“That guy’s weird,” Roi muttered in an undertone.
He was. By my estimation, he had to have been well into his sixties. His hair was long and stringy, and what was once probably a dark blonde was now a washed out and sun-scorched shade of pale yellow. His eyes were slightly sunk into the sockets, and wrinkles spread through his skin like spiderwebs.
The man sat meditating outside our hostel dorm room. A small clock that I swear I had on my bed-stand in the early 90’s lay beside him in the grass. Occasionally, he would roll a smooth, red ball around in his palm, but most of the time he just sat still and every now and then glanced at the clock.
We were in the small mountain-encircled town of Vilcabamba, our last stop in Ecuador. According to local legend, the residents of Vilcabamba have some of the longest lifespans in the world; they call the place the “Valley of Longevity”. Unfortunately, a quick Wikipedia search revealed that apparently they just don’t know how to count.
The hostel we were staying at could barely be called that; “luxury resort” would have suited the place better. Free yoga in the mornings, a pool, and a gorgeous, secluded location in the mountains added up to the feeling of being downright spoiled compared to the other places we’d stayed in in South America thus far. Of course, most of the older people took the more expensive private rooms, leaving the dorms for the backpackers and our mystery meditator.
We didn’t speak to the man we had deemed as strange-to-say-the-least until our last night, when we found ourselves sitting on the benches outside the room with him and a French guy we had befriended.
The conversation that transpired both dispelled our notions of his oddness and solidified them.
It started off like most of our conversations with other travelers start: the basic exchange I refer to in my mind as the Where Are You Going And Where Did You Come From dialogue. Through this, we learned that he was a British native who had left that “fuckin’ place” two years ago, and was on his way to somewhere in Peru where people go to meditate. You spend 10 days at this place, he told us, and meditate 11 hours a day.
“The hardest part is not running away,” he joked, “I got a buddy that escaped after 7 days.” That’s why he wanted to practice before he got there.
From there began a conversation about why he had chosen to leave the UK – and the rest of the western world, for that matter. After a few profane sentences about how governments and banks are destroying the world, he pointed to Roi’s laptop laying innocently on the table. “This right here is the problem,” he stated simply.
We proceeded to talk about the widest variety of topics I think I’ve ever discussed in a single conversation: from the Swedish people that had injected a chip into their hands to serve as a credit card, key, and ID (“They’ll be fuckin’ required in a few years if you wanna buy anything,” the old hippie spat), to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (“Wake up girl, it’s already happenin’ “), to terrorism and ISIS being a creation of governments (“You wanna tell me terrorism is a real thing? Psht!”), to how 7G Internet will be powerful enough to destroy plants and how insurance companies have already written into their clauses that they won’t cover wifi-related deaths (“People already have fuckin’ cancer from pressin’ their stupid phones to their faces”).
To any modern Westerner, the man would have sounded like a paranoid conspiracy theorist, and would have been dismissed as simply “crazy” on the spot. However, I stopped myself from writing him off immediately when I realized that, in a way, he was like the Savage in Brave New World.
For those that haven’t read the book, first of all, go read it. In this dystopian world where humans are born out of test tubes and the entire concept of family has been abolished, the government controls the public mind through “pleasure”. They have replaced love with lust as the social norm, they provide people with the perfect getaway drug, they over-produce clothing, technology, and other commodities that people have been conditioned to buy in excess, and they provide entertainment in the form of oversexed sensory movies and games requiring no thought. This way, the entire society is brainwashed, but because they are “happy” they are unable to realize that they are stuck in a useless loop, serving their societal purpose and then dying unceremoniously.
In this world there also exist “Savage Reservations,” which are described as grossly primitive, dirty, and completely cut off from modernity. The main plot of the book centers around a savage being brought to experience civilization for the first time.
The Savage was undoubtedly extreme. He was overly-pious (whipping himself for any mental indiscretions), he was disgusted by the open sexuality of the women, and he rejected the technology of civilization. And yet, many times it seemed as if he was the most sane person in the story. The Savage was the only one who had read a book that wasn’t a work manual, he was the only one who knew who Shakespeare was, the only one who thought that nature was beautiful, the only one who didn’t dare touch the “happy drug”, and one of the few who realized that the whole society was a fraud. Of course, most of the people regarded him as some sort of delusional alien.
So maybe the hippie was just that, an old man who had done too many drugs in the 70’s and filled his head with conspiracies about government-created terrorist organizations and banks taking over the world. Or maybe, despite what we so readily call “craziness” because it doesn’t fit into the societal bubble we’ve been conditioned into all of our lives, the man had a point.
These days, it’s not uncommon to see toddlers with an iPad. You can can find cell phone service in the most remote corners of the world, and if someone doesn’t respond to a message within a few hours, they must be dead. People stare at a screen almost all day, counting the minutes ticking by and the likes on their newest Instagram photo. And, like in Brave New World, no one bothers to ever look up and wonder if there could be something else, some other way of living. Anything else seems “weird” or “crazy”; why would anyone choose to live outside this bubble, doing something different and out of their comfort zone? It’s so foreign to us that we view people that step outside of our socially constructed sphere similarly to the way the people of Brave New World viewed the savages, with pity and utter bewilderment. But in the end, who is living like a human, and who like a robot?
Personally, I’m a firm believer in the middle ground when it comes to practically everything – politics, technology, and the spiciness of my Thai food. Couldn’t we all, I asked the elderly man, just live in a conscious balance? Enjoying our Instagram feeds but knowing when to go back to the real world? Of course, his answer was absolutely not, but this is not his blog post.
None of us are about to chuck our iPhones into the river. We’re not about to give up trying to make money, or buying things that we like, or stop Google-searching all of our problems and then posting about them on Facebook. That’s just the reality. But if we all were to look up from our screens every once in a while and think outside our bubbles sometimes, we could live in awareness instead of on automatic.
We could begin to question instead of blindly accepting what’s laid in front of us. Are we doing what we’re doing because it is truly meaningful to us, or are we doing it because the society that has so thoroughly molded us expects us to, and will frown upon us if we diverge from the path?
‘Don’t you wish you were free, Lenina?’
‘I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.’
He laughed, ‘Yes, “Everybody’s happy nowadays.” We begin giving children that at five. But wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way.’
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World