Jump back in time to our weekend hike with Izabela to the tiny aldea of Tiactac.
I’ve been meaning to mention for some time how blown away I was by a fairly simple, poverty-related realization. In short, as Brian put it while we were loitering in the middle of the road after lunch, “Poverty is relative.”
When I used to sit in front of my TV in my relatively fancy, American house, I felt as if there must be a vast difference between my life and the lives of the “poor people” who live in tiny villages in the middle of nowhere in third-world countries. I felt that these other places must be so different that really, the only way for me to understand them would be to watch digested, Discovery-Channel documentaries of the people’s lives. Otherwise, without Americanized translation of what was going on, how could I ever hope to understand a place so alien?
But then there I was, in the middle of a 600-person town in the wilds of Guatemala where people live with the rising and setting of the sun—no electricity, no running water, adobe huts, wood-fired stoves, no oil-powered farm equipment…and yet, it didn’t feel the least bit strange. Life was surely different: the people were more relaxed, it was darker inside, and our usual electronic forms of entertainment were lacking. But I wasn’t bowled over by the weirdness that I was expecting. Nonplussed was I.
Was it not true that I was in one of the “poorest” areas of the world? Was it not true that really, I would be hard-pressed to find many other places in the world where life was more “basic”? As far as I can tell, those were true. So why wasn’t it strange being there?!
I suppose it was partially because I’d already gotten used to many of the non-American characteristics of the area: the language, bathing in the Chuj, going with the flow of life more… But I think most important was the fact that I wasn’t evaluating the lifestyle of the people of Tiactac right alongside my own American lifestyle. Surely, if you dropped Izabela’s mother along with her dark, smoky hut on Main St. in Penn Yan, she would look poor as dirt. But then again, if you dropped the house of a “poor” upstate-New-Yorker in the middle of Tiactac, it would look like some “rich” San Matean had just moved out there: electricity?! Running water?! And probably even…a CAR?! Whoa…slow down…
Surely one conclusion to draw from all of this is that, as Brian suggested, one really measures one’s level of poverty relative to what one’s neighbors have. People from NYC can be poor even if they make $70,000; people who live in Orange, Va. can be rich with a $25,000 salary; and people in San Mateo can be rich if the illegal-immigrant pater familius sends back even a small part of his sub-minimum-wage, meat-packer salary.
But what other deep conclusions about life and human nature can I draw? I’m not sure. But one thing I’ve noticed is that, looking beyond the specific traditions of each particular place in the world, people are pretty dang similar. Some have more stuff than others…relatively. Some have less stuff than others…relatively. But everyone lives. Everyone is happy sometimes. Everyone is sad sometimes. Everyone works sometimes. Everyone plays sometimes. And everyone—and I mean everyone in the world—drinks Coke.
Those observations are fairly general and rather trite, and thus are currently unsatisfying to my truth-and-specificity-seeking, rational side. But hopefully, as this curious Guatemalan experience continues, I’ll come closer to realizing what important life truths I can draw from my time in this actually-not-so-different area of the world. Because really, the only way to live is without pretensions: if we shed the false and hurtful ideas impressed upon us by our parallel-universe, first-world society; if we understand the reality of the world; and if we live lives and make decisions that are in line with that reality, then life truly will be good.
And now, to close, I give you the obligatory Heather reference. Herewith, her eloquent observations on the subject of really, Who among us is poor? —
Really, who among us is poor? One volunteer once said, “It makes me really sad to see these kids playing with empty plastic soda bottles.” In my view, it warms my heart to know that there are still people on this earth who do not need a $35 fancy-super-ball in order to play and have a good time. Who, really, is the poor one? Who is poor? The rested, centered, bright-eyed, intuitive, smart 17-year-old who is able to prioritize his family and be okay with his decisions, or the over-committed, stressed, sick, depressed, award-winning 17-year-old who’s early-decision into an over-priced private school? Who is poor? The family and friends coming together to build a cement or adobe home eating a hot meal together on break, or the lonely, anxious, dieting mother trying to decorate her home like a pro? Who is poor? The barefooted, weathered grandmother with ripped, bow-legged legs whizzing up the mountain-side or the sickly, thin-skinned grandmother crying herself to sleep at night in a retirement home in between mandatory medications? Who is poor? The strong family in a dirt floor adobe house or the chemically sensitive, allergy-ridden kids and neurotic parents in a housing development?