Thanksgiving has just passed. It’s that time of year where we stop and take inventory of the things that we are thankful for in our lives. For each person, this can mean something different. Some might say that they’re thankful for their family or having kick-ass friends. Perhaps they’re thankful for the car that they worked really hard to pay for. Or to have the latest and greatest piece of tech. I’m certainly thankful to have great family and friends. As well as a car that runs and a job that I actually went to school for, and that I enjoy. And of course, I’m pretty thankful to have had some pretty awesome travel experiences. However, perhaps what I might be most thankful for is the basics.
I’m thankful for the fact that every night I’m able to fall asleep with a ceiling above me. Being able to turn on a faucet and have clean drinking water is another thing that I’m thankful for. I’m also thankful that I can stock my refrigerator with healthy foods that I can use to properly fuel my body. And I’m thankful that I live in a country that’s safe. Though for a long time I had taken these things for granted. However, there came a time in my life when I didn’t have some of these things, and that completely changed my perspective.
When I was in The Gambia as a Peace Corps volunteer. I spent two years living in a house that was not much larger than my childhood bedroom. There was no electricity, everything that I did during the night had to be done with my headlamp or by candlelight. Also, there was no plumbing in my house at all. My toilet was a hole in the ground in my backyard. And I had to take buckets and jugs and fill them up daily at a communal pump in the village. Afterward, I had to filter it and bleach it so it was safe to drink. I ended up getting a parasite in my intestines once because I drank water that wasn’t filtered or bleached. Man, that sucked!
I also had very limited food options. Most of the meals that I ate with my host family consisted of rice with some sort of sauce. We did have meat and fish from time to time, but it wasn’t very often. So my diet consisted mostly of carbohydrates and very little protein. And I definitely felt the effect that it had on my body. When my family back home first asked me what I wanted in a care package, my first response was protein powder and my shaker bottle!
All of this was a real eye-opener for me. It quickly made me realize all the things that I had taken for granted before. I found it so fascinating how my host family and the other villagers managed so well will so little. Not only that, but they were also probably the happiest people I’ve ever seen. This really changed my perspective. And eventually, I found myself being more thankful to simply have the basics. There’s a saying that I’ve heard, and I paraphrasing here, but it’s, “Those who have everything appreciate nothing. But those who have nothing appreciate everything.” I definitely felt this while living in The Gambia.
When I returned to the United States after my Peace Corps service, I cleaned house! I went through all of the stuff that I had in storage and ended up donating quite a bit of it. There was just so much shit that I knew I wasn’t going to use and that it was just going to take up space. Much of the stuff I’d held on to before because I thought I needed it, but then realized that I didn’t. And it was quite a liberating feeling!
However, this new mindset that I had made it difficult to interact with some people back home. A lot of people were getting upset over what I felt were very petty things. I heard someone complain because they didn’t like the taste of their ice water at a restaurant. This made me think of my preteen host sisters who had the daily chore of collecting water and carrying it on their heads back to their house. I also heard people complain a lot about a minor cold that they had. And this made me think of my baby host sister, Isatou. She had to sleep under a net every night so mosquitoes carrying Malaria couldn’t get to her.
At first, I judged each of them very critically, and to some extent, I still do now. But I brought myself to understand that they couldn’t really relate to what I had gone through. Because they never had such an experience before. I just knew that for myself, whenever I had a bad day. I would reflect on my experience and think about what might be going on to other people around the world. That there are those out there who might not even have some of the basics. Some people battle every night to try to stay warm because they don’t have a roof over their heads. Or that the water in my toilet bowl is cleaner than the water that many people have to drink. So my worst nightmare is easily someone else’s dream.
Learning and developing as a person is one of my favorite parts of being a traveler. Every time I return from an adventure, I return as a better version of myself. This was certainly the case with my Peace Corps service. Who I was by the end of my service was vastly superior to who I was before I arrived in The Gambia. And I hope that I continue to learn more as I seek out new adventures. I’m quite excited about that prospect!
If you’d like to hear more about this topic of thankfulness and gratitude, I did do a podcast episode talking about it. So be sure to check that out!: Episode 04 – It Could Always Be Worse