The Price of Happiness
I'm going to take a moment to respond to a pair of comments made to yesterday's post.
In late January, 2006, Andy, a backpacker who has been traveling full-time for nearly a decade, flew to the Caribbean to meet and journey with me for a few weeks. We had hours of conversation during the course of our time together, and in the midst of a recounting of his early days of travel, he said a sentence that is among the few that vividly stand out in my mind:
…back when I thought 10 dollars a night for a room was cheap.
Here we were, in arguably one of the most expensive regions on the planet, I was still a relatively green nomad, and thought to myself Really? Compared to what we're paying now that sounds pretty great to me…
At this point, what did I really know about seeking out the best, inexpensive accommodations and living on a perpetual shoestring? Time spent abroad prior to my U.S. departure in late 2005 (Mexico, Canada, Germany, and Thailand) were only moderately budgeted, and without the fear of complete asset depletion looming over my head.
Nearly a year (and two dozen countries) later, I now know more than I did, but have no illusions that I'm still very new to this game. When I choose to speak to less experienced travelers on such things, it's my hope that I do it in such way that I don't insult, but subtlety educate or enlighten.
Andy's simple comment has stuck with me, echoing in my mind from time to time—especially when I hear other travelers use the word cheap.
Cheap—what an incredibly subjective expression. I always ask, What is cheap to you? (when using or hearing the word as a descriptor). It's a particularly good clarifying habit to get into when asking someone for a recommendation on a place to eat or sleep—their opinion might be a far cry from yours.
Cheap and a good value can be completely different, but are often joined at the hip. Although I rarely hear it, I prefer the phrase a good value, because the statement seems to imply that the individual is taking the local cost of living into account. Sometimes, however, things are just clearly cheap—tall glasses of natural fruit juice for US$0.06 in Bolivia, for example. Cheap and delicious.
I wrote yesterday that it bothered me when travelers kept comparing the "low cost" of Argentina against their "expensive" home country, and that perspective and exposure seem to be lacking from many backpackers I've been meeting recently.
I didn't mean to come off as sounding "jaded," as one commenter remarked, but I do find myself cringing when I hear travelers saying things that I knew better than to say, when I was in their shoes.
I think at the heart of my original complaint is the impulse for people to compare costs against their home, instead of other countries in the region, as an absolute definition of how expensive something is. If someone said: "wow—Colombia is a much better value than Chile!" I'd probably nod and agree with them, perhaps adding that many countries in this continent are cheaper than Chile.
It's the constant need for folks to compare the cost of a developing country against the cost of living of in a 1st world country that can get to me (when I'm saturated with such comments). I think it'd be rather silly if kept remarking that I thought paying US$7 a night for a room here in Córdoba was cheap, compared to the US$30 a night it costs for a dorm bed in Chicago.
Apples and oranges, people.
…But How Much?
David asked if one of these days I'd disclose the financials (and the such) of my travels. Absolutely David, the aggregation and presentation of that information will eventually happen—eventually.
As I'm sure you all realize, each region of the world is going to have a different price point. I could have lived and eaten for three or four full days in Guatemala for the price of a cot and bare concrete walls in some of the Caribbean islands I was on. I can speak with no authority on the cost of travel outside of the Caribbean and Americas (…yet), but I have formulated sizable opinions on quality of life while living and traveling modestly therein.
In the majority Latin America I have been using the cost of my room to help determine a rough daily expenditure baseline. The breakdown I observed earlier this year was 50% of daily expenses for a bed, 25% for food, and 25% for transport, entertainment, or Internet.
Under the most optimal conditions, I'm spending US$10 a day or less to live (this makes me very happy). Sadly, this doesn't occur as often as I'd like.
I move. I travel about. I switch cities, nations, and time zones. The slower you travel, the more you save (as you figure out the most inexpensive places/ways to subsist). The racing around I've done in 2006 has put a considerable dent in my savings.
In my opinion, the biggest problem I have is death by a thousand cuts—many smaller purchases that eventually add up to an unsuspectingly high amount. It's easy to do (especially with food items), and I can fall victim to it when I'm not paying attention.
If you really want a dollar figure, expect to spend US$500–800 a month or more to live and travel at a comfortable, yet shoestring, level in much of Latin America.
As for income, I practically have none at this point. Save for a few dollars I receive per month from interest earned on a savings account, there's nothing of substance. The unobtrusive Google banner advertisements on the post pages, an experiment that I thought I'd trial for a year or so, hasn't (after so many months) even yielded enough clicks for Google to cut me a check. Sponsors are few and far between.
I sometimes push back against my financial predicament by being, as some angsty commenters recently phrased it, "a cheap bastard."
There are many travelers out there spending a fraction of what I do, and living amazingly fulfilling lives.
In truth, I don't know what it's like to live an impoverished lifestyle (although I have seen plenty of it). If I was hungry and sleeping under a bench for consecutive nights, this Web site probably wouldn't be around to tell you about it. Into the Wild, my life is not.
Travelvice does consume significant amounts of time both inside and out of Internet cafés, though. I really don't want to think about how many minutes I've been billed for maintaining the site. What I focus on instead is the feeling I get from sharing my travels, and what my life would be like without such a creative outlet and communication platform.
Thank you for reading, and for your responses—positive or negative—it's motivating to know you're out there.