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Turning Twenty Four

In the "Cult of Escapism": Turning Twenty Four

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Turning Twenty Four

Birthday bread - thanks Laura

On March 1st, I woke up a year older and thinking about how I'm now in my mid twenties, not my early twenties. Bummer. My parents called and among other things, pointed out that I'm almost a quarter of a century old. While I intend to live till I'm at least 140, statistically, I'm extremely unlikely to even make it to 100. So my life is definitely more than a quarter over. Double bummer.

In my view, I'm already late getting started on the living front. I spent too many teenage and college years in front of the TV, or otherwise failing to challenge myself, or explore, or do anything really worth writing about. I've since made a series of decisions about how I want to live that boil down to two words: create experiences.

By the time I'm 35, I want to have forgotten more awesome experiences than most people create in an entire life. This Peace Corps life consistently puts me in a position to create such experiences and when I'm done, I want to continue making more.

This in mind, I wanted an experience for my 24th, so I packed a light day pack and walked straight into the jungle behind my house. My vague destination was a waterfall and river up the mountain from where I live, but I deliberately avoided the path.

In the jungle
Instead, I just followed any lead that interested me. If a tree looked fun to climb, I climbed it. If there were two potential routes, I took the more difficult looking one. It was not a very efficient or comfortable way of reaching a destination, but it was uninhibited, which is an excellent way to be.

Following a dry creek, I dead-reckoned my way toward where I thought the path might be. By now, there was only thick brush around me and before each step, I had to hack myself a path with a large stick. I was surprised by how many plants inconsiderately decided to have thorns on them. At one point a vulture flew over me. Come back in 120 years, bro.

I was even more surprised when I saw a rusty barb wire fence, ducked it, and stepped on to the path. Now bleeding from various places, I continued on to the waterfall and then followed the river that flows from its base, rather than the return path, back to town. I had wanted to do this for a while but never had. Why do we put off stuff we want to do?

As far as jungle treks go, not exceptionally eventful, but at least I liked that on my 24th, I avoided conventional paths, even though it meant emerging bloody and burnt.


Ngäbes don't celebrate their birthdays. At most, someone will actually tell me it's their birthday. I used to ask what they planned to do, until every single person replied, “Nothing Jack, there's no money!”


In Panama, a typical birthday consists of the birthday person inviting over everyone they know and feeding them. There also might be heavy drinking involved (a borderless custom, it seems). Thus, celebrating is expensive. So no one celebrates.
Some kids singing happy birthday

Since we volunteers are meant to live like the locals and since there's no way in hell I'm using my stipend money to feed 50 people for my own birthday, I decided to be Ngäbe and do nothing.

Well, almost nothing. If an untrained observer were to stalk me the whole day, they would probably report that I didn't do anything special. But today was actually quite indulgent. I woke up at 8am, had a cold soda with lunch, ate ice cream in the afternoon, did not hesitate to snack on Trader Joe's goods sent from friends and relatives, and watched a movie on my laptop. I usually do each of these things a few times a week, at most, but never all in one day.

I know what you're thinking: “Slow down Jack, you had a cold soda and an ice cream. In ONE DAY?! It must be your birthday.”

It's all about the little things.

First dinner
I was going to call it at that, but a few community members managed to find out it was my birthday and I was invited to two dinners in a row. Which was sweet of them but fairly brutal on the stomach. This has happened to me multiple times – someone knows that I've already had dinner elsewhere, but yet they give me another massive plate of rice and chicken.

Thus stuffed but touched by the dinners, I waddled home to reminisce with Laura. Despite the double dinner, we still ate Trader Joe's Powerberries, which I'm convinced contain elements of heroin and should be illegal.

When I turned twenty four, I lived among the Ngäbes in an indigenous semi-autonomous region in Panama, traveled monthly, made my own schedule and consistently created experiences.

Looking ahead to the next 116 years of my life, I want that sentence to be at least the norm.


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