I was sitting under a blanket of dreamlike stars on a tiny island off the coast of Panama in the Caribbean Sea. As humid air blew into my body that had not been washed in five days and counting, I heard in the background what I thought was life on Soledad Mandinga before I came: waves crashing up against the coral, someone playing a wooden flute in harmony with the perfection of little kids and their families saying goodnight.
There was no sarcasm in that heaven on Earth. There was no stress. There was harmony, safety, and love. There was acceptance, perfection at its core. There was beauty. And as I listened, I felt beautiful, too.
The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.
Perhaps the most important gift we ever give each other is our attention. As I listened, I drifted into my own world and recapped the day’s adventures. At lunch time (we didn’t have watches so all I knew was that it was midday), I met Martines, a 12-year-old boy with Down syndrome. Martines was adopted by the president of the San Blas islands when he was born because his parents couldn’t care for him.
As he wandered into our kitchen uninvited, and sat down, I wondered if he was lost, curious, or just wanted some company. Martines and I spoke different languages; he couldn’t really converse in his own language, but we somehow found a way to communicate, and most importantly, connect. I experienced true harmony.
After hours of Patty-Cake playing and watching his face light up each time our hands met, he motioned me to follow him. On the island, none of the huts have doors. However, it is immensely disrespectful to enter, and even look inside. Now Martines was leading me to his house. Once we reached Martines’s palace constructed from cane and straw crowded with people, Martines put forth his hand, motioning me to wait just inside his doorway. He quickly proceeded, gave a woman who looked like his grandmother a kiss, got a drink of water and walked out the door, leading me back to the kitchen. All the while, we didn’t say a word to each other.
As I drifted back into consciousness that night and continued to listen to the sounds of the island, in my memory, I connected with Martines, a boy with whom I had related to under the most unimaginable circumstances. As I remembered my other experiences, I connected with the little Indian girl who had an undernourished swelling belly. I connected with the lady who seemed to have a permanent glare pasted on her face. I connected with the teenage girls that looked twice their age as a result of giving birth so young, and as I lied down, I connected with the hard concrete beneath me that we had poured days earlier.
As I inhaled, I could tell how different everything was from home-even the air. Soledad Mandinga, a heaven-like place, grounded me. Hearing a language I could not understand, learning about a culture I had never known, it made me realize that there is so much more in this world than me.
Peter Nivio Zarlenga, an author, once said, “Beauty is being in harmony with what you are.” As I closed my eyes, lied down, and listened, I finally felt completely at peace with myself. I felt beautiful.