Nov 10 2008
It’s very hard to understand the world in the abstract, without walking its cracked pavement or trying to have a conversation with someone impossibly different from you. Wikipedia defines a “developing country” as a nation “that has not reached Western-style standards of democratic government, free market economy, industrialization, social programs, and human rights guarantees for their citizens.” But this glossy language never prepared me for the things I saw almost immediately that first time I landed somewhere poor. This list is a primer for those who have not yet had the mind-blowing experience of stepping outside the castle walls.
1. The developing world is dirty, and it smells. Stepping off the plane in Bangkok, that very first time, I was assaulted by the air, some rich humid mix of curry and diesel and flowers and shit. Garbage lines the streets and rings the fields around every town; men routinely piss on the streets, and few cities have public trash cans.
2. The people aren’t white. They’re brown or yellow or black; they have thick Semitic eyebrows or delicate Asian eyes or wide African noses. And everywhere you go — Africa, China, India, Russia — darker skin means lower socioeconomic class, even if the comparison is between lighter and darker castes or tribes within the same country. Light skin represents wealth and power at all scales of humanity.
3. Nothing works properly. Houses are cheaply built and products cheaply made, but it’s more then frugality. Nothing is expected to work properly. Doors and cars and lights that could be fixed with a moment’s handiwork remain broken forever. The trains are hours or sometimes days late, when they’re running at all.
4. The people don’t speak English. The signs aren’t in English, the menus aren’t in English, and the newspapers aren’t in English. You are suddenly and catastrophically illiterate. Surprise! There are other alphabets. Sleeping children dream in foreign languages.
5. In many places, no one else can read either. They never got much schooling. Things that we take completely for granted — such as germ theory, arithmetic, or the very concept of sexism — are undiscovered countries to much of the world. Without writing, “facts” can only spread from person-to-person through an endless game of broken telephone.
6. Holy shit television everywhere! They don’t have clean drinking water, but they have a TV. Every year China turns out millions of small TVs and VCD players that run off a car battery. I’ve seen satellite dishes nailed to trees in the middle of the jungle.
7. The whole world has phones too. There may not be reliable electricity, or any electric service at all, but there’s definitely a cell tower nearby. And these supposedly backwards, poor people often have advanced phones which also serve as MP3 and video players, because a phone is the household’s one piece of expensive consumer electronics. The internet is going to reach the rest of the world first through phones.
8. Terrible plumbing. The indisputable signs of rich industrialized society are hot and cold running water, faucets that don’t drip, drains that don’t reek, and all the infrastructure required to make this a reality, from aquaducts to sewage treatment plants. Much of the rest of the world shits into a hole and drinks from the river, and providing clean water and sanitation might be the number one thing that could be done to reduce world poverty and disease. But some days I wonder if that’s all beside the point, because of the hot shower. Among all the niceties of civilization, the hot shower is the luxury I miss most strikingly when I’m living somewhere where the houses are made of dirt.
9. Safety has a different meaning. It’s wrong and small to say that life is cheaper in poor countries — we rich don’t cry any harder over our dead than anyone else — but the citizens of developed countries accept a lot more risk than we do: ungrounded wiring, firetrap tenements, working without hard hats and welding without goggles. At the same time, what a rush to be to choose your risks for yourself! Oh to ride on top of a moving train!
10. Yes, they’re poor. Figures such as “living on two dollars a day” are somewhat deceptive, because the cost of living is incredibly low in poor countries, and two dollars might well buy you all the daily rice you could want. Even so, it’s not nearly enough for a life, and a huge fraction of the world’s citizens are living literally day-to-day, scrounging for their basic needs. This sucks deeply in a way that it’s very hard for a middle-class child to imagine. It’s also worth remembering that imported mass-consumer items (such as housewares and electronics) are already sold at near-zero margins in the industrialized world, meaning that the basic material objects of living often aren’t any cheaper in poor countries. When I walk down the street in Dakar I carry in my backpack a laptop worth two year’s salary.
11. The structures of society are suddenly visible by their lack. The government is probably unstable, there is little or no public health system, and public servants might have to be bribed to do their job. Scams are widespread because there’s no contract law and no courts to prosecute petty crime. You get used to handing policemen cash on the street, and the price of a visa depends on who’s at the window taking your money. I once bought insulin for a desperate diabetic; he begs for it every month.
12. Their culture is different, their culture is the same. I have been consistently astonished at how values differ between cultures. Depending on where you live, the most important thing in life may be hard work, religion, family, honor, or freedom. But by showing us what can be different, travel also clarifies what is the same in all humans; and although it seems terribly easy for people to be pompous, greedy, and cruel, universal human nature seems also to be kind, imaginative, and generous.