Whenever I travel outside Western Europe, the most common reaction is, "Wow, that must be really hard!" as if the developing world were little more than an array of obstacles, challenges, frustrations, and difficulties--unlike the unfettered convenience and ease of everything in the good old USA.
Yet every time I settle back into the American Dream, I find myself pining for any number of things that were easier or better elsewhere. But when I describe most foreign countries as "convenient," people look baffled. So here are some examples:
1. The world is a strolling buffet: from windows of rice pudding, sandwiches, and stews, to pushcarts groaning with mandarins and grapes, to itinerant vendors of popcorn, popsicles, and tamales, you can get fat without even sitting down. By the time you've finished your kebab, candy apple, or empanada, another vendor will appear with the second course.
2. Food and drinks are always fresh, and often organic: pisco sours made with hand-pressed limes, juices blended while you watch, potatoes simmered overnight to make stews for the next day's breakfast.
3. No need to worry about your wardrobe, because it never rains, never gets hot, and never gets cold. When your clothes get dirty, you can have them washed, dried, ironed, and folded in 24 hours for $1 a pound.
4. Signs on American buses warn, "Don't talk to the driver," and if your bags are bulky, or you don't have exact change, you're on your own. In Peru, there's an auxiliar who loads luggage, answers questions, makes change, and reminds you when to get off--and he takes requests. Handicapped people, senior citizens, pregnant women, and new mothers get preferential seating, and assistance with boarding.
5. If you don't feel like going to the bus station, simply stand on the side of the road and wait. When a bus comes by, wave at it to stop. Spanish has handily provided a dual-use verb for this: esperar. If you know there's a bus coming, it means "to wait"; if you don't know, it means "to hope."
6. You needn't waste time going to the store, or online, because if you stand outside long enough, a whole world of merchandise will come right to you. Newspapers and snacks are just the beginning: sunglasses, watches, wallets, windup toys, a set of scissors or paintbrushes, anyone?
7. Comparison-shopping is easy, because businesses come in clusters: Appliances Alley, Hardware Hill, Bedding Boulevard, Plastics Plaza, Shoe and Socks Street.
8. Anything can be repaired--shoes, belts, luggage, clothes, irons, blenders, TVs--and there's no need to order special parts: a piece of bent wire can fix a motorcycle, some scraps of fabric can revive a backpack, a plastic bottle and putty can solve most plumbing problems.
9. Hailing a cab is as easy as being tall, blonde, Caucasian, or confused.
10. Forget waiting for UPS: anything can be hauled on the top of a car or minibus--sacks of potatoes, mattresses, giant squash, bedroom sets, refrigerators.
11. You can leave your iPod at home, because life has a soundtrack, and it's salsa, cumbia, or son. You can't board a bus, sit in a restaurant, enter a store, or work in an office without lively dance music coming from somewhere.
12. It's safe to let your gym membership lapse, because you'll be walking everywhere. With the exception of an occasional taxi or bus ride, you can spend months getting reacquainted with your feet. (If you can't stand walking, see #9.)
13. Any imaginable service can be engaged, from the man who types letters to the guy who repairs watches to the lady with a scale who tells you your weight.
14. Compassion is not considered a sign of weakness. Bus drivers stop to give change to old ladies, calling them "grandma," and shopkeeps indulge children with coins, telling them to go buy a sweet. People talk to beggars, and often I'm the only one who doesn't give.
15. In the time it's taken to read this, you could have had your shoes shined, your car washed, or your phone plan renewed.
Nothing spells "convenient" like making a Kiva loan of your own at http://www.kiva.org. To support the people depicted here, and the microfinance organization where I'm working (Edpyme Alternativa, Chiclayo, Peru), click here.