Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Poverty as roulette

There is a game I have been forced to invent. I call it ‘travel roulette’. The rules are pretty simple: You go alone to a place you have never been before, where you know no one, with the minimum amount of money you need to get there and back. If, for example, you are going to, say, Athens, you should just take your return ticket, money for your hotel stay, and local bus fares. Nothing extra. You win if you enter the airport on your way back with zero euros on you. If you miscalculate and run out of money, you get stuck in whichever place you are at.
I’ve never managed to achieve the zero cash state. I got out of Paris with ten euros on me. It was all the money I had. I got out of Istanbul with five turkish lira on me. Again, it was all the money I had.
But my best performance so far came this week, on a trip to Mcleodganj. I got out of the place with Rs 2.50 in my possession.
Apart from the thrill of danger – not a quick adrenalin rush, as happens in a fight, but a tension that coils up inside you – travelling like this is also an excellent way to learn some values in a hurry.
The first thing you learn is thrift. Spending 60 rupees on a cup of coffee or a thousand on a night out is all very well; however, when you have no money to spend, you suddenly figure out what is wasteful and what is necessary.
The lack of money also translates into a different lifestyle. You stay in a cheap place, so there is no television. That immediately changes the way you spend your leisure. From staring vacantly at a screen and flipping channels, you go to reading, or maybe sitting in a park watching life go by. There is more time for contemplation.
There is probably not much money to throw on alcohol or cigarettes either. Good, healthy habits replace drinking and smoking. Instead of getting drunk until late in the night and waking late with a hangover, you will probably sleep early and wake up in time for a morning walk.
You’ll be walking a lot through the day too – there will be no money for taxis or autos. The choice is between figuring out the buses or using your own two feet. Either way, enough exercise is guaranteed.
You will also learn humility. There is a certain swagger that most people acquire through money. They behave in a certain way, not because of who they are, but because of what they have. They are defined by their possessions – the rich guy or girl, the one with the swank car, etc. A very good way to discover what you are really made of is to leave these crutches behind, especially if you haven’t earned them yourselves.
The most important thing that anyone learns from travelling penniless in a strange place is to value the things that one does have. On my way back from Mcleodganj, with Rs 2.50 in my pocket, I found myself without money to buy dinner when the bus stopped at a dhaba in the middle of the night.
I bought myself one roti with the Rs 2.50, and I was happy.