trends of self-serving materialism, narrow-minded super-patriotism and frightened conformism. I needed a simpler life.
For years I had visited Mexico, and on each vacation did scouting missions and researching. After looking around in Cuenavaca, Chapala, the Yucatan and Patzcuaro, I discovered San Miguel de Allende. I could live there: it was (is) beautiful and the people (both Mexican and extranjeros) are warm, open minded, friendly, supportive. The town, snuggled into the mountains at 7000 feet has a wonderfully varied climate.
I had already begun detaching myself: I had divorced the year before and the children were grown and had lives of their own. All that remained was to resign, rid myself of accumulated possessions and leave.
In San Miguel de Allende I made friends, partied, took an intensive mime course. It was an art-centered community with frequent art shows. Close to Guanajuato, the cultural center of Mexico, SMA enjoyed the overflow: there are dance recitals, concerts, theaters. And I travelled, mainly to archaeological sites and beaches.
The money I had saved from teaching began to dwindle, but I found intermittent sources of income. For a while I made the popular Mexican draw-string pants. Starting with a bolt of white crinkled manta from Dolores Hidalgo, I usually measured a customer in the morning, cut and sewed in the afternoon, hand-finished in the evening, and delivered the pants the following morning. For a year I was 'den mother', supervising a communal living enterprise while growing enough vegetables to feed everyone. What eventually occurred, and is still sustaining me, is tutoring American high-school students. Some I taught full-time; some needed an intensive summer course; there are always a few needing preparation for college board exams.
It was a good life: I had lots of friends, and my younger daughter followed me down and created a life there. Off and on I had a male companion for as long as a year; however, as time went by I increasingly enjoyed travelling and living alone.
Slowly, SMA began to change, becoming too popular with American tourists, mainly retirees. And it became expensive; I found it harder to live there, particularly as it began to feel like what I left behind.
However, another option was emerging. I had travelled through Guatemala back in 1976 and was impressed by the beauty of the country and charmed by the simplicity of the life of the inhabitants. In 1986, after a trying summer session, pushing two girls through difficult courses, I took off for an open-ended vacation, headed for San Cristobal de las Casas and whatever ensued.
There, I met three young Italians travelling onto Guatemala, joined up with them and landed at Lake Atitlan, sheer paradise of a clear lake, surrounded by volcanoes and emitting the same magic I had felt many years before in SMA.
I began to study the hand-weavings of the country and to deal in those beautiful and infinitely varied textiles. I travelled throughout Guatemala collecting weavings and returning to Mexico to sell them. After a while the international commuting became too tiring; also I was making friends and allying myself more and more with Guatemalan culture.
In 1990 after ascertaining that my social security would come through, I had someone help me find a house to rent, and I made the leap to Panajachel, the tourist town on the lake. During the following years I did lots more travelling, collecting textiles and information on textiles. I reconnected with SMA friends Carl, Lorena and Steve Rogers. There was a little work with Carl and Lorena as a weaving 'expert' on their tours and some with Steve buying folk art. I still tutor - the few teenagers that are here and need something special.
Each of my U.S. children has visited me 2 or 3 times and both are thinking of retiring here someday. My younger daughter, (the one who lived in SMA), moved here three years ago; she is bringing up her child here and running an export business.
I lead a quiet life. The sub-culture is small, and one makes do with a few friends. Everyone lends books and there is a small public library, as well as several second-hand book stores. I used to make frequent trips to Salvador, Honduras and once to San Andres Isla; however, as I age, I travel less, still enjoying the wonderful variety of in-country sites whenever the occasion offers. Frequently I take the spectacular trip across the lake to visit friends in Santiago Atitlan.
The food here is scrumptious - all kinds of fruits and vegetables, soy products, whole grain breads. And the natives are friendly, putting up with our curious ways.
I don't miss the U.S. This past summer my children treated me to a trip to Atlanta and New York. I loved seeing them and stocked up on some goodies (decent cotton socks and underwear). But I don't belong there: I no longer drive a car, I can't run a computer and consumerism has increased, smothering me by the too-muchness of things.
So I return to my simple life in the luxuriant land of flowers and trees. I am thankful for the luck to have been born in the U.S., where I had everything, including the eventual choice and ability to leave; for 15 wonderful years in SMA and who knows how many more here at the side of the lake.
The life is simple, but not primitive: I can buy a croissant or a bagel and there is cable TV in English. Hey, don't laugh: no one wants to 'unplug' from Gringolandia without some kind of support system. Witness the disastrous flight of a family into uncharted wilderness portrayed in Paul Theroux's "Mosquito Coast." I prefer to follow in the footsteps of that quintessential American, Huckleberry Finn. Realizing he couldn't stay where they would "sivilise" him, he knew enough to "light out for the territories - ahead of the rest." He would 'unplug' only as far as the territories (partly tamed lands) and he wouldn't be alone long; he would only have a foot-up on others , 'ahead of the rest'. Maybe what Huck and I, and others like us have done is not escape civilization, but rather, extend it.