|2007 "Eco Tour" in the Keys|
Heck I’d never even seen the tropics before and I was blown away by the warmth, sun and smells, and here it was January! The ocean was the most spectacular iridescent blue, and from the bridges that joined the Keys we could see fish jumping, boats, and birds on the water. There were palm trees and mangroves and flowers that were all new to me. The people all seemed to be wearing shorts, loud flowery shirts, and flip-flops. Everybody seemed to be laid-back, operating on “Keys Time". We read a pamphlet that summed up the local attitude; “Key West is a quaint little drinking town with a tourist problem.” The cost of camping was a paltry price to pay to experience this, and I was eager to take in all I could. We set up camp amongst the palms, and soon were exploring down by the water and over by the marina. That's where we met Captain Tom.
Looking back at Tom, I find myself thinking about the temporary nature of everything in this material world, and how difficult it is for us humans to accept. We all tend to crave stability, knowing for certain that tomorrow will be the same as today or yesterday, and that it will include all of the same people and material items that are so familiar. In reality nothing as we know it is permanent, including life.
Even the smallest insignificant things, say a toaster for example, have a finite lifespan. This may seem a trivial and obvious observation at first, but compound this with the fact that we own hundreds of items with a temporary nature, and yet we almost daily return home from Wal-Mart with more! One can see how as we work hard to acquire more and more 'stuff' that we must necessarily work harder and harder to maintain it. For instance, if we own 250 items that last on average 5 years, that means about 50 items a year will wear out. Not surprisingly, our household is constantly replacing worn out 'things', requiring more work (exchanging our time for money). Most of us get trapped in this mindset for the majority of our lives and merrily run along on this treadmill looking straight ahead. On this same note, we work very hard to be able to buy a shiny new S.U.V. (a TEMPORARY item), and by the time it is paid for it is nearly worthless and needs replacing.
For a few years, my wife and I had been noticing more and more people close to us pass on. Was this a new thing or had we just chosen to ignore it? Anyhow, as our age crept up it seemed to happen more often. Some of these folks were younger than us, and hence our sense of mortality began to grow. We had long ago bought into the program that 'more is better', and had exchanged twenty years of time for a few autos, a house and boatloads of 'stuff' that is now landfill. We hadn’t really travelled anywhere as we never had any money left over for that. We had assumed that travelling would come later on once we could 'afford' it. Our big reality check came when my father became ill and died. We were shocked. It really hit home that life is short and unpredictable (yes, even myself, a quadriplegic, needed that eye-opener).
We sat down, created that 'bucket list' and circled number 1 on it. Leaving Alberta Canada on January 1st , 2007, our family drove off in -30 degree weather with our barely used 10yr old trailer in tow. Some days we travelled about 5-8 hours, some we rested, and we hit Key West 10 days later.
One of the great things about travelling is the people you meet. It's so much fun gleaming their story out of them, because everybody has a story and most love to share. Captain Tom is a unique treasure. He runs the marina at the campground part-time, filling boats with fuel, and bait-buckets with live shrimp. I was marvelling at Tom’s easy-going attitude, living in shorts and flip-flops with a long pony tail hanging out the back of his cap. I imagined that he was rich beyond my circles, had lots of property and investments, and was paid handsomely for his expertise in boating and fishing in the Keys.
“You must love it here Tom,” I say while soaking up the tropical sun and gazing at the line of pelicans sitting patiently in the mangroves across the small channel, “Does it ever get cold here?”
“A few years ago it got down near freezing,” then he holds out his hand with two fingers extended for emphasis, “Two days in a row!”
“It’s thirty below at home,” I humbly reply, trying to imagine living in this perfect climate.
Tom shakes his head, “I couldn’t go there, it's paradise here.”
I was curious about the wealth it must take to live here, “Tom, where is your home?”
“This is my home!” he replies with arms outstretched, “I live in paradise!”
“No really,” I reply, “Where is home?”
Tom looks at me with a puzzled look, “This IS home.”
“No, no. I mean, where is all your STUFF? You must have a basement and garage somewhere full of stuff you’ve collected,” I clarify.
“Son, did you see all those fancy jets and condos on the way here?”
“Yes” I reply, imagining him to be a closet tycoon.
“The folks that own those are multi-millionaires, they own some of the biggest and best companies in America,” he said with a wink, adding “You know something else?”
“They are lucky to get down to the Keys for 2 weeks a year, 2 weeks a year!” he repeated.
“The rest of the time they’re busy and stressed out about growing, and then protecting their basket of eggs. Meanwhile I’m down here full time. Every day I get to play around in the sun selling a little bait, go fishing and boating in the afternoon, and dancing with my wife at the Tiki Bar in the evenings.”
“How can you afford to be here 12 months when they can only afford 2 weeks? You must’ve done well!” I exclaimed.
“I am a rich man,” Tom went on, “We realised long ago that with the path we were on, living in the islands before time ran out just wasn't going to happen. We were constantly trading precious time for temporary material items! Since we can’t make or buy more time the only thing we can do is conserve it and use it more wisely. I realised that we needed to stop wasting it right away.”
“Once we decided that the Keys was where we wanted to be, the only thing to do was to sell everything that had us tied down, say goodbye to the material chains and come on down,” he went on, “do you know what we own now?”
I shook my head, expecting some story about a huge windfall to be tossed out.
“We own that 5th wheel trailer over there, a pickup and a beat-up old car. Everything else was sold or given away,” he said while squinting from the sun. “We camp for next to nothin’, have few expenses and get paid very little. But you know what? We’re time rich. We get to live full time in paradise and meet great people such as yourselves while doing a fun job. We are always enjoying ourselves! I’ll take that over having lots of material crap any day!”
“You should be down here too, life is too damn short not to live in paradise. Just set it in your mind that you’re going, then unload your baggage and step off the treadmill. I bailed off mine years ago.”
I learned a valuable lesson that day from a content, happy, and simple-living character in paradise that I’ve come to admire. The most important non-renewable commodity that we have is time, we never know how much of it we have left, and yet the majority of us trade most of it for the acquisition and then necessarily the maintenance of soon-to-be-worthless “stuff”. Hopefully one day we’ll follow Tom’s example, cast off the chains and seize our dream of enjoying lots of time in Paradise, we now know it IS possible.