What a great year 2022 has been. Many diverse people came together to create a friends and family type network that has powered my next dream of restoring the Rainbow River.
When I was 29 years old, I spent six months in Central America, and it was there that I realized the true power of friends and family. I did some research looking at road maps and saw that it looked like it was possible to actually drive all the way to the Panama Canal before the roads ended.
My goal was to drive down there and explore everything I could. At the time, in 1984, there was a “war” going on in Nicaragua, but I figured I would take a chance anyway and see if I could drive through.
I was driving alone in a dependable Toyota hatchback that got pretty good gas mileage and slept in the car along the journey as I needed to. Through Mexico, after getting lost a few times, I got all way to the border with Guatemala. There, I discovered I needed some sort of visa stamps in my passport in order to cross the border.
It was 10 p.m. and I was still wide awake and there were a couple of other cars also stopped. I was still learning Spanish from listening to cassette tapes as I was driving down. Between my broken Spanish and the other travelers broken English, I made some of my first friends in Central America.
I was the only person from the USA and they treated me like a celebrity. I learned that the office that gave out the visa stamps many of us needed was closed until the morning, but one of my new friends at the border said they knew where the consular general lived and suggested we go there knock on his door and ask him to stamp our passports.
We found him, woke him up and after a short discussion he came out and shook my hand, welcomed me and stamped mine and everyone else’s passports. One of my new friends was actually heading to El Salvador and invited me to come stay at his family’s house for a few weeks.
I had actually planned on driving around that country, because I had read about a civil war going on and the U.S. State Department advised people to stay away. But here was an opportunity to see exactly what was going on so I said, “yes.” I made room in my car for an extra person and we started off across the border into the night.
My new friends knew exactly where to stop, what to see and in a few days we were at the border with El Salvador. Once again, I needed visa stamps, but this time we were able to get them right at the border after filling out a form. As soon as we crossed the border, I could see signs of the civil war, blown up buildings and even the main highway bridge had been destroyed.
We detoured over to the railroad bridge that was still standing and the local people had put plank boards next to the rail tracks so we could very slowly drive across. Once we crossed, we all got out and helped remove all the boards before the next train came along. It took about two hours of very hard work, but we got it done and we bonded as friends even closer.
My new friends told me that in general, people from the USA were known as lazy Americans, but they could see that I was not lazy at all, and were very impressed at my eagerness to work harder than anyone else. The more they praised me, the more things I could see that needed to be done.
These wonderful people invited me into their home and treated me like family. I stayed with them for a month and we rebuilt their entire roof on their home, fixed the plumbing and installed an entire new bathroom. Every night, they would cook elaborate meals and invite the neighbors over, so everyone who wanted, got a chance to meet me.
It was during those meals at night, where stories were shared and laughter was made, I realized that even though these people were very poor by standards in the United States, they were still happy and had richness in the extended family and friends they had. It was then that I realized the true richness that can come from sharing your life and skills with other people in a common purpose of sharing your lives together.
I thought about my father living alone in a big house in Upstate, New York, after my mother had died. I thought about how sad it was that he had tremendous wealth compared to my friends in Central America, yet he was poorer than them when it came to quality of life and happiness. It was then that I decided that after my journey in Central America I would move back and live with my dad for awhile and keep him company.
That led me from Oregon, back to New York to spend time with my Dad and eventually to Florida right after Sept. 11. After landing in Crystal River, I started cleaning up the springs one rake at a time in 2009. The more friends I made, the more they became like family and the more determined I was to work harder than anyone else in physically cleaning up the Lyngbya algae out of the springs in Kings Bay for the enjoyment of all.
Family and friends can be built anywhere as people work together with a common purpose of improving our environment and lives together. I thank all the people I have met over the years that have enriched my life and helped me see the miracle of togetherness and the value of service above self.
I am witnessing that miracle of togetherness again here on the Rainbow River as I started a new restoration project here and once again have discovered new friends that are becoming like family, helping to get the job done. I invite everyone who is willing and able to join the continuing efforts to clean up and take care of our beautiful springs. It is so worth the effort.
Happy Hollidays to all and remember to cherish and add to your friends and family whenever you get a chance.
Art Jones is the founder of One Rake at a Time. To learn more, visit OneRakeataTime.org.
Published in the Citrus County Chronicle, December 25, 2022