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PLANETA

Virtual Veranda: Utopian Communities, Good Friends and Bridges across Time and Space
by Ron Mader

PLANETA WIKI

August 1998

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FLICKR ALBUM: Mexico City


It's a Saturday night in Mexico City, the largest megalopolis in the world.

I don't like large cities, but I've always felt at home in DF. My thoughts race back to other homes and other community experiences. Many times my mind races back to the years in the early 1980s I spent at Bloomington's Indiana University.

In many ways my dormitory, the Collins Living Learning Center, was a limestone cruise ship in which you could serve yourself as much pop or juice as you'd like in the Titanic-sized cafeteria.

More importantly, there were ample opportunities for personal development and exploration. I learned I could learn, and it took a few years to shed my desire to master anything before I started.


CORN CONNECTION

Indiana is called 'Middle America' and Mexico 'Mesoamerica' and both depend on the cultivation of corn. Maize was domesticated thousands of years ago in nearby Tehuacan (on the border of Puebla and Oaxaca). Without that invention, the civilizations in the Western Hemisphere wouldn't have taken root.

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Having a sense of place is important. I'm originally from Indiana. I was born in Fort Wayne and studied in Bloomington. I then moved to Texas and later to Mexico City. In a way, these places have something in common.

Behind our house in Fort Wayne was a gigantic corn field, a green maze in the summer, a blanket of white when it snowed in the winter. Looking out the back window, my thoughts seemed to fly further than the field itself. I started dreaming of going south and exploring the Americas. My friends had no idea that I was interested in Latin America in the early 1980s. That's because I had no idea.

But I found myself pulled south and then examining buzzword concepts of great interest - environment economics, responsible tourism and sustainable development. Now I'm the author of two guidebooks: one about Honduras (which read the preface at the 1998 reunion) and another on Mexico. All of this from someone who couldn't say 'Buenos Dias' for the first 20 years of his life.


BRIDGES ACROSS TIME AND SPACE

In Texas, a wonderful journalism professor taught our class that any time a reader or a viewer says that a story is objective, they have simply defined the parameters of a belief system. Learning never comes from this middle-ground, but from the edges.

Real learning takes place when we discover new ways of thinking. Or as stated by Joanna Macy in her wonderful book, World as Lover, World as Self: "Real learning is not something added, it is a reorganization of the system. New nets and assemblies occur, loops form, alternate pathways develop. The viewed world is different and so is the viewer."

Consequently, I've become a grand fan of the alternative press. Personal curiosities lead only so far, and I try to read articles and books that I don't agree. Good friends shape one's sense of the world. I've learned to see the world through eyes other than my own.

SUMMER SURPRISE

When plans were being set for the 1998 Collins LLC reunion, I dismissed the idea of returning for a few reasons. First, the trip was going to be expensive. But more importantly, it was comfortable to have Bloomington, to have Indiana and to have Collins in the past - kind of like a safety deposit box for memories.

But my friends wouldn't leave me alone. Emails teased and cajoled me. It really was time to go back.

It's hard to describe the feeling of returning to southern Indiana during the summertime, feeling the familiar energies underneath the ground, smelling the sweet perfume of the humid soil and abundant growth. All that rain, all that life! Since this is the dry season (not to mention the fire and smog season) in Mexico City, the contrast was remarkable.

Almost 200 friends showed up for the reunion, most from "my generation." We figure it was just enough time to miss the place and not enough time to get so busy or lose interest. Or perhaps we just had better communication since folks like Rich Remsberg and Caroline Dowd of our generation live in Bloomington and were instrumental in bringing us back. There were also friends of my brother and sister, who lived in the same dormitory seven years before I arrived.

What did I enjoy most, beyond the pleasure of returning to familiar faces in a familiar place?

Grudges and interpersonal fights seemed to disappear in the whirlwind weekend.

Many of my friends are working in fields far afield from what they studied.

Even if jobs have changed, the basic attitudes didn't. This gave me great hope that we are touched not by the exterior, but the interior lives and souls of our friends.

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EDUCATIONAL STRATEGIES

I am most grateful to the LLC for making this event a reality. In the past ten years, the only time the university contacted me was to ask for money. While financial donations are no doubt helpful to any institution, they strip the relationship between alumni to a cold, lifeless coin. Where are the human relationships?

I have a ton of questions. Are there other ways to make a contribution?

What can I offer students or faculty based on my experiences? Can I bring books from Mexico to the Indiana University. library? Can I facilitate LLC trips to Latin America? Is anyone interested in a distance education course on environmental tourism in the Americas? Those are what I can bring to the university, and no doubt my friends -- with equally positive memories from I.U. -- could be persuaded to share their talents and experiences.

BUILDING BRIDGES

There are many opportunities to build bridges -- both in time as well as in space. Part of the environmental and political problems we have at the end of this century is that it's been very difficult to bridge age groups. The 'don't trust anyone over 30' generation is heading to retirement, but without offering much in the way working with anyone under 30 now. Now that we're in our 30s and 40s, how can we maintain contact with those in their 20s or those in their 50s or 60s?

An institution, such as Collins, may hold the key. It's hard to imagine another place that could stir the emotions, creativity and passions of so many and over so many years.

Now we have a chance to continue making connections. I look forward to maintaining contact with friends near and far, using the Web as a Virtual Veranda. And I hope to enjoy more late night conversations on the real veranda sometime soon.


AUTHOR

Ron Mader is the ecotourism and responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning Planeta.com website.


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