I was a master at multitasking. The dishwasher removed water spots from my stemmed wine goblets, while the timed cycle of whirling machines gently cleaned and fluffed my clothes. I chatted online and talked on the cell phone while the Cable TV broadcast the evening news, the CD player frantically burned downloaded data, and the DVD recorded my favorite reality shows. Dinner thawed in the microwave, coffee brewed, the central air hummed with authoritarian control, while my toilet sanitized, and Glade deodorized my sterile environment. Everything in my life was compacted, scheduled, pasteurized, automated, and thoughtlessly predictable and reliable.
Then, we moved to Ometepe Island, in the middle of a lake, in the middle of Nicaragua, in the middle of Central America surrounded by poverty, desperation, and scarcity of modern conveniences. My lifestyle has changed drastically. I hadn’t really given much thought to the concept of multitasking until we mowed our lawn yesterday. What would have taken us an hour to mow using a powered lawnmower, generally takes a week with a machete.
Single tasking is a mark of a primitive society. Painstakingly slow chores are completed with manual labor. Men bend agonizingly over the ground for hours hacking away at the tall grass with sharp machetes, while sweaty, young boys relentlessly flail sesame seeds from their confining stocks. Strong handed women beat and squeeze dirty clothes into submission and endlessly sweep dirt with handmade twig brooms, while children gather scattered sticks for their smoky cooking fires. Work that I could do in one hour with modern appliances takes them all day to complete…one excruciatingly single task at a time.
What amazes me even more than their single-mindedness is their inability to think outside of the box. When Ron created a grass slicer that enabled him to stand upright, the islanders observed this unusual contraption with awe. It was a simple invention, similar to what we used in the states before power weed whackers, with a sharp, curved blade screwed into a carved stick and wrapped securely with duct tape (another novelty in Nicaragua) I could perfect my golf swing while effortlessly and quickly swiping larger expanses of grass. Renowned for my clumsiness I could cut the tall weeds without slicing my shin.
With a crowd of onlookers watching with fascination, it dawned on me that I was introducing them to a new concept. They passed around the grass slicer, curiously investigating every inch of the primitively made tool. I recognized wisps of words like back, time, and hurt.
Although the contraption intrigued them, I seriously doubt that they will run back to their workshops and create this tool. First, they have no workshops and second, I believe the concept of change is alien to their lives. Whether out of fear, ignorance, or complacency, they are comfortable and secure in their antiquated ways of life. A sharp machete, calloused hands, and a strong back are status symbols among the islanders.
Ron and I often debate the pros and cons of introducing our multitasking, time oriented, carefree, new, and improved lifestyles to these simple people. We think it’s commendable to expose them to a simple tool that can save them from backbreaking labor, like a clothes line, a squeegee mop, or grass sickle. Teaching them how to think creatively will only enhance their lives and empower them. On the other hand, it would be harmful to show them expensive, labor-saving devices that are beyond their reach. New ideas must be introduced slowly with cautious compassion for their culture. Crimes of opportunity are abundant and wars can erupt with desperate feelings of jealousy, envy, and longing for things once unimaginable and forever unobtainable.
While I labor intensively hand washing my dirty clothes and sweeping the dirt with my twig broom, I am beginning to understand the blessings and the curses a Wal-Mart style life has to offer. I’m torn with conflicting feelings of satisfaction in a job well done and yearnings for my washing machine and lawnmower. I’m refreshed with a meaningful sense of purpose, yet exhausted and often fearful of the unsanitary conditions surrounding my life. I want the best of both worlds, yet I’m lost in my philosophical wonderings about how to get it. I know the answer lies just below the surface of my splinter-infested fingers. When I dig it out, I’ll be sure to tell the world.