My wife’s cousin, Alice, sent me a Facebook message a month or so ago asking if we could be her eyes and ears and let her know how the other seven billion people on the planet are doing as we traveled the globe. Are they suffering? Are they happy?
Even before Alice asked this question, it has been a question that I had thought about and struggled with. What does it mean to be rich versus poor? Does that really have a bearing on happiness? How much of an effect on happiness and contentment is your relative wealth?
Over the course of my wife’s and my life we have downsized, simplified, saved and invested so that at the age of 53 I have retired from full-time work and on paper it says that we have the means to live the rest of our lives travelling the world continuously. It still seems pretty incredible to me now three months after retirement that we are really doing this. Although I don’t have specific financial information about my peers in corporate America, I know that statistically they are earning relatively high incomes and yet are thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt. Adding to that auto loans, school loans and mortgage loans they are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Do they feel “wealthy”? For the most part, I think not. They certainly don’t consider themselves poor, but probably feel far from wealthy.
On the other side of things, a few years ago we saw the rise of the “we are the 99%” movement. This movement spotlights income inequality and that the top 1% of the USA population owns a significant portion of the wealth. Yet from a global perspective, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 5% of the USA population are classified as poor or low income whereas 71% of the Global population are classified as poor or low income.
In Paraguay, the official minimum wage for someone on a monthly salary is 1.8 million Guarani per month, about $300 USD. The average resident of the USA or Canada probably just read this and thought, “Wow! They must be really poor.”
I visited a family in rural Paraguay and their lifestyle doesn’t even come close to the 1.8 Guarani per month in earnings. It is far less. And yet I didn’t get the feeling that these people were unhappy. They seemed to be content with their lives.
Let me say that I am not a sociologist. This is not an exhaustive study and observation of rural life in Paraguay. These are just my observations of tagging along with someone for the day and my very brief conversations with people. Conversations were difficult with me trying to communicate as a native English speaker with some Spanish language skills with a native Guarani speaker that spoke some Spanish.
I spent the day with my good friend, Joe. Joe and his wife have lived in Paraguay for over 30 years as Christian missionaries. A group in the USA has donated about $5000 USD to build a simple church building in the countryside where people could gather and worship. We went out to the site to check on progress, give some instruction and buy some more building materials.
After about a two hour drive outside of the city of Asuncion, we picked up a local pastor and drove another 7 or 8 kilometers on dirt roads and across a one lane wooden bridge to the building site.
Some initial work had already been done on leveling the ground and preparing for construction. This is all done by hand. Some gravel, sand and other building materials had already been delivered. After looking over the site and making some adjustments we walked back another 100 feet or so to the home of Julio, one of the men who was working on the construction of the building.
Julio’s home site consisted of three buildings, a 10 foot by 25 foot brick building with a steel roof used as the main sleeping quarters and a living area, a second 10 foot by 20 foot brick building with a thatched roof used for sleeping and a 10 foot by 10 foot wood and brick building with a thatched roof used as a kitchen/cooking area. A few yards away was a three foot clay brick oven.
There was also a small shelter with a hole in the ground a couple hundred feet away from the three buildings that was used as the restroom.
We settled in on some chairs around a wooden table in the shade of a number of banana trees and began to drink terere. I will write another complete post on the art of terere as it is a distinctly Paraguayan custom and deserves its own post. A few minutes later a couple of young men arrived on motorcycles.
That is another thing. In the capital city of Asuncion you see a lot of cars. People get around primarily by car, taxi or bus. The further you get away from Asuncion the fewer cars you see. What you do see is an increase in the number of motorcycles. In the country, people get around primarily by walking or by motorcycle. It is not unusual to see two, three or even four people on a motorcycle. With four people it is typically a family – Dad on the front driving, the smallest child in front of him, another child behind him and Mom sitting on the rear of the bike.
As we passed around the terere cup I noticed a number of chickens wandering around the yard. Later I saw a small pig rummaging around for something. In addition to the banana trees I saw a few fruit trees, grapefruit maybe?
Julio and his family made their living as farmers and whatever odd jobs they could find. Joe told me that there were a number of yucca trees planted in the back. In Paraguay, they call yucca “mandioca”. There were probably other crops out back, but we didn’t go out there. When I say “farmers” I mean they subsisted mostly on the food they grew. They might sell some of it or barter with neighbors, but it was not a large enterprise. There was no farm machinery, no beasts of burden. Just a bunch of hand tended crops.
Julio had 10 children, three of them still living at home – a 20 something daughter and her two children, a 15 year old daughter and a 10 year old son.
The conversation turned to construction talk. What materials still needed purchased? When could people start working on construction? The discussion of wages came up. I learned that the men around the table were going to be working on building the church building. They were happy to get some extra work and were willing to work for 8 thousand Guarani per day. At the current exchange rate, that works out to be about $1.35 USD per day.
Water is plentiful. I learned that a lot of the southern part of Paraguay sits on an aquifer. A post about 100 feet from the house had a spigot attached. It must have been wash day. Julio’s wife was doing laundry. Two five-gallon plastic buckets appeared to be the “washing machine”. One bucket for wash, the other for rinse?
There were so many questions I had and so many things I wanted to know about their life, their hopes and dreams. However, like I said, I am not a sociologist. I didn’t want to pry or interfere in their lives. Besides, I don’t speak Guarani and my Spanish is beginning conversational at best. It would be difficult to really find out a lot besides what I could observe.
So, Cousin Alice, how are the people in rural Paraguay doing? I would say that overall they are doing pretty good. They seem to be happy, healthy and content with their lives. They have plenty of food to eat, a roof over their heads, clothes to wear, clean water, I saw a National School a few miles away so the children can be educated close by at least till Grade 9. National healthcare is available. I am not sure how close it is to receive healthcare or the availability and any additional costs, but it is available.
Is this a lifestyle that you and I or the average North American would like or enjoy? Probably not. I am sure the family has a basic cell phone. One of the buildings had electricity, probably for lights and maybe a refrigerator. But they don’t have a lot of things that we consider the bare necessities today in Canada and the USA. No computer or internet, indoor plumbing, no vehicle or transportation other than walking. There is no need for heating in this climate, but without air conditioning I would find it very uncomfortable in the summer where temperatures get to 110 degrees and heat index tops 120 degrees.
By USA and Canadian standards, these people are very poor, but, they have the basics covered: food, shelter, etc. They have family and a sense of community. I guess that gets to the age old question or questions: How much is enough? How much do our possessions, wealth, conveniences, technology have to do with our happiness? I know lots of people back in the USA and Canada that have many times the amount of physical wealth or better living conditions than the families I observed in rural Paraguay. I would hazard a guess that there are people in the USA or Canada with so much more in physical things have a much lower level of happiness than those I observed on my day trip to rural Paraguay.