As a traveler in the “developing world” one is reminded almost daily of poverty. The tired face of hunger, the plight of refugees and the limited prospects for the disabled are impossible to ignore or wish away.
Ironically, one can observe similar misery in the so-called “developed world” where addiction, gentrification, mental illness and lack of a safety net can trap people in a downward spiral of hopelessness. The lifestyle choices and inexpensive goods and services we enjoy at home often come with a hidden price tag. The poor and less fortunate get caught in a game of political football where all sides lose.
Is there much of a difference between Lima and Los Angeles if you’re living under a bridge? Is being destitute in Puno or Loja worse than being down and out in Paris or London? Statistics may “prove” that being poor in Colorado is better than being broke in Cuenca but arguing that one type of misery is better than another can only be done from a position of comfort.
Why am I more moved by poverty abroad than at home where so many of us are just one paycheck or medical bill away from ruin? Perhaps I avoid the inconvenient truth of inequality at home because I’m too busy and overwhelmed with daily life to give it much thought. I can’t solve the problem, so I become “comfortably numb.”
While some are moved to action, others blame the victims. In the USA where we value rugged individualism, upward mobility and self-sufficiency, many feel that shelters, soup kitchens and services are just “handouts” that reinforce poverty as a “lifestyle choice.”
Is poverty just part of the landscape, an inconvenient truth at home, a footnote to the bucket list abroad? Travel and expat life can open the mind, enhance the senses and awaken empathy. Removed from our daily routines and shaken from our assumptions, we have the potential to see, feel, reflect and understand more. Where and how we travel determines what we bring home.
The coin I toss to the kid selling Chiclets or the family begging on the street corner probably won’t solve the world’s problems, though there’s always the chance that today’s street waif is tomorrow’s Einstein. The coins I toss at a favorite charity won’t change the world overnight, but the act of kindness may help prevent my heart from closing.
We may run out of coins but let’s try not to run out of compassion.