Among other things, we should all be grateful for elevators.
A few things I will never take for granted after this trip:
Electricity. I read the first volume of Robert Caro’s excellent biography of Lyndon Johnson a few weeks back. In it, he describes the immense amount of work that Texas farm families had to do to just can food and wash clothes, and how big a deal it was when the Democrats won power in the 1930s. The Democrats forced companies to lay electrical lines throughout the countryside (over fierce Republican opposition, who only cared about the wealthy utility companies and shareholders, and didn’t want to help the poor). When they got electricity, families could use machines to save days of work – without electricity, washing and ironing clothes took two days alone.
The day after reading about how electricity could change the lives of millions, we ended up in a remote Fijian village that had been decimated during a cyclone in 2016. We were sitting with the head of a family named Magila, sitting on the exposed floor of his former house, twisted metal and broken wooden boards everywhere. We were sharing a huge bowl of kava, and chatting. It was near sunset, and he mentioned that they had electric lights on the path back to our hotel, but none of the people in his village had electricity in their homes. Kids couldn’t study; people couldn’t read; the economic future of the village was hampered by the lack of electricity, something we just take for granted. His daughter had to move away to finish school, because she wanted to be a teacher, and couldn’t do it in their home.
Electricity can change a family’s future. Regular, dependable electricity is something to be grateful for.
Safe tap water. Whenever we enter a country, there’s a list of things we look up, and one of them is whether it is safe to drink the tap water. Basically, the answer is always going to be an emphatic “no,” because our Western intestines are weak, and we can’t handle the bacteria in tap water around the world. This means that we also can’t use it to rinse out our mouths after brushing our teeth, so we have to use bottled water for everything, which is an added cost and inconvenience no matter where we are. (“Should we go to the store this evening?” “Hmm…how much water do we have? Just half a bottle? We’d better get a couple liters more…”).
I can’t wait to get home and fill up a glass of tap water and chug it down. Fresh tap water is an absolute blessing, and, like dependable electricity, it’s something we take for granted – and shouldn’t.
Fixed prices. In most of the places we’ve been, the price you pay will depend on how good a negotiator you are. It is fun, and you can get some good deals, but I do look forward to being able to pick up an apple in a supermarket and have it weighed, and know that the price is not going to be based on an arbitrary analysis of our gullibility as foreigners. Even if you get a deal on some mangoes or papayas, there’s a transaction cost every time you go to a market and have to barter your way to a salad.
Seat belts. Self-explanatory.
Hot showers. While I’m grateful to have even a cold shower, considering that in some places running water is a luxury, it will be nice to be able to know that hot water will predictably come out of the tap.
Washing machines. Every day for the last six months, I’ve washed at least one load of clothes in a sink. While I enjoy not having many clothes – and thus not needing to make a choice as to what to wear on any given day – I’m looking forward to being able to sort clothes out of a hamper, load them into a machine, press a button, and walk away.
Calm. In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, one of the contrasts I will always remember is that between the chaos of the Middle East when Lawrence was fighting there, and the relative peace and calm of his village in England. The excitement of Asian cities is incredible – there is so much life and vitality and creativity and people hustle incredibly hard – but I’m going to love being back in the UK, where people get passive-aggressive if you don’t follow the traffic rules and car horns only blare when someone is in danger or VERY angry, and not when, you know, the light is green, or red, or there is no light but perhaps there’s a chicken on the sidewalk that might walk into the road.
Sidewalks. In so many places, sidewalks are simply where you park your car or motorcycle; pedestrians have to walk in the road and dodge in and out of vehicular traffic to get anywhere. I never thought that I’d say this: being in a place with sidewalks you can walk on is going to be cause for celebration.
Plastic-free public places. It’s difficult in Asia to find a beach, river, or pathway through a national park that isn’t littered with plastic bags and bottles, candy wrappers, etc. It’s partly a local problem; in many places, plastic bags are a relatively new phenomenon, and people don’t understand that plastic doesn’t break down and disintegrate. However, in many ways, it’s international: litter from the ocean is churned around in currents and then deposited on the beach by waves, and if nobody is paid to pick it up, it just stays. It will be amazing to see parks, roads, waterways and streets not littered with plastic.
Democracy. We’ve been to India (essentially controlled by the right-wing BJP, which is tightening its grip at all levels of government, and where we were caught in the middle of rioting by BJP members), Vietnam (completely controlled by the communist party), Cambodia (one-party system), Laos (considered the most repressive government in Southeast Asia, and one of the most repressive in the world), Thailand (military dictatorship), Indonesia (democracy), Malaysia (basically one-party system, with some hopes of change), and Fiji (on-and-off democracy; when the military doesn’t like something, it just has a coup, and many Fijians expect one soon); we will be in America for a few days (where the situation is…evolving).
While I don’t make a habit, really, of going around spouting political viewpoints to everyone within earshot, it is chilling to be in places where dissenting citizens are either imprisoned or “disappeared,” and challenging the government is considered treason. When the majority moves to silence or destroy a viable, vocal opposition, the country stagnates; everyone should be concerned about what the Republicans are doing to America right now, and how the Democrats are responding (or not). I’m really looking forward to getting back to the U.K., where, even if it’s imperfect, the opposition is experiencing a resurgence and democracy is flourishing.
Books. We’ve had Kindles on this trip, with access to 600+ books wherever we are, but Laos really drove home how critical books, and a culture of exploration through reading, can be. The access to ideas, to worlds, to other peoples’ lives and minds and distilled knowledge – it’s such a blessing.
The only furniture I absolutely have to have moving forward: a well-stocked bookshelf.