Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Would You Swap?

The structure was slowly taking shape as the workers used leaf fiber to secure the bamboo and wood planking to the skeleton already in place.  We stood on the rough sidewalk and watched and were approached by a young man about a taxi ride.  We declined the offer, but struck up a conversation with him about the structure across the narrow street.  Wayan (yes, one of the many) explained that the structure was a cremation tower being built for a member of the royal family.  While no one knew exactly which member of the Royal family had died, the tower construction was the responsibility of a group of families in the town of Ubud, in Bali, Indonesia.  The body will be brought to the tower and placed on top.  The tower will then be carried through town in a procession ceremony, and finally the tower will be set on fire.  As we discussed the cremation ceremony, politics and life with Wayan, we eventually told him how much we were enjoying Bali and what a good time we were having.  We mentioned the people and how friendly they were.  We told him we thought it was one of the best places we had visited on the planet.  A telling moment for both of us came when Wayan asked "Would you swap your life for mine?"  It stopped us dead in our tracks.  As we paused, tongue-tied and silent, he said "I am nothing."

As much as we are enjoying our travels, would we swap our lives with any of the dozens of people we have met along the way?  Many of the people we have met make far, far less than even those considered below the poverty level in the United States.  Infrastructures in many of the countries are extremely inadequate for the masses they are expected to serve.  Even people in first world countries like New Zealand and Australia experience floods, typhoons, earthquakes, and enormous fires and have to deal with the aftermath of those disasters.

This taxi driver is far from "nothing." He was articulate, knew two languages well, was technologically versed, and was thoughtful.  However, his chances of improving his life in a society with a strong caste system and in a country with such poverty are very limited. We like to believe that despite poverty, people are happy.This "Wayan" was not. No, we would not swap our lives....and somehow, that hurts.

Images are of the cremation tower, an egg artist, and rice workers all from Bali, Indonesia

Posted from Sandakan, Malaysia


  1. That question is loaded with so many implications, isn't it? As much as we love an area as visitors, would we swap our freedoms, advantages, and wealth for that life? And I imagine there's a layer of guilt a question like that can bring, as tourists from America. Do we almost cringe that we really have so much, as if we should apologize? Should we? Finally, what conclusions do you draw from that? Life is unfair? Hard? Or gratefulness for what we have. Or all of the above. What a expansive perspective this is.

    1. Julie, I have always known that Sally and I, out of over 7 billion people, are two of the luckiest. Now we get daily reminders in both positive and concerning ways. I do find tears in my eyes at times over the incredible inequalities of the world. I suspect we will face this issue more as we move further into Asia.

  2. and all I can think about is the lucky dog in Alaska. In all seriousness, i love that he asked you that question and your response. The disparities will be much more drastic, especially if you make your way to india.