1. Poor countries do not develop in the order you expect
When I stayed in Batu Puteh in Borneo last year, the family home I lived in had no sink in the bathroom and you washed by pouring cold water over yourself from a big barrel that filled up with rainwater. Yet in the living room there was a large flat-screen TV and satellite. This really showed me how poorer countries don’t always develop in the ways and order that we in the rich world might expect. You might expect people to be struggling for the basics and working up from there, but poor countries can see on TV the lives of the rich and they want a slice of that now. If you’ve washed in rainwater all of your life you don’t see that as a problem which needs fixing, whereas satellite TV is new and exciting.
2. It’s easy to get away from the consumer lifestyle. But hard to stay away.
When you live out of a rucksack for a year you learn to get by with the very minimum of possessions. It’s actually very liberating – you can walk through a shopping mall and not feel tempted with all of the ‘stuff’ on offer simply because you don’t have space for it in your backpack and don’t want to be encumbered with the added security risk of carrying more valuables. And of course when you’re out in the world experiencing new people and places, ‘stuff’ just doesn’t seem exciting. The only things I find myself really ‘wanting’ are very practical items like replacing worn out trail shoes.
The sad thing I noticed though from when I popped back to the UK last August is that once I was back in a very consumer society, the craving for ‘stuff’ came back quickly and I found myself shopping for trainers, watches, new clothes and other bits I didn’t actually need at all. I enjoyed the consumer buzz you get from buying something new even though I know it wears off quickly and doesn’t give you long-term happiness. I am going to try to fight this one hard and know I’ll probably fail to some degree. But being away certainly makes you aware of the forces at large in our society.