ویلکامامبا - دره جوانی ابدی

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ویلکامامبا - دره جوانی ابدی

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2 - Vilcabamba: The Valley of Eternal Youth

A society’s quality and durability can best be measured by the respect and care given to its elder citizens.

—Arnold Toynbee

The second people famous for their longevity and health who were visited and studied by Dr. Alexander Leaf for National Geographic were the Vilcabambans.

Vilcabamba is a small, extremely inaccessible town tucked away in Ecuador’s Andes mountains. Perched serenely at an altitude of some 4,500 feet, the Vilcabamban valley is not far from the Peruvian border, and about a hundred miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. In the language of the Inca Indians, Vilcabamba means “Sacred Valley,” and there is indeed something magical about the place. For one thing, the climate could hardly be more benign. With an average year-round temperature of 68 degrees and almost no seasonal variation, Vilcabamba is an idyllic land of lush, subtropical agriculture where a wide variety of grains, fruits, and vegetables can be easily cultivated, and many grow wild for the picking.

In 1981, the physician and medical journalist Morton Walker conducted a series of studies of Vilcabambans’ health and wrote effusively of what he found:

In the Western Hemisphere, a place exists where degenerative diseases seldom if ever affect the population. The people have no heart disease, no cancer, no diabetes, no stroke, no cirrhosis, no senility, no arteriosclerosis, nor any other morbid conditions connected with an interruption in blood flow that are commonly responsible for illness, disability, and death among industrialized people. Since they don’t die of degenerative diseases, the inhabitants of this place are able to live the full complement of mankind’s years—more than a century.… Vilcabamba is a veritable paradise on earth.…Over the years the Sacred Valley has been variously called “The Land of Eternal Youth,” “The Valley of Peace and Tranquility,” and “The Lost Paradise.” It has been given these labels because of the valley’s solitude, serenity, clean air, dazzling sun, nearly constant blue sky, pure mineral drinking water, helpful neighbors, lack of illness, and a kind of ubiquitous beauty that penetrates to one’s soul and provides a sense of well-being.

Dr. Leaf, ever the careful scientist, was not inclined to use such lyrical prose. But he was impressed by the considerable number of active oldsters whose lifestyles he and his medical associates were able to examine. These included a 103-year-old woman whom Leaf watched thread a sewing needle without the aid of eyeglasses, and a 95-year-old woman he found happily at work in the local bakery. After examining the elderly woman in the bakery, Leaf commented, “Her health through her long life has been excellent. She has a good heart and is in excellent condition.”

A REPUTATION FOR LONG LIFE

Vilcabamba first began to come to international attention in 1954, when a U.S. physician, Eugene H. Payne (clinical investigator for Parke Davis Pharmaceuticals), wrote a Reader’s Digest article saying he had found little or no evidence of cardiac or circulatory diseases in the area.

A year later, another American doctor, Albert Krammer, went to Vilcabamba to recuperate from a heart attack, then returned home feeling “better than I could ever remember.” He described his experience in a series of widely read articles. Soon stories were becoming common of heart patients from Mexico and Japan who after a few weeks in the valley found themselves bounding up steep mountains.

In 1956, a very elderly Vilcabamban named Javier Pereira, said to be 167, was brought to New York City and presented to the public by the owners of the syndicated newspaper feature “Believe It or Not.”

Before long, serious scientists began to investigate. In 1969, a team of Ecuadorian physicians headed by Dr. Miguel Salvador, a Quito cardiologist, undertook one of the first major studies of the health of people living in Vilcabamba. Salvador and his team studied 338 Vilcabambans and found that they were free not only of arteriosclerosis and heart disease, but also of cancer, diabetes, and degenerative diseases such as rheumatism, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s. The researchers called the general standard of fitness among the old “amazing.” The Vilcabamban valley, the Ecuadorian doctors concluded, somehow provided immunity to the physical problems that shorten lives elsewhere. In the 1970s, a British gerontologist named Dr. David Davies made four separate visits to the valley, studying the health of the old people and their way of life. In a series of articles published in scientific journals and in a book he wrote for the public titled The Centenarians of the Andes, he asserted that the elders of Vilcabamba may die as the result of an accident, or from a sickness introduced by visitors from the outside, but never from the major killing diseases that afflict the rest of the world.

After Dr. Leaf’s article extolling the health and longevity in Vilcabamba was published in National Geographic in 1973, the elders of Vilcabamba were beset by a swarm of gerontologists and other researchers who were examining their teeth, eyes, and ears, measuring their blood pressure, and connecting them to cardiac and chest monitors.

The scientists took samples of their hair, saliva, and urine, took notes on their diet, and interviewed them about their sex lives.

In 1978, the National Institute of Aging and the Fogerty International Center for Advanced Study in Health Science cosponsored an international conference focused on the health of the elderly in Vilcabamba. Dr. Leaf was co-chairman of the event, which included scientists, physicians, and researchers from Japan, Canada, France, Ecuador, and the United States, all of whom had worked in Vilcabamba. The participants agreed that the over-seventy population in Vilcabamba had spectacular cardiovascular health, including almost no incidence of high blood pressure and only one-third of the cardiac abnormalities usually found in the same age categories in developed nations. Researchers linked the Vilcabamban elders’ extraordinary cardiovascular health with their leanness, their diet, their low cholesterol levels, and their high levels of physical ac-tivity. As the years went along, Japanese researchers began studying sleep patterns in the Vilcabamban elderly. In the modern world, sleep apnea, or difficulty in breathing while at rest, is very common among people over 65. The Japanese used portable respiratory monitoring devices to record breathing patterns of Vilcabambans aged 84 to 94 and found that nearly all participants enjoyed healthy and peaceful sleep. In 1993, an article in the Los Angeles Times enthusiastically summed up the picture:

Folks in Vilcabamba have a reputation for long life. Very long life. More than a few say they have passed the century mark; people in their 80s and 90s appear almost common. And the Ancient Ones, as they are called, maintain their health and vitality right to the end.

HOW OLD ARE THEY REALLY?

As in Abkhasia, though, there has been a great deal of controversy over the actual ages of the elders in Vilcabamba and serious doubt about the most extreme of the superlongevity claims. Claiming an age of 167 when the oldest fully authenticated human age known to modern science is 122 is not the quickest route to credibility.

Verifying the ages of old people in places like Abkhasia and Vilcabamba is never as simple as it sounds. Unlike the case in Abkhasia, where there are hardly any records to speak of, there are baptismal records in Vilcabamba that have been kept by the local church and birth records kept by the Civil Registry that go back as far as 1860. But the records are old and incomplete. There are pages missing, and pages so worn they cannot be read. What is more, Vilcabamban parents have not always registered the births of their children. And to make things even more confusing, cousins and other close relatives in Vilcabamba have often been given the same names.

Several years after the excitement about longevity in Vilcabamba had grown to a worldwide phenomenon, two American scientists—Dr. Richard B. Mazess, a radiologist, and Dr. Sylvia H. Forman, an anthropologist—sought to arrive at as much certainty as possible about the ages of the elders in Vilcabamba. They performed a meticulous house-by-house census, then checked all the birth, death, and marriage records that they could find, and finally cross-checked the various documents against one another. It was a bewildering maze of documentation, but Mazess and Forman eventually concluded that there had been a consistent pattern of age inflation.

For example, in the case of a man who had claimed to be 132 shortly before his death, they found that the man had actually been only ninety-three at the time of his death. Apparently, the man had attempted to appear older than he actually was by adopting as his own the baptismal certificate of an older deceased relative who shared the same name. It turned out that his mother had in fact been born five years after his own stated birth date, something that even the heroic modern advances in reproductive technology have not been able to replicate. Mazess and Forman ultimately came to believe that this kind of thing was common, and that none of the twenty-three self-proclaimed centenarians then living in the village of Vilcabamba had actually reached the age of 100. When they published their findings in The Journals of Gerontology in 1979, they titled their article “Longevity and age exaggeration in Vilcabamba, Ecuador,” and declared that “extreme ages were either incorrect or unsubstantiated.” As a result, many in the scientific community came to believe that longevity in Vilcabamba had been totally discredited.

At that time, Vilcabamba had only about a thousand residents. Mazess said that in a population that small, it would be out of the ordinary if even a single person over the age of 100 were to be found, and truly remarkable if there were two people of such an age. He listed ten people who claimed to be centenarians, but who he considered to be between 85 and 95.

Presumably, Mazess and Forman were correct in their evaluations. However, fifteen years later, two of the ten people Mazess had listed were still alive, which would mean that based on the ages he attributed to them, there were in 1994 at least two centenarians in a population of one thousand—a number that Mazess himself had said would be extraordinary.

Dr. Leaf had been aware, of course, of the tendency for old people to exaggerate their ages. He and his team had also spent long, painstaking hours studying the available records, and they had eventually concluded that the elder Vilcabambans probably did not actually know their ages, and so the ages they gave were almost completely useless. He was struck, nevertheless, by the fact that the very oldest people were remarkably fit for their age, even if they might actually be a decade or two younger than they claimed.

In 1990, the Ecuadorian physician Guillermo Vela Chiriboga, who headed one of the scientific expeditions organized by Dr. Leaf to explore longevity and health in Vilcabamba, published The Secrets of Vilcabamba (Secretos de Vilcabamba para vivir siempre joven). Having done further study after Leaf had left, he also could find no evidence to substantiate the claims for particular individuals living to extreme ages. And, like Leaf, he recognized that in a culture where people don’t actually have a very good idea of how old they are and where there is much respect for the elderly, there can be an incentive to exaggerate. But he continued to find numerous oldsters whose later years were filled with health and vitality and who did not suffer from the cardiovascular ailments so common among elders in the modern world. He wrote: Even if Gabriel Erazo, who claimed to be 130 years old, and others who claim to be over 100, are 20 or 30 years younger (than they claim), that does not invalidate the reality.…In Vilcabamba I found very elderly people with healthy bodies and souls.

Dr. Chiriboga also found that even the most elderly of the residents of Vilcabamba rarely suffer from fractures, osteoporosis, or arthritic ailments, which are common among older people elsewhere. His trained medical eyes could find no evidence of cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, arthritis, or dementia, even among the very eldest of the population. He wrote that local inhabitants, even in extreme old age, “are agile and mentally lucid, with a sense of humor and admirable physical health.…[They] enjoy tranquility without a competitive spirit, and spurn the accumulation of wealth.”

GRACE HALSELL

Of the many perspectives on the people of Vilcabamba, one that I find particularly fascinating is that of an American woman named Grace Halsell, who lived in Vilcabamba for two years in the 1970s and subsequently wrote a book about the people there, titled Los Viejos (The Old Ones).

To say that Grace Halsell was an amazing human being is an understatement. She died in 2002 after living what the writer Gore Vidal called “the most interesting and courageous life of any American in our time.” A distinguished journalist, she worked for three years in the White House as a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson. Her newspaper articles for the New York Post, the New York Herald Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, and other major newspapers were filed from war zones in Korea, Vietnam, and Bosnia, as well as Russia, China, Macedonia, and Albania.

She was also the author of twelve books, including Soul Sister, in which she related her experiences, after taking a medication to turn her skin black, living as an impoverished African American in Harlem and Mississippi. Her book Bessie Yellowhair tells the story of the years she spent living with the Navajo on an isolated reservation in Arizona, and then, with their approval, dyeing her skin ochre and passing as an Indian among white people, including working as a live-in Navajo maid in Los Angeles. In researching her book about illegal immigrants in the United States, Halsell, who spoke fluent Spanish, became an illegal and undocumented “wetback,” swimming across the Rio Grande to enter the United States, dodging border patrol guards, crawling through sewers, and hiding from Customs in the dreaded Smugglers Canyon. Then, presenting herself as the journalist she also was, she interviewed the whites of the Sun Belt who fear the rising tide of Hispanic immigration, and also interviewed armed border patrolmen, riding with them as they vainly attempted to seal the porous U.S.–Mexico border. Grace Halsell had an almost unworldly ability to connect with people and see the world through their eyes. The title of her autobiography is, aptly, In Their Shoes.

During the two years she lived in Vilcabamba, Grace Halsell was one of Alexander Leaf’s interpreters and assistants. Apparently, Leaf never realized that the resident of Vilcabamba who was such an outstanding translator, whose English and Spanish were both impeccable, who seemed to know so much not only about Vilcabambans but also about Americans, was not in fact a penniless Vilcabamban peasant but a world-renowned American journalist who had regularly flown on Air Force One (the U.S. president’s personal plane), and who had interviewed presidents, prime ministers, movie stars, and kings. Unlike Leaf and the other scientists, though, Grace Halsell had not come to the valley to peer, probe, and analyze the people. She had not come to take their blood pressure or measure their cholesterol. She had come to be one with them:

I have always gone to other lands with one idea: to meet people and come to know them. I learn to sing their songs, dance their jigs, eat their food. I try to be one among the people in whose land I am living.

Doctors, scientists, and researchers have come up with many explanations for the marvels of Vilcabamba. Some have credited the pure mountain air that is uniquely rich with negative ions. Others have pointed to the natural, healthful diet and the great amount of exercise inherent in the Vilcabamban lifestyle. A few have pointed to the soil and its high levels of selenium and other minerals. Others have suggested that Vilcabamban drinking water holds the secret. (Vilcabamba is apparently one of the few places in South America where you not only can but should drink the water. Not surprisingly, several companies have sought to capitalize on this fact by marketing the water in Europe.) Grace Halsell understood and appreciated these viewpoints, particularly the ones about diet and exercise. She loved the fresh fruits of every variety and the fresh garden vegetables. She loved the tremendous amount of walking she and all the others did up and down the verdant hills in the course of a day. And she loved the magnificent scenery, the pristine air, and the crystal-clear water. But what caught her eye and heart most of all was the quality of human relationships in Vilcabamba. To her, the sense of connectedness that people had with one another was paramount, and was, if anything, more important than the other explanations for their notable health in old age. Like the researchers and doctors who visited Vilcabamba, she, too, sought to understand the underlying reasons for the health and longevity of the people. But what made her unique was that rather than trying to remain dispassionate, Grace Halsell met the Vilcabam-ban people with love.

I went to visit them because I had heard they were old. But I stayed with them because they were themselves, a most lovable people, from whom I wanted to learn. Each one seemed to believe that he would become all that he had given away. I never before experienced a people who had so little and gave so much. Without any material possessions, they somehow assert their personalities, their individuality, their right to be giving. Of all the Biblical injunctions they had heard from the Spanish priests, the viejos [old ones] seemed to have taken “It is more blessed to give, than to receive” as their maxim in life.

SHE WHO LAUGHS, LASTS

Halsell was accustomed to the luxuries we take for granted in the modern industrialized world, yet she found the far more simple life in Vilcabamba not to be a burden, but in many ways to be a freedom.

I had no mirror, no running water with which to brush my teeth. I was liberated from the time-consuming feminine activities such as shaving my legs and under my armpits, spraying deodorant under my arms, and plucking my eyebrows, painting my nails, curling my hair. Living in the Sacred Valley was like being a child again. I awoke each morning at sunrise, brushed my hair into a ponytail, slipped on my every-day-of-the-week clothes, and I was ready to greet the day, the Vilcabamban way. The people of Vilcabamba are poor in material things by modern standards, but Grace Halsell found them to be rich in other ways, for they radiated a sense of self-confidence and security in themselves that people in the modern world, with all its material abundance, often find themselves endlessly seeking. As she reflected on the underlying reasons for their remarkable health and longevity, she came back again and again to the way she saw them treat each other: Living among the viejos, I never heard them quarrel or fight or dispute with each other. They had what I would consider a “high” culture in this regard. They spoke beautifully, elegantly, with ample flourishes of tenderness. Their words themselves were often caresses.

She asked one of the two local policemen what kinds of crimes were committed in the valley. “Not much,” he replied. “We don’t have any real crimes.”

Halsell believed that a key to the health and harmony in Vilcabamba was that people of all ages were intimately interwoven with one another. Living in close-knit families, they enjoyed all the benefits and comforts that come from sharing one’s life with loved ones. She saw no separation of people by ages.

I often reflected on the needs that the old and the young have for each other as I sat on a bench outside the stucco house with Angel Modesto. His great-grandson, Luis Fernando, not yet two, usually was at his side. They seemed sewn from the same bolt of cloth. They walked at the same pace, with the gait of kinship. They had time and love and attention for each other. For long stretches, I would watch the tireless Luis Fernando romping and running and laughing, testing his legs and his arms and his place in the world, and daily growing more secure in the knowledge that the loving eyes of his great-grandfather countenanced with enormous approbation his every move. Each was aware of the other and shared their love with an unaffected ease. I felt having his great-grandfather in his life was as important for Luis Fernando’s sense of well-being, now and in his future, as his having nursed from his mother’s breast. Like the Abkhasians, the Vilcabambans dwell in a society that is suffused with respect for the elderly. No elder ever fears being abandoned or isolated. In a dramatic contrast with modern American culture, old people are loved simply for who they are, regardless of whether they have any wealth. Their wisdom is admired, their seniority respected. The younger people flock to be around them, enjoying their company and appreciating the opportunity to learn from them. Older people are not treated with any condescension or false deference. The respect of the younger people for the elders is genuine and potent. The elders are fully present, involved, and responsive. Halsell said she never saw a single case of senility. Halsell knew American culture inside and out. She knew that in a youth-obsessed culture, the elderly are often seen as obsolete, as standing in the way of “progress.” With profound empathy for those who are left out, she was poignantly aware of the differences in how those who are most vulnerable, including the very young and the very old, were treated in Vilcabamba as compared to the United States: Living among these people, I learned that it isn’t a bank account that can give an old person a sense of security so much as the assurance that he or she never will live alone, nor die alone. Regardless of his age in the Sacred Valley the viejo never fears being abandoned or being put away in an institution, unwanted, neglected, left to wither and die.…In the U.S. a person can work hard all of his or her life, only to reach the heap of obsolescence. The reality is that the old in the U.S. have every right to feel depressed. A viejo will never know that kind of desolation, that kind of abandonment and depression. One visiting doctor who had come to study the health of the elderly in Vilcabamba was aware that depression is extremely common among the aged in the United States. He asked a very old man named Ramon, “Are you often depressed?”

Ramon replied, quite simply, “Only if I have reason to be.”

The doctor asked for a recent example of a time the elder had been depressed, but Ramon could not think of one. The last time, he said, was many years ago, when his house had burned down. “Then, I was depressed,” he said. “But with the help of others I built it back again and felt happy to be alive.”

In the modern world, in contrast, when people are depressed, for whatever reason, they’re often given Prozac or other antidepressant drugs. I know, of course, that these drugs have helped some people to get through very difficult times. But when someone has experienced a disheartening loss or defeat, how much better it would be to have a community of support and love in which to find our healing rather than having to rely only on a drug.

One of the great strengths of both the Abkhasian and Vilcabam-ban cultures lies in how deeply people are in touch with one another. Not only do they plant and harvest and eat together, but people share with their neighbors the experiences of birth and bereavement, of children marrying and parents dying. In this way, the community is able to take part together in the most joyous and most frightening moments of life. No one has to face them alone.

It is inspiring to know that this way of living is possible, but I do not want to be overly sentimental about life in these regions. It’s true that there is no record of there having ever been a suicide in Vilcabamba. It’s true that none of the old people wear glasses or hearing aids, and that few of them, even at the most advanced ages, need a cane or crutch to help them walk. But the people in what is called the Sacred Valley certainly have their share of suffering. The poverty is serious, and infant mortality is high by our standards. There are accidents and deaths in Vilcabamba, there are broken marriages and disappointments.

And yet somehow the people have not armored themselves against the pain, and have not withdrawn from one another into shells. If they are hurt, they cry; when a loved one dies, they grieve. The very act of grieving is considered part of life, part of learning and loving. Then they usually go on, their spirits connected to each other, their smiles all the deeper for all they have known and shared.

“What pleases me most about the Vilcabambans,” Grace Halsell wrote, “is that they spend a lot of their time laughing.”

THEIR SECRETS

There is much we can learn from the Vilcabambans, and I admire their ability to be so joyful with so few possessions, but I don’t believe there is anything ennobling about poverty. In the modern world, a lack of money prevents many from meeting their most basic human needs and reduces them to a squalid existence. An empty purse can be heavy baggage to carry through life. It’s crucial that we work to abolish poverty so that every human being has food, clothing, housing, healthcare, education, employment, and a lifetime of peace.

At the same time, I think it’s a shame that we in the modern world have made the acquisition of money so important that we often define ourselves and our value by how much we can spend. We’ve made money into the measure of our success. A satirical poet once said that the two most beautiful words in the English language are “check enclosed.” The Reverend Dale Turner tells of a mystic from India who was introduced to New York City. His guide took him to the Times Square subway station at the peak of morning rush hour. The visitor was appalled at what he saw—people with briefcases pushing hard and driving madly. Not understanding what was causing people to behave so frantically, he asked, “Is there a wolf behind them?” “No,” said the guide, “there’s a dollar in front of them.” A life devoted to the acquisition of wealth is useless unless we know how to turn it into joy. This is an art that requires wisdom and unselfishness, qualities the Vilcabambans, who have little in material possessions, seem to have in abundance. Perhaps they can remind us that our fulfillment does not lie in clamoring for ever more of life’s goods. Perhaps they can help us recall the wisdom of simplicity, the importance of our relationships with one another, and help us appreciate the teachings of Gandhi, who urged us to “live simply so others may simply live.” As difficult as it may be for many of us in the modern world to accept, there may actually be some advantages to not having a surfeit of material things in your life. Grace Halsell noted,

The viejos of Vilcabamba have never been handicapped by the wheel as a mode of transport. They own no cars or bicycles. Nor do they have horses or burros to move them over the rugged landscape of the Sacred Valley. They simply walk. They walk to work and they walk home from work. That necessity enriches and strengthens them. She contrasted this with sedentary Americans who say “Let’s take a walk” as if it were a challenge, a novelty, a course for which they deserve some credit. In the modern world, we drive our cars everywhere. We drive to a drive-in cleaner, a drive-in bank, the drive-in window at a fast-food restaurant. To some of us, getting exercise means driving to a golf course and then riding around in an electric cart.

In Vilcabamba, as in Abkhasia, even the oldest people are very active. There is always physical work to do in the household or garden, and both males and females are involved in it all from earliest childhood until their final days on earth. They have no need of exercise equipment, for simply traversing the hilly terrain during each day’s activities sustains a high degree of cardiovascular fitness as well as general muscular tone. Perhaps as a result of the great amount of walking and other exercise, even the oldest Vilcabambans have extremely healthy bones. Unlike elders in the industrialized world, they almost never fall and break an arm, leg, or hip. Even at the most advanced ages, they rarely limp or become disabled.

In the modern world, when people are feeling down they are often told to “take it easy,” to simply lie in bed and relax. In both Vilcabamba and Abkhasia, however, people experiencing “the blues” typically respond by becoming active and involved with others. Rather than withdrawing and becoming sedentary, they will walk great distances for the joy of visiting one another. So great is the recognition of the healing power of walking to visit a friend that there is a saying in Vilcabamba that each of us has two “doctors”—the left leg and the right leg.

WHAT THEY EAT

What kinds of foods, you may wonder, make up the Vilcabamban diet?

They have nothing remotely comparable to food stores or markets as we know them, with selections of packaged goods. There are no canned foods in their homes, and they never open a box of breakfast cereal, pancake mix, or crackers. For the vast majority of their lives, the old people in Vilcabamba have had no experience of processed food. They have known nothing of the artificial preservatives and other chemical additives that are found in so many modern foods.

Vegetables are picked fresh from the gardens, with their full nutritional value intact. Fruits are eaten the same day they are plucked, often on the spot. The Vilcabamban diet is almost entirely vegetarian, made up primarily of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, seeds, beans, and nuts. Once in a while they will consume milk or eggs, but these are usually quite scarce. The viejos eat almost no meat, and never any butter. Their overall diet is very low (by contemporary American standards) in calories. There are no overweight people in Vilcabamba.

Their protein comes from vegetables, whole grains, and a variety of beans. Their carbohydrates are always unrefined and come primarily from whole-grain cereals such as corn, quinoa, wheat, and barley, and from tubers including potatoes, yucca, and sweet potatoes. Their fat comes mostly from avocados, seeds, and nuts.

The diets of the Vilcabambans are remarkably similar to the diets of the Abkhasians. In the Vilcabamban diet as in the traditional Abkhasian diet, protein and fat are almost entirely of vegetable origin. The diets of both regions are low in calories. And both cultures depend almost entirely on natural foods rather than processed and manufactured ones.

Desserts as we know them in the modern world do not exist in Vilcabamba. When the viejos in Vilcabamba want a sweet taste, they eat fresh fruit such as figs, pineapples, watermelons, oranges, bananas, naranjillas (a type of small orange), papayas, or mangos. Fruits of all kinds are plentiful year-round. When Vilcabambans go visiting their neighbors, they often bring fresh fruit as a present.

Coming from the United States, Grace Halsell was used to a far more complex and varied diet. But she noticed something interesting:

In Vilcabamba…my mind never dwelled on food. I wasn’t frustrated, and didn’t yearn for chocolate. It may be that [the unavailability of sugary and processed foods] had disciplined my appetite. But I suspected other reasons for this absence of the usual cravings. The stress was missing. Traffic never jangled my nerves, and decisions about food were simply unnecessary. No compulsions were generated by the bombardment of television commercials exhorting me to bite into a particular brand of potato chips.… Walking up and down mountains, the viejos and I never stopped to talk about food. Our minds were occupied with love stories or other thoughts more interesting than food. And when we sat down to eat, everyone was courteous, and still more interested in talking than eating. I never saw anyone greedy for food, or afraid he would not get his share. I never saw any viejo overeat. I saw families with one plate of maize to share who were less greedy than a group of gringos eating a five-course meal. I ate less because they were a good influence.

THE CONTRAST IS STRIKING

It’s hard not to see the contrast with the modern industrialized world. If you live in the modern West today, you live in a very different food environment than do the Vilcabambans. Most likely, you are surrounded by fast-food chain restaurants and are continually exposed to ads for junk foods. In many neighborhoods, it’s easier to find a Snickers bar, a Big Mac, or a Coke than it is to find an apple.

If you go to a doctor in the United States for health tips, you may find in the waiting room a glossy 243-page magazine titled Family Doctor: Your Essential Guide to Health and Wellbeing. Published by the American Academy of Family Physicians and sent free to the offices of all fifty thousand family doctors in the United States in 2004, it’s full of glossy full-page color ads for McDonald’s, Dr Pepper, chocolate pudding, and Oreo cookies.

Meanwhile, kids in U.S. schools are learning arithmetic by counting M&M’s, using lesson plans supplied by candy companies. When they walk though the hallways of their high schools, they may see a series of brightly colored mini-billboards, cheerfully telling them that “M&M’s are better than straight A’s” and instructing them to “satisfy your hunger for higher education with a Snickers.” Government figures show that American children now obtain an incredible 50 percent of their calories from added fat and sugar. Many health-conscious people criticize official U.S. dietary guidelines for not taking a stronger stand for more nutritious foods, but even as it is, less than 1 percent of U.S. kids regularly eat diets resembling the guidelines.

A few weeks ago I had dinner with relatives of mine who are in their seventies. They typically eat lots of meat and sugar, and their dinner that evening was no exception. Meanwhile, their conversation consisted primarily of complaining about a long list of aches and pains and about how bleak their lives were becoming. Finally, trying to look on the bright side, one of them said, “Well, old age isn’t so bad, I guess, when you consider the alternative.” He meant, of course, that it is better to grow old, even if you are miserable, than to die.

I appreciated that he was trying to be positive, but I found myself wondering how much more satisfying life could be if we could understand that there really is another alternative, if we could recognize that there are ways of living and eating that lead toward a more healthful and fulfilling life than many of us have ever thought to be possible.

WHAT WE CAN LEARN ABOUT OURSELVES  

There are, of course, real challenges in Vilcabamba, as there are in Abkhasia, and as indeed there are wherever human beings exist. It would be a mistake to be blinded by our nostalgia for a pure and unspoiled way of life and to romanticize life in these regions. Neither Abkhasia nor Vilcabamba is a Garden of Eden. It would be both emotionally self-indulgent and intellectually indefensible to project our own fantasies of an ideal society onto these people.

But at the same time we would be remiss if we failed to notice that there is indeed something inspiring and beautiful about life in these special places. If we want to understand ourselves better, if we want to understand why some people grow old in sickness and despair while others grow old with vitality and inner peace, then we have much to learn from the simplicity and good-heartedness with which the residents of these places live. If we want to understand the factors that are at play in our lives that can produce on the one hand a person who at the age of sixty is already debilitated, defeated, and depressed, or on the other hand someone who at ninety is energetic, alert, and happy, then I am sure their examples have something to teach us.

As in Abkhasia, there is in Vilcabamba an abiding and profound appreciation for the natural transitions of life. Aging is celebrated, and elderly people are held in great respect. How different this is from the modern world’s youth-obsessed culture, where we tend to look with horror upon aging, as if the goal of life were to remain perpetually twenty-five.

All too often, we seem as a culture to be at war with life’s transitions, viewing death as the failure to stay alive, and aging as the failure to remain young. We do something grievous to ourselves when we buy into this cultural ideology.

The myths and stereotypes we have about old age are so deeply entrenched in American society that they can insinuate themselves into our psyches without our even knowing what they are. It is difficult to escape the messages that our culture sends about the aging process. From birthday cards that decry the advance of age to the widespread use of demeaning language about the elderly (“geezer,” “old fogey,” “old maid,” “dirty old man,” “old goat,” etc.) to the lack of positive images of the elderly in ads and on television programs, each of us is continually imbued with feelings of aversion toward those who are old.

I am fifty-nine, and I consider myself fairly aware of the pernicious nature of how our society views aging, and how we damage ourselves by buying into that view. One morning not too long ago, however, I wandered into the bathroom after an all-too-short night of sleep. Gazing into the mirror, I was shocked by how old the guy was who was staring back at me. My instinct was to recoil, and immediately I saw the man in the mirror grow even more difficult to like as his eyebrows drew together toward the middle of his forehead in a scowl of displeasure. I felt awful, and it took me some time to understand what had happened and what I had done.

I had greeted the signs of aging not with cheerful acceptance, but with trepidation and disdain. I had taken on the widespread cultural repugnance for what can be a natural and beautiful stage of life, and I had looked upon my tired self with contempt rather than with compassion and respect.

When I understood what I had done, I went back to the mirror and actually apologized out loud to the man looking back at me. I resolved, as well, to remember this learning experience, and from now on to greet the signs of aging and vulnerability, wherever I might meet them, with a smile rather than a frown, and with tenderness instead of contempt.

In countless ways, the dominant Western culture teaches us to value younger people and devalue older ones. How often do we notice when movie roles that should be played by mature actresses are played instead by hot young babes? In the 2005 film Alexander, for example, the mother of Alexander the Great (played by Colin Farrell) is portrayed by Angelina Jolie, who in fact is all of eleven months older than Colin Farrell.

Occasionally, however, a film is made that dares to convey the message that aging is a normal and healthy aspect of life. In 2003, Calendar Girls, based on a true story, told of a group of older women in Yorkshire, England, who belong to the local Women’s Institute, which is staid and traditional and is boring them silly. When the beloved husband of one of the women dies of cancer, she decides to raise money for a new sofa in the hospital waiting room. In previous years, they had raised money for various causes through calendars with pictures of cakes, jams, flowers, and the like, but none of these calendars had ever raised more than a few dollars. Realizing that they need to do something different this year, something that would make more money, they recall a speech the dying husband had written. He had proclaimed that “the flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire. Every phase of their growth is more beautiful than the last, and the last phase is always the most glorious.” Inspired by the now dead man’s words, the elderly women decide to sell a calendar featuring themselves (tastefully) in the nude.

Calendar Girls has now been seen by many millions of people, and has done much to publicize the actual events on which it was based. Meanwhile, the actual calendar has in fact raised more than $1.6 million for a new cancer hospital wing (including the new sofa).

Inspired by the film, older women throughout the world produced more than a thousand such calendars in the years 2003 and 2004 to raise money for worthy causes. In almost every case, they found the experience a joyful one, enabling them to celebrate the unique beauty of older women and to defy any cultural assumption that as women age they necessarily become unattractive.

AGEISM

The term “ageism” was coined in 1969 by Robert Butler, the founding director of the National Institute on Aging. He likened it to other forms of bigotry such as racism and sexism, defining it as a process of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are old.

The consequences of ageism are similar to those associated with discrimination against other groups. People who are subjected to prejudice and intolerance often internalize the dominant group’s negative image and then behave in ways that conform to that negative image. Thus older people often hold ageist views about their contemporaries, about those who are slightly older than they are, and even about their own worth.

From our culture, we learn what is expected of us, and to a considerable extent we then conform to those expectations. When the prevailing image of aging expects older people to be asexual, intellectually rigid, forgetful, and invisible, many elderly people will take on these characteristics even though doing so may run counter to the way they have previously lived their lives. If society’s view is that an appropriate solution to the health problems of very old people is to warehouse them in nursing homes and exile them from the mainstream of society, then sure enough, many old people will end up languishing in short-staffed and soulless institutions.

Ageism represents a prejudice against a group that all people will inevitably join if they live long enough. As a result, an ideology that equates aging with deterioration steals hope from everyone, and from every stage of our lives.

We can acquiesce in our society’s script for our later years, succumbing to a perspective that defines those years as ones of loss and defeat. But I would rather challenge the assumptions of a culture that has lost touch with what aging really is: a transformational process as full of wonder and beauty as any other stage of the human journey.

If we want to create a healthy relationship to aging, then cultures like Abkhasia and Vilcabamba have much to offer us in how we understand our place in the life cycle. In these cultures, elders are looked up to and appreciated for their wisdom. They feel socially useful and needed, and even the oldest people typically retain their mental faculties and physical abilities. In the modern industrialized world, on the other hand, older people often feel useless and disconnected. As we grow older we are put out to pasture where we are left with only our ailments to think about and with ever fewer opportunities to contribute to the well-being and happiness of others. After a long life we may have learned a few things, but the prevailing social context provides us ever fewer ways to express what we have learned for the benefit of our community. From the Vilcabambans, as from the Abkhasians, we can learn a more fulfilling and joyful way to experience our aging and a better way to inhabit our lives.

While I have several friends who have moved to Vilcabamba, and I understand why they have done so, I don’t plan to move there for my own final years. And I certainly don’t want to go back to a way of life as devoid of modern technologies as the Vilcabambans have traditionally known. I’ve lived without having a soft place to sleep and I’ve lived without food refrigeration, so I know it is possible to be happy without them, but I enjoy such comforts and am grateful for them. I do not want to live in a barely heated house with a mud floor, and I’d rather not live without running water and indoor plumbing. I also treasure the low rates of infant mortality that have ensued from advances in public health and sanitation, and I appreciate many of the complexities and challenges of the modern world. I love my life in the modern Western world, and even with all its faults and limitations, I still cherish it as my home. I recognize as well that some of the toxicities of the modern world are beginning to encroach upon and alter the traditional Vilcabamban way of life, a development I’ll discuss more fully later on.

No, I don’t want to move to Vilcabamba, but I do want to bring something of the Vilcabamban spirit and wisdom into life here in the modern world. I want to understand and incorporate the principles that have enabled these people, even in the midst of primitive conditions, to live with so much vitality and beauty.

I do not want to imitate the viejos, the old ones of Vilcabamba, but I want to honor them, and to hold them as guides, as reminders, as friends. Their lives, like those of the Abkhasians, can show us that aging is not a disease, that growing old need not be a calamity, and that people can, when we love each other, look forward to lives that are rich at every stage with vitality, presence, and joy.

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