It’s not Thanksgiving but…
We recently completed our almost 7 month odyssey around South America, a journey that will certainly never be forgotten. One that has changed me as a person in many little ways, hopefully for the better, as only challenging travel can. We’ve been spending the last week here in the US with my family as we rally around my Grandmother in the hospital and I’ve had a lot of time to think about the things i’m grateful for in life. I’ve been thinking about this a lot while traveling and will try to highlight some things you may not realize you should be grateful for.
1. Health. Nothing comes before personal health in my mind, you can’t have a quality existence without health. Everyday you wake up with good health is an opportunity, these days aren’t guaranteed.
2. Potable water. Its ever-present, so easily taken for granted since your never more than 15 meters from some drinkable tap water. Its so pleasant to not have to play Russian roulette every time you want to wet your pallet, but that is essentially what you do in most countries that are even lucky enough to have plumbing.
3. Thick Pipes. I find myself continuing to do a habit i’ve developed over the last 7 months that I do now without thinking: folding used toilet paper on itself before throwing it into a toilet side trashcan. I end up realizing it can be flushed it before it makes it into a trashcan while in the US, but in South America, you don’t get to flush your poo-rags. It sounds gross to have a trashcan full of dirty poo-rags, and it kind of is, so be thankful that in the US we have thick pipes that can handle their doodie.
4. Food variety. Before traveling, our weekly meal schedule would include a smorgasbord of ethnic entrees typically including Indian, Mexican, Thai, American and possibly Chinese if we were feeling like an especially unhealthy meal. This is quite literally a foreign concept almost anywhere outside of the US. The “melting pot” of immigrants and the cuisine they brought from their mother countries makes the US the single most exciting place to eat in the world, a spectacular fact that you may be taking for granted. Seema cooked a group of 10 Brazilians their FIRST indian meal! Most people in south American have never tasted Mexican food; Mexican restaurants are so clueless that they serve white bread with salsa instead of chips. WTF, maximum disappointment. Thai food, yeah right – there are 0 Thai people in all of South America (not a factually supported fact), and the Chinese food that does exist couldn’t be worse. Obviously a few cities are exceptions to this rule, but it is less than you would think, and their best restaurants would have a hard time holding a candle to our omnipresent ma & pa’s that we have throughout the US.
5. Safety Rules. I don’t like rules. In the US we have many rules just for the sake of rules which are my least favorite. Many times we have rules and signage to protect from lawsuits, this is not the case in South America. “Proceed at your own risk” is the default rule underlying every circumstance. In MOST cases, I agree with this default. If you are paragliding, you are accepting risk. If you are doing a volcano hike, you are accepting risk. These are your choices, and I shouldn’t have to sign a damn thing saying I won’t sue you if I get hurt, it should be a legal default. However, in situations that don’t present danger clearly, like walking down the street, or drinking a beverage, the US system protects you and makes the world around you better place. Panama City has ankle breaking holes, I’ve dropped to the bottom of a sewer in India, Thailand serves lethal DEET cocktails, the list goes on. I despise rules for the sake of rules, but our safety should be protected from the careless negligence of others.
6. Consideration and Social Norms. This is more of a cultural calibration than it is anything else, but people from the US are actually WAY more considerate relative to my personal calibration than those in other countries. Don’t mistake “considerate” for “helpful” “compassionate” or other words, but people from the US are certainly more considerate of the comfort of others than the citizens of Central and South America. This is immediately apparent on bus rides where nobody gives a shit about what you want whether its the temperature of the cabin or whether they want to loudly talk on the phone from 2am-6am while you are trying to sleep. The worst of which is the desire for everyone to have a personal soundtrack and they use their treble-heavy cellphones to deliver the effect. Don’t bother telling someone to stop either, they truly don’t give a shit what you want – this goes for all countries in Central & South America that we visited – we were amazed / appalled.
There are certainly more things to be grateful for in the US than there are in Central and South America, however, there are some things we are definitely missing out on:
1. Time, and the relaxed pace of life. The time demands of a 50-hour-a-week job that leave you with chores and errands and other commitments is not the norm in the countries we visited, and it has significant implications on the way business and life are conducted. You’ll never get the check at a restaurant (seriously never) unless you ask for it and if you lived in South America you wouldn’t find it hard to spend quality time with your family. Seema and I discovered that the sensation of time passing slows to a very comfortable and pleasing pace when you remove life’s normal daily commitments – this is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned. Having the feeling that life is whipping by isn’t a great one in my opinion and I think it can be at least partially mitigated by blocking additional commitments, thus freeing up future time, wherever possible. Our 7 month trip felt like a year’s worth of time by my previous life’s pace by the 3rd month. Having no plans the next day allows great things to happen organically. I’ve underestimated the value of “having no plans” in a previous life.
2. Consumerism and Materialism are poor life philosophies. The majority of Central and South Americans aren’t chasing the “American Dream”. Thus they don’t have to accumulate 150k in school debt, a 30k wedding (with 15k ring + honeymoon package), multiple 20k cars, 2.5 entitled/bratty kids, the prospect of their kids’ tuition costing 300k each, an overvalued 200k house/mortgage, and the thought they need 1M to retire to be able to afford healthcare and increased living expenditures. Impossible mathematically. This is an American Disease, not an American Dream that causes people to be perpetually anxious and greedy when pondering their ominous financial future. The fact that this “Dream” is not the default makes everyone at ease. Sure, people have less, but they also want less (increasingly not the case since the disease is spreading) so there is no internal dissonance making them unhappy. Being a good person is more important to Peruvians then being a rich one, and their citizens are very wealthy when quality not quantity is what is being measured. They also understand intuitively that hedonic adaptation (a scientifically proven concept relating to the constant need for more) in not the best path to a quality existence. We’re learning this gradually while traveling.
3. Churrascarias. Brazilians know how to have a good time, and they know how to barbecue. More important than the quality of meat, or the way it’s cooked, is how the food and drink are served. Brazilians LOVE to share their food and drink. It reminded me of my experience with Seema’s family and Indian culture, but even better (because it included Beef and Beer). In Brazil, when you order a beer, you are ordering a 1 Liter bottle and as many 3 oz glasses as there are people at your table. It’s not your beer, it’s everyone’s. A Churrascaria is the same. it’s not your steak, its everyone’s steak, so grab a knife, reach to the middle of the table and cut yourself off a piece. You end up feeling more engaged with the people you are with, more social, connected, and ultimately happier. Family style is the best style and aptly named.
note: though Brazil did this the best in my opinion, we found the family style theme throughout South America.
Definitely not an exhaustive list of either category, just a flavor of what Seema and I’s dinner conversations are often like.