After a few weeks of Silence, two months living with just a small backpack, and having left India for Nepal and a couple of volunteering missions, one thought kept coming back to my mind: We often see the developing world and poor countries as places that WANT what we have. And also as places that don't have anything we want. From my time in Kolkata—where I felt and saw Joy even in the slums—to Bodh Gaya—where, despite terrorist bombings, people continued to live normally and thank God for being blessed—I keep seeing all the essential things we lost in our modern society. After months of travels and meeting the poorest of the poor, who are living in very simple places, traveling in packed trains or buses and struggling to find toilets or clean water, my view is now that we should give re-birth to what we have let go of in our rich and modern world.
What strikes me the most about these past 80 days? The happiness, the joy and the smiles on so many faces, despite the hard conditions of life.
So! Now that I can see what they have and what we do not have anymore, and also the few things we have that they could benefit from, I wanted to share those with you.
So what do they HAVE that we DO NOT HAVE…?
1. Strong families
There is not a street corner, packed bus or small market where, at any time of day, you do not see three generations of a family together laughing and playing. There is no home for the elderly; everyone lives together, often in the same house, in India and Nepal. When you go to one of the many days of celebration, you see grandchildren on the backs of grandparents, women with babies on their back as they work and teenagers that deeply respect their parents and grandparents. Old people are at peace as they know that their children are taking care of them.
2. Lively Communities
This is probably one of the most vibrant elements of India and Nepal. We can say this is due to the lack of TV in homes and less mass entertainment on offer (aside from the enormous movie theater/Bollywood industry in India), but people in villages and cities live together, support each other and really care. If you need someone to help you carry something, someone to help harvest your field, someone to build your house, or just someone to chat and play with, people will join you. People are outside and together, despite the massive rise of smartphone use.
3. Live with spirituality
I talked a lot about this in a previous post but spirituality is definitely a glue that keeps the society together. Whether you are Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim, Sufi or Christian, you integrate spirituality into many elements of your life, which gives common shared value to the society. Tensions and extremism are in the minority—more often politically orchestrated than truly organized by the population. So as you walk around, you can hear bells from temples, smell incense burning and see monks robes or religious edifices more often than a Starbucks in New York City.
4. Powerful small and local businesses
Modern society and big brands have not yet invaded these countries with a flourishing small business network. People sell a lot of different things; much of which is made locally. There is a lot of man power used for tasks that have disappeared in the U.S. or Europe, which means you see a lot of people starting small businesses to answer local demand. Business are owned by people, not by corporations. Communities are even more alive because of this.
This is a big one. I have been amazed by the quality of the craftsmanship here, from stone carvings of monuments, to wood carvings, to bronze and silver idols and statues. Our cathedral builders and painters like Michelangelo are long gone, while in India and Nepal you can still find people able to micro-paint over one hundred detailed characters inside a three by three inch frame. This copper- and silver-plated Buddha, for example, took two months to complete and is simply stunning.
6. Repair services for everything
This is a big one! In India and Nepal, we do not buy and throw things away when they are broken, we repair them. So from shoe repair to $5 umbrella repair, you can always find someone with the tools and the knowledge to fix anything (including your iPhone!).
Yes, you see a lot of piles of garbage when you walk in India, BUT... Many people are going through them to search for each type of "waste": metal, plastic, cable, copper, glass, etc. This is extraordinary to witness. Within 12 hours of a garbage dump, almost 80% is gone for recycling. Garbage pickers in India, even though it seems they have a "bad" job, make a very good living compared to the average population. And landfills are cleared of everything. Cows and pigs are the last ones to come to eat the organic waste.
8. Living in the present and having the Joy to accept what is
I have seen so many people smiling as I walk the streets. Very often, I sit and chat with them to better understand why they would smile when it seems they have so little. One old man, in his seventies, selling apples in front of a temple, told me: "You [meaning foreigners] are very funny, you have everything but you never smile. You always worry. What do you worry about? Look, sky is blue, sun shine, people are happy, I sell my apple, and you come chat with me. Nothing to worry about."
9. Giving the little they have
Last week I was in a micro-bus (called a "micro" in Nepali) in Kathmandu—one of those little vans, designed for 6-7 people, and used as the city's main transportation system. It was rush hour (9 a.m.) and there were seventeen people inside the micro, me being the only "white guy." It was a sea of human body parts with not one inch to breath. Everyone was smiling and chatting and laughing at the situation (let me point out that this happens to them twice a day, every day). Then rain started, monsoon-strong. As the micro arrived at my stop, the driver saw that I did not have an umbrella, and offered his to me. I paid 25 cents for the 45-minute drive and exited the bus with a big thank you and a big smile, feeling blessed despite the rain and 45 minutes of being crushed.
10. Not understanding why we are not happy
Since I am going to trek the Himalayas in two weeks, I had to buy a pair of trekking shoes in one of the many trekking stores of Kathmandu. I ended up buying for $50 shoes that are sold for in the US for$300. I was happy with the deal and told my vendors "how cheap and great this is." He looked at me, smiled, and said, "you know, my friend, $50 is more than I earn in a month, and in a month you will probably be bored with those shoes and want new ones like many foreigners." Being happy with what we have, and not wanting more, definitely keeps our happiness rising.
But yes, this is only one side of the coin. Obviously, there are a few things we have that they could benefit from having...
1. Clean Water
A big one. Most of the tap water is not safe to drink (by our standards), and often there is no tap. Many rivers are now being polluted by the factories (such as from the apparel industry) built to make our western stuff. I have seen rivers that are blue and pink from pollution. Sad.
This is the primary cause of death for children, along with the lack of clean water. Lack of access to proper sanitation. Nearly 40% of humanity lives without toilets! Most toilets are "the street" or "the side of the road". Want to see photos of the toilets I used? CLIC HERE! But there are modern heroes today like my friend John Kluge and his army for good that are fighting this battle! Check their Facebook page and help me raise money for this great cause HERE, because you should really Give a S**t!
3. Clean and modern medicine and hospitals
It's hard to find a clean hospital and there is often a lack of medicine and surgical rooms. I have not had to use any of them (fingers crossed!), but as foreigners we can always go to private, expensive clinics. We complain often about our hospitals, but, really, we are in very good shape compared to India and Nepal!
4. Environmental consciousness
There's not a day here when you don't see people throwing plastic bottles or waste in the street or out the window of a car. When you talk with locals and ask why people do this, most of the time they look at you wondering why you are asking such questions. Basically, no one understands why it's bad. I was shocked when a young boy, 18 years old, told me he had no clue about the impact of throwing stuff in the river after I explained to him the cycle of water and waste. There are big, big education needs on this!
5. Better schools and access to higher education
I will end on this one. Yes, literacy rates are growing quickly in both India and Nepal. Still, though, all public schools in Nepal teach only in Nepalese and not English, which leaves most students unable to get higher educations or international careers. India has made some great leaps ahead with a flourishing IT education and has used English as the main language for a long time now. But still there are close to 700 million people who can neither read nor write. Still there are many kids who can't go to school because they work and support their family.
I hope this gives you a good view of the situation. What remains in my heart is that there is lot to learn from minimalist and simple living. It is the way to happiness. Add in striving families and communities, good schools, and you have a recipe for sustainable happiness in a country. I hope that economic development there will keep alive all of the things that died for the West these past 50 years.
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And remember to travel with your Heart...