As Chris and I have travelled we have become increasingly aware of how incredibly lucky we are. We were born into a wealthy nation to parents who worked hard and provided us with the opportunity to launch the lives we have. We both have worked hard most of our lives as well and especially to save for our trip, but we also had the ability to obtain our college degrees with a fair amount of ease, something only 7% of the world is able to do!, and afterwards held stable jobs that were unaffected by the economy. We didn’t get to choose where or to whom we were born and we definitely won the birth lottery. We’ve been given the ability to choose the life we want, something that most of the world, including some Americans, have very little control over as they are concentrated on just surviving.
So in honor of Thanksgiving, here are the five things Chris and I never knew we were thankful for until we travelled. While we are thankful everyday for the big things, our loving families, awesome friends, education, health, and healthcare, it is often the little things that make us realize just easy we have it at home.
- By far the number one thing we miss is drinkable tap water, and a never ending supply of it in general. Most of our western world, at least as far as I know, has clean, healthy water that runs crystal clear, (we even get to choose if it’s going to be hot or cold!), out of the facets in our houses. For the majority of the world this is just not true and it is a lot of work to achieve water, let alone clean water. It is a common scene in almost every country we go to, to see men and especially women standing around a community tap and waiting to fill their water vessels. For some this takes hours out of their day. No where was this worse than in the places we visited in Eastern Africa, where drought makes water a constant challenge. It is especially disheartening to see women filling their water canisters with water from rivers and lakes that are also used to water cattle, bathe, do laundry, and everything else. As we are tourists we almost always have access to a tap with water and as we also have access to iodine tablets and bottled drinking water, we really have no right to complain. However, the simple fact is that to our spoiled selves, it is a nuisance to have to think about obtaining drinkable water. While traveling you get used to remembering to take your bottle of water with you when brush your teeth and it is definitely not a hindrance to wanting to travel but is something that makes you very aware of how easy we have it back home. On a side note, think twice about buying bottled water both at home or abroad. Bottled water needs to be transported, probably by a truck that uses oil and releases pollution. Also, something we hadn’t really thought about before we got to Nepal, but most countries do not have recycling programs and more than likely that bottle will end up on the ground or being burned. Some great alternatives include Iodine Tablets, a filter, or a SteriPen.
- We are now incredibly thankful for toilets and specifically western style toilets, you know that porcelain thing you sit on. For most of the world it’s about all about the squatting toilet (the picture here is quite a bit nicer than most we have seen). Time for a gross moment. Imagine having a horrific stomach bug. You’re weak and dehydrated, and instead of having a comfy clean toilet to sit on, with a fresh supply of soft toilet paper, you are squatting over a hole in the ground, trying to keep your pants from touching the very often nasty ground, and working to keep yourself from falling over or falling asleep! (Also hope that you remembered to bring TP with you!) Even when your pipes are in good, working condition, these squat toilets are just not a lot of fun and you better believe that anytime we get access to a western toilet, we make full use of it.
- Sidewalks. Oh, the beautiful sidewalk creating a glorious safe haven for the walker, stopping cars and motorbikes from running one over. Growing up in the country where you were more likely to get run over by a buggy than car and then moving to cities with impressive infrastructures complete with these glorious pedestrian pathways, I had no idea how important these structures were. Walking in busy cities where one little path is a chaotic maze of cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles, hawkers, food venders, cows, children, dogs, and pedestrians makes you realize how important paying attention to where you walk is. And don’t even get me started on avoiding all the lovely poop and mud covering the ground!
- Our freedoms, whether it’s the right to vote or freedom of speech, religion, or media, when you grow up with these as a given you forget that much of the world does not share them or what that really means. While these seem like they would be givens to be thankful for, and many of us say regularly that we are, I don’t think we often really think about what not having those freedoms would really be like. Most of the countries we have visited are very young democracies with a long history of political strife and they are still desperately trying to figure things out. While many are making incredibly impressive strides, Nepal is in the process of its second non-violent vote and hopefully passing over of power, there are still a lot of challenges to face as many governments continue to try to hold power by limiting freedoms, especially that of the press.
- The fact that in the end, while the world is a wonderful mass of different cultures and traditions, most of the world’s people really are very similar. This may sound like an odd statement and a lot of people may disagree with me, but it’s something that I find not only to be true but incredibly comforting. I’ve seen women on four continents, including my own sister, getting their children ready for school, fixing their clothes, holding their hands as they walk them, and the children turning around to wave at their moms before running off to join their friends. The children may all look different, the moms may all have different levels of ability to care for their kids, but in the end they all want the same, for their kids to be safe and happy, with a better life than they had. And it’s no different when it comes to the men. The pride a man has in his family is so evident, the look my dad often had was the same look I have seen on fathers’ faces in Malawi. While every place we visit is wonderfully unique, we also often find it eerily similar, people going about their daily lives, doing the best they can, and taking care of those that matter to them.
Everyday one of us will be asked by a local where we are from and when the person hears that we are from America, their face will light up and the response is inevitably, “oh, that’s a nice place, isn’t it?”. You can see how eager they are to hear that America is every bit as wonderful as they imagine.
Right now with all the issues our country faces, most of which we are creating for ourselves, it is easy to say something flippant like “sometimes” or even “when our politicians aren’t messing everything up!” But the simple fact is at the end of the day, the US really is a nice place where survival is not usually a question but a given and for good or bad, choice exists.
So as you are sitting down today to your turkey dinners and going around saying what you are thankful for, take a moment to think about not only the big things but the little things that being American grants us. Or even better yet take a moment to do something to show your gratitude. Make a pledge to live life a little more to the fullest or to take shorter showers, think about donating some of your time or money to a local school, or make a donation to a charity that delivers clean drinking water to those without. We can all say we are thankful but I think it is much better to show it.