We don't know how lucky we are

nz flagI recently completed a five week motor bike trip through Bolivia, Peru and the Amazonian jungle. We spent the majority of our time on dirt roads and staying in tiny little villages in the Andes and Amazonian jungle. Along the way, I had time to contemplate about what life was all about and why we have such a focus on material assets. Every time I stopped and stared at the massive mountains and the poverty stricken people, I kept thinking of Fred Dagg’s famous saying “We don’t know how lucky we are mate, we don’t know how lucky we are!”
I think Fred Dagg was onto something with that phrase. We are privileged to live in New Zealand. It is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Bolivia. We have some of the lowest levels of crime and fraud anywhere in the world; we have a social security system; it is relatively easy to get a job or start up a business, and depending on which survey you read, we are voted between first and 11th in the world as the most desirable place to live.

During our trip, we rode our motorbikes onto the top of a massive abandoned earthen dam. Over US$400m had been spent getting the dam partially constructed and then it was abandoned as the level of corruption and backhanders was so high that the international construction firm simply walked away. In New Zealand, we do not have this level of economic mis-behaviour so investing here is far safer. We can invest into New Zealand companies knowing that they will survive or fall based upon their own merits. They are far less likely to be dependent on fraud and political influence. The election campaign was also in full swing while we were there. Electioneering for President or local governor is a big thing in Bolivia, Peru and Brazil as there is a good chance you could become a multi-millionaire by the time your term is completed. This is radically different from our politicians who might receive a $100,000 annual pension after a lifetime in parliament.

Life is pretty cheap in Bolivia. Death occurs easily and life does not hold the same value it does in the western world. These people are not wealthy, they are dead poor financially but they seem to be happy. They build strong relationships with one another - they are friendly to all they see and they all look after one another. Things are not superficial - there is a genuine sense of caring for one’s fellow man (at least amongst those who are not trying to rob you). The materialism of the western world is not something to be craved at all costs. There is a great deal we can learn from watching the poor but happy people of the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes go about their day.
The key things I noticed were:
  • No matter how poor someone might appear, they still have some money tucked away for an emergency.
  • If they no longer need something, they will not discard it. Instead, they trade it for something they really need.
  • If someone has a surplus and they cannot use it, then it gets given away rather than go to waste. I suppose one good turn deserves another in due course.
  • Multiple generations live together so money is not wasted on child care and rest homes, or tying up the money of every generation trying to buy a home and pay it off.
  • An expensive mortgage might be a maximum of 20% of the household income.
  • ‘Clothes don’t maketh the man’ but good dancing certainly does.
  • Education is very important- it becomes a ticket to a better life and more money.

Perhaps we could all embrace some of those values.
By all means accumulate investments for some day in the future, but along the way, enjoy life as there is no certainty when it might end.
David Greenslade