I was driving through Rio Hato last night on my way home from another long day slaving away at the Latin American headquarters for The Resilient Family and was struck by something powerful I wanted to share with you about this funky little town.
By way of background, Rio Hato is a poor town about an hour and a half from Panama City.
Not desperately poor, but poor enough, and certainly much poorer than most areas you’d consider “poverty stricken” in the U.S..
In fact, if you haven’t traveled out of the U.S. much, the level of poverty in a town like Rio Hato can be unsettling and disturbing.
But that’s not what struck me.
What bowled me over as I was driving through this very poor town was that these folks know how to live and definitely know how to party.
Every time I drive through Rio Hato I see laughter, dice games, folks drinking beer in the town square, music, commerce, conversation… It’s chaotic and messy yes, but never once in 5 years here have I ever felt the slightest twinge of nervousness.
That’s because the town simply doesn’t feel dangerous… On the contrary it feels remarkably alive.
In other words, in this very poor town there is a level of contentment and, dare I say, even happiness that would probably surprise you.
Why? I can only speculate, but I think I have a damn good idea… It’s about community. See unlike most cities or towns in the U.S. these days, Rio Hato is alive with community.
You can literally feel the rhythm of life vibrating through your bones when you pass through the town – music blasting from boom boxes, barbecues, folks riding their bikes down the streets, animated conversations with neighbors, loud singing coming from the evangelical church on the corner.
I was driving through Rio Hato several months ago and saw a group of barefoot boys around 8 or 9 years old running around with friggin’ sling shots in their back pockets! Sling shots!
As for the homes, yes they are ramshackle and run down, but for the residents here it doesn’t seem to matter. A home is simply a utilitarian place to lay your head at night, maybe cook a meal or take a shower.
Their “living rooms” on the other hand are outdoors — the streets in front of their homes. That’s where community takes place. That’s where friends, neighbors, families gather for fellowship.
Don’t get me wrong… Rio Hato has its problems, and the whole “nobility of the poor” thing coming from a privileged American has always struck me as superficial and arrogant. Particularly so since I’m simply driving through the town on my way to the nice beach development where we live.
But stick with me for a moment. Is it just possible that maybe we have a lot more to learn from poor little Central American towns like Rio Hato than we could possibly imagine?
I think there is, and I think the takeaways are powerful:
How often do we interact and participate with our communities or our neighborhoods?
If you’re like most Americans, you don’t. You come home from work, go inside your temperature-controlled home, pull the shades and turn on the boob tube.
Maybe you’ll watch an evening news program that is almost exclusively devoted to depressing news, or worse, the blathering idiots on Fox, MSNBC, CNN fighting about utterly trifling nonsense.
You’ll notice that the commercial breaks are interspersed with big Pharma ads for depression, incontinence, anxiety and stress. (No wonder).
This is NOT good for the soul.
Unfortunately today, way too many of us have forsaken the messiness of community for the sterile, soul-sucking comfort of entering our prison-like homes, sitting on the couch and watching absolute crap TV. And we wonder why we’re depressed!
So, step one in this little learning exercise is to turn the damn TV off and get your ass outside.
Sit on the front steps, wave at your neighbors, carry in the groceries for the little old lady down the street. Send the kids outside on weekends and tell them not to come home until dark.
Invite your next door neighbors over for a beer while you sit on the porch and actually talk. Bake a cake for the grump that lives two doors down. Create a community revolution in your town or neighborhood.
They say that changing bad habits takes 30 to 90 days. Make a commitment today to turn off the TV and reconnect with your community for the next 3 months of summer (90 days).
I guarantee it will do wonders for your mental health.