Many fantasize about dramatically changing their lives — living in accordance with their ideals rather than the exigencies of job, bills, and possessions. William Powers actually does it. In his book Twelve by Twelve, Powers lived in an off-grid tiny house in rural North Carolina. In New Slow City, he and his wife, Melissa, inhabited a Manhattan micro-apartment in search of slow in the fastest city in the world. In Dispatches from the Sweet Life: One Family, Five Acres, and a Community’s Quest to Reinvent the World, the couple, with baby in tow, search for balance, community, and happiness in a small town in Bolivia. They build an adobe house, plant a proliﬁc orchard and organic garden, and weave their life into a community of permaculturists, bio-builders, artists, and creative businesspeople. Can this Transition Town succeed in the face of encroaching North American capitalism, and can Powers and the other settlers ﬁnd the balance they’re seeking?
We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from Dispatches from the Sweet Life.
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In January 2013, my newlywed wife, Melissa, and I visit the Bolivian town of Suraqueta, where we discover a beautiful piece of land that’s for sale. Five acres of rolling hillside, a tadpole-filled creek, and a grove of wild guapurú fruit trees, whose tangy-sweet purple fruits grow out of their velvety trunks. We spend hours walking the land. “It feels like we’re in the country,” Melissa says from the property’s main hillock. “And yet that’s town-center, a stroll away.”
I gaze out over Suraqueta’s clay roofs and white colonial façades, the green hills cupping it, framing a scene that could be Tuscany if not for the sparks of green-and-red parrots flaring over our heads. Strong notes from mariachi trumpets drift upward from a wedding somewhere below, and I catch the invigorating scent of eucalyptus. Higher mountains loom to the north, and there lie cloud forests of rare giant fern trees in the biodiversity-rich Amboró National Park bordering the town. Over my shoulder is a massive jaguar-shaped Inca ruin. A breeze releases soft static from the yellow-flowering carnaval tree overhead as my half-Bolivian daughter, Amaya, swings from its branches, yellow petals snowing down.
Amaya lives with her mom and maternal grandmother in the nearby city of Santa Cruz, two and a half hours away. Melissa and I have come here on vacation from our home in New York City to visit her and to scout out properties. Eight-year-old Amaya, whose name means “beloved first daughter” in Quechua and “spirit” in Aymara, announces where “our house” would be, and I notice the joy she exudes by inserting herself in that our. She climbs down from the carnaval and begins plucking purple guapurú fruit, popping the grape-size morsels into her mouth.
We follow Amaya’s lead. The juice warm on my cheek, I imagine ditching my American life for a simpler one abroad. We could build a custom adobe house on this very hillock and grow much of our own food on these acres — mandarins, pomegranates, bananas, vegetables of all sorts. We’d reforest the agriculturally degraded flatter portions of it to create more habitat for the native guinea pigs and iguanas I hear rustling in the quiñe shrubs, and re-channel the creek through the land to create fishponds. I imagine rising with the sun, working part time via laptop and Wi-Fi, opening abundant time to raise my family in community.
Melissa and I try to conceal some of our enthusiasm for the land as we begin negotiations with the property’s owner. He inhabits a concept of time different than our own. He’s in no rush to sell, and no, he won’t divide the acreage. We make an offer. He counters. It’s still too high. By US standards, his price for five perfect acres would be reasonable, but for us, it would mean going deep into debt, which we’re determined to avoid. We stay up late huddled over the table in our rental cabin, offering the calculator multiple scenarios, trying to figure out how we might afford the property.
One afternoon we visit the Suraqueta (pronounced: Soo-rah-QUE-tah) Refuge, a halfway house for wild animals that started life as pets. Surrendered to the refuge as adults, the creatures wait for release into Amboró National Park. Habituated to humans, several animals roam free. Nuño, a thirty-pound, ginger-haired howler monkey rests on my shoulders, his leathery tail wrapped around my neck. Cheetah, another howler, arranges herself on Melissa’s shoulders. Amaya and some of her friends feed papaya to giant tortoises, while Melissa stroke’s Cheetah’s head.
“It’s gorgeous here,” my wife says, her hand dropping from Cheetah to her belly’s bulge. Melissa is six months pregnant. I feel calm in Suraqueta, and I imagine our baby would, too, but I’m conflicted. Giant fern trees rise into blue skies, but so do the support struts of the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan. The gleam of the river feeding nearby Cuevas waterfall is the Hudson River’s gleam. “Yes, it’s gorgeous,” I counter, “but so is New York.”
“Sandy wasn’t so gorgeous,” Melissa says.
A few months ago, in October 2012, Hurricane Sandy smashed our Manhattan neighborhood. It left behind boarded-up restaurants and drowned subways and closed offices for weeks. We waited twelve days for electricity. Sandy, dubbed by the media as a “Frankenstorm,” caused $65 billion in damage and left a hundred people dead.
Like many New Yorkers, we roamed the debris-filled sidewalks, none of us very happy. We felt helpless and unproductive without the electricity that supports every aspect of modern life. I hit an emotional low as I envisioned an umbilical cord connecting me to OPEC wells. Petroleum as amniotic fluid. I felt ashamed to be an oil-dependent, overconsuming human and ambivalent about bringing another of my kind into the world.
On a gray afternoon atop Tar Beach, our name for our downtown apartment building’s rooftop, I improvised for Melissa a bit of a grim stand-up routine from Doug Stanhope. The comedian cites an Oregon State University study, which found that the greenhouse gas legacy of one child dwarfs — by twenty times — the impact of employing environmentally sensitive practices, like recycling or using energy-efficient appliances for one’s entire life. Stanhope then jabs cynically about the decision to have kids. Melissa laughed, a laugh tinted with sadness that unfortunately has become habitual to us. A laugh, at root, of antipathy toward ourselves.
Contemplating a new life in Bolivia, we are well aware of our privilege. Melissa has a permanent post as an expert on women’s political participation at the United Nations’ headquarters. I teach sustainable development to grad students at New York University, write, and give speeches around the country. So why do we feel discontent in the global hub where you live when you’ve made it? We talk about how we’re umbilically attached to a kind of FrankenDream: Work-and-spend. Drill, baby, drill. Buy, baby, buy. Our attempts to go minimalist and Slow in New York have begun to feel not enough for us, and we know we face a major choice. We can remain in our society’s Dream of more-is-better — find a bigger apartment, deploy our social capital toward career advancement, synch our offspring to the addictive viscous fluid of competition. Or we can wager it all for something richer . . . and cut the cord.
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William Powers has worked for more than a decade in development aid and conservation in Latin America, Africa, and North America. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Atlantic, and many other publications. He is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and an adjunct faculty member at New York University. He speaks and writes widely as an expert on sustainable development. He lives in Bolivia. Find out more about his work at williampowersbooks.com.
Excerpted from the book Dispatches from the Sweet Life. Copyright © 2018 by William Powers.