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From Westchester Suburbia To Panama’s Mountains, And Loving It

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I’m locked in my son’s latrine somewhere way off the beaten track in Central America. It’s a very nice latrine, I notice.

Indeed, he had proudly told me so during one of our few phone calls, when he was describing his new living quarters in a village clinging precariously to the side of a rocky mountain. “Adam,” I had asked, sincerely interested, “what exactly makes a latrine nice?” His reply: “Being made of corrugated steel.” 

And now that I’m stuck here—the latch won’t budge, thanks to the humidity—I have ample time to catalog the other amenities in my son’s latrine. There’s the lock on the door, for one, and then there’s the fact that there’s actually a place to sit down—as opposed to the holes in the ground I found during my college travels through Europe.

We’ve traveled far from Westchester to visit Adam, a Peace Corps volunteer serving in the remote mountains of Panama. The last leg of our trip is a 45-minute ride in a pickup truck—Adam and my husband share the back bed with a villager and his chicken—that chugs up the boulder-strewn “road” whose craters could swallow up a small car, no problem. And now, we are finally here, and once I am liberated from the latrine, the tour of our son’s home continues.

First, what there isn’t: electricity, running water, and, as we’ve seen, flushable toilets. That means no lights, Google, AC, refrigeration, Orange Is the New Black, microwave, etc. The house itself is actually a group of simple shacks. The main part is two rooms—one for storage, one for sleeping—fronted by a patio with a table, chairs, and a hammock. The kitchen is a lean-to where foodstuffs are stored and Adam prepares cooked food over a propane burner; the shower is a hose running from a stream supplemented by a bucket that collects rainwater. A big slab of stone to pound clothes against constitutes the laundry, for which, Adam tells us, he is lucky to have a thick bristle brush to help break down soil and stains. And finally, out back is a garden he is planting with the local kids, plus his “open air” clothes dryer. The owner of a historic stone manor house on five manicured acres adjacent to Richard Gere’s digs in Bedford couldn’t have been prouder. 

Adam was raised in Westchester, with plenty of electricity, running water, and flushable toilets; I’m embarrassed to say that the entirety of his current fiefdom could fit into our kitchen with room to spare. Ours is the kind of quintessential Westchester neighborhood where they use the big white-pillared Colonials to film those box-office staples where everyone comes back to the family home to celebrate the adored daughter’s wedding in the backyard gardens. While the neighborhood is big on natural beauty, there were not a lot of kids around when mine were growing up, so we would take lots of long walks, checking out the big activity in the area—the renovations. 

After Adam had a unit on architecture in school, our walks became even more focused. On our route alone, there was a little yellow antique farmhouse, a romantic French Normandy, a mid-century modern, some castle-like Tudors, classic stone and shingles, and plenty of those handsome Colonials. As we’d walk, we would have some of our best talks about life in general. Yes, we were fortunate to live in a nice house in a beautiful neighborhood. But what made a house special, I would emphasize, was not how big it was or whether it had a portico or gabled roof, but the love inside it. That was what really made a house a home.

As I survey my son’s new home and think about his chosen work, I can’t help but think that maybe just a little bit of those chats from long ago stuck with him. His eyes sparkle when he talks about picking a fresh mango from his own tree, leading a book club for the local kids on his patio, waking up to a panoramic view of the mountainside, sharing a simple meal with a neighbor, or watching the stars at night from his hammock. Forget the mega-sized flat screen, temperature-controlled wine cellar, and aromatherapy sauna. His home is right where his heart is.

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