I Found My Role Model Up In The Hill

“What are you going to do now?”

Friends, colleagues, and family members were all curious as they posed some form of this question during the weeks that followed my departure from my corporate job. The question was funny because sometimes they asked it out of fear, and sometimes they asked it out of excitement. I held onto both fear and excitement within myself as I was coming to terms with my unknown future. Fortunately for me, an adventure in Panama was awaiting, so I jumped on a plane and headed to Central America.

I was filled with anticipation on the plane and started writing in my journal the different goals I wanted to accomplish on the trip. Writing down goals was a habit that was strongly reinforced while working in the corporate world for the last seven years. As I started writing them down I asked myself, “What the hell am I doing?”. The goals felt forced and tough to pin down. Right then I realized that this trip was about discovery. The realization I no longer needed those goals was like taking off that suit someone expected you to wear at that job they expected you to have.

I want to be clear about something: this story is not about quitting your job or some fantasy about living on the road and becoming a professional Instagram photographer. This story is about being aware of the amazing people that enter our lives without notice. More specifically this story is about acknowledging the role models in our lives.

Six yogis, including myself, found ourselves living together on a small catamaran in Bocas Del Toro, Panama, for seven days. We quickly became close because there literally is no other choice living on a boat. You can hear everything and share everything. And I do mean everything…

We bounced around the different islands, and with each stop it seemingly became exponentially more beautiful. I quickly realized that my love for the ocean was being stoked as it had not been in quite sometime. Even though I found myself being lost in the moment doing yoga on beautiful beaches, laughing in the evenings under the stars, and surfing amazing waves with new friends, I was still being followed by that question.

“What are you going to do now?”

The fifth day on the boat was our first day of rain. Our parched skin welcomed the rain as we had been scorched by the sun. We had a chocolate farm tour scheduled on the fifth day, but the captain was hesitant to take us. The farm sat on top of a large hill, and it would be a challenge to keep our footing because of the downpour. There was no way we were going to be denied a tour of a chocolate farm tour in Panama — I mean, c’mon. We all agreed that we wanted to go, so we surged forward up the hill of Isla Bastimento barefoot.

Upon arrival at the “Up in the Hill” farm, a man by name of Javier greeted us with a smile and a warm glow. Javier suggested that we all put on mud boots as we were about to walk through his farm that is interlaced through the jungle. We politely declined. It turns out this could have been a huge mistake because parasites are known to enter into your body through your feet when walking barefoot in the jungle — knock on wood.

Javier led the way with his giant black mud boots, waving a machete around as he spoke with excitement about the different things we were about to see. As we approached a tree, Javier chopped off a strange looking fruit from the trunk. He said “cacao” with his Spanish accent as he presented the group with a freshly opened fruit that was a capsule for gummy seeds. I popped one in my mouth to suck on, and it tasted of sweet nectar.

As we finished stripping the white gummy substance from the seed, we hesitated as to what we should do with our slobbery seeds. Javier told us to spit them out and maybe the next time we visit we will see a new tree growing where the seed landed.

As the tour continued, I began to sink into a meditative state. The lush green jungle was suddenly making me feel calm. My bare feet were connected to the earth, reminding me of what it was like to run barefoot through the woods as a kid. My senses were on fire. I was out of my mind and in the moment with the the Willy Wonka of cacao farms hidden in the jungle. Javier continued with his tour as he uncovered the beauty within his farm — “look at the red frog” or “smell this fresh turmeric” or “taste this indigenous peppery leaf.”. He presented each experience to us with such love that we all fell into the belief that these treasures were the greatest things on earth. They really were.

The experience reminded me of the first time I saw Seurat’s painting of pointillism. You know, that painting of French people enjoying a sunny afternoon at the park. When you take a closer at the painting you see the artist actually painted thousands of dots working together to create that amazing piece. When I first arrived in the jungle, all I could see was the fresh green landscape that surrounded me. As we spent more time with Javier, my entire perspective shifted to noticing all of the small beautiful details in which I was immersed.

Javier’s adolescent sons would dart in and out of the tour. He would reach down with his hand and gently mess up the hair on their head as a smile lit up his face. Javier was sure to introduce them to us. Shortly after a shy “hello” from the boys, they would dash back into their circle of play. Even though Javier was giving us a tour, he still took time to acknowledge his family. The boys did not throw tantrums for attention and Javier did not give them a video game to distract them until he was no longer busy. I witnessed a bond of mutual respect between father and son that was unforgettable. The pure love Javier shared with us in those moments gives me chills as I am writing this.

We ended the tour at a brightly colored picnic table to sample some of the fresh cacao and produce the farm creates. Javier began to tell his story of how the farm came to be as he was grinding fresh cacao beans. He recalled how the hill of Isla Bastimentos was a cow pasture when he first saw it. The native plants were scarce, and the red frogs that inhabited the island were hard to come by.

Javier had a vision for a sustainable farm on this hill that would bring back the natural habitat and provide food for the people of Isla Bastimentos. More importantly he found a way to create his vision for the farm on a small island in Caribbean with very limited resources. Javier and his family work very hard for the fruits of their labor (pun intended). They are not being busy with emails or social media but rather everyday working towards creating something even more beautiful to contribute to the farm. You can see the peace that lies within them living a simple life.

Javier left a salary job in a well-developed city to make his dream happen. There are certain compromises, but to have a peaceful mind, a dream to see through, and a family is all I could ever want. I feel so blessed to have been in the presence of Javier and his family, sharing their love with us.

“What are you going to do now?”

I am still not sure. I do know that I want to travel more and discover more role models like Javier.

I remember as a kid having role models. Most of whom were athletes and people I had never met. They were living dreams that seemed so far away from me at the time. “When I grow up I want to be just like…” I admit I still have a tremendous amount of growing up to do but decades later I am not ashamed to stay that I still have role models. The concept has evolved for me over time. I find myself admiring people that are remarkable with the simple things in life, like being a great father or finding a simpler way to live in our world.

The adventure in Panama led me “Up in the Hill” to experience a different way of living and meet a new role model. It’s not everyday we come across a potential role model, but when we do, we have a choice in how we interact with that moment. We can chose to downplay the dream that we see in that role model, or we can take note and find ways to recreate the dream in own lives. I have chosen the latter and trust that paying attention to these things in life will get me to where I need to be.

B Golden