Saturday, March 14, 2015

10 Things I Took For Granted: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Living Without Luxury


Don't be fooled by the title of this post, it's not complicated and it's not about economics...a word I personally can't even say without yawning. First of all, I'm not going to apologize for the infrequency of my posts anymore because a) I'm busy, and b) I'm tired of doing it every single time I post something. Just remember that you get what you pay for, and this endearingly amateur prose I provide is free.

It's funny I should bring up the mantra "you get what you pay for," because it fits right into the theme of this post. Recently I started a unit on Excel and small business ventures for my 12th grade ICT class with the intention of squeezing some knowledge of income generation principles in with all the formula confusion. I got the idea to have them do a cost-benefit analysis of two small businesses in their community, and then while researching cost-benefit analyses I became slightly obsessed with them. I started to cost-benefit analyze all of my actions, like getting up at 9:00 AM vs. 8, studying for the GRE vs. binge-watching House of Cards, and walking to the market vs. just eating tuna again for dinner.

So here I'd like to do a cost-benefit analysis of living poor vs. having all of the luxuries I took for granted in the States. You may be thinking, "Woah...poor? That's not a very PC term. Wouldn't "simply" or "within modest means" be prettier?" Nope. I'm poor. Just to prove it to you, I will reveal that I live on $200 a month. This has to cover food, water, electricity, travel, internet/phone credit, my maid (yes, she's an essential living expense), and any misc. expenses for the month. Just to make that hit home, that's less than a quarter of what I'd be receiving on welfare, and 21% below the US poverty threshold for a single person. Even so, I'm pretty well off compared to most of the family households in my community.

Now that we've established how poor I am, here's the list of the top things I now realize I took for granted living in the US,  how living without them has affected me and how I believe they affect societies in general.

*Note: These are ranked by how much I took them for granted (i.e. how quickly I would decide to give up my right arm to have them at this moment in time), not by their impact on society.

10. Diversity

This one ranks low on my list because being the only white person around sometimes has its perks here, like getting the front seat in a chapa that's usually reserved for men, or claiming ignorance of cultural norms/school policies when I really just don't want to follow them. I don't want to downplay how alienating it is, though. Being stared at everywhere you go, being catcalled in broken english and constantly disrespected, being distrusted or discredited at work, and being held to a different standard than the rest of your colleagues is exhausting and frustrating. Not only that, but the amount of times someone has asked in disbelief, "You have black people in America?" baffles me.

I think being exposed to such a wide variety of people is something all Americans take for granted to some degree. Speaking generally, people of the same race, religion, and background tend to stick together. This makes sense because we tend to pick our friends based on common interest, but there is such a beneficial affect on our psyche when we surround ourselves with different kinds of people. If you want racism, sexism, and other discriminations to dissipate, the best thing you can do as an individual is to befriend people who are different than you. That's when you really start to accept, on a conscious and an intuitive level, that we're all human beings deserving respect, and that's when you'll start to make decisions based on that respect.

9. Reliable Government/Democracy

Again, really important on a society level...but not affecting me so much as the lack of delicious ready-to-eat fried chicken. All jokes aside, having the security of the US government is something I seriously took for granted. We can complain about its problems and corruption, and we can even be justified in our complaints, but we've got a better system in place than 90% of the World and we're constantly working to make it better. I take comfort in knowing that vaccines, antibiotics and antiviral drugs are always available, that emergency medical care will be given to me regardless of my ability to pay, that if things get really bad and I can't afford to feed myself I can apply for aid, and that if I get kidnapped by Somalian pirates my government will move hell and high water to get me back safely.

Real democracy, a vote that counts, and an opportunity to be a part of the change in my government is something I will never complain about, because the alternative is seriously bleak. The blind sheep mentality is detrimental to the mindset of a country's people and, in my opinion, directly affects its efficiency and success as a whole.

8. Air Conditioning

Big switch here, but if your air has ever gone out in the dead of summer while the repairman is on vacation you know what I'm talking about. Except, you don't. Sorry friends and loved ones but when you compare the heat of the Southeastern US with this heat in Southeastern Africa it's the biggest understatement you could possibly make. The sun is literally closer to me. This means that not only is it hotter but the sun's rays are more intense, resulting in what feels like an oven set to 300F on a cloudless day. Add in the humidity of being on the coast and it's kin to that oven and the sauna in your gym combined. I can't even use the expression "sweating like a whore in church" because if that whore was sweating like I am I have no doubts that she would promptly be kicked out of church, or maybe be taken to the hospital.

How does AC affect society? I'm convinced it makes us more efficient and happier in general. The Mozambican workday in the summer is slow and there are lots of breaks because it's way to hot to sit inside. Also it's too hot to eat or sleep at night so everyone just stays in this daze of weakness and lack of motivation to do anything except nap. AC keeps us moving quicker, working longer, and sleeping better. Can't argue with a blessing like that.

7. 9-1-1

I had a dream a couple of nights ago that one of my students came into my house and refused to leave. So, essentially a nightmare. One of my threats to coerce him into leaving was to call the police to come remove him. I picked up my phone and started to dial 911 and then I realized that number means nothing here.

Don't get me wrong, there are police here in my village. If I needed them I'd just have to walk down the road to the station and get one. In bigger cities there's a definite police presence in the streets at all hours to enforce the law (and harass foreigners). I'm sure there's also a station number to call in the cities as well. One of the things I like about my village is the fact that I don't feel the need to have constant contact with the police to feel safe. I think it says a lot about the communal sense of security that exists in rural Mozambique. 911 is about more than just police, though. It's about the fact that when you're in danger of dying, you have an escape plan.

If I'm in a tight spot, it would take Peace Corps approximately 14 hours, best case scenario, to get me to the capitol. Add another 4-10 hours if it's something like emergency surgery that would need to happen in South Africa. This doesn't worry me too much because there aren't that many things that will kill you in under 24 hours but not instantly. What would worry me is if I were a national, and I had no real hope of immediate help in an emergency. The impact as far as I can tell is that people rely more on each other than they do the police, and they take precautions into their own hands when needed. Walk through any city in the developing world and this is evident by the fortress-style iron grating, electric fences, and broken glass/barbed wire used to protect residences and businesses. Of course, we've got our alarm systems and deadbolts, but there isn't a constant need to worry about being the victim of a crime in your own home when the authorities are about 10 minutes, not 4 hours, away.

6. Libraries

The availability of information is invaluable to me as a scientist. Libraries are free sources of information that have unfortunately lost popularity with the growth of the internet. You can still use the internet for free at the library, though. Free information for all! It's such an amazing concept. Every time I want to assign a research project to my students I have to print out articles for them to use, and every weekend flocks of children gather to look at our small collection of children's books. There is no building with free access to books, dictionaries, atlases, newspapers, computers, and internet. It just doesn't exist.

Obvious impacts are literacy rates and education quality, but I also think taking away that hub of credible information causes a dangerous shift. When your only source of information comes from the internet, television, and gossip, critical thinking and careful research go out the window (or never come into the picture in the first place). People stop questioning what they hear and more readily accept it to be true.

This may just be an inevitable trait of humanity though, given the measles outbreak in the Land of Information because people started believing vaccines are more dangerous than infectious disease epidemics. Hey, easy fix: lock everyone in a library who believes Facebook articles and/or celebrities are credible sources until they see the light and/or all succumb to rubella.

5. 24/7

This encompasses everything convenient about America, and our passion for making the most of our time. In Mozambique things are not so. The lunch break starts at noon and ends at 2:30 (or so). Things close promptly at 6 on weekdays and noon on Saturday, and good luck finding anything open on Sunday. This is not to say that you couldn't walk a mile to pay your electricity bill only to find that the sole employee of the energy company is inexplicably not there at 9:30 AM on a Tuesday. Life here is, in a word, inconvenient.

Astonishingly, people just accept the inconvenience of life for what it is, mostly because they've never known anything different. I, however, have an extremely hard time accepting the inconveniences and usually end up taking it out on the unsuspecting postal worker, waitress, or aforementioned energy company employee. Life is slower here, and that means less efficiency and productivity. But it also means less stress and frustration, with an ability to let things go that are out of your control. This I can admire, because I lack the ability to not try to control everything.

I often make fun of how slowly Mozambicans walk, dubbing it the "Mozambican Mosey." If I think about it, though, it accurately reflects the lifestyle here. For us in America, life is all about the destination. We live our lives constantly thinking about the future, preparing for what's next. Mozambicans live in the present. They're mind is on the moment they're in, so there's no rush to get to the next one. The journey is as important as the destination, so why hurry?

4. Wifi

OK, so it's not so hard living without wifi, but I lump this in with reliable cell service, internet, and all the things that instantly connect us to other people. Being connected to anyone with the press of the send button meant constant communication and no interruptions in social connections or productivity.

Now, conversations with friends and family are much more infrequent, and there's really no good way to keep up with everyone I used to talk to regularly. I just find out they're engaged or pregnant or moving to China whenever I log onto Facebook. Even contact within country is spotty and sometimes my village goes days without cell phone service, sans viable explanation.

I will say that each conversation I do have is more meaningful, partly because we have substantial things to talk about and partly because there's no such thing as unlimited pre-paid phone credit, so minutes are meticais! Arguments can be made that not having internet access is a blessing, but I maintain that despite the positives of being off the grid, it is still overall a curse. Not to mention, the "days since this iPhone has been backed up" notification is driving me insane, like tally marks on my prison cell wall.

3. Transportation

Safe, reliable transportation makes life less stressful, and less dangerous. First of all, having (enforced) safety regulations on all vehicles before allowing them registration is somewhat of an obvious yet overlooked measure in the developing world. I mean, you can charge money for these inspections, make it a profitable endeavor, and ensure the safety of your citizens. But noooooo, because then the colorful culture of cramming 40 people into a barely road-worthy pickup with secondhand tires and a transmission welded together in the market by some guy named "Rasta" would die. Can't be having that.

I want to say I took for granted having my own car, but I think I really took for granted having my own personal space in a car...or train or bus or boat. Also, the fixed scheduled departures and arrivals, coupled with the convenience of everyone else you know having a car, even if you don't (see number 5). The result? You always get to work on time, right?

Nope...just traffic. But at least there's AC! ;)

3. Prepared Meals

I couldn't decide whether to put fast food, restaurants, or just American food in general, so I decided on meals prepared by someone else other than myself. This is an important distinction because, while I firmly believe food from any other country just isn't as good as the American variety, I have had good food here. Just last night I made the best black bean enchiladas with homemade sauce. They were delicious, but they took me hours to make and they would have been just as delicious coming from a Mexican restaurant where someone spent hours making them for me.

The main point here is that meals are ready and available everywhere back home, and here they take hours to prepare. There's no sandwich meat or microwaves, and even salad veggies have to be bleached first. The result is spending most of your day planning and preparing meals, or visiting neighbors around mealtimes until one of them invites you to eat with them. The most serious problem arises on Sunday, when you're travelling home from a long weekend, tired, hungry, and nothing is open. Or worse, around 1 AM when you get the munchies and there's no taco bell or 24-hour Kroger.

I mark a country's development index with the availability of late night snacks.

2. Water

Do I mean indoor plumbing? No, I mean water. As in reliable access to clean drinking water. Not having to carry water for miles (or yards, even) to your house in a bucket. Having running water to wash your hands with. Irrigation systems for agriculture. Slip n slides and swimming pools!

What happens when you don't have it? Well, you carry enough water to your house to drink and bathe and cook with every few days. You praise the heavens and set out every bucket you own whenever it rains. You boil your drinking water even when it's 100 degrees outside. You might occasionally get cholera or giardia. You might have to wash your clothes in the river during a drought. Bottom line: you appreciate it, and you don't waste it.

I can bathe in 3 liters of water. I can wash my hair and body and shave with less than the liquid content of two bottles of coke. I do it every day here. I think clean, drinkable running water is a huge health advantage, but I think always having access to it has led us to waste it.  Every drop of water is precious when you have to carry 25 liters of it from a spicket 75 yards away, and even more precious when your water pumps are hooked up to the extremely spotty energy grid and you sometimes forego bathing for days until the energy comes back on because you have nowhere near the upper body strength to carry water uphill from the river 5 miles away. Which brings me to........

1. Electricity...!

Sofie's choice for every peace corps volunteer is choosing what sucks worse: living without running water or without electricity. Well, I don't have running water and I lived without electricity for 8 months, so I feel qualified to tell you that electricity is far more convenient than running water. It's one of those things upon which you don't realize how much you rely until you don't have it. Without electricity, a short list of things that become infinitely harder and/or impossible are: breakfast (I need coffee before I can light the coal stove, but I need to light the stove to make coffee!), pretty much all other meals, using the telephone, using the computer, sleeping (without a fan), keeping leftovers, purchasing meat, fish, or dairy, and any activities after 8 PM.

I will admit that having it has made me soft: I was sort of used to it when we didn't have it, but now, when it goes out, I become furious and would rather suffer in the dark than get out the cookstove and light the oil lamps. Just this morning I started WWIII with the neighbors because they forgot to pay the energy bill and I had to sleep without a fan. Being able to admit this makes me no more reliant on it, though. I know I can live without it, I just don't have to...and I don't want to.


So there you have it. That's my list. If you were wondering how the other half (of the world) lives, now you know. It's important to say that it's not a bad life, just a different one. There's not a thing on this list that has made me unhappy or unhealthy by giving it up. In fact, if I were to analyze what happens to society in general when you strip away luxury and convenience, I would say they become more resourceful. Humans have an incredible knack for adapting...we've been doing it for a long time. Mozambicans amaze me with this quality and I have definitely noticed an increase in my own capacity to make things work with limited resources. So enjoy your luxuries, and be thankful for them, but know that you can live without them. They don't define our happiness or our ability to be productive and successful human beings.

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