November 15, 2006

The Price of Happiness
Córdoba, Argentina

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

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.

Perspective

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.

Comments:

Anonymous

November 16th, 2006

I appreciate your clarifications, Craig…your further insights into your posting from yesterday give me more of a thoughtful impression of you than what I was left with yesterday.

I guess I just remember my first trip to South America and I know that I was that person remarking over and over again how 'cheap' everything was because I was so wide-eyed and inexperienced. To me, on my first trip to anything but a '1st world' country, I couldn't help but make comparisons to my home country, whether that was fair or right or savvy or not.

Admittedly, if I was making the same comparisons a month into my trip, then I would definitely agree that you have to start comparing manzanas to manzanas. But fresh out of the gate, week one in South America, I think it's almost unavoidable - especially to those new to budget travel.

I understand your point more now, though, and I do appreciate how much those green (or just ignorant)to travel in a foreign country can make one cringe….

I would be curious to know though, when faced with your first $45 dorm bed in London, whether, just once, you think to yourself "I could have lived well in Bolivia for a week on this….. ;)

David

November 16th, 2006

Thanks for taking the time, Craig.

Just had a look at the posts and comments you referenced and must say that I appreciate how you keep the nice and not so nice around. If its anything, its at least earnest.

With the overall quality of your site and writing, I'm sure things will work out for you. I know I'll be back to read some more. Maybe I'll even start clicking your google ads for the heck of it!

Regards & keep it coming!

Thad

November 16th, 2006

I work for Apollo and heard from one of your former co-workers about you and your site. I just want to tell you that I truly enjoy reading about your adventures and thank you for spending the time to share them with us. Good luck with everything!

Andy HoboTraveler.com

November 18th, 2006

Hello again Craig, Andy here in my less than 10 dollar room in Bangkok, Thailand on a cell phone GPRS slow connection…

220 Baht, about 6 and color TV.

I wish I would have read more before posting.

Thanks for the authentic feelings.

To put the cost of living in the underdeveloped, developing, third world or 80 percent of the planet.

I think or guess, 80 percent of the planet is underdeveloped whatever that means and who cares. The normal DAY wage is almost always under 10, and normally for construction type or service is about 3-5.

The United Nations has labeld poverty as when you earn less than one dollar US per day.

So to pay more than 10 dollars per day, makes it impossible for the local to live in a hotel.

I value the price of rooms by the earning powers of the normal Joe Blow of the Country. Argentina has always been over-priced, I went there before the money crashed, when ZERO backpacker went.

BE cheap, get a good value for your money, or you will not like the place, and only have memoriers of paying way too much for low value of enjoyment.

I can go to Koh Pha Ngan here in Thailand and lay on a beach, private rooom for less than 10, probably with Air. Caribbean, I need to pay 300 dollars for a terrible value to get the same things and all the women are old…

Brazil… Pipa, go swim with the dolphins. Brazil.

Andy of HoboTraveler.com

Note… Hate mail.. you need some hate mail. It means that you site is getting a lot of traffic.

Philippine just put on cheap LCC buy on the internet plane tickets to Manila, come and we make a fun Hostel - HOTEL in a place where the girls really do love you.

Andy in Bangkok, on the way to Indonesia, then to Kat, and then to USA, then to Ethiopia, etc.

Anonymous

November 18th, 2006

I'm a little surprised at the comments in regards to my posting from yesterday - 'hate mail', 'not so nice'…wow - heaven forbid someone wants to post their observations and honest reaction to Craig's writings! I revised my opinions after Craig explained himself! I did! I even posted my appreciation of his clarification! I'm not a hater, I swear…just honest - apparently to my own detriment…
Sorry, Craig, if I came off as a someone who deosn't appreciate what you're doing - obviously I read your blog, so I must be a fan - that was just my reaction to one posting out of many….

Argentina

Craig | travelvice.com

November 18th, 2006

Anonymous: I found your comments well thought out and articulated — I chuckled when I read the $45 dorm bed remark… I'll indeed try not to be too hypocritically when faced with such things… hehe

David & Thad: Thanks for reading and the kinds words

Andy: Manila, it is!

Argentina

Craig | travelvice.com

November 22nd, 2006

An Aussie with his head on remarked to me in Córdoba that cheap is directly related to your income. He gets paid in Japanese Yen, so most everything is cheap to him. When you have no income (like me), he says, costs are absolute.

Anonymous

November 23rd, 2006

A very astute observation…

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