Sunday, December 31, 2006


"You never know what you have until it's gone, and I wanted to know what I had, so I got rid of everything."

-- Steven Wright

One of the seemingly contradictory realizations many travellers come to after spending time in desperately impoverished countries revolves around the fact that poor people quite often seem like happier people.

Happier than us, I mean. And by 'us' I mean people raised in places where there are hot showers, helpful police, paved roads. Places that are designed for our own comfort and convenience. Designed by 'who', exactly, we never really ask, because such comforts are an expected and required part of daily living, and troublesome questions like that need not be spoken aloud. You get in trouble, you call the police. Your sink stops working, you call the plumber. There is a person designed to take of our needs. This person requires money, of course, to fulfill his task, but if you have the coin, he'll do the deed.

In Cambodia, not only is such a person probably not around, but you probably couldn't afford him anyway. If you get sick, there is medicine, yes, but it is expensive, and guess what? It's probably defective. The good stuff is given to the relatives of government workers; the bad stuff makes its way into onto the drug store shelves, buyer beware. If you are driving too fast, or merely driving at all, the police will stop you for imaginary infractions and ask for some cash. If you lose your passport (as I did), you will have to go to the back room of the police station and bribe the official. If, God forbid, you are hurt, and need a hospital, watch out. There will be blood on the floors.

We recoil at such a place.

And yet, look around.

At the people's faces.

At their smiles.

At their kindness.

They look, well, happy.

Back in Canada, most people I see don't look happy. They look stressed, and worried, and frazzled.

But not happy.

I'm not a Pollyanna. I know the savage wound that is festering inside the hearts of most Cambodians, victims of terrible atrocities less than a generation old. I realize that their life expectancy peaks around fifty. Life is harsh and hot and completely unfair.

And yet, still.

They look happy.

They don't have much, but they don't need much.

The Philippines is similar. Desperately poor, people find faith in their God and their families. The government won't help them, so they do what they can, with what they have, and keep on going.

I saw a British chap on Filipino television awhile back. He was rich, a millionaire. Back in Britain he had a handful of expensive cars and a big house, and he always bought the latest gadget as soon as it hit the shops. Then a curious understanding came to him. The more he bought, the more unhappy he became. He was always chasing the next thing. He was always getting bored with the latest car, and thus required a new one. He steadily came to the conclusion that happiness derived from attainment fades. So he chucked the house and sold his Porsche and used the money from the sale of his car to build three schools in a rural part of the Philippines. Happiness is temporary, he realized, but fulfillment, more difficult, but a deeper enrichment, endures.

There is something to be said for living with less.

The quote from Steven Wright at the top of this post is meant to be comedic, and it is funny, sure, but it has a kind of zen, koan-like truth at its core. If what you have defines what you are, then what are you if you don't have you have?

We all strive to reach higher, and that striving is an integral part of our condition, a remnant of evolution perhaps, this desire to be better than we are. But if the striving itself is not connected to something deeper than material comfort, a hollowness will remain.

Here in the Philippines, where I live, there's no shower. Water comes from the tap, and it's cold, and you wash in it, and you know what? You get used to it. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy my hot showers during my recent stint in Japan, of course, as a hot shower is one of life's true common pleasures.

Now I know that, though. I didn't realize it before. I thought hot water from a showerhead was a given. It's not. It's a privilege. There are people, children, living in the same house as me who have never known what it's like to stand under a hot shower and feel the water fall.

Knowing that, I try to temper my desires. To control my want.

To want more, yes, but more of the right stuff, the good stuff, the stuff that keeps the smiles on the faces of poor children -- goodwill, community, a willingness to stretch and expand our own sense of possibility towards ourselves and others.

I'm trying to remember that within every shiny red Porsche lies a school waiting to be built.

Perhaps when everybody can have both -- the car and the school, the frivolous stuff and the deeper, more human stuff -- another level of understanding will be breached.

After all, it's hard to remember a time when I've been more happy, more pleasurably content, then when I had a hot shower after more than a year of cold-water washing.

Imagine that.

Happiness from a hot shower.

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