Voyager among distant families. Exploring life of remote cultures

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

``I like living in a hayloft, in a tent or a barn, taking meals with the family.'' Ethan Hubbard smiles, savoring the memories of eight years spent doing just that in various corners of the globe: living with the MacCormick family on the Isle of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides near Scotland; with the Innuits of Whale Cove in Canada's Northwest Territories; among the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico's Sierra Madres.

Mr. Hubbard's travels, sometimes by van, often by foot, are impelled by a desire to ``slow my life down,'' to find things of enduring value among ``cultures which have as a common rule not aspiring to success -- they're content to eat the same meals and live in the same village and not be anything more than what they were born into.''

Hubbard, interviewed at his mother's home in a rural corner of Connecticut, looks like an aging hippie, dressed in jeans and loose shirt, with a short ponytail. He has devoted himself to seeking out pockets of unchanging tradition in a turbulent world. His findings are collected in a simply written and photographed book titled ``First Light: Sojourns with People of the Outer Hebrides, the Sierra Madre, the Himalayas, and Other Remote Places'' (Chelsea, Vt.: Chelsea Green Publishing Company).

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The book chronicles his discoveries, mostly of people who are at peace with their surroundings: the Sherpa Kipi, who led Hubbard through the Himalayas, introducing him to friendly villagers; a Tibetan refugee family; a band of storytelling mountain porters. Or the elderly Mayan Indians Francisco and Fuljensia Tesec'un, who often invited the American visitor to their jungle home for meals of rice, beans, and tortillas.

These people have nothing by modern standards -- the Tesec'uns' sons, for instance, strap themselves to the plow to cultivate the family plot. But they maintain a reserve of good humor, nonetheless.

Hubbard recounts one steamy afternoon spent helping the Mayan family clear a piece of land. When break time came, grandfather Alfonso reached into a wicker picnic basket, yelled ``snake!'' and flung a piece of wiggly vine at Hubbard.

``I don't know many humble people here [at home], or people who laugh all day,'' he says, recalling his Eskimo friends' tendency to simply guffaw and walk away when a car or snowmobile broke down. ``When the same thing happens to us,'' he observes, ``we come undone, our whole reality is shattered.''

But not all was friendliness and laughter on his wanderings. In Australia he sought out the Aborigines near Alice Springs and found them living in ``desperation'' -- malnourished, ill-clothed, and riven by alcoholism. For a time, Hubbard would bicyle to their camps, sit, listen, smile, offer them some much-needed food -- waiting for their suspicion of white men to ease. Gradually, he says, ``they held my hand, they cooed, they accepted me.''

But some of the local ranchers couldn't accept a white man who wanted to socialize with the Aborigines, the author says. ``The white people yelled at me a lot. I burned out. I had to leave -- it was so sad.''

A closeness to people, to nature, to the earth, the mountains, the animals, the forest -- that's a theme running throughout Hubbard's travels. He sees it as something that the simple, rural people he has met have, and something that ``basically, we're losing.''

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