The Little Ways I've Come to Feel Rich After 9 Years of Travel

by Elaina Giolando Dec 11, 2016

There’s something to love about everywhere. In Mexico City, where I currently live, it’s the tacos in the backstreets behind Paseo de la Reforma. In India, it’s the ubiquitous chai wallah. In Taiwan, it’s bubble tea. In Rio, it’s the language singing from the mouth of every Brazilian. In Berlin, it’s the music, and in Amsterdam, the bike lanes.

I can’t fault Nigeria for not having Dutch transport sensibilities any more than I fault the Dutch for their uninspiring dance moves (sorry, the Nigerians just out-groove all of us).

Traveling has allowed me to see the world — and by extension, myself, my friends, family, and relationships — for what it is, in all its various shades of beauty and richness. I try not to compare, judge, or long for what’s unavailable and instead see with open eyes simply what is. I’m not going to reminisce about the jungles of Peru while I’m on a desert safari in Egypt, nor am I going to curse a beautiful blonde-haired American boy for his lack of British accent or exotic skin tone. I’m not going to wish I was born in Italy because of these election results, nor am I going to feel entitled because I’m a citizen of one of the most powerful countries on Earth.

It is simply what it is and I am simply who I am and the person in front of me is simply who she is. Traveling has taught me that radical acceptance and compulsive gratitude for whatever is in my life in this moment. Essentially, don’t complain about the coffee in Burma when you can drink their sweet tea. It’s all different and it’s all good.

After nine years on and off the road, for study, work, and pleasure, I’ve also come to a different understanding of what makes me happy and “rich.” By all global measures, I (and most likely you, too) rank in the top percent economically-speaking, but I still live a mostly simple and minimalistic life. I have two pairs of jeans, a couple pairs of shoes, one big suitcase, and no apartment lease. I’ve never owned a car and I’m utterly unimpressed by the latest gadget or somebody’s fancy house. I want to know who you are and how you think, not what you have.

The other night I was falling asleep in my modest $30/night AirBnb in Mexico City, and I realized I had never felt so damn rich. I had my own room to myself (after plenty of years of backpacking and staying in hostels), I had a huge salad of fresh vegetables for dinner (after living in some oil-dependent countries in west Africa where imported strawberries were $15), and even baked cookies for my Mexican roommates (chatting to them mindlessly in Spanish, after being born in a monolingual culture). I even planned a date for the weekend, rejoicing in being born in a culture and generation where women are free to do what we like.

Then I turned off the lamp at my bedside after reading an hour or two of my book, grateful for an education that rendered me both literate and highly curious, not to mention the free-flowing electricity after eating by candlelight for several weeks in Nepal and living with frequent outages in my home in South Africa. Every morning here, I wake up with enough money to buy a warm cup of delicious coffee and walk safely to the office (after having lived in places where neither is an option). I have a new job I find interesting and an income that supports my desired way of life.

Then just this morning, I listened to the most marvelous exchange as I waited for a fresh juice from the guy with a blender and a pile of oranges on the end of my street. The humble-looking woman ahead of me chatted pleasantly with the man as he squeezed her juice, talking about politics and the state of commerce in the neighborhood, addressing him by name and handing over her coins with a smile. The three Mexican men who strolled up next similarly greeted him, “Good morning, Javier!” These small things — the smiles, the respect shown for one another, and the engagement with every individual they encounter their daily life — amounts to a very beautiful existence, don’t you think?

To me, these are all the simple things of life, ever more apparent when we’ve traveled, and boy they are wonderful! My heart breaks for the man who gets out of a warm bed with pain on his face (“Ugh, it’s so early, and I have to go to this damn job.” It’s a miracle you have breath in your lungs and work to be done! Would you rather live in one of the many countries with unemployment rates above 50%?). I worry about the woman who rushes around with her head down (Look up! The sun is shining, you’re well-fed, and have a loving family to return to in the evening!). Or the person who wolfs his lunch down while hunched over his computer. (All this marvelous food! Take a minute to taste it!)

If you’re reading this, you’re rich beyond belief. You have an internet connection and are a fluent speaker of the world’s lingua franca. You’ve had an education, seen some of the world, had the privilege to think about the kind of work you want to do with your life, and now aspire to achieve even more. There’s no need to overcomplicate things, worrying about how to own your own company or hit a six-figure income by 27, or how the dating pool is filled with commitment-phobes, or that you really want to move to the east side, but you can’t afford it, or any of the dozens of ways we distort what’s already perfect and beautiful as it is.

Life on the west side can actually be pretty great, can’t it? This is what I’ve learned. Just look at where you’re standing.

This article originally appeared on Life Before 30 and is republished here with permission.

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