After talking to some of my friends back home I’ve realised how much my view of the world has changed since I left New Zealand 3 years ago. As I continue to experience different cultures the way I see the world continues to evolve, for better or worse, and each encounter seems to add different perspectives that my previous self would have never even tried to appreciate. But, what’s most interesting is that when I look back, it’s the moments that were seemingly insignificant at the time that have ended up influencing me the most. There’s been many, but here’s 3 of my favourites.
The self proclaimed ‘parking warden’ in Colombia
While travelling through the small Colombian city of Pereira, I got in touch with a Couchsurfing contact named Carlos to help show me around town. After we agreed to meet he picked me up in his flash 4WD and we headed off to a small cafe for a drink and something to eat. He was cool, and we chatted like old friends as we drove out to the city. Then, something weird happened. As we arrived and he started parking the car, an old, raggedy looking man got up off the curb and stood in front of us. I thought he was going to cause trouble, but I quickly learned he was just trying to help us park the car. Slightly puzzled, I watched as he slowly walked back, holding his arms out and guiding us in, giving us the ‘slowly, slowly’ signal and then finally telling us to stop. All I could think in my head was “gee thanks, old man, for helping us park a car in a completely empty parking lot.”
I didn’t give him too much thought after that, but when it came time to leave we walked out to the car and he was still sitting there. He stood up, went to the back of the car and started ushering us out, again not really doing anything helpful, but trying to look like he was. Once we’d backed out and were ready to drive off, Carlos wound down the window, gave him a few coins and said “Gracias”, before heading off down the road.
“Why did you pay him?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s his spot. They all have their own spots. If you park there, they make sure no one touches your car and you just give them some money to say thanks.”
“But is anyone going to touch your car anyway?”
“No, probably not.”
“So what happens if you don’t pay him?”
I remember looking at him like he was an idiot. It all seemed so bizarre to me.
“Well why do you need to pay him when you don’t even want his help?” I asked.
“We are like that in Colombia. It’s our culture, we just try to help each other. He needs to get money somewhere, so we give it to him. Otherwise he’ll be annoying people, stealing from them, it’s not good. We all give him a few pesos, and it’s not a problem.”
After thinking about it for most of the day, I actually started to admire that old man. He was trying to make a way to earn money for himself, without hurting anybody or bothering anyone; just giving himself the dignity of “working”, albeit nothing important, and in a weird kind of way, making an honest living. But more than that, Carlos’ attitude was one that I had never seen in my own country. It was as if giving was so normal for him, that he didn’t even think twice about it. When did the culture in my own country become so selfish? Carlos doesn’t know it, but I learned an incredible lesson from him that day, and my opinion of Colombia and it’s people changed completely. I really think the world would be a much better place if we all started being a little more Colombian.
“Blessed are those who can give without remembering and take without forgetting.” -Elizabeth Bibesco
The fried rice lady in Shanghai
While I was living in Shanghai I would get dinner from a bunch of street food stalls outside my dorms. I had a few favourites, but there was this one lady who sold fried rice that I’d buy from nearly every night. Eventually she started to recognise me, and in her head she’d probably labelled me as the guy who always wanted 2 eggs and no chili.
One Friday, after a hard night out, I’d fallen asleep in the back of the taxi. As we pulled up to my dorms I paid the driver, stumbled out of the car and started walking towards the gate. It was almost 4 a.m. but in the distance, I saw 3 old ladies and their food stands, sitting half-asleep on their stools in the blistering cold. I squinted and in my drunken haze, I noticed my fried rice lady was one of them, leaning against a pillar in her usual spot. As she saw me from afar she laughed, jumped up and turned on her wok. How could I possibly not buy a box of rice from her now?
For those of you who’ve been to Shanghai, you’ll know the winter night there is brutal. It’s a sharp, piercing cold, usually sub zero, and when you add in the air pollution it’s just insanely uncomfortable. But here was this old lady, probably pushing 60, sitting out in the cold at 4 a.m. at the slight chance of earning a few extra dollars.
What I vividly remember though, as I stood in front of her, warming my hands against her stove and watching her cook my rice, was looking at her face and thinking to myself “Why have I never worked this hard?”
They say that struggle breeds success, and if I’m honest with myself I’m not sure that I’ve ever really struggled a day in my life. I mean, yeah, I had those sleepless nights during exams, which were unbelievably traumatic, and there were those near-death experiences where I had to work through the day without a lunch break. Gosh, with a life so cruel, how am I even still alive?
All sarcasm aside, what are we meant to work towards when we’ve been handed a fairytale life? What do we do when we’re already born with full stomachs and beds with clean sheets? We be grateful, of course, but does that also mean our work is done? Or does it just mean we’re expected to do so much more? I’m starting to believe it’s the latter.
“Never throughout history has a man who lived a life of ease lived a life worth remembering.” -Theodore Roosevelt
The Tanzanian Jimmy Carter
I’ve been to Tanzania a few times now, and in the small town of Moshi I’ve gotten to know various locals over the years. One of them is a street seller who introduces himself as Jimmy Carter (yes, like the old American president). Why? I have absolutely no idea.
The first time I met him he ran up to me on the street and tried selling me bracelets. He was relentless. He followed me all around town, even when I ignored him for about 15 minutes, and no matter how many times I said no he just wouldn’t let up.
“2,000 shillings! OK, 1,500. OK 1,000. OK 500! Please brother 500. OK 200.”
I had to admire his persistence. In the end I gave him 500 shillings (about 50 cents) and let him keep his bracelets to annoy someone else with.
Over time I got to know Jimmy well. Whenever he saw me he’d chase me down, and while he initially would try to sell me stuff, we eventually just became friends. I had considered him a nuisance to begin with, but once I started taking the time to actually listen to him his stories began to surprise me. I was actually amazed at how adept and insightful his street selling had made him.
“Find the girl who walks slowly. She’s the one who buys. The one who walks fast, she’s too busy, she won’t buy.”
“The paintings, I always see girls buy paintings from the store. So now I carry small paintings, and the girls buy it. I never carry the big ones though, no one buys the big ones. Maybe its hard to carry.”
The more time he spent on the street the more his business savvy improved, and through experience he’d learned business lessons that most of us don’t even learn in school.
“I show them this bracelet first, the cheap one. Then I show them the nice one. When they see the cheap one first, they always buy the nice one after.”
“I need to talk to people like you, to practice the English. When I learn more words, I can learn more negotiate. When I learn English my selling really increase.”
“I have to dress nice, you know. When I wear this shirt, people like me more, I sell more. So I always wear this shirt.”
It was fascinating. He was changing up his stock, staying presentable, learning to look for high probability customers and learning how to price things. He even understood the concepts of price fixing and supply and demand, and although he didn’t use those ‘academic’ terms, he understood the concepts perfectly. It was stuff I’d spent entire semesters learning in marketing and economics class, and here was some African kid who’d learned it on the street and at times would make more sense than my university professors. Is it any wonder China’s richest man started out selling candy on the street for less than $1 a day? It was a humbling lesson that we should never underestimate the guys at the bottom, because the truth is they’re probably smarter than us, work harder than we’ve ever worked and will probably end up making more than we’ve ever made. I really hope that one day I’ll return and I’ll meet Jimmy not on the street, but standing in his own store.
“Many who are self-taught far excel the doctors, masters, and bachelors of the most renowned universities.” -Ludwig von Mises
I look back at my former self and it terrifies me. Just the closed-mindedness I had, that anyone who was poor was poor because they were lazy, and that anyone who didn’t go to university didn’t go because they were stupid. I’ve learned that there’s no ‘right path’ in life and everyone will find their own way if you let them. I used to think because I passed some fancy exams and wore a suit that I was better than the guy on the street, when in reality it’s the guy on the street who will probably change the world and I’m the one who’s more likely to flitter away into mediocrity. Travelling has definitely forced me to check my privelege and concede that while my life has been pleasant, it’s mostly been lived in a precious bubble that’s stopped me from seeing what’s really on the outside.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
– Mark Twain
So travel. It’s an education greater than any university degree and one you will never find in any classroom. Quite simply, it will change your life.
Photo credit (modified): Andrea_44@Flickr