Tag Archives: mental wealth

A blind man and a deaf man meet… there’s a joke waiting here somewhere…

20 Apr

“What are you doing here?” we asked each other when I finally met the other gringo in my neighborhood. Not that there aren’t plenty of gringos in Puerto, both visitors and expats, but not so many in neighborhoods like ours. In neighborhoods (colonias) like ours, we’re far from the beach and even a ways from the market, kind of on the outskirts. It is not where there are shops filled with foreign goods and English-speaking manicurists and real estate agents, to say the least. So far I’ve never even seen another gringo on the bus with me, so Conan and I were really curious when we noticed a tall white guy who did not appear to be a Jehovah’s Witness in our area.

“So you´re from the hills” he said when I told him I was from Kentucky. “Ha! And you’re from Arkansas” I thought, laughing on the inside. If you’re from the U.S., you already know about the reputation that both of those states have for being backwards, uneducated, underdeveloped, poor. (It’s like someone from San Juan meeting someone from Yaite, Conan says, if you’re from Oaxaca.) And here we are, both of us, from states where folks imagine us so poor we don´t even wear shoes, living in a poor state in a “developing” country where people really are lucky if they’ve got a pair of sandals, sometimes. And we’re sizing each other up, discussing our situations, both of us thinking “that poor man/woman,” but poor in the other sense.

I looked at his one-room tin house, where he lives with his wife and nearly-grown stepson, and I compared it to our big four-room concrete house with indoor plumbing. I felt sorry for him and his small grasp of Spanish, for his adaptation process, which I figured must be rougher than mine, since he’s only been here a couple of months and he’s considerably older than I am. He told me he can’t get used to the diet, he’s lost so much weight his pants are falling off of him since he’s used to eating meat all the time. (And here I am, always fighting to keep from gaining weight from all the tortillas around here!) He’s still trying to figure out the process to get his permanent resident card, and I got mine quickly and painlessly (Oh if only immigration officials in the U.S. could come get some training on how to act like humans from my buddies in migración down here! They even say hi to me and smile when we see each other around town!) All in all, I was thinking I really had life made compared to him, and wondering if I could translate his documents for immigration or give him some Spanish lessons or something.

Meanwhile I was answering his questions about us, and when I told him we’ve got a small child and no electricity, he must’ve thought, “that poor family.” He immediately asked what he could do to help us out. He volunteered his refrigerator to make ice for us for our makeshift fridge, he let me know we could recharge our lamps at his house. I was impressed by and grateful for his instant offers to give, despite the fact that he was currently jobless and didn’t seem to have a giant nest egg hiding in his outdoor shower stall.

But is it really impressive? Nice, yes, but rare? Nah. I think that one of the things that is true for most people most of the time is that we want to be useful, contributing citizens of our universe. If you are helping someone, it reminds you that you have something to offer, even if you don’t have a whole lot else. In the U.S., particularly, we put so much importance on our paying jobs, that being jobless is practically the same as useless in society’s eyes, and so the need to feel useful is even stronger when you’re unemployed (in my personal experience).

So, back to my question: Isn’t it more like the norm than the exception for people with less material wealth to be richer in many other ways, and more generous? Research says yes. (check out this article for a nice summary of some of the research and links to more details if you’re interested:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22FOB-wwln-t.html?_r=0

I could cite lots of personal experiences that speak to poor people being more generous than rich people, too. For example, Paraguay is the 2nd poorest country in South America, and yet so much in their culture is based around giving and sharing. Whether they’re drinking terere (their national drink, a kind of tea) or beer, you don’t drink it alone; it’s always passed around, shared. When I stayed in Paraguay for a few weeks, I was completely adopted and taken care of by an entire neighborhood of amazing and materially poor people.

I don’t want to glorify poverty, by any means. When you are so poor you don’t have options, when you can’t feed your kids (or yourself), when you can’t send your kids to school, when you have to decide between buying gas to cook or going to the doctor- well, there are lots of really ugly things about poverty, especially in it’s more extreme levels.

But maybe being rich is nothing to aim for, either. Maybe it’s enough to live in our neighborhoods and keep on struggling and helping each other out. Even if I think he’s from the sticks and he thinks I’m from the hills, even if we each think the other has a rougher situation, at least we are reminded that we’re both here because we love and value our families more than whatever material comforts we’ve given up to be here. I am reminded that whether we’re deaf or blind or Mexican or ‘Merkin’ or from Kentucky or Arkansas, we’ve got a lot more in common than we think. And no matter what we’ve got or don’t have, we’ve still all got something to contribute.

So look out for the gringo invasion in colonia la perserverancia*!

*okay, okay, this is not really the name of our colonia; it’s a joke between Conan and Lili and Uriel and me that you’ll have to come visit to get it all… or maybe next blog piece…