Let me start off with a quick apology. I had an idea for a column and thought I could get it done before I left for Myanmar. But, as I often do, I over-estimated how much I could get done in that short span of time.
So instead of that column you’re seeing this one which is being written in the airport of Seoul, South Korea as I wait out my 12 hour layover before flying to LAX, then PHX and then driving home to PAR(ker).
I’m returning from two weeks in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) in Southeast Asia. This was my eleventh trip there, and I’ve also been fortunate enough to go to five other third-world countries since 2002. It’s been a life changing experience that I was not looking for when it happened. Now, however, I have a hard time getting enough of it.
As I return from this trip I’m bring many of the usual things – memories, experiences, surprises, missing my friends there – and this time a pretty hefty case of diarrhea. But the less said about the latter the better right?
Most Americans are shocked and more than a little conflicted when they first go to a third-world country. They can’t believe the poverty or the fact that so many people seem content with having so little. There’s usually a conflict between wanting to “help” (usually by giving money, building western style buildings, etc.) and not wanting to have to deal with that kind of situation again.
I felt it all in my first few trips and even now I still have some of the same feelings again at times. What a lot of us forget, or just can’t quite really believe, is that the third world is the real world. The vast majority of the people on the planet live the way they do; not the way we do.
Parker and La Paz County is considered a lower income area, but compared to most of the world we are all rich to one degree or another. Please don’t think I’m trying to make you feel guilty so you’ll give some money or something. In fact that’s almost the exact opposite of what I’m aiming for in this little column.
Throwing money at a problem is a very western response and one that doesn’t work well in most of the world. I’ve seen wells in Africa that were abandoned once the electric motors well-meaning foreigners paid for broke down and the nationals couldn’t fix them. This trip, I saw windmills and a field of solar power panels abandoned in a small town in Myanmar.
I’m sure the people who put them there were sincere and thought they were doing something grand, and I applaud their good intentions and compassion. But whatever they accomplished was short lived and ultimately wasted. A lot of what’s done for “those poor people” end up that way.
The truth is the people of the third world are only poor when compared with us. Compared to nearly everyone else on the planet, they are normal.
Instead of deciding what they need and telling them how we’re going to help them – treating them as children, which they are not – we ought to listen to them, work with them, respect their cultures and realize that in the end people in Asia, Africa, India, etc. are not going to end up living like Americans; because they aren’t Americans! Duh!
If you ever get a chance to go to a third-world country I hope you’ll go. But take things slow over there, respect their culture and history, and for every word you speak try and listen to ten or more of theirs.
In many ways they are far closer to the really important verities of life because they have far fewer distractions to be stripped away from them than we do.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta visit a small room with a wonderful “western” toilet! Yep – I’m an American!