The taxi bumped through walls of dust and rivers of wheels. I sat in the back wondering what a dead body smells like. The streets were incomprehensible veins of city life. Each car carrying the nutrients a city needs to live, the tourist to the souvenirs and the politicians to their early lunches. We stopped in the road, it was a traffic light or more likely a traffic jam holding each car in place.
A little boy wandered out into the street, barefoot and magic holding the rags to his bony body.
Like an animal his eyes were the most piercing part, all else had faded into dust that was now caking his feet and hands. The little boy reached up his arm and began tapping on my window.
I watched him and listened as he began to speak in a language I didn’t understand. His need was like a heat turning the already sticky air into a sauna of thick death. It appeared to me like a thousand children tapped on my window, a thousand was too many. I could not give a dollar to each one. I could not turn my American poverty into his Nepali princedom.
The tapping became a hurricane as the cars began to grumble forward. He screamed and slammed his fist against the glass, again and again. We picked up speed and left him with another layer of dirt separating his skin from the sunshine.
In another town and another country the morning started off cool but quickly grew into a skin darkening afternoon. The guesthouse room was 2 US dollars and the 16 hour train to this town was almost three for the upper class seats and less than two dollars for the school bench like seat I paid for one half of. I had slept on the floor so that the women next to me could have more space to lie down. No one in the train car could communicate in words and it was such a human environment that we didn’t need words to get out points across. I didn’t feel weird about sleeping on the floor between a basket of onions and a drunken policeman spooning another basket of produce.
By the time I lurched onto the suddenly still platform I was beat. I wondered up the road and had no idea if the town I was in had anything except the train station.
I walked past the guesthouse three times before someone lead me right to it so I wouldn’t get lost. I just kept putting my hands next to my head in the sleeping gesture. I fell asleep in the sunken bed, in the room without a screen on the window, in the guesthouse without electricity, wifi or running water, in the town whose name I could not pronounce, in the country with malaria and on and off electrical power.
My goal in being there was to get to a town near by which was known primarily for George Orwell’s stay as a British police officer back in the days when Britain still held Myanmar as a colony. Myanmar is a country that has been through colonization. It’s made up of many different ethnic groups and some do not get along. One ethnic group is the Rohingya, they are not seen as belonging in Myanmar so they are stateless. This is a group of almost a million people that aren’t given citizenship to their own country.
The government and several of the other ethnic groups fight over poppy plantations but not always how it sounds. I heard people say that the government is growing the poppy for opium and the other groups fight to stop them. It wasn’t clear if it was so that then they could make more money from opium or if they didn’t like the drug trade and wanted to end the government producing opium.
The following day brought another shimmering heat and I began to walk for the next town. I had drank milk tea with the local people at the train station and that was the only thing to do so I thought I’d try to walk the 18 miles. Maybe I’d find a bus or hitchhike or there might be a motorbike taxi. I didn’t mind not making it there if that did end up being the plan.
I saw up ahead a railroad crossing and under some of the only shade around there was the person who’s job it is to wait for a train all day and when it came they are to warn the cars and motorbikes since there is no mechanical arm with an electrical hookup.
The man waved while I was still quite far off and by the time I made it to where he was he gestured me over so he could give me his water bottle. I took it gratefully, the heat had the sweat beading on my neck. I continued on but this time it all felt lighter. I held his smile in my head, it was hard to shake such a genuine thing.
I got to a highway with motorbikes chugging by every few minutes. The land was hilly but my walk as flat. After no more than 10 minutes a motorbike that had already passed me turned back to ask me if I needed a ride. His bike was old and must have been his pride and joy, and the only thing allowing him to have a job in the town so far from his home. He asked me questions and the wind flipped my hat away. I didn’t mind the loss when faced with such generosity. In my other life I would have been bothered for a good while about losing a piece of clothing but it didn’t seem to hold merit in a place where anytime I had need I was freely given what I needed. I had already experienced many offers of food and drink by my neighbors on the train.
I ended up that night back in my 2 dollar room with such a sense of comfort after feeling the generosity of the Burmese people in so many ways.
I don’t know how a people that have been through so much have kept such open hearts.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how little importance I’ve placed on my experiences in the poor places of the world. Of course what I’ve seen is important for me but I just assumed they would only be for me. I assumed because of the lack of understanding when I would share that it isn’t worth telling the stories.
Obviously I was wrong.
The United States can be a willfully ignorant place and is one of the places in the world that has the smallest understanding of whats important in life. Of course not everyone is blind to the world outside the US and everyone is ignorant in one way or another but I’m talking about a country that statistically travels very, very little and when Americans travel they avoid the third world. I chose to travel to the third world for the first time when I was 19 for a totally arbitrary reason, it was all I could afford.
Now its clear that my random choice was an important one.
The contrast and perspective is so important. If you haven’t been to a truly poor country you probably wouldn’t understand, its not an intellectual problem. I probably don’t understand a tenth of what it means to be an American in a world like this one. If I did understand I probably would have given away everything I have by now knowing that even if I did give away every dollar I have I would still be able to eat every day and sleep in safety.
I grew up going on survival trips. Going into the woods for a few days with no food and just a few tools. I would come back with a much greater appreciation for a hot shower and easy meals. Even after being in countries where most people live like they are on a survival trip for their entire life I can still complain. I complain less but I still don’t hold what I’ve seen in my mind everyday.
It’s hard for me to take anything that happens in the US seriously.
We will complain about paying for education. I’ve been told that I’m lucky to even have it be possible to get an education.
We complain about stop lights, grocery store lines and gas prices without any idea that just the fact that we have these things is a wonderful thing. In some countries someone would have to work for a junk car the way an American works to pay off a house.
I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve barely seen anything.
Even though this is true I have still seen some important things, especially for Americans to know. When I came back from traveling I knew that if I could teach one thing I would say that people should be thankful for what they have.
I have such a charmed life and I’m not the only one.
A while ago there was the whole 1% thing.
Americans were so upset that the ultra rich had so much more than them.
I didn’t realize at the time that I’m one of the ultra rich in another category.
I’m going to try to keep sharing, for my own good I want to remember.
And guilt or shame need not have any part in this.
These lessons are about appreciation and feeling connected.
I don’t want anyone to feel guilt for their blessings.
For myself I just want to know and appreciate my blessings.