One of the things that I want to use this blog to write about is intentional living, by which I mean not simply doing things because that’s the way everyone else does them, or because that’s how you were brought up to do them, or because you simply never thought about it, but instead, thinking about what works and doesn’t work for you, and also thinking about how your life and lifestyle line up with your values.

This has always been important to me, but the experience of living a very different lifestyle on the other side of the world from where I live now, as Aaron and I did for 18 months or so in Era, gave me a different perspective on some of my lifestyle questions. It gave me some new ideas and insights into what works and doesn’t work, and why that may be, and it also gave me some data on how I respond to certain enforced lifestyle choices. There are some things, like eliminating all forms of communication technology, that I am sure I would never have successfully experimented with had I not been thrown into the situation in Era. So now, when I think about lifestyle, Era is one of my touchstones.

For those who don’t know anything about Era, let me introduce you briefly to what a ‘typical’ day in our lives there looked like.

To set the context, we were living in a rural homestead, among many other homesteads spread across the highlands. We lived within walking distance of several hundred people, many of whom became friends. Our houses were made out of wood and thatched with grass, we cooked on an open fire in a small pit in the middle of our kitchen, and we slept on a foam mattress on the wooden floor, between which grass grew up! In this, we were very unusual as most of our friends slept on blankets on top of hay on a sort of platform above a smouldering fire – warm, but smokey. Water came from the rainwater tank or from the stream, and electricity came from solar panels – for those lucky enough to have access to one. Near the beginning of our time, we had a two-way radio connection to another village, but towards the end our teammates got limited satellite internet connection, which we could use. A couple of the school teachers had motorbikes, but other than that getting around was all on foot. There were no shops, but a few friends bought extra salt, sugar, coffee or rice in town and sold it on at extortionate prices from their home and there was a market once a week about an hour and a half’s walk away. Our neighbours lived off their gardens, where they mainly grew sweet potatoes and greens, supplemented at various times of year by corn, squash, cucumber, cabbage and other veg. We had a little garden too, but it wasn’t very successful and we mostly ate gifts from other people’s gardens! People also kept pigs and chickens, and there were fish ponds, so for funerals and feasts, we ate meat.

On an average day, we’d wake up sometime between 5am and 7am, depending on whether I had early morning work to do, or whether it was one of our turns to cook breakfast for the team. If I had work, I’d be off and out with some oats and powdered milk to fuel me, and Aaron would light the fire and get the house chores going later. If it were our turn to cook for the team, one of us would be up at 5am, building a fire to cook on. We’d cook rice, perhaps, or sweet potatoes and leaves, then boil water for the day, which we’d take over with a huge jug of very sweet coffee to our team mates’ house for breakfast at 7am. Breakfast was sociable – a chance to catch up and laugh, and to touch base on plans for the day.

After breakfast, I went out to learn, which as an anthropologist, involved hiking all over the area employing a variety of methods in a quest to understand people’s life, culture, language and opinions, and to answer my research questions. Aaron started work at 7:30am at the school; he would usually only be doing an hour or two at a time, so after a session with the children he would hike back up to our house and assess the weather. On a sunny day, laundry was a priority. It had to be done in cold water in buckets and often took at least an hour, so it wasn’t much fun! The rest of his day was mostly taken up with work – some preparation and planning, some meetings, some mentoring leaders, and some spending time with the children in the area – and with chores, and participating in community events.

I usually got home sometime between 4pm and 6:30pm, depending on what my day had been like. On days when I went out later or came home earlier, I was busy with work for the school, with chores round the house, or with medical support for our friends, neighbours, teammates and the school kids. Cooking supper had to start at about 4pm, with building another fire, boiling water for the next morning, cooking and – if we were being nice to ourselves – boiling water for showers. We cooked for more than two people, because you never knew who was going to turn up for a visit around supper time. If Aaron was cooking, I took the time to write up my notes, or to get cleaned up from the day as I often came home sweaty, muddy and damp.

We often did have visitors in the late afternoon and early evening, sometimes adults and sometimes local children who were coming in for a chat, or out of curiosity, to get food, or to see if we had our laptops on and they could wrangle watching a video. We’d chat and eat together, then clear up the kitchen a little, leaving the dishes as one of the chores for the next day.

By then it was usually about 8pm and unless we had a team evening of fun (in which case we would have eaten with the team too) we’d start heading to bed. As soon as the fire started dying down, the house was chilly, so we’d curl up under our blankets and read and or chat until we fell asleep.

Since we came back from Era to live in the UK again, we have experimented, and are in the process of experimenting, with all sorts of aspects of our lifestyle, from shopping and diet, to how we deal with money, to having or not having the internet in our home, to sleep patterns. We’re also in the process of working out some of the deeper questions, about community, friendship, spirituality and family – about relationships, in other words…and of course, if there is one thing we learned and learned well, it is that you cannot (for a second) separate ‘the deeper questions’ from the practical things.  How you handle the internet affects your friendships. Your sleep patterns affect your family. Your shopping and diet affects your spirituality. How you deal with money affects your community. It simply does – they are inextricably linked.

There was a lot about life in Era that suited us surprisingly well, even though life there was, in many ways, very hard work. We really believed that when we came back that we weren’t meant to go back to ‘default settings,’ but to continue to grow and change, learning to translate some of the rich experiences and insights from Era into this very different context here.

We’ve been trying to do that for a year now, and it’s very slow, and very much still in process. This ‘Intentional Living’ blog post series will explore and share some of the experiments we have made along with some reflections on what has worked and what hasn’t.