It has almost been 11 months on the road now and as I sit here in Bali, on Kuta Beach, enjoying my third (fourth?) Bintang, I’m reflecting on this and realize I was a bit of an arsehole prior to jumping on that plane all those months ago.
Let’s start with some numbers (I’m an accountant, it’s a tough habit to break).
- The global population is around 7,5 billion of which 3,4 billion live in 4 countries!
- The international poverty line is $1 a day.
- You’re classified as being part of the global ‘elite’ if you make $34,000 a year.
- The average global income is $1,225 a year. That’s an average between the richest of the rich and poorest of the poor – let that sink in.
- Poverty statistics… you’ve heard them all before.
I’m not suggesting that I didn’t know these things. In fact, I was exposed to lots of data when I worked that showed just how much strain consumers were under just to get through a month, but somehow that was all just data. Typically, reading those figures led me to some pathetic comment like “shame, that’s really difficult”, without fully processing what it actually meant.
I’m also not suggesting that I didn’t care, but what I certainly will take on the chin is I never really understood it.
Why am I talking numbers?
Backpacking has exposed me to a part of the world I’d not ordinarily see. Yes, when you go on holiday (with the benefit of a salary still getting paid into your account every month), you’d typically stay in the good areas and live like a Westerner in the country you’re in. I get that – you’re on holiday – why slum it?
But when you have a $30 a day budget, you get a little flexible with your comforts. You stay in less savory areas, eat in less savory places and move around in very basic forms of transport.
Personally, this has blown my eyes wide open. There I was, living a very comfortable life in South Africa without really comprehending any of this. I’d wake up in the mornings in a great, safe house in a decent location, have a good coffee and get dressed for work wearing shirts from my favorite shirt shop (because I liked the cut and fit – I mean seriously Marc. What the fuck?!) and then I’d jump into my car and go to work. I’d still have the cheek to bitch about having a long day.
Now let’s fast forward 11 months. I only eat street food. Meat is a luxury I have a few times a week. If a hostel costs more than $5, I look somewhere else and if there’s a public bus to catch in lieu of a private one, sign me up. Catching a flight is reserved for necessities (or the islands where there’s no alternative) and if I want a beer, I check the prices at 3 bars before choosing the cheapest.
What’s the point of this?
I now see how the world really works. And it’s tough out there for people to get through life. As a white South African, I’m very aware of my country’s history and see just how fortunate I was to be able to go to school, university, get a good job, etc. Come talk to me if you don’t think white privilege is a thing.
There I was growing up knowing that if I worked hard, the chances of cracking the code to a decent life would be achievable but now I realize how insanely privileged I am from a global point of view.
Let’s talk the simple things.
Education – not seen as a right, sadly, in the greater scheme of world priorities. It’s reserved for the wealthy and if you aren’t one of them, you’re kind of stuffed. Yes, some governments are trying to turn this around but they’re generations off from getting there. I remember meeting this one man in Cambodia whose goal was to be able to send his daughter to school just for the first 2 years. That’s all he could do.
Healthcare – good luck chum. Once again, good healthcare is reserved for the economically elite, unless you’re in an Asian powerhouse (Singapore et al).
An 8 to 5 job – they exist but you’re in the minority if you have one. Many Asians eek a living from hawking and vending in tourist areas or simply owning a little shop that sells that same as the shop next to them but desperation is a bitch. Next time you complain about the haggling and harassment you’re subjected to as a tourist, remember they aren’t doing this for fun – your business could be their next meal.
Religion – it’s really important in the East. Be it Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism. It’s important and I find many tourists think this is a gimmick but remember, in the face of helplessness (and there’s a lot of it) people need something to believe in to get them through a day. So next time you have the choice of stepping on or around an offering left on the pavement, Step around it please.
I think many Western people have a shifting median when it comes to what being privileged actually means. The more you have, the more you think you need in order to classify yourself as privileged. All of a sudden your 3 bedroom house needs to be a 4 bedroom one. The 3 series needs to become a 5 series, the gold card needs to become a platinum one.
But now, change your lens. What if privilege to someone else meant eating 2 meals a day instead of one? What if it meant sending a loved one to a doctor instead of relying on faith to cure them? What if it meant access to a toilet instead of a bush?
It’s not my intention to come across as holier than thou as I really am not and never will be. Observing people over the past 11 months has given me the privilege of seeing how we treat each other and I’m sorry to say, but the Western world has come up woefully short. We are mostly full of shit actually, thinking our economic status and education defines us but it sure as hell doesn’t. Sticking flowers into an arsehole doesn’t change it from being an arsehole.
On the other end of the spectrum, I see poor, uneducated people here in the East that would (on average) drop everything to help you. If you need advice, they’ll give it freely and if you need help when in trouble, they’ll be there. In addition to the active side of things, passively they’ll smile and greet you. They will try to have a conversation in English (and here we are thinking we should be knighted for knowing ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in the local language).
In conclusion, I’m not suggesting I’m going to build myself a treehouse, wear hemp and become one with the earth. Hell no. What I am suggesting is that the next time I choose to bitch and moan, I’m going to think twice. The next time someone harasses me to offer a massage, I’m going to adjust my attitude a little – hell, I wouldn’t want to massage me even under duress and I’m sure she doesn’t want to either!
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that there’s this massive world out there and we are inclined to think our bubble is the extent of it and we rate our successes and failures only as far as our bubble extends but that needs to end.
I am one of 7,5 billion and I need to start appreciating that.