Freedom to be Poor: traveling from conformity to contentment

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Freedom to be Poor: traveling from conformity to contentment

FREEDOM to be POOR

When you travel within developing nations, you will discover that there is freedom to being poor. I am not talking about the gross oppression of many who live in poverty. I am not living in denial of those who are unable to feed their own children. Nor am I making light of those who live day-to-day just to eat. What I am saying is that those very people have taught us invaluable lessons in finding the joy and freedom to be poor.

 

Every culture has a socially acceptable amount of money and material possessions that determines status within that society. Often it takes traveling outside our cultural comfort zone to see how much pressure we have been under. Cross-cultural experiences have opened our eyes to the pressure to conform to economic norms. Travel has also helped us witness and experience contentment.

Freedom

Good clean fun on our farm along the Hummingbird Hwy. in Belize.

Raft

Josiah (age 13) spent hours shimmying coconut trees, fishing with his bare hands, and building rafts in Costa Esmeralda. The children imagined that they were lost and had to survive on a deserted island. This is the stuff of freedom.

Welcoming the Newborn

Social standing based on possessions begins while the child is still in the womb. In the U.S., my “home country”, nurseries are prepared before baby arrives. Many an expectant mother (60% according to NBC’s Today) wants to know her baby’s gender so she can prepare the nursery and layette. In my pregnancies, I was intentional about waiting until birth. Peer friends and strangers were incredulous at the choice; the older generation praised it.

 

It’s not uncommon for new parents to spend thousands on new cribs, fluffy baby comforters and diaper holders that match. These, of course, also match the art on the wall, the baby mobile, the all important bouncy seats, jumparoos, bassinets, walkers and many other items baby neither wants or needs. Conventional wisdom cries out against failing to provide Johnny/Jeannie with the newest and nicest baby junk. To avoid it may risk the social standing of baby and parent alike.

Finding Fun

Front door, back door or anywhere in between, children enjoy simple fun.

Freedom to be Poor

What can compare to the priceless pleasure of watching a boy and his dog run along the Caribbean shore? Salty air, bare feet, and a heart full of all that is most important.

Tis the Season

It’s always interesting to drive through neighborhoods at Christmas in the US. The pressure to conform in the fight for stuff is immense. If one neighbor has candles in her windows, every other house in that neighborhood will follow suit. That goes for moving white-light reindeer, icicle lights or colored trees. It may be cooler in December, but the American neighborhood is a hotbed of conformity.

 

The mad stampede continues after the post-Christmas sale. From name-brand dolls to ad-banner teen shirts to the family’s SUV engine size logo, conformity brands us all like a herd of green-eyed cattle. Advertising moguls run the cattle drive to the drumbeat of debt: easy and debilitating. As rancher-philosopher Will Rogers put it, too many Americans “spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like”.

 

Throughout the year, everyday interactions disclose the drive to define one’s social position, to determine who is ahead of who. Even the seemingly innocent “What do you do for a living?” has a pecking order agenda.

As we travel internationally, when we run into Americans, this often is one of the first questions we are asked.

One Man's Junk

A wealthy family living in an expat community in Mexico returned to the States.
Instead of giving their items away, they left their belongings in their vacation home until everything dry rotted and had to be thrown away.
Even their Mercedes was left to rust and rot.

Contentment in the Two-thirds World

This drive to get more, to judge one another by the stuff we possess, stands in stark contrast to countries where living with little is the norm. Limited resources and opportunities force people in the two-thirds world to find contentment at a lower economic level and satisfaction in non-monetary ways.

Philippine House

The Filipino question “Kumain ka na ba?” literally means “Have you eaten yet?”
Even in their material poverty, a hospitable Filipino will sooner indebt themselves to a neighbor than allow a guest to leave without enough to eat.

Contentment and Hospitality

Our years in Metro Manila put indelible images on the minds of us and our children. Cardboard or piecemeal thin wooden shacks are a way of life for many in urban poverty. Others live contentedly in tiny concrete homes and cook over open fires.

In countries like the Philippines, people take priority over possessions, relationships above riches. Whatever level of income, this priority shows when guests arrive. In contrast to their first world friends, the opening question is not about pecking order. The Filipino question “Kumain ka na ba?” literally means “Have you eaten yet?”

 

Even in their material poverty, a hospitable Filipino will sooner indebt themselves to a neighbor than allow a guest to leave without enough to eat. The Filipino style of eating (with your hands) is in itself simple and comfortable.  On a number of occasions, we stopped in to visit friends in the Philippines. Amidst hushed whispers and glances, someone would run out the door to purchase a pack of cookies and Cokes from the neighborhood sari sari store.
As an American, unable to comprehend such sacrifice, it was hard to swallow those precious cookies. On the other hand, to turn them down would be an insult to their hospitality. We ate our snack thankfully and slowly.

Freedom to be Poor

We were always mindful of the tremendous sacrifice that pack of cookies and Coke was to a family who worked all day to provide that day’s meals. Knowing this ahead of time, we always left our hosts with a small gift of food–a chicken and/or a few vegetables and rice.

In rural Mexico, chickens, children, dogs, and flowers grow freely. As in the Philippines, the key to the happiness found among rural Mexicans is not based on stuff but on relationships. They share with one another. Invitations are never needed for dropping by anyone’s home. I have never stopped in to visit a friend in the third world and heard an apology for a messy home.

Most of us in the U.S. would be mortified not to have a notice before a pile of company arrived. Even if we cleaned all day, waxed the floors and had a snack prepared, we might apologize if our home did not feel totally perfect to us. That whole concept of staged entertainment has no place in the genuine hospitality we see and receive from our brothers and sisters in developing nations.

I have learned, from those considered poor by our U.S. standards, that true wealth is found in contentment and in living to serve one’s neighbor.

RV Hospitality

Hospitality inside our RV.

The freedom to be poor means that I can be hospitable in the most meager times. We can share some cookies with new friends outside our tents. We can invite our guests into our small RV and there will be laughter. We can choose to live freely and simply and not be marked as low class (or worse). We enjoy that freedom to live with less in order to gain something money cannot buy.

Truck Back

Brent and some of our children riding in the back of a pick up truck with friends in Spanish Lookout, Belize.

The Drive to Contentment

There is either legal, spoken, or unspoken societal pressure to conform to the norm. This is true for motor vehicles. For example, in Japan, stringent biennial inspections and fees make it difficult for owners of cars older than three years. Likewise, most U.S. states have inspections or enforce laws that keep poorly maintained vehicles off the road.

By contrast, in Mexico, Belize and other developing countries, entire families turn motorcycles into six-passenger vehicles, pick up trucks into buses and keep home-based mechanics busy keeping these contraptions rolling. Mind you, these are our observations, not a judgment call on safety or smog reduction.

Happiness
We drive a 1991 Winnebago Warrior, built on a Toyota pickup chassis. It qualifies, in some U.S. states, to bear the “classic”, “antique” or “historic vehicle” designation. As we drive it in the U.S., retirees driving new fifth wheels and diesel pushers toss us in their wake.

Up north, fellow Americans were always coming over to look inside our RV. Some raised their noses disdainfully at our little rig. Remember, this includes a kitchen and bathroom. Americans used to to wasted space are often aghast that we have chosen to travel as a large-sized family in a “mini” RV.

They often do not realize is that this choice was deliberate. We could have purchased something larger and actually that may have been less money. We chose small intentionally. Among other reasons, we have enjoyed the ability to drive down any road and to park anywhere. It has given us more freedom than limitation.

The moment we crossed the border into Mexico-and every week since then–we get a smile, thumbs up and a request to buy our awesome rig. Unlike Americans, our Mexican friends do not see tiny when they see our RV. They can’t believe the life and freedom our children get to experience. Instead of piling into a pick up truck and tossing the kids in the back, our children have a roof over their heads, comfy couches to sit on, a clean potty and fridge full of food INSIDE our vehicle. Add to this the ability to stop along any road and cook a meal. This is luxury.

Tubing

Oldest sister and youngest sister enjoying tubing on the Mopan River in Belize.

Contentment on the Table

On our last visit to the U.S., we made the mistake of stopping in to order a quick McDonald’s breakfast. We escaped with greasy sausage biscuits, burnt coffee, and alleged egg McMuffins (each with a folded glob which was neither in appearance nor in taste an egg). The experience set us back about USD $50.

We can take the whole family out in Mexico for a simple meal and pay a fraction of that. In fact, we recently stopped by the lake for piping hot tortillas stuffed with beans and cheese, two bowls full of fresh salsa, avocado slices, and a large pitcher or fresh-squeezed orange juice. We paid a whopping $12 dollars.

Food, among other necessities, is priced at what the market can bear. Business owners in the developing world know it is not in their best interest to inflate prices above this. Prices aimed at the poor make it possible for our family to live poor “by U.S. standards” while filling our bellies on tacos, fresh fruits, veggies, and laughter.

Fishin'

Fishin’ in the Mississippi.

Gaining While Living on Less

Once, we were running very low on funds for a couple of weeks. During that time, we gleaned, camped for free and had amazing memories.

We were not at all worried that CPS would be called, or that we would be seen as incompetent parents because our money was low. We lived like the locals. We were fishing to eat, a memory our children cherish. We saved funds by using sand to scrub our skillet and bathing in buckets.

This level of simplicity during that three week adventure was not our typical travel lifestyle. The experience gave us a taste of freedom, the freedom to be poor. And that has enriched us ever since.

Although we were living on less and learned much from our neighbors in the fishing community, we still had something they did not. We had options.

Living “poor” was a decision.  We could have pulled away and have gone to a hotel if we needed to. We could have thrown in the towel and exchanged our traveling lifestyle for a traditional lifestyle back in our home country.

If the fish did not bite, we still had enough to purchase meat. Our neighbors did not. Their children, like ours, were deeply loved and nurtured through financial lack.

Our children did not suffer; in fact, they gained lessons in maturity, family life and service that can only come during the lean times. The entire family pulls together to make it work. Children fish beside their fathers, little ones help mother get the fire going and family life happens on a level that only the poor understand.
Our children also gained the freedom of traveling lightly. As we travel long term, our children are not faced with an onslaught of toys. One doll, a favorite truck and whatever treasures fit into their backpack. We only travel with the one pair of shoes (…Keen sandals…) which fit the bill wherever we go.

In exchange for the stuff that money could buy, we gain lifelong memories and education by experiencing what it is live contentedly with less or to make a difference among those who have even less. Our children spend hours creating art, exploring and deepening their minds through imaginative play and cultural experiences.

Travel affords us the freedom to be poor in many material possessions. This very freedom buys us the rare opportunity to actually live our lives. To spend everyday of our children’s lives together. We eat every meal as a family. We work together moment by moment. We adventure together all the time. The freedom to be poor gives us the priceless opportunity to seize the day with our children.

 More or Less, Less is More

Simplicity in Play

Contentment is of great gain. –Manzanillo, Mexico

As we have traveled, we have altered our definition of wealth. We see that, many times, those who lack are far, far richer than our peers in the first world who do not know actual poverty. Many of our first world friends are busy climbing the corporate ladder, providing their toddlers with electronic gadgets, floating their teen’s new car loan, and wondering how life passed them by so quickly.
Our friends with less have so much more.

They sit quietly around their fires, eating hot tortillas or bowl fulls of rice with extended families, grandmother and grandchild laughing together. Strangers are welcomed into the circle, sharing stories, songs, and traditions.
As we have traveled in Asia, now in Latin American, it is a privilege to join the circle. A circle of contented freedom. Freedom to be poor.

The reality to traveling in developing countries is that while we live “poor” by American standards, we travel like we are rich, spend like we are not. You can read more about how we do it and how you can also, right here.

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Brent and Stacey-jean Inion
Brent and Stacey-jean Inion
Brent and Stacey-jean Inion, parents of nine (including four children adopted with special needs), 2014 National Geographic Travelers of the Year and the National Geographic Travelers People's Choice Travelers of the Year. They love to laugh, to read and to explore as a family. The secret to their marital bliss is an early morning cup of freshly brewed coffee before the children awake.

25 Comments

  1. Chantae says:

    Ah, I love this. Traveling truly does show that 1. you don’t need as many things you once thought, and 2. that things don’t equate to happiness. This was such a hard concept for me to fend off while growing up in Southern California where one classmate asked me if I was “embarrassed” at 16 to be driving a ’97 Jeep while heading into their new Jetta – embarrassed?! I felt like the luckiest person in the world! (and I was!)

    I work with children in foster care and their happiness comes from friendships, playing outside, favorite foods, and not much else. Broken plastic toys stay around for mayyybe a week and only lead to heartbreak or more clutter to clean up. I think American’s don’t appreciate a child’s (and adult) ability to imagine games and makeshift toys out of things they find. Instead, so many people throw $$$ at kids and tell themselves that it’s a much better way to live and the effect of a “higher lifestyle.”

    A few other quotes come to mind about obsession with accumulating things:
    You pay for things not only with money but with your time — you must maintain it, clean it, repair it — all of this takes away time from enjoying life itself – Bea Johnson

    Life is frittered away by detail… Simplify, Simplify. – Thoreau

    There was also a psych study that showed something to the effect that up to a certain income (I think it was $30k a year?) people are less happy because they deal with stress of medical bills, food, basic needs that you mentioned in your first paragraph. HOWEVER, after that income level, happiness levels maintained consistent across incomes. Once people made enough to manage stress and live healthily, those making around $60k were just as happy as those making $500k+! Again, not sure of the details as I read it ages ago but it’s really an interesting concept.

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      Chantae, you are spot on with your comments. Thanks for the excellent quotes.

      Regarding the stuff…it’s a weed that continually needs to be plucked.

      Contentment eludes us when we choose to peek over the fence.

  2. I, myself grew up in a third world country and living in the US makes me realize something more – that people who have none gets easily contented in life and they are usually happy-go-lucky and living one day at a time (it might be literally and figuratively). Bottomline is happiness is something different for everyone.

    My traveling life makes me realize that I do not need material goods as long as I “live” life and making memories. I just wish I am millionaire to help more people.

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      Excellent points Tanj. I hear you on wishing to be a millionaire in order to help others. There have been many times when we felt the same way. You hit it on the head when you speak about those who have less being easily content. That’s a life lesson I am continually learning.

  3. Josh says:

    Wow. We are so glad that we found your site. Great story and great pictures. We will be back :-)

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      Wonderful! Welcome aboard. We are always open to discussion, being challenged and learning.

  4. I loved this, thank you. It is more difficult to live simply in a western country but not impossible, it is much easier to forget that rather than recycle it’s better to reduce the consumption instead. The question of what do you do for a living has become more sensitive for me recently as I’ve been unable to work for medical reasons after 27 years in a corporate career. I’m sure it’s simply a pleasantry, something people say like ‘how are you’ when they don’t know you well enough to ask something more personal but now I’m conscious of it, it seems to be asked all the time from new acquaintances through to the dentist and hospital receptionist and I do feel I’m being categorized by my answer and judged. That perhaps someone is deciding I’m less worth knowing now than I was a year ago where actually I have a whole year more life experience to share.

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      Agreed that life experiences are worth so much more than resume building. We also do try to be gracious with “pleasantries”. Having an inner contentment is the best antidote to those who like to categorize. Thanks for your candor.

  5. More is not necessarily better, when it comes to gadgets, objects, and things. But showing more gratitude, kindness, understanding, love, and respect can lead to such happiness that can not be obtained if one only focuses on material things.

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      Absolutely. We have so much to learn on gratitude, love and respect from those who are truly content on less.

  6. I love how you expose your kids to different cultures and degrees of wealth. I’ve always been blessed with a middle-class family, but the most treasured lessons I learnt from hard times and travels to less fortunate countries. Happy to have found you!

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      Because our oldest two are teenagers, THEY are teaching US about wealth and cultural differences, not to mention passing us at a standstill on language comprehension! Thanks for finding us and looking forward to journeying with you.

  7. Meg Jerrard says:

    Thankyou so much for writing such a brilliant and thought provoking post – the more we travel the more we realize just how little you actually need to (a) get by; and (b) be truly happy with yourself. I’ve realized possessions are just all but clutter, and have similarily noticed from my own travels that those in third world countries or nations which we in the Western world deem to be poor – these people always seems to have such a more positive, welcoming and friendly outlook on life. There’s obviously something to be said about that.

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      We will soon be traveling farther south, out of Mexico into Guatemala and points beyond. We anticipate that we will have even more to learn about possessions and contentment in the months to come. Thank you for your encouraging comment.

  8. Karina says:

    I could not agree more. Every time I visit my native country of Guatemala i struggle so much with the concepts of poverty and community – 2 things I don’t have in Canada – despite that, I find people in this third world country to be kinder, happier, and definitely more selfless than any well to do Canadian.
    I definitely resonate your comments that this is no reflection of other struggles which accompany ‘poverty’, but it certainly seems to me that the world over, when I encounter poorer circumstances, peoples priorities truly stand in contrast to our first world materialism and greed. People value people. They give even if it leaves nothing for them. They welcome you as they would want to be welcomed.

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      Guatemala is the next country on our itinerary. We are very much looking forward to visiting (and learning from) the people of your native country. Your comment “as they would want to be welcomed” is so very true in the context of hospitality. How much we first worlders have to learn about giving and loving. Thank you very much.

  9. careen says:

    Incredibly Inspiring! I actually read this yesterday morning right after I woke up from a dream about looking at a map with my husband trying to decide where to go….we knew we could travel anywhere but werent sure where to start….Lol…James is looking at RV right now…Hey let me ask you this? How do you feel about academics…I think they arent near as important as America makes them out to be but what about math and ect….Of course I know your kids are going to be way more educated and cultured than most Americans but what about schooling?

  10. Jenna says:

    Very interesting article–definitely something good to think about. I keep finding the more we travel, the less we want so many “things”. Traveling to areas where people have so little but they are still happy always reminds us that happiness is a state of mind!

  11. I think people should be more content. My family is healthy, I am healthy, we all have a roof over our head and a job that pays for our food and bills so we’re never hungry or cold. For me, everything else (travelling, going to events, buying nice things,…) is a bonus.

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      Yes. The necessities of life should bring contentment and do in so many parts of the world. For us, travel makes those necessities more affordable.

  12. Greg says:

    I applaud you in your efforts and am so excited for your children who will be true global nomads.

    Working in the cross cultural field, we strive to remind people not to use absolutes and stereotypes. An example from the beginning of your article is:

    Every culture has a socially acceptable amount of money and material possessions that determines status within that society.

    Many cultures (think Africa or many indigenous people) have no concept of money. Many exist communally. Status may have more to do with how many sons one has or daughters or who brought the most food to the group.

    Also, the word poor is such a relative expression. While you attempt to contrast it to poverty, the meaning, I fear, may be lost on some readers.

    Saludos – safe travels

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      Thanks Greg. I appreciate your thoughts. You are right, that word “poor” conjures up an emotional response to some readers. It is offensive to some to suggest that a family living in a cardboard home may have something to teach us about contentment.

      Contentment is found within.

  13. Alyson says:

    Totally with you on this! We’ve never been happier. The freedom from house, mortgage, job and possessions came first, now this little house in Romania is bringing us enormous joy. Hard work, cooking from scratch, washing by hand, carrying water, but so satisfying and wonderful.
    But I’ll let you know how it’s going when winter sets in….could be a deal breaker 😉

    • Brent and Stacey-jean Inion says:

      I am waiting to hear how winter goes, but so far it sounds idyllic. The winter in Romania looks picturesque. Wonderful that you are finding joy in simplicity. Hope to visit you.

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