Like many backpackers, I travel a lot in developing or “third world” countries. You know, areas like Southeast Asia, India, The Middle East and South America, where costs of lodging, transport and food are low, even for people like me, who earn modest incomes by Western standards.
The reason travelers like me enjoy such low costs, of course, is that residents of the third world tend to earn low incomes and have poor standards of living, a truth of which I become more aware each time I visit developing countries. But more than that, travel in the developing world has highlighted how incredibly easy our developed world lives are.
We Are Rich
My first experience traveling in the developing world was in India, which is home to some of the world’s most abject poverty, in spite of its swelling national GDP. Many memories of that trip have faded in the three years that have since passed, but one that remains vivid in my mind is of a poor orphan girl, who was running underneath the train as I was on as it headed into Jaipur’s Central Railway station. “Five rupees,” she begged, jumping up as high as she could when she spoke so that those of us on the train could see her. Five rupees is equal to approximately 10 cents.
Another encounter that has stuck with me occurred in the dusty town of Uyuni, Bolivia, gateway to the Salar de Uyuni “salt flat” frequented by backpackers like me. I was waiting in line at a local when a very indigenous-looking woman walked up to the teller next to me. She asked to withdraw five bolivianos (less than $1) from her account. The teller informed her that since the last time she had used her account, the balance had been completely eaten away by fees. Even worse, several of the locals who also overheard this encounter quite loudly trash-talked the woman as she stumbled away.
Now, I don’t completely discount talks of the “crisis” and “recession” back in the U.S. and Europe — times are indeed “tougher” than they’ve been in my lifetime, at least in relative terms. But when I hear people complaining about not being able to “afford” gas (usually, via Facebook on their $100-per-month iPhones), I get a little sick to my stomach. We in the developed world have become so used to having everything that we’ve equated going without one or two of those things to going without completely. For most of the rest of the world, being fed, clothed and sheltered would be sufficient.
We Are Free
I’ve always been a bit put off by the notion of gay pride, mainly because I don’t know how much sense it makes to be proud of something you can’t control. My travels in the Muslim world, however, have changed my perspective on this. Did you know, for example, that even a suspicion of being homosexual in parts of the Middle East and North Africa can land you in prison? I spent the month I traveled in Egypt and Morocco last year as in-the-closet as I’ve been since high school, which made me appreciate the notion of gay pride for the first time ever: Expressing oneself is a first-world luxury.
The freedoms we take for granted aren’t just identity-related, either. While visiting the Banaue Rice Terraces in the mountainous northern Philippines, I struck up a conversation with my tour guide, who was also incidentally named Robert. He explained to me that although he took great pleasure in guiding visitors though his home region, his main source of income was his father’s farm. Ignorantly, I asked him what he ultimately wanted to do in his life. “What I want,” he said, “doesn’t really matter. I need to work the soil to feed my children, who will need to work it to feed theirs.” He smiled. “And so forth.”
Although America is the self-proclaimed “Land of Opportunity,” many people here feel disappointed or even cheated when they aren’t able to immediately fulfill their dreams: They equate “opportunity” with “guarantee.” Just like a child who cries when he doesn’t get exactly what he wants for Christmas, they fail to realize that the chance is the gift — opportunity is priceless! The chance to be yourself, to choose your own path in life, to be happy on your own terms. Most people in the world have no chance; indeed, they have no choice. We do!
We Are Safe
I frequently recount my experience crossing into Israel the first time, which saw me detained at the land border with Jordan for nearly five hours. At the time I tried to put it all into perspective. After all, I thought, Israel does face threats from all sides, and has to do what it has to do to protect itself. Upon returning to Jordan, I would hear several first-hand accounts of the proverbial “other side” of the story, which revealed that Palestinians are actually the ones who should be afraid, with only rocks, stones and crude firearms to defend themselves against machine guns, tanks and white phosphorous.
Although both Israel and the Palestinian territories are small in size and population, the conflict between them is a microcosm of the tension that exists between the larger developed world and developing world population groups. The governments and, to a lesser extent, the people living in developed countries believe that the governments and peoples of third-world nations (particularly Muslims) present an existential threat their very existences. To prevent this, they pre-emptively strike out each and every one of these potential threats, often without debate or deliberation.
I have personally traveled to many countries that are said to be “harboring terrorists,” from Lebanon, to Egypt, to Myanmar prior to last year’s democratic elections. In each instance I’ve been shocked: Not only have I experienced literally zero outward hostility on account of being American, but the outpouring of generosity and kindness has been overwhelming (at least from those whose perceive me as being straight). That we feel threatened enough by such people to destroy them represents the most tragic disconnect of our time: We are so unaware of how safe we are that we create danger where it (mostly) doesn’t exist.
I Am Thankful
The common thread I see running through public discourse and sentiment in the U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, the developed nations of Europe) is scarcity. We aren’t rich enough. We aren’t free enough. We aren’t safe enough. Inherent in the concept of scarcity is entitlement, the idea that we should have more, but don’t. Scarcity represents a lack of things, which precludes taking them from others. The overall dynamic of such a world view is destructive: When you source what you lack from someone or somewhere else, they become poorer and when whatever you’re using runs out, you are also poor.
Traveling in poor countries hasn’t made me want to join an NGO and save the world. It hasn’t made me want to give up the freedoms and luxuries I enjoy, give them to people who don’t have them, to adopt a life of poverty so that I may understand the plight of the less fortunate without any hypocrisy. Rather, it has made me thankful, and caused me to consciously manifest an attitude of thankfulness. Thankfulness is the foundation of creativity and is the opposite of entitlement. Thankfulness is likewise the basis of abundance, rather than scarcity.
Becoming aware of how rich I am, how free I am and how safe I am has, thus far, resulted in me feeling richer, freer and safer than I’ve ever felt. Am I actually any richer, freer or safer for it? I don’t truly know. But I am certainly happier: I am more frequently satisfied than disappointed; I only rarely feel entitled, but often feel thankful. I don’t feel confined by boundaries that others define, but confident that they are figments of our collective imagination. I am not fearful of the increasingly bleak picture the powers that be paint of our future; I am hopeful that we can all paint over it before it’s complete.