One of the first things many of us notice when we first travel to developing countries is the fact that there is a disparity between our own lives of comfort and the lives of poverty lived by those in far away places. Coming to terms with that divide can be problematic, leading to guilt and sadness. But it can also be an epiphany allowing us to reflect on the lives we take for granted.
Chances are, if you’re reading this blog post you’re doing pretty well in life. For a start, you can read and write. Something an estimated 15.5% of adults globally are unable to do. Added onto this, you have the wealth to own a computer or live in a country where your accessibility to technology is so frivalous that you have time to waste reading my words.
Lastly, since you’re on this site in particular I can assume you’ve either travelled at some point in your life or have aspirations to do so. This suggests you have quite a bit of disposable income to waste on frivolous things.
There’s no denying it. You’re lucky. Your life is more or less comfortable and any worries you do have probably pale in comparison to others around the world. Still this doesn’t diminish our problems, does it? Because other people have it worse, does that make our own stress and sadness less legitimate? Do our problems really matter or are we all just selfish idiots?
Earlier this morning I was reading a post on the . A girl was asking for some advice with her travels.
Her problem: she couldn’t “come to terms” with the fact that she would be unable to see “everything” on a short trip to a country. Due to work and school, the longest amount of time she could take to travel was 2-3 weeks. As a consequence of this she could only spend 16 days on a trip to South-East Asia.
Despite being “totally excited to go” she felt disappointed that she wouldn’t be able to see all of the places despite travelling all the way there. She said felt the same on her previous trips to Europe and Central America.
She was asking advice as to how to “find peace” with the disappointment of not fulfilling all that she wanted.
My immediate reaction to reading this was one of sympathy. I’ve been there before. You’re going to a place and you know you don’t have enough time to truly do everything you’d like to do. This obviously leads to some disappointment as there’s a stark difference between what you want and what you know you’ll get.
As I explored these thoughts and feelings though, I started to see them as being a little bit childish and ridiculous. Anybody who is complaining that they have “only” three weeks to travel needs a reality check. Such a person surely has no basis for feeling true sadness, especially about problems so trivial. But the truth is, I have had similar selfish thoughts more often than I’d like to.
Many of us have been brought up to believe that our lives owe us far much more than they actually do. We are selfish. We believe that what we want should be given to us, simply because we were born. We take our lives for granted. As I’ve said, even by reading this post you most likely live a comfortable life. We’ve gotten used to it, comfort is our norm. In order to feel satisfied we need more than just average, we need amazing. We have no true problems, so when little annoyances come along we blow them out of proportion and little insignificant things make us sad.
We call these annoyances “first world problems”. They’re childish of course. The girl feels sadness because she can’t have a longer holiday or see more things on her travels. Really these worries are just material and of no real consequence. The sarcastic voice in my head says “BOO HOO! You poor girl, you only get three weeks for your holiday!” We should all feel lucky to have any holiday really. But that’s not how our mind works.
A chief annoyance to me, so very often, is when I go to a restaurant and I’m served a meal that I don’t enjoy. I sigh, I sulk, I cry. Later I feel disgusted with myself. What a life I must live when it’s not finding food that worries me, but rather the quality of my food. Some people out there worry about where their next meal is coming from. I worry that I don’t have enough salt. I’m ashamed of myself in comparison.
Ignorance, as they say is bliss. I know that many people have never questioned these attitudes they have. They go through life selfishly believing that their lives aren’t satisfying, never considering that only people with comfortable lives have the freedom to feel dissatisfied. Very few people step back and think, “Maybe there are better things to worry about than this. Maybe I should be happy to simply live in a world where I have the freedom: to travel, to wake up whenever I like in the morning, to get an education and have choices.” But no, instead we sulk because we can’t connect to wifi at the local cafe or because our air-conditioning is too cold.
As much as I hate those people who don’t question these beliefs, sometimes I wish I was one of them. The alternative is to realise that the world isn’t fair and that you’re part of the wider problem. Whenever you go away to foreign countries all you can do is feel bad, because you have the knowledge that the world is imbalanced in your favour.
Suddenly you start to feel like your comfortable life is at the expense of others. You see poverty on your travels and you can only assume that there is a connection between these people and yourself. They are poor in order for you to be wealthy. I know it’s not so simple, but that’s how it feels.
You feel guilty. You feel bad simply for existing and being born as you were. Privileged. And you know deep down that none of this guilt matters. You are simply a tourist to poverty. On your travels you will see it, but you will never know it. The constant question echoing in your mind is, “Why me?” There is no answer, it was mostly luck, I suppose.
For a minority of people, these feelings cause a change. They go home and try to right the wrongs of the world, changing themselves and growing from the experience. Many – myself included – see these problems and do nothing. At first I felt guilt for this. I wanted to do something, but the problem is so large and overwhelming that it felt there was nothing I could do.
I know many people dream of ending world poverty, but the truth is, doing so takes sacrifice and energy, not just for one person but everybody. The problem is too big for me to solve myself and although I am part of the problem it seems like my role is one that is so minuscule that I wont be able to change the system on my own. We can only really do that together. But we’d rather complain about how movie tickets are getting more expensive.
What little I can do, is remember that this disparity exists in the world and to never take my good fortune for granted. Whenever I start to feel bad about something, I question whether I’m being selfish. Whether I’m moaning about something petty. To do this I use a bus driver. I don’t know his name, but let’s call him Thong.
Thong drives a bus in Bangkok. A bus that many travellers have no doubt taken without even a split second thought for the driver. The bus travels along one of the more popular streets in Bangkok – Thong Lor. The street is lined with designer boutiques, expensive restaurants and hip bars. The perfect place for the Western tourist.
Now the bus travels nowhere, but along the road. From one end to the other. Back and forth. All day. The road is only 2 kilometers long, roughly 20 minutes of driving. There are a few bus drivers, but Thong is the one I think about.
Thong works with his family. His young wife pushes through the crowds to collect the small fare from the passengers. His young son, not much older than a toddler, lies sweating over the front seat beside his father.
All day they travel along the mostly straight road. In the afternoon the heat from the road turns the old red bus into an oven. They sweat and sweat. Every day they sweat and drive. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Because I’m cheap I took this bus a lot, started to think about Thong. Does he have hopes and dreams? I thought he would find the idea amusing. Hopes and dreams are for the wealthy. Many around the world are simply thankful to continue surviving. Dreams are for the free.
The striking thing about Thong and the other drivers, wasn’t that he was poor but rather that he was much like any other bus driver in the world. Poverty and crappy jobs aren’t exclusive to developing countries. Even in England there are people working shitty jobs they don’t want to just to make ends meet. Going through life one week at a time, servants to debt. Only in foreign countries this poverty is easier for us to notice and feel shamed over.
Even in my own country I am lucky. To have the money and time to travel, many don’t have that opportunity – so what do I truly have to complain about?
If I ever feel myself moaning about insignificant things, I think of Thong. Sweating, and driving his bus. I imagine myself sitting next to him, telling him of my worries. If I can reveal my worry without shame, then it’s a genuine worry. If not then I tell myself to shut the fuck up.
“Urgh, my job is so boring.” It sounds like something to moan about doesn’t it. But then I imagine saying it to Thong. I can barely do it. I cringe through the words. What right do I have to complain about my boring job? He laughs in my face. I feel shame. Shut the fuck up, Daniel.
“Urgh, my grandma died.” Thong nods with sympathy. He knows the feeling, it hurts, he hopes I’m okay. It’s a valid thing to feel sad about. It’s a real problem.
That’s the test I give myself. I picture the situation. Does he nod in agreement? Is it a valid problem? Do I have legitimate cause for concern?
Or does he laugh at me? Force me to feel ashamed. Show me the problem for what it really is – selfish and insignificant. A first world problem.