Not long ago the first world lifestyle was all I knew. When I thought about how life differs for different groups of people across the globe, it was hard for me to imagine anything outside of what I’m accustomed to in the states. When I used to talk about traveling abroad, I was more interested in the Caribbean island cruises than really experiencing new cultures. Truly experiencing a new place didn’t even belong to my realm of possibility; for two decades I had never known anything other than being a member of the middle class in small town, USA. Thankfully, I grew up with parents who taught me that having a sense of empathy, a yearning for knowledge, and a deep commitment to kindness are the true meaning of life.

Luckily, an amazing opportunity fell into my lap. I have volunteered every summer for an organization called Camp Jabberwocky, which is a camp for people with special needs. I was fortunate enough to meet Sarah who had recently moved down to Guatemala to start her own camp for the very deserving population there, called Viamistad. After Sarah made an announcement looking for volunteers, I knew that this was the chance of a lifetime and that I had to get involved.To say that those 10 days changed me as a person would be a huge understatement. That first trip was the first step on the path to the new version of me.

I stopped taking selfies in front of mirrors and started taking photographs of amazing locations in Central America. I learned Spanish and was able to communicate and connect with locals. I quit worrying about things that only effect me, and started working on ways I can make the world a little bit better every day. But most importantly, I experienced pure joy- untouched by judgement, expectations, and social media- just true happiness for the first time.

Since then, I have lived in Guatemala and Colombia, and have also traveled extensively throughout Central America, as well as Europe. Here’s what I’ve learned from jumping feet-first into my new lifestyle in the third world.

1. Days are filled with moments, not things.

Talk about a culture shock! In first world countries, lots of tasks are automated for us. One of my favorite Miranda Lambert songs, “Automatic” explains it so well. There is joy that comes with a sense of purpose. Everyday tasks that take a lot more time in third world countries, are actually highly enjoyable. For example, the lack of clean running water forces me to thoroughly clean my vegetables with clean water and disinfectant. When I first moved to Guatemala I was surprised that this ended up being one of my favorite activities. It is a process, boiling the water to kill of bacteria, letting it cool, going to the market to buy fresh produce, coming home to give it a disinfectant bath, and then chopping up all of the vegetables and fruit for the week. It sounds like a pain in the butt. However, it brings me such a calm sense of purpose. It makes me slow down, appreciate the food that is in front of me, and take my time doing a task that I never got to do living in a first world country. The more I do these kinds of tasks, the more my days are filled with joy, not just automatic processes and material things.

2. Human connection is important.

To my delight, there is so much more emphasis on social life, and it is definitely different than more developed countries. I am all for the power of social media and online networks, but the truth is that face to face communication is not important in the first world. I now find myself stopped on a corner talking to someone about the weather this week, or in line at a store connecting over a favorite song, and most of the time, I am sitting around talking with friends for an extended period of time. People actually consider having a talk as a thing to do. It’s an activity that takes time, puts a smile on everyone’s face, and makes me feel in touch with humanity. When is the last time you sat in your kitchen with family doing nothing but talking with one another. When is the last time you got together with a friend, simply to have a chat. When I was living in a first world country, the answer was probably never. Now that I live in third world countries, my answer is all the time!

3. Family roles are quite different.

Children in third world countries are taught to do tasks, be social, and be productive. Sadly, there are heartbreaking instances where I know a child has been working since he could walk, in order to make money for his family. However, that is not what I mean. I have noticed such a difference in the way kids act here as opposed to more developed countries. They know how to speak to adults, socialize with each other, go to the corner store to buy eggs, or sweep the main area of the house, all at a very young age. This is a charming part of the culture wherever I go and I’m always deeply impressed.
The amount of family members in one household is alarming to someone who is used to just two generations under one roof. The grandparents, parents, children, and even young grandchildren will all enjoy their house together. In one house that I lived in, there were actually aunts, uncles, and two cousins living there as well. Yes it was loud, crowded, and sometimes a bit uncomfortable, but the days were filled with fun, laughter, hugs, and quality family time. I never thought I would like this type of household, but I was so happy in a place that was bursting at the seams with love.

These are just three examples of why living in a third world country suits me better. Yes there are some disadvantages, but the immense amount of benefits are what keep me smiling. I owe so much of my personality, my attitude, and my optimism to the third world countries I have gotten to call home.

If you’ve ever lived in a third world country, how did it effect you?