Why I Like Living In Poor Countries

Opulence is nice. Most people like staying in a five-star hotel. The great European cities are a feast for a traveler who enjoys architecture, art, and photography. Western Europe is serviced by a fast, efficient train system that makes it an easy, stress-free matter to travel between countries.

But there’s a hitch. The wealthy countries of Europe are regulated to the far limits of the abilities and reach of their bureaucrats.

Case in point, my cousin recently spend a few weeks in France. She rented a car and drove through several regions of the country. When she returned home to Canada, she was alarmed to find nine separate speeding tickets waiting to be paid. It seems the photo radar system along the roadways recorded her speed and license plate number, traced her identify to the rental car company, discovered the mailing address on her Canadian driver’s license and promptly mailed her citations with hefty fines included.

My cousin is very law abiding and paid all the fines. Even if she wasn’t inclined to pay, she would have run the risk of having unpaid traffic fines escalate to more serious offenses in her absence. Her next visit to the country could have resulted in her arrest and perhaps a few days in jail while the paperwork and legal procedures got sorted out. No thanks. She paid several hundred dollars instead. No victim. No accidents. No damage to property. Just hundreds of dollars in fines for going a few kilometers over the limit along some roadway and never hurting anyone.

I once rented a flat near London for six months. Signed the paperwork on a Friday and moved in on Saturday. On Tuesday a tax bill arrived at my new address – in my wife’s and my names – informing us we owed $2,200 in Council Tax for the duration of our residency in the neighborhood. A week after I purchased a TV, the invoice arrived for the infamous UK telly license. Who says government can’t be efficient? They certainly wasted no time in taxing us.

Wealthy countries have the ability to do such things. They track your finances. They track your purchases. They track your movements. The UK has one surveillance camera for every eleven people. These wealthy governments (and I use that term loosely, given their true balance sheets) have a million rules and regulations and at any given minute you’re likely in violation of several of them.

Man To Man

Perhaps counter-intuitively, people in poorer, developing countries don’t live under such relentless scrutiny. (The various North Korea’s of the world excepted.)

In places like Mexico, for example, two men can do minor business according to the terms they agree upon. Their first thought isn’t about whether or not their arrangement is acceptable to the government or will run afoul of petty laws. When I speak to the owner of a home in Mexico, I can rent it under any terms and conditions that are mutually agreed upon and seal the deal with a handshake. Nobody else needs to be privy to the arrangement.

The owner of the property is not an unpaid agent of the State who must collect taxes and submit paperwork and report my whereabouts to the authorities. In these parts of the world, we’re still just two people coming to agreement and doing mutually beneficial business.

Maybe I’m getting old, but there is a long-lost, familiar charm in visiting a place of business and not seeing a dozen posters on the wall with rules and legal disclaimers intended to reduce lawsuits and comply with uncounted regulations. Service can be personalized without setting some silly precedent that would have to be slavishly followed going forward. If I treat a man with the dignity and respect he’s due, he’ll go the extra mile to see that I’m very happy. Maybe that’s the reason most people seem so much happier in poorer countries. Their world makes sense.

No Safety Police

Look, nobody wants to die an early death because of an unsafe situation. That’s a given. But when I’m in a major city in a Western country I often feel like I’m at Disneyland. Safety railings everywhere, warning signs, audio announcements telling me to watch my step, hold the rail, look both ways. It’s like being a four year old out for a city walk with mom. It grates on me.

By contrast, there is a visceral satisfaction in climbing over rocks to reach a deserted beach that has never hosted a signpost or a lifeguard. Or walking through a field full of trip hazards to reach the perfect vantage point for a photo.

It’s at these times that a traveler feels nothing like a tourist and nothing like a watched child. These are the places where a rational adult can exercise his faculties of risk assessment and latent desire to connect with his world. The Safety Police don’t care about that. They care about regulation and compliance as a way of life. No exceptions.

Living part of every year in the developing world is a way to reconnect with what it means to be fully human in an environment of your own choosing. For me, it’s an opportunity to reawaken what it is to be a man who controls his own life. It’s only a shame so many of us have to go so far to do such a natural thing.

The Takeaway

It’s nice living in a country where the government lacks the resources to keep you under constant surveillance and to act as your nanny at every turn. People can make agreements and conduct their affairs without the burden of compliance and paperwork demanded by massive bureaucracies. Maximum personal responsibility is a good skill to sharpen and it makes a person feel more connected to the world and more fully human.