Unearthing Gratitude

My fruit man in Boquete

Often in conversation, people will ask me what it is about traveling that I like.  I rattle off the desire to learn better Spanish, to experience other cultures, to give myself an education that no college degree could ever compare to and to meet people from all over the world.  Even if you only spend one day with another traveler, there are some that have the ability to completely change the way you think or to bring out the complete best in you.  Since I have been in Boquete, I have met some truly amazing people, especially the local folks who work at the hostel I’m living at.  Two employees are mother and daughter, Melanie and Gina.  They might be the two sweetest Panamanian women I have met so far; I adore them and they are ever so patient in helping me with my Spanish.

It’s the rainy season here, the days are all the same.  In the morning there is often sunshine but dark storm clouds lurk around the mountains and slowly enter into the little bowl that Boquete sits in by afternoon.  Massive thunderstorms crack and boom overhead, brilliant rays of lightning zigzag through the monochrome grey sky.  Some days the storms are torrential and detrimental.  Today it is coming in sheets.  The river next to the hostel is zooming at top speed.  I am supposed to teach Melanie and Gina some English in the afternoon but ten minutes into practicing with Melanie, Gina comes over and says they have to go.  I can tell something is wrong but don’t want to press the issue so I just say I will see them tomorrow.

I wake up early the next morning and am sipping coffee at the kitchen sink, staring out the window and eating papaya slices.  Luchini, the owner of the hostel, comes in to tell me there was a mud slide that went through Melanie and Gina’s house last night.  Their house flanks a mountainside and some damage has been done.  Five of us pile into a truck to go help, assuming we’ll be assisting in removing some mud from the house and we’ll be done by lunch time.  We arrive to sullen faces, Gina slumps on the couch with one of her dogs in her arms, perhaps the only comfort she is feeling in this moment.

The damage is so much more than what the five of us could possibly do to alleviate it.  They lost three bedrooms, one of their dogs and the concrete that their house is built with has caved in to the rooms that still exist.  You can see the huge hill behind their house stripped bare of nature.  I stare at the damage and feel awful.  I immediately feel guilty for what I can’t change, for how helpless I feel.  I begin to wish I had oodles of money to give to them to build a new house.

There is perhaps no worse emotion than feeling helpless.  I think of survivors of Hurricane Katrina waiting on their roofs for help.  I think of people in NYC waiting for electricity and heat after Hurricane Sandy.  I think of my own grandma in a nursing home crying, telling me how lonely she was.  I remember no worse feeling than watching the tears roll down her cheeks knowing that after I left the nursing home, she would be alone again.  That moment slayed me and continues to when I think about it now, three years later.  My heart still breaks.  The look in her eyes, the sound of her broken voice.  I think how I’ve never experienced a natural disaster on this scale where irreversible damage is done to your life.  I stare at the broken walls and huge pieces of cement taking over what was once their living room.

It’s not enough to just keep them in my thoughts.  I want to become Wonder Woman and fix everything for them.  I want to push the mountain back into place and haul the cement out for them.  Give them back their electricity and their happiness.  But I can’t do anything.  And the overwhelming feeling of helplessness stays with me for days and days.

What do we do when faced with something we are helpless to change?  All I can offer Gina and Melanie are more lessons in English.  All I can offer is to tell them I have been thinking about them a lot.  Is that enough?   How much can we offer someone when we feel as though we have nothing to offer?  When is the line drawn in the sand between helpful and helpless and is that line often drawn on a windy day where it will be marred by a constant blowing breeze?  To travel is not to simply see.  To travel is to feel and understand, to travel is to sometimes bear witness to those things we cannot change, understand situations that we are helpless to fix.  Maybe that’s where gratitude begins.  Despite the fact that I can’t change anything for Gina and Melanie, while I stare at the hill behind their house I realize how grateful I am to know them.  And if you are humbled by that gratitude, perhaps that’s enough.  To have gratitude for what you do have, for me to have gratitude to at least know Gina and Melanie.  Perhaps, maybe, that is enough.

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