Saint Augustine taught, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” That’s good advice at twice the price. But, sometimes traveling far and wide presents a perplexing dilemma. Is a culture of sophistication superior to a culture of simplicity? What is the value of simplicity? Is simplicity to be sought after, or is it a default condition where there is no better alternative? Where does simplicity stop and sophistication begin?
Traveling in more than one hundred-fifty countries has required me to process a vast amount of sights, sounds, smells, values, unique cultural folkways, and inaccurate rumors. While growing up, I had been assured that my complex native culture was immeasurably superior to all the sad and disadvantaged cultures outside my borders. I found that teaching believable in some respects, but I also discovered that in comparison my culture was not one that much valued simplicity.
In 1977, when Apple introduced the Apple II computer, New York agencies borrowed Leonardo da Vince’s quote, “Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication” as the slogan for their ad campaign. It was a clever attempt to redefine simplicity. About that time, I also heard someone say, “There is more sophistication and less common sense in New York than anywhere else on the globe.”
During the thirty years of international traveling, I found myself fascinated and quietly drawn to the simple lifestyles and attitudes of many of the cultures where I traveled. I make no secret of my love for the northern provinces of old Burma. It took nearly five years before the present government officials of Myanmar allowed me to travel into the insurgency areas. I entered into a virtual one-hundred-year time warp. My mind often takes me back to Burma and the outdoor evening fires where everyone in the village gathered around to visit. I have vivid flashbacks of the crystal clear rivers that became roadways for our canoes as we traveled. Teenage boys and girls were in the river with short spears. As we moved down the river, I watched them put their heads under the surface of the water and swim until they spotted a fish. Then, with a quick thrust of the spear they would stab the fish, bring it out of the water, and deliver it up on the shore. Other men and boys were panning for gold nuggets from the river’s gravel bed. Young mothers along the river were tending their babies and small children and gathering water or washing clothes.
I reveled as the early morning sun bathed the majestic Himalayan Mountains that separated Burma from India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Northern Burma wasn’t dirty and desperate like the places I traveled in Africa or India. It was safe, unlike Afghanistan, Congo, or Palestine. It wasn’t a land of poverty, even though they had no electricity, sewer systems or running water. The country was almost, in a classic sense, undeveloped, but it was not poor. Everything was neat and clean, and it was obvious that the people were not lazy or slothful in the least. They were well-fed and very happy, but they possessed very little of what we use to judge wealth or affluence. Their life was simple.
When we returned in the evening from our hospital and clinic assessment trips of the day, the villagers had already lit the fires and the candles. As we sat outside in the cool mountain night, we were served pre-meal treats of fried sticky-rice, crispy fried fish, fried chicken pieces, tea and little cakes, and, casaba roots to be dipped in fresh cliff honey and eaten along with the tea.
I was expected to put away my western pants and shoes and wear my furnishedloungee and flip-flop sandals. The loungee was a length of fabric cut from a bolt and stitched together at the ends. There were no televisions, computers, or cell phones. The villagers gathered around the crackling open fire pits and told stories and sang folk songs as well as religious hymns.
I would awaken about 5:00 a.m. to the smell of wood smoke from the fires around the kitchen building. They would already have the water heating for morning baths, and breakfast would be in the early stages of preparation. The menu consisted of cooked vegetables from the jungle, rice and meat, and topped off with freshly peeled and sectioned grapefruit to be dipped in fresh honey.
I quickly learned to enjoy just standing around the early morning bonfire near the outside kitchen in my loungee with a hot cup of Burmese tea, getting dry and warm after my bath. In moments like that, I figured that if I should ever disappear, you could come looking for me in the pristine, high mountain jungles of Burma. With my tall stature, Scotch-Irish red hair, and light skin color I wouldn’t be hard to find, but my spirit, no doubt, would have blended in remarkably well.
While in high school, I first heard people admonishing us to utilize the “KISS Concept.” I was all for it and my hormones seconded the motion. Then I found out that it was referring to the K.I.S.S. concept, an acronym for Keep It Simple Stupid. Thereupon, the phrase lost its emotional rush, but the logic and strategic impact stuck with me. I like simple.
But every time I am overwhelmed with the urge to escape to the world of simplicity, I am ambushed with a reality check. The only reason I traveled to those 150 countries in the world was because sophistication brings with it some advantages. I was drawn to those resource-starved countries because people were dying there without such advantages as sufficient health care knowledge and systems. I recall the absolute reality that when I was attacked in Togo, Africa, by a rare mutant strain of African e-coli, I would not be alive today if there had not been a sophisticated team of infectious disease doctors in Colorado who were prepared to tenaciously fight to save my life. I’ve decided to do everything possible to keep my life simple . . . and at the same time well-positioned to take full advantage of the benefits of sophistication.