While cycling through remote villages in Asia (currently Thailand and Myanmar), I see people living in very primitive situations.
Homes are made out of bamboo and palm leaves. Sometimes a bit of wood. No insulation, no running water, no electricity.
In these little villages, the residential, commercial and agricultural are all somehow merged into one. The home is the business and is also the place where you might find some pigs or cows or chickens or all of the above. The children, parents, and grandparents all live together.
They grow their own food. They build their own houses from local materials. This is out of necessity. Their resources are extremely limited which requires a great deal of creativity. It constantly amazes me how much can be fit and maneuvered onto one scooter.
I do not see homeless people. I do not see mentally ill people. There is always fresh-cooked nourishing food available.
They are smiling, they are joyful, they are generous and they are very, very poor. But they have food, shelter, and the support of the community.
When we cycle through these areas, we are not feared, we are revered. People come out of their homes to greet us. They bring their babies out and wave. They call out of their semi truck with excitement. We get many thumbs up. They pull up next to us on their scooters to find out where we are from and where we are going. We do not share a common language but somehow we figure out a way to communicate.
We are riding thousands of kilometers on this journey through Asia. We are carrying everything we need for this journey on our bicycles. For this reason, we are riding on bicycles that are pretty expensive; especially relative to what these people can afford. However, except for a few occasions in larger cities, we never lock our bicycles.
It does not seem that the locals would ever consider stealing our bicycles. If anything, we feel honored and protected wherever we go.
There is a constant feeling of hospitality and generosity. Instead of seeing a white Westerner and thinking “they have money, we will charge them extra,” it is quite the opposite. Often, we are given things for free. In one city, the policeman sat with us through our lunch, filmed us, paid for our meal, and escorted us out of town. Riding through a tiny little village, a woman selling drinks out of her very primitive home, insisted on giving me water. In another, I needed some patches for my bicycle tube. The owners of the shop (which was more like a little room in their home), refused to let me pay and also requested to take pictures and selfies with me. This generosity and respect happens wherever we go. We show up unexpectedly on our bicycles and it brings such joy.
Thailand and Myanmar are both Buddhist countries where young boys often spend a year as monks in the monastery. Each morning they rise at 4:30am to go out to beg for food and money. This provides an opportunity of them to learn what it is like to go without. Conversely, it is an opportunity for people to give. And what I have learned is that it is often in the giving that the greatest reward is felt. These people love to give. It is simply part of the culture. And it makes me want to give; to be generous.
We are riding through rural areas mostly. I am aware that it is not as easy for the poor in the larger cities.
There are many problems in these countries that we do not have in the West. I do not want to glamorize their situation. It is not easy to live the way that they do. It comes at a great cost. It is also possible that there is a lot that I do not see. Additionally, I only traveled in the remote south which is not where all of the violence is currently happening. We did not spend very much time in the larger cities. Regardless, I do believe that it provides a different model that is worth considering.
When I returned to America, the amount of homeless and mentally ill living on the streets was shocking. How could this be in such a wealthy country?
I play with this discrepancy in my mind but I do not know what to do with it.
What I do know is that I am part of the whole worldwide system. I can travel extremely cheaply in these countries because of the privilege of where I come from.
In the end, I realize that we are all connected. The homeless and mentally ill, my fellow travelers, my friends and family in America, AND all of the people I interact with, smile at, and impact through my travels. We are all connected.