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Our family had the privilege of spending this past weekend on Isla Holbox, a barely-inhabited island off the northern coast of the Yucatan peninsula, famous for its lack of cars, kite surfing, whale shark diving, and some of the most remote and luxurious seclusion one can find in the 21st century. As we walked back to our palm-thatched palapa on Saturday night under a sky filled with more stars than can be seen anywhere in Florida, I found myself fantasizing, as anyone in that situation would, about picking up roots and moving to that idyllic paradise awash in sand and turquoise. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how little I would have to offer. Not just in terms of my toddler-level Spanish, but in what I could possibly do for a living. Repair bikes and golf carts? I’d already seen local residents doing it themselves on the side of the unpaved road. Captain a powerboat for sightseeing or whale shark encounters? Men with years of experience in the local waters and an uncanny ability to locate picturesque wildlife can wait days for a customer. Give scuba lessons? This is not Cancun. The kind of people who know enough to know about the existence of Holbox and who put in the effort required to get there are the kind who arrive prepared to dive or uninterested in doing so. I have no experience as a cook and there are already plenty of great restaurants. Hotels range from resort to boutique to spa to hostel to campsite, so there’s no niche to be found, and I have no starting capital. Can’t grow much beyond coconut and a few tropical fruits, and there are fishermen galore. What the heck would I do? For my day job I consult on spacecraft avionics (spacecraft are not exactly abundant) and at school I study the science of planets, much of which is based on celestial observations that rely upon billions of dollars in telescopes (many of them taxpayer-funded) and an army of tens of thousands of highly educated scientists and engineers. My research requires thousands of dollars worth of equipment in a multi-million-dollar building at the second largest university in the wealthiest country in the world. I say this not to boast, but merely to reflect upon the level of infrastructure required just for me to do my job. During that walk on Holbox, I joked about setting up an observatory on the island, considering that it’s the clearest sky I’ve ever seen from sea level. But who would run it? Who would refine and analyze the data? Why place it there, in a location so remote that building it would be twice as expensive as it would near a city, when a mountaintop location would allow for much better observations and ultimately better science? Holbox deserves to remain as it is. Sleepy, wild, secret.
Today we hopped back on the first world treadmill with our arrival in Orlando. Thankfully we had the buffer of Cancun in between, or the contrast might have been too shocking. There were more people in the security line at the airport today than there were on the entire island this past weekend. We arrived to wide highways with smooth pavement, bright signage, street lights, access ramps and shiny new cars to fill all the lanes. The pace of life here is dizzying compared to days spent on a sandbar fifty yards from shore and breezy nights in slowly swaying hammocks. I listened to the patois of our jovial driver as we rode from the airport to the parking facility, and wondered how often he reflected on life in the States versus the life he left behind. As we exited the overnight parking lot, Rafael, whose bowels were undoubtedly loosened by the low pressure at cruising altitude, decided to gift us with a levee-breaching evacuation. We pulled over in the employee parking lot so we could use the office restroom to change his diaper. Lorenia sent me back out to the car for a change of clothes. I sat down in the back seat to rifle through his diaper bag, leaving the door ajar, with the keys in my pocket. As I bent over at the waist, the key fob locked the doors. I pulled the keys out and unlocked the doors again. Finding no clothes, I stepped out to return inside and ask if she wanted me to unpack the fifty-pound suitcase buried in the trunk for a new onesie. As the door shut, the horn honked. My heart sank. There, on the rear seat, was the key fob, which had fallen off my lap as I got out. I can only guess that the car locked itself a second time after enough time passed with no new doors opened. It has probably been more than a decade since I’ve locked the keys in the car, and I felt like an absolute idiot. I’d already missed a day in the lab, and now I was going to miss my afternoon class waiting for an expensive locksmith. I ran back inside to tell Lorenia, and we just so happened to catch our driver as he was leaving work. He called over to the mechanic, who was at our car within five minutes with two plastic wedges, and inflatable bag that looked like a blood pressure cuff and a long hooked rod. Two minutes later the door was open, alarm blaring, and we thanked him profusely and got on our way. Side note: while it may be difficult to start a modern car without a key, it is absurdly easy to get inside without breaking anything, as long as you have the right tools. Thanks to the kind and unassuming mechanic, I made it to my class on time, and enjoyed an hour-long videoconference with the astrobiology discipline scientist at NASA headquarters, discussing the last few decades of unmanned spacecraft exploration of our solar system and the likelihood that we’ll find life beyond Earth.
Here, then, is concrete, empirical, quantifiable evidence that we are absolutely reliant upon one another to maintain our civilization. It’s easy to lose sight of meaning in your life, because you never get to witness the causal repercussions of what you believe are simple, banal, boring actions. That mechanic will likely never know how he enabled my life, but he goes to work and does his job every day anyway. Kindness and service are acts of faith; we do what we can and trust in the benefits we never see. My pursuits, my profession, my purpose, and my life would all be utterly impossible if it were not for the daily effort of the entire human race, and the sum total of all the efforts of our ancestors to get us to this point. That is what makes us all family; not where we are born or who our relatives are or what language we speak or the job we do or the per capita GDP of our country of citizenship. How we treat others, what we do to help, the contributions we make that have no immediately evident effect: these are the acts that enable all of the pinnacles of human achievement, from science to art to literature and everything in between. All we have to do is be the mechanic.