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What Third World Travel Has Taught Me

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Like many backpackers, I travel a lot in developing or "third world" countries. You know, areas like Southeast Asia, India, The Middle East and South America, where costs of lodging, transport and food are low.

The reason these costs seem low to Western travelers, of course, is locals in these countries earn meager incomes and have generally poor standards of living. My extensive travel in the developing world has highlighted to me how incredibly easy our developed world lives are.

We Are Rich
The first developing country I visited was India, which is home to some of the world's most abject poverty in spite of the country's swelling GDP. The most memorable of the many encounters I had there was one with a poor orphan girl, who was running underneath my train as it sped toward Jaipur's Central Railway station. "Five rupees," she begged, jumping up as high as she could when she spoke so that those of us on the train could see her. Five rupees is equal to approximately 10 cents.

Fast-forward two years and I'm in the dusty town of Uyuni, Bolivia, gateway to the Salar de Uyuni salt flat. I was waiting in line at a local bank when an indigenous woman walked up to the teller next to me. She asked to withdraw five bolivianos (less than $1) from her account. The teller informed the woman that since the last time she had used her account, the balance had been completely eaten away by fees. Several of the locals who overheard this encounter quite loudly trash-talked the woman as she stumbled out of the bank.

Now, I don't completely discount talks of the "crisis" and "recession" back in the U.S. and Europe; times are indeed "tougher" than they've been in my lifetime. But when I hear people complaining about not being able to "afford" gas (usually, via Facebook on their $100-per-month iPhones), I get a little sick to my stomach. We in the developed world have become so used to having everything that we've equated going without one or two of those things to going without completely. For most of the rest of the world, being fed, clothed and sheltered would be sufficient.

We Are Free
I've always been put off by the notion of "gay pride," as gay and proud as I am. My travels in the Muslim world, however, have changed my perspective. Did you know, for example, that even a suspicion of being homosexual in parts of the Middle East and North Africa can land you in prison? I spent the month I traveled in Egypt and Morocco last year as in-the-closet as I've been since high school, which made things very black and white: Expressing oneself is a first-world luxury.

The freedoms we take for granted aren't just identity-related, either. While visiting the Banaue Rice Terraces in the mountainous northern Philippines, I struck up a conversation with my tour guide, who was also incidentally named Robert. He explained to me that although he took great pleasure in guiding visitors though his home region, his family's main source of income was his father's farm. Ignorantly, I asked him what he really wanted to do with his life. "What I want," he said, "doesn't matter. I need to work the soil to feed my children, who will need to work it to feed theirs." He smiled. "And so forth."

Although America is the self-proclaimed "Land of Opportunity," many people here feel disappointed or even cheated when they aren't able to immediately fulfill their dreams: They equate "opportunity" with "guarantee." Just like a child who cries when he doesn't get exactly what he wants for Christmas, they fail to realize that the chance is the gift -- opportunity is priceless! The chance to be yourself, to choose your own path in life, to be happy on your own terms. Most people in the world have no chance; indeed, they have no choice. We do!

We Are Safe
The first time I traveled to Israel I entered by land, and was detained at the border for more than five hours due to a passport stamp from Lebanon. At the time I tried to put it all into perspective. After all, I thought, Israel does face threats from all sides and has to do what it has to do to protect itself. Upon returning to Jordan, I would hear several first-hand accounts of the proverbial "other side" of the story, which revealed that Palestinians are actually the ones who should be afraid, with only rocks, stones and crude firearms to defend themselves against machine guns, tanks and white phosphorous.

Although both Israel and the Palestinian territories are small in size and population, the conflict between them is a microcosm of the tension that exists between the larger developed world and developing world population groups. The governments and, to a lesser extent, the people living in developed countries believe that the governments and peoples of third-world nations (particularly Muslims) present an existential threat their very existences. To prevent this, they pre-emptively strike out each and every one of these potential threats, often without debate or deliberation.

I have personally traveled to many countries that are said to be "harboring terrorists," from Lebanon to Egypt to Myanmar prior to last year's democratic elections. In each instance I've been shocked: Not only have I experienced literally zero outward hostility on account of being American, but the outpouring of generosity and kindness has been overwhelming (at least from those whose perceive me as being straight). That we feel threatened enough by such people to destroy them represents the most tragic disconnect of our time: We are so unaware of how safe we are that we create danger where it (mostly) doesn't exist.

I Am Thankful
The common thread I see running through public discourse and sentiment in the U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, the developed nations of Europe) is scarcity. We aren't rich enough. We aren't free enough. We aren't safe enough. Inherent in the concept of scarcity is entitlement, the idea that we should have more, but don't. Scarcity represents a lack of things, which precludes taking them from others. The overall dynamic of such a world view is destructive: When you source what you lack from someone or somewhere else, they become poorer and when whatever you're using runs out, you are also poor.

Traveling in poor countries hasn't made me want to join an NGO and save the world. It hasn't made me want to give up the freedoms and luxuries I enjoy, give them to people who don't have them and adopt a life of poverty so that I may understand the plight of the less fortunate. Rather, it has made me thankful, and caused me to consciously manifest an attitude of thankfulness. Thankfulness is the foundation of creativity and is the opposite of entitlement. Thankfulness is likewise the basis of abundance rather than scarcity.

Becoming aware of how rich I am, how free I am and how safe I am has, thus far, resulted in me feeling richer, freer and safer than I've ever felt. Am I actually any richer, freer or safer for it? I don't truly know. But I am certainly happier: I am more frequently satisfied than disappointed; I only rarely feel entitled; I often feel thankful. I don't feel confined by boundaries that others define but confident that they are figments of our collective imagination. I am not fearful of the increasingly bleak picture the powers that be paint of our future; I am hopeful that we can all paint over it before it's complete.