On a beach holiday to the Dominican Republic when I was in my late 20s, we had a chance to drive into the hills with an expat white woman who’d lived there for decades. She drove an old VW van and was the first person who taught me to really think about the lives of people who washed their clothes in the river, who couldn’t do anything with a Canadian dollar I thought I was being generous with.
She took us to buy tightly woven baskets from a woman in the hills. The little house had almost nothing in it — a cooking fire, a pot, stools. I felt a wave of shame that I hadn’t known this was how people truly lived. My ex still has that basket — it’s the sturdy reliable thing to serve bread in.
Since then I’ve been to another 30 or 35 countries. I don’t always end up in people’s homes — but what I’ve noticed when I do is that people try to fill their homes as soon as they can afford it. My guide in Myanmar who took me to his overstuffed main floor, cheap suitcases sprawling over with clothes, photos of his family in gilt embroidered robes. The overstuffed chairs and fabrics that fill the tiny houses I’ve been in in Rwanda and Uganda, Elinah showing off that she had two mugs, Saphra proudly showing me the TV she’d bought with the money she’d earned writing and singing a campaign song for her local MP.
On New Year’s Eve this year I was eating tagine at Hamid’s mother’s home in a Berber village in the Atlas Mountains, watching a nature documentary on a big TV bolted high on the wall. Yesterday, I watched the royal wedding sitting on a carpet in the main room in a home in a village in the Haa Valley in Western Bhutan.
Nor Kim, the grandmother of the house, and I both laughed out loud when the preacher just kept on preaching. We both smiled at the prettiness of the bride. She hobbled up off the floor and got a mango from the kitchen area, cut it and offered me half. I got her a napkin.
My guide and Nor Kim’s son were also rapt.
Somewhere in the middle, a teenage girl with braids came in and complained the fire wasn’t lit so there was no hot water to wash with, and Chimi, my host, lit the stove.
The King of Bhutan and his family watched us watch the wedding.
One thing I’ve learned is that most people in the world don’t sit down at a special table to eat a meal. Chimi set the food on the floor in front of us, the national dish of chili and cheese with no cheese for my sensitive tummy. An intergenerational gang whose relationships I never quite figured out ate while watching a Bhutanese singing competition.
When I left this morning, Nor Kim told my guide she wanted me to stay for several days. I could have stayed there a week, drinking tea and reading on the little carpet, listening to the cows outside, sneaking meat to the stray cat who kept pushing open the door.
I think part of the appeal of traveling to less developed countries is this notion of being drawn to some elemental minimalism. I yearned to spend a silent month in the ancient nunnery we climbed up to yesterday — washing dishes in cold water, having nothing but the most basic things with me. I am notorious for losing and dropping things, and I think it really is a symptom of too much, too much stuff, when did I even BUY nine tubes of hand cream, where the hell is my rescue inhaler? That’s partly why I’m always so drawn to activities like loaded cycling where I have to whittle down to the essentials. I want to believe there are essentials, and if I can just locate and select them, I will have equanimity.
Being in people’s homes all over the world, I have realized the wrong-headedness of romanticizing people who “lead a simpler life.” Simpler usually actually means harder, with fewer choices.
I’m not going to move to a hermitage on the side of a Bhutanese mountain, even though the one we climbed to today came pre-felined. (The poor thing was hungry and so starved of love — people on months-long meditations only eat vegetarian food, once a day. But I couldn’t exactly take her with me).
I feel very privileged I got to stay with Chimi and her family, and I know how privileged I am to have the time and space and money to be in this country. And I’m reminded again that equanimity has to come from how we choose to live where we are.