The late European sun shines a golden light over the green pastures of Munich, Germany. I gaze out the window of the plane contentedly at the cultivated agricultural fields interspersed with classical European architecture made even more romantic from above. I’m in a deeply introspective mood. A warm positive light, perhaps soaked up from the sun’s favourable aesthetic at this time of the afternoon, fills my thoughts as I reflect on the last month’s journey across the globe.
I’ve been following an intense production schedule for my new documentary, The Longevity Film, which has an ambitious cinema tour set for November and December this year. I’ve been visiting the world’s longest lived, healthiest, and I would now say happiest, cultures and beyond capturing the story on camera, this experience has totally shattered my perspective on life, work and of course, health.
The very moral structures upon which I have designed my life have been thrust into a metaphorical and literal spotlight (in the film) as I was challenged, constantly, with the observation of a way of life that is almost the complete opposite of what I’ve been doing for the past 9 years since I finished school. I’m the health guy, the microbiome writer, the speaker on all things gut and yet my ‘science’ of getting healthy only scratches the surface of what I’ve learned whilst living with the people of Okinawa (Japan), Loma Linda (California) and Ikaria (Greece).
Longevity cultures were identified in the early 2000s by a team of researchers at National Geographic. These 5 cultures, the aforementioned plus The Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica) and Sardinia (Italy), were coined ‘blue zones’ due to the colour in which they were highlighted on the leading demographer’s map (blue being an unimportant factor in this equation). These communities have significantly longer life spans than that of the rest of the world – up to ten years longer than their countrymen in the case of Loma Linda, they have far better health status, and are happier than we are well into their later years. Statistically, people in these cultures spend far less time in hospital, take much less medication and are notably more likely to reach the golden age of 100 than us in ‘the West’.
There is an obvious tendency to try to identify key elements, consistent across these areas, which would likely be contributing to their positive experience with health and ageing. Certainly, I have noted many, such as those identified by the original researchers; community engagement, purpose, daily movement and a whole foods diet, but what I found most tangible during my experiences with these people is their perspective on life. I will endeavour to share this perspective throughout this article.
In the longevity cultures I visited, there is a very notably different sense of time when one arrives. I traveled to Okinawa first, with a production schedule to match the best of them, and yet I may as well have left it at home. Carrying a tight schedule in these communities is like trying to trudge your way through quicksand with a heavy backpack, it only serves as a source of frustration and irritation and as your struggles intensify your situation worsens, the level of your capitulation into the mud a reflection of the level at which you refuse to let your time-related expectations fall to the wayside. There is a deeply rooted patience and present state awareness within these longevity cultures and this was aptly reflected in Okinawa as I was invited along to several community meetings and events to observe the way of life and to speak with long livers in the community.
I watched one such person, Yoshiko, who is 93 years old, navigate an incredibly active and busy day (even by middle aged standards) of karaoke, meetings, hosting me for tea and snacks, hosting her own radio show, gardening and more karaoke with such poise, grace and calmness I almost couldn’t believe it. She flowed effortlessly between engaging with us on camera, preparing food, and singing and dancing on stage in front of hundreds of people from her community. There was a marked lack of urgency about her, but an equally notable sense of efficiency, flow and presence in her operation. I asked her what the secret is, I’d never seen someone of that age be so busy and nimble through such a schedule and she laughed between delicate sips of green tea whilst she delivered her thoughts.
“The secret is not to think too much. I’m too busy to grow old – I don’t have time for that. Let’s go to karaoke.”
Paradoxically, her schedule is insanely busy for one her age, but it’s the total relaxation, the lack of urgency with which she follows it, that empowers Yoshiko to thrive.
Yoshiko doesn’t take any medication and barely drinks water, only green tea and the occasional beer over which she now smiled at us at the unassuming karaoke club, fitted with colourful frills, disco lights and plastic-diamond speckled microphones. It’s now filled with 5 energetic women over 90 all sipping at incongruously large mugs of beer. They raised their glasses toward us. Kari! Cheers! After some blunt chit chat, somewhat immune to the omnipresence of our production equipment, the ladies finally took to the stage to deliver a glorious quintet with Yoshiko, the leading woman, beaming under the lights as she embraced her solos like Gaga in A Star Is Born. She was in her element, glowing even as she listened to her friends deliver lines from the rolling teleprompter. When they finished she bound off the stage with timeless grace, glanced over and said, “this is the reason for growing old.”
Loma Linda, California
After Okinawa I moved on to arguably the most interesting longevity hotspot in the world; Loma Linda, California. Every single person I shared my itinerary with baulked at the USA component, presuming that we were filming the ‘fat, sick and nearly dead’ whilst there. However, I came across in Loma Linda one of the most curious anomalies I’ve ever had the pleasure of considering. Loma Lindan people have an average life expectancy that is ten years longer than their American counterparts, and yet geographically, and socially to an extent, they’re totally embedded within western culture (the neighbouring suburb of San Bernardino has one of the highest murder rates in the country).
Perhaps, after all, one doesn’t need to move to a beautiful island paradise to get well and stay well?
Loma Linda is predominately a Seventh-day Adventist community. It is strongly underpinned by this shared faith which drives certain behaviours known to enhance longevity and wellbeing such as a whole foods (often vegetarian) diet and regular exercise. There is, admittedly, also a heavy influence of western culture here, with conventional burger joints and burrito hubs scattered throughout. However amongst the Seventh-day Adventists there is certainly a modern approach to nutrition and wellbeing; the local organic market is stellar, filled with the best of California produce, and the heavy emphasis on a plant based approach has evolved into an abundance of juices, fermented beverages and kale chips being consumed amongst the people.
It was here in Loma Linda that I experienced such an overwhelming sense of community that I actually felt emotional several times. Attending church for the first time was as equally exciting as it was daunting – notions of the mystical and metaphorical were balanced by such startlingly powerful insights into life that I couldn’t help but be quietly impressed. I was invited to assist in the community outreach program where the church offers a free meal and shower for those in the area who are living on the street. A long line of those who had clearly experienced a tough time in life ran out the door and I struggled to serve lasagne quickly enough alongside the salads already on their plate. As I looked around I was met by a stream of kind, excited smiles from the church volunteers, each scoop of lasagne and salad as nourishing to us emotionally as it was physically for those who hadn’t had a meal in days.
Afterward I was gleefully encouraged to join in on a skate session with a dozen or so of the church members at a nearby skatepark. After a short, embarrassingly poor ride I opted to sit back and observe rather than partake. Mike, our bubbly contact at the church, a thirty-something pastor with skating ability to envy, rolled casually up to me for a chat.
“This is what it’s about man. So pumped you’re here!”
It’s about community for the Seventh-day Adventist’s. Surrounded by the youth of Loma Linda it was as plain as day that the driving force behind everyone’s attendance at the park was to soak up each other’s company. Just a thirst for fun, smiles and good times without any interest in talking business, money or other topics often on the table at home. Most of these kids are studying medicine at the local university, their studies include lessons on vegetarian and wholefoods cooking alongside the medicine component.
“This is the best medicine right here! And surfing!” One said as he perused my Instagram feed. I smiled, they couldn’t be more relatable if they tried – is it really this simple? I asked myself as the sun set on another day of production.
Flying into Ikaria, a rocky, mountainous island about a 50 minute flight away from Athens, is an experience to remember. Our small, Cessna-like barrel of a plane swayed sideways and rocked back and forth as if performing aerial manoeuvres for a judging panel observing from the short runway below. But there was none. And there was little room for error as we slammed down on the tarmac and began rapidly approaching the end of the runway which spans coast to coast on the island’s sun-blasted southern tip.
Apparently the baggage handlers were on Ikarian time, we’d been forewarned about this phenomenon, because even though we were the only plane in sight our luggage took about a half hour to appear on the trundling carousel. We loaded up and grabbed the hire car. It was casually parked up on the curb about 40m from the quiet entrance to Ikaria airport, unlocked, the key left under the drivers seat and an almost empty fuel gauge.
“We’ll be fine”, I assured my cinematographer. We weren’t.
Twenty five minutes later, in our hatchback Hiyundai with a dodgy gearbox, we were wedged between a beautifully handmade stone wall bordering a small cottage style Ikarian home and a treacherous cliff down which any car would end up torn apart and disintegrated, its inhabitants the same. I revved the car – the wheels spun on the loose gravel of the dirt road yet we didn’t move. I couldn’t reverse more than a foot or two and couldn’t move forward either due to the steepness of the road and the sharpness of the turning angle required. I was so close, so close to cursing and giving the steering wheel a little jab just to let out some energy. But I didn’t. I realised that this was my test, the ultimate longevity test, had I learned anything from my time with the longevity cultures so far? So I breathed, deep, I pondered how the situation was actually kind of funny, I thought about the story I could write about it, and about the portentous mindset revolution I could draw from such a predicament. Aside from a few deep sighs, I stayed relatively calm.
Eventually, we got the car through, but what was more significant was the emotional progression I had achieved during the experience. I had resisted the urge to feel too stressed about it, I had passed up the alluring bait of urgency, of frustration, of anger, of a sense of helplessness, of victimhood and I had reframed a potentially painful situation into something positive and transforming. I was very clearly on a zen-like path to 100 and I had barely spent a couple of hours on ‘the island where people forget to die’.
Ikaria may be the quintessential longevity culture. A moderately paced, unique Mediterranean lifestyle underpins this Greek island and it’s stunning vistas do nothing but put one at peace with the world, the effect enhanced by the jovial smiles one receives from the locals and the charming Greek music played either live or via radio at all the local hang outs.
“We’re either 200 years ahead or 200 years behind – no one can work it out,” Thea, owner of Thea’s Inn, the island’s go-to accomodation spot, said whilst we chatted over a Greek coffee.
We were invited to meet one of the locals who provided the island with the revered honey of the area, a deeply herbal and dark flavoured food with strong floral elements. George (pronounced Yorigo’) is 88 years old. He owns a busy store up in the mountains and we arrived to him instructing numerous forklift drivers to deliver goods around his warehouse. Notably, there seemed to be a deep reverence afforded him by the younger employees and he operated with the sharp alacrity of someone much younger. Upon seeing us he strode over to shake hands.
He hopped in my car and rode shotgun, waving dismissively at the seatbelt alert as it pinged incessantly.
“It’s for your seatbelt,” I motion.
“Eh. Psh.” He’s not interested.
We arrived at the large network of hives George keeps further up in the wilderness and we all climbed into bee suits. He proceeded to show me his wild organic honey operation and persisted through several stings, cursing in Greek each time as he pumped more smoke onto the buzzing hive. One of the bees found its way inside my suit and decided to investigate my inner ear. It took everything not to slash and swipe at it but eventually it left me alone – after it did I informed George.
“It was seeing if you good or bad.” He said. “No sting? You good maybe.”
I asked him how he’s so busy and fit at 88, after all, he is 8 years older than the average life expectancy in Australia and most at his age have retired to a largely inactive lifestyle.
“You must keep moving. And be busy. Everything in moderation. You can’t enjoy rest if you’re not tired.”
My preconceived notions of Ikaria culture being a slow-motion lackadaisical lifestyle were shattered as I watched the elder community engage with their revered roles in society. They worked hard, very hard.
In Ikaria, they say a man is nothing if he does not have olives and a vineyard.
All of the elderly people I met and spoke with had formidable sized gardens to which they tended every single day, often climbing up steep steps, jumping through fences and squatting low to care for. I toured Illeas Parikos’ (Thea’s husband’s) two gardens for hours and could barely keep up with his sharp wit and quick movement around the property. Illeas is used to being interviewed, it seemed, as he reeled off a list of production companies who’d also come to the farm to film.
“Ah, so you’re famous.” I offered.
“Yes. Maybe I go Hollywood soon.” He barely smirked.
Illeas’ garden provides for the family but also most of the food on the restaurant’s menu. There is a plethora of strawberries on offer, many of which I hungrily jammed into my mouth before he admonished me lightheartedly.
“No. Stop eating. We make daiquiris later.” He grins widely, his youthful face glowing in the hot, dry afternoon sun as it sparkles over the mediterranean ocean down the cliff below.
Life is hard work on Ikaria, and yet the mental and emotional fortitude with which the Ikarians approach this lifestyle is what enables them to be totally unaffected by it’s toll. At the end of a 12 hour work day, Illeas is often busy grilling lamb or goat in the kitchen at the restaurant, uncomplaining and with a big smile on his face. There is no stress, no urgency, just a stoic and persistent enjoyment in the work as if there is no other place to be besides in that very moment.
On one of our last night’s in Ikaria we were invited to a panagiri, a local festival celebrating a given saint. We arrived at 10am, we didn’t leave until 11pm. The panagiri is set up within each community and takes place at a local square or church. In the beginning, religious services are held followed by truckloads, literally, of food and wine. We watched as about 1000L of home-made, organic and definitely preservative free red wine was delivered on the back of a tiny lorry. It backed up into the square laden with the wine separated into 1L plastic bottles and piled into open crates which we then carried into the hall.
Right by the hall, a massive steel drum, the biggest crockpot I’ve ever seen, holds about 1500kg of wild goat all slow cooking in water. The warm, fatty broth is spooned out and served to anybody who wants it, the tender meat is taken inside to be sold to all the attendees of the festival alongside locally grown organic produce. Beautifully, the profit generated from the panagiri is then distributed within the village as the community sees fit, a dilapidated road, a school classroom, a particular family doing it tough, the insular island economics are certainly socially-driven.
That day, I had my first red wine at 10:30am in the morning, and I had my last at 11pm that night.
And yet the furthest I got, after about 15 glasses, was a loosely defined ‘tipsy’. The wine is served in tiny cups, probably about 150mls, and due to its strong fermented flavour it’s more enjoyable to sip than gulp (note: as an avid fermenter, I did in fact find it to be one of the most palatable wines I’ve ever had). Adoringly, one is always instructed to eat alongside the drinking, further preventing the development of any serious inebriation. In fact, as I looked around at the now almost 1000 people at the panagiri, I did not see one person who I would have considered ‘drunk’.
“It’s not considered good manners to get drunk in Ikaria. Getting drunk means you don’t know your limits, you can’t control yourself.” Thea told me between polite mouthfuls of goat and salad. “We drink enough to be tipsy, to feel loose and happy and to have a good time. You don’t need any more than that.”
I had always had problems with drinking culture back home – I saw too much of it going wayward in school, at sporting clubs and in society in general, so it was incredibly pleasing to see the frugal approach applied at the panagiri. I resolved to host parties like this from now on.
It was one of the most beautiful travel experiences I’ve ever had, the panagiri, because I got to truly delve into the local culture as a welcomed guest, not a tourist. The deep sense of present state awareness brought to the event was as tangible as the loud Greek music played by the local band to the dozens of people on the dance floor. People talked to each other, smiled, mingled with those 80 years younger or older and often came up to me, completely without a lick of English, just to smile and shake my hand before walking by. Beekeeper George is there and he dances the night away, as nimble as any nightclub goer I’d seen back home (in those couple of weeks that I partook – late teens, you know). George and I swapped partners several times but in the end he got annoyed at me for “stealing all of the women”, as he put it, and sat back down to drink wine and eat salad with his friends.
As the dance floor became more and more densely populated, I sat back down to just observe what was going on in front of me. No phones, music just loud enough to lose yourself in the dance but still chat with the person opposite, organic local food and wine, grandchildren, grandparents, parents, sisters, brothers, husbands and wives, all intermingled and deep in conversation or laughter while the glorious sun offered a bedazzling light display, penetrating the leafy trees surrounding the church square.
Coupled with my warm sense of awe was a calm, gentle feeling of sadness. This sort of thing didn’t happen back home, or in many other places around the world. We have fallen for the allure of the short, fast, instant gratification regarding food, socialising, technology, money & more. We no longer appreciate the slow, calm, stoic, persistent approach to life, like that which was being displayed in front of me at the panagiri. Could I really produce a film that inspired people to let go, even just a little, of their deep dependence on the ‘conveniences’ in life, the phones, the 9-5 jobs, the relentless pursuit of money and career, the urgency, the rush, all of which seemed to work in opposite to everything that I was learning on this journey into longevity culture?
Could I let go of these things myself? I wondered.
The plane touches down, smoothly and safely without a wobble, and I’m thankful to be back in Sydney, Australia, my home town. I nervously brush the laptop section of my backpack, inside which resides about $100k’s worth of footage and photos documenting the last month on the road. It’s all there, safe and sound. My production camera is above me in the overhead locker and I frown as I haul it out, the heavy, black, awkward case a poetic reflection of the equipment’s place in my life and business at the moment. I will sell it, I have decided, alongside all of my other professional production equipment. I will no longer self fund production projects; this is my first determined step toward adopting a longevity lifestyle.
Weathered, red-eyed and quiet, I gaze out into the miserable rainy weather in Sydney as the airport shuttle inches painstakingly along the M5, hauling myself and my $100k hard drive up to the Northern Beaches. I hear beeping, I see stressed out drivers on their way to work in a job that, statistically, they probably hate in order to pay for a home that’s bigger and fancier than they probably need, I see people sacrificing their health, their relationships, their time for a false promise we’ve been made that if we earn a little more, have a little more, we’ll be better off. We won’t.
I’m saddened by the knowledge that, one month ago, I left behind what are probably the most important and healthy things in life just to go and find out what the most important and healthy things are. It’s my partner, my family and my community. It’s my local environment, my somewhat pathetic attempt at a garden on my small apartment balcony, it’s the people who serve me at my local health cafe, the friends who I see in the water surfing.
These realisations cause me to wonder if I should quit, leave it all behind, the dreams, the starry lights of film making and the glory of story telling. Right now, feeling deeply exhausted both physically and emotionally, it seems like an attractive idea, but then Beekeeper George’s advice runs through my head.
“Everything in moderation. You can’t enjoy rest if you’re not tired.”
Watch The Longevity Film at a cinema near you this coming November.
Enjoyed this article? In the days of short, fast video and photo, I’d like to see a longer form story do the rounds. If you see value in this work, please consider sharing it the best way you know how 🙂
This article will form the basis of The Longevity Book, a written & photographic journal of Kale Brock’s investigations into longevity cultures. This book will be released in conjunction with The Longevity Film cinema tour.
*I would like to thank Nice Life, The Gut Health Store, for contributing to my health whilst I was on the road. Looking after my gut health whilst traveling has never been so easy!