How Traveling and Living Abroad Gave Me a Better Perspective on Time and Happiness
One of the great advantages of traveling, or better yet, living in a different country, is to see how others live their lives. If we are open to it, we can gain perspective and insight, not only into the human condition in general, but more pointedly, into our own condition.
I'll give you an example.
While on a road trip for Best Places in the World to Retire, we have traveled by car thousands of miles through Mexico, from the California border in Mexicali, to the southern tip of Mexico in the Yucatan, where you can cross into Belize.
Along the way, I've noticed repeatedly that, especially in the poorer villages, virtually all the Mexicans I saw in interactions with each other appeared to be happy. This was true whether I came across them unexpectedly while hiking, or in their little stores, or walking their kids to school. Not the fake "how are you / I really don't care" happy, but genuinely happy, joking with each other, greeting each other warmly as if the other person mattered, etc. This even happened to me when, as a gringo walking alone and on a trail in tribal lands, I very unexpectedly came across a local.
I have heard the same observations from expats on our site about the locals in Panama, Belize, and Nicaragua, where almost all the locals are materially much less wealthy than those in the US and Canada. In many cases, this phenomenon and way of life is one of the reasons many people from the US and Canada move abroad in the first place.
How could this be? Weren't the people living in these countries materially poor, and wouldn't it naturally follow that their poverty would make them miserable?
I compared what I saw in these areas in Mexico with what I saw when I was in much wealthier, larger First World cities, such as New York City, Chicago, or even Tokyo. In those places, I would generally see people with more strained looks on their faces, most likely over-scheduled and late, hurrying from one place to another, seemingly not very happy and certainly not very relaxed.
Comparing the two reminded me of the word that inhabitants south of the US border will use for "to worry about", which is "preocuparse," or to be "preoccupied". In our Developed World quest for material goods, most pronounced in larger cities, have we made ourselves pre-occupied and unhappy? And what is the point of working for all these material goods, anyway? Isn't the point to be happy?
An economist may argue that the people in the little, poorer villages are "freeloading" off of the advancements made by those preoccupied people with their more hurried, self-important lives, which is true. People who are not working and just enjoying each others' company are not developing cures for diseases, or even figuring out how to have clean water and enough food to eat, etc., without which no one would be very happy.
It is also true that many people love their work, so they are not unhappy at all working lots of hours. What I'm referring to is the larger group of people who would definitely be happier with more time off. Perhaps I'm referring to you.
So is that the unspoken trade-off: more happiness vs. more material success? Of course, it is a continuum, and one we don't think about much, unless you see people at a place on that continuum different than you and your peer group. This is one of the advantages of traveling. As you observe these people who are behaving differently than you and your friends, you may ask yourself, "Where is the best place on this continuum for me?"
This all reminds me of the story I was told years ago, before I did much long term traveling. It's about the investment banker who, while taking a walk down the beach from his $500 per night hotel room, came across a poor Mexican fishing village where he saw a particular fisherman who had come in hours before the others but had three times as many fish, and was leaving his boat to go home. Being naturally inquisitive, the investment banker stopped the fisherman and asked him how he did it.
"I have a secret technique, señor, that I use to catch lots of fish easily."
The investment banker was perplexed. "OK. So if you catch so many fish so easily, why don't you go back out for a second or third run? Then, you could catch even more."
"I would rather come home early."
Even more confused the investment banker asked, "Well, what in the world do you do when you come home early?"
"I can be with my kids," the fisherman replied. "Then later, after we all have a big lunch together, I take a nap, and have enough time later to stroll along the beach with my wife. If I made several trips back out to fish, I wouldn't be able to do that."
The investment banker was incredulous that the fisherman was leaving so much profit on the table.
"Listen. Here's what we'll do," the investment banker said. "You tell me the technique. We can hire a bunch of high-end IP lawyers to get a patent and the exclusive rights. If anyone infringes on us, we'll sue the pants off them! Then, I'll go to New York to get some investment capital, we'll buy a fleet of ships, train the crews, set up distribution worldwide, go public, and cash out for a fortune! After just three years of 12 hour days work, you'll be rich!"
"And what would I do then, señor?"
"Well, with all that money, you come home early and be with your kids. Later, after you have a big lunch together, you can take a nap and have enough time to stroll along the beach with your wife."
Now that I've seen this in person, the story means a lot more to me.
In our next story, we describe the drive to the Yucatan Peninsula to Merida, then Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Akumal and Tulum.
Pictures, from top to bottom:
- Jet Metier at a fishing village in Baja California Sur
- Jet Metier and Chuck Bolotin with new friends Johnny and Gaby Meza in San Juan Cosala, near Ajijic, Mexico
- Jet Metier and Chuck Bolotin with new friends in Cordoba, Mexico
- Mexican fisherman and his wife in La Ventana Bay, Baja California Sur
- Chuck Bolotin with Pancho and his son as invited guests at Chuck and Jet's home in Ajijic, Mexico
- Jet Metier and Chuck Bolotin on the road to Cordoba posting with kids celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe
To go to our previous road trip story, go to French Fries or Foie Gras? Comparing the Famous Expat Locations Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende
To go to our next road trip story, go to The Road from San Miguel de Allende to Puebla: Undiminished Anticipation and an Unexpected Oasis
To see all Mexico road trip stories, go to Chuck Bolotin's profile.
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To see more videos of the trip, see our YouTube channel.
(Map data 2017 copyright Google INEGI)
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