In the summer of 2008, my husband and I traveled to the Dominican Republic for a week. On one day of that trip we signed up for a 4-wheel drive excursion. Our tour guide was a friendly local guy who agreed to show us around his home town, Palo Blanco. We had no idea what we were about to see.
My husband and I have a tradition of traveling during our birthday week. Our birthdays are two days apart in July, so it has always been a good time of year for us to get away together. Although we’ve gone on lots of great trips throughout the Caribbean, South America, Hawaii and Asia, this 4-wheel drive excursion stands out as one of the life-altering experiences I’ll never forget.
Our guide took us through town where we saw people carrying large loads on their heads. We saw laundry hanging on makeshift fences and children sitting along the roadside.
We saw overloaded trucks passing by people on donkeys. As we got further out of the town, we saw cows, horses and chickens walking along the road.
One of our first stops was at a farm where my husband and I got to ride a donkey. The man with the donkey didn’t speak English, so our guide translated for us and told him that we came here to celebrate our birthdays. Although I was curious to hear what his response might be, I didn’t ask this man what he would like to do on his next birthday.
We saw his family’s home which was built with concrete block and rusty metal sheeting. When I asked if I could use their outhouse, one of the women ran into her home to fetch me some toilet paper. They had so little, but it didn’t stop them from being considerate and generous.
This was the scene from the outhouse. I assure you this is much prettier than the picture of the outhouse. This view is better than any I’ve ever had from any of my bathrooms! I suppose they let the stench fester just so people don’t sit around too long.
When it came time to leave, we exchanged waves with them and they greeted us back with smiles. I wished my Spanish was better.
Next we rode through the hills to an area where our guide’s family lived. When we showed up at his home, we were welcomed by this adorable babe. He invited us to join them the outdoor eating area where his mother offered us some food.
On the side of the house, there was a table and a few plastic chairs in different colors. From here I could see a fireplace where they cooked in the back. I’ll never forget stepping into his family home. It was a small structure made of concrete block. The floor was compacted dirt. There were a few beds and small tables inside. There were some books on a shelf and a few other items scattered around, but it was virtually empty by western standards. Yet his niece and mom seemed so happy.
Next we stopped for a snack. We bought some bananas from a man who was probably about 50. Although he was wearing a New York hat, I doubted if he ever visited the USA or any other country. He told jokes we couldn’t understand. He was proud and at ease.
Some people have a (natural or learned) tendency to chuckle away their disappointments. They enjoy the small pleasures of each day, regardless of what they have or what circumstances come their way. It’s easy to spot people like this, especially as they get older and their smile becomes etched into their cheeks.
Happy people live among grumpy people in both modern and developing countries, I thought.
Today I have the good fortune of reaching my 50th birthday. It sort of feels like a half-way point, but it also feels like every other day of life: a starting point.
After we ate some bananas, our guide took us to a water hole where locals go to cool off, bathe and socialize.
Teens were jumping into the water from a cliff. I’m guessing they probably had very few possessions, but they all seemed to be practicing teamwork, challenging themselves, and overcoming their fears while having fun.
Younger kids watched and kicked around in the shallow water. These kids didn’t have any plastic princesses made in China, but they seemed more content than many kids I’ve seen at Disney.
When these kids started climbing into our ride, our guide tried to shoo them away, but we told him it was ok to let the kids play. We were having just as much fun watching them!
On the sideline, one of the older girls was teaching some of the younger ones to dance.
Several hours later, we ended our trip back at the surf. Our bodies were dirtier than when we left, but our spirits were cleaner. I felt sad and happy at the same time.
Although we only observed everyday life during this excursion, the overall experience planted a thought-seed in my mind and that seed quickly sprouted and began to grow. It’s possible to be simply happy. In the years that followed, my husband and I chose to drastically downsize our possessions and simplify our lives.
Would you like to lift your spirits on your birthday? Here’s how. Go someplace intentionally to make a list of the things you appreciate most. This experience works best if you put yourself in an environment surrounded by people of a lower socioeconomic situation than you. You don’t need to go to another country to do this. You can probably do this a short distance from your home. I assure you that you’ll gain priceless insights.
Although I first considered writing a post about the 50 people I appreciate most, such as my husband, I quickly realized that it could upset some people who didn’t make the list. That’s why you won’t see family members, teachers or friends on this list.
Make a list: the goal here is to take your age in years and have that number be the same number of items you include in your list. You get to list 35 items on your 35th birthday and 75 items on your 75th birthday, for example. It’s sort of along the lines of a gratitude journal, but even simpler since you don’t need to write full sentences.
Your list probably won’t look anything like mine. We all go through very different life experiences that affect what’s most important to us now. But you may find it interesting to glance at my list to get your creative juices flowing.
If you really want to challenge yourself, try to prioritize the items in the order that they matter most to you. This isn’t an easy task!
I like to ask people on their birthdays what they hope for most in the upcoming year. The most common response is “good health.” Although this is a top priority for me as well, I avoided esoteric things like this on the list. Saying that you want good health is like saying you want to be rich. It’s all relative. Good health and riches are effects and pursuits that are never fully attained.
Here is a list of things I appreciate most in life as my oldometer rolls over to 50. Some of them include links to blog posts I’ve written.
- fresh air – Free fresh air: Hurry! Offer ends soon
- clean bodies of water – Dear Diary, this is the day I decided to drink distilled water
- indoor plumbing
- home – Michael Mobbs offers 9 tips for a more sustainable home
- safe and comfortable bed – WAKE UP and read the label on your mattress
- community centers
- organic vegetables
- fresh fruits
- whole grains
- sharp knives
- smart phones
- lightweight computers
- comfortable furniture
- farmers markets
- wheels (on carts, luggage and so on)
- tea – Ten terrific reasons to drink tea
- squat toilets – Why you ought to squat a lot: 7 benefits of squat toilets
- comfortable shoes
- public transportation (subways, light rails, buses, airplanes)
- healthy restaurants – Popular restaurant rating apps are missing some stars
- green design
- cultural diversity – WARNING: Old people and frogs may trigger culture shock
- clothes made with natural fabrics – Choose natural fabrics over synthetics
- washing machines – Laundry study shows Americans have few hangups
- jokes – Jokes for your friends who are sick and tired
- lifelong learning – Tips on aging for all ages: more museums, less food
Once you start making your list, you’ll see that the things you like most (nouns) tend to be the things that give you the opportunity to do the things you like to do (verbs) with the people you like to be around. So you could easily continue on with a list of the things you like to do, for example.
If you decide to make a list each year on your birthday, it would be interesting to save them and see how they change over time. What’s most important to you when you’re in your 30s will surely evolve by the time you’re in your 50s or 70s.
One of the best gifts you can give yourself each year on your birthday is time to reflect on the things that matter most to you. This exercise is more valuable than acquiring random gifts that clutter your physical and mental space. As you conduct a mental review of how much you have, you’ll probably come to the conclusion that you can get rid of some stuff.
After making my list, I gained clarity about some things I had to let go and some new things I had to put in place in order to accomplish my purpose. This year I realized that I needed to make some improvements in my work area so that I could be more efficient with my writing time.
After you make your list, please let me know what insight you discover.
I wish you a very happy birthday followed by many more happy and healthy ones!