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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.