As an addendum to my previous post (and because I’m bored and clearly have far too many opinions), rather than spewing my thoughts out of my great flapping pie-hole at whoever’s unfortunate enough to be sat next to me at the bar (or chuntering them out under my breath like an escaped schizophrenic mental patient [although that is a very good way to keep the seat next to you free when travelling by public transport]), instead I thought I’d collect them together into another post. The previous post was mainly about the BCVI (my employer) and my job (that stuff I do when I’m not drinking coffee and cursing at the air conditioner); this one’s less about the specifics and more about the general issues of working in IT and working in Belize. And some other quasi-philosophical nonsense.
Many people assume that if you work in IT, you must be a geek. Amongst other things, you must have a love of fantasy books and films (extra marks if your favourites don’t involve vampires – that’s too obvious). You must wear a T-shirt that displays the logo of a fictional company mentioned in a sci-fi film (Weyland-Yutani or Tyrell Corporation would score very high). You must have been in the chess club at school. You must play World of Warcraft or know the rules of Quidditch. You must know about the scene in Star Wars Episode 4 where the stormtrooper bangs his head. You must watch anime, or manga, or something Japanese. You must read comic books (or if you’re a more literary geek, graphic novels). Needless to say, you must have action figures (extra kudos if you never played with them but kept them in the original packaging). You must have a computer at home that you built yourself and that now resembles an electrician’s nightmare of twisted wires, whirring fans, exposed circuit boards and beeping noises. You must be able to quote lines verbatim from the scripts of everything from Predator to Alan Partridge. And, last but by no means least, you must play video games (the wider the variety of platforms – PC, PlayStation, Wii, Xbox, etc. the better). Now, despite working in IT, I’m not particularly geeky (I only scored 4 in the above list for Pete’s sake! Although I did write the list, so maybe I should stop tooting my horn before I travel too far up my own fundament). The point is, I’ve never been that bothered about technology for its own sake. I’m much more interested in what technology can do for people, in technology being genuinely useful (rather than just fun or ‘cool’), in the application of technology to satisfy human needs (and I’m not talking about robot sex slaves, although I’m sure someone in Japan is working on that right now). When technology gives us another terabyte of hard drive storage, another gigahertz of processor speed, a smaller phone, a shinier MP3 player, or something that looks great but which you’re not quite sure what it’s actually for (I am of course talking about the Apple iPad), it’s not really that exciting to me, the thrill quickly wears off for me. Which is probably why I don’t own an MP3 player, I have a mobile phone which looks like it was unearthed in a cave by an archaeologist, and I cart around a laptop that’s the size and weight of a small child. And it’s probably one of the reasons why I ended up working not for a flashy corporation stuffed full of the latest high-tech equipment, but for an NGO in a developing country whose most expensive piece of electronics is the coffee maker. But I do get to do something useful with the technology that we do have. And I get to walk to work in the hot sun every day and look at palm trees out of my office window.
That’s not to say that working here is entirely stress-free. Belize’s Caribbean influence means that they’ve elevated the concept of ‘taking things easy’ to an art form. It’s the only country I’ve visited where there are two ways to say that you’ll do something, ‘right now’ and ‘now’ – ‘right now’ means you’ll do it sometime between the present moment and some undeclared time in the future (it normally seems to happen within 24 hours, but it could potentially take 24 years); and ‘now’ means you’ll do it, well, now. ‘Right now’ is used in a similar way to ‘presently’ or ‘directly’. I’ve never heard anyone use the word ‘immediately’! Also, Belizeans don’t often use the word ‘no’, instead preferring ‘maybe’, or the wonderfully-cryptic ‘why not?’. “Do you have any chicken?” “Maybe.” What do you mean ‘maybe’?! “Can I have a haircut?” “Why not?” Why not? You tell me! But what’s frustrating and annoying at first soon becomes normal and everyday, and eventually becomes endearing and even funny. And then you find yourself doing it too – rather like the Indian head-wobble, for those who’ve visited the subcontinent. Coming from a fast-paced, instant-gratification society such as the UK, it actually takes a while to get used to the laid-back easy-goingness of Belize – if you’re used to the whole time-is-money, snap-to-it, get-it-done-yesterday kind of life, it’s quite a transition. You actually have to make yourself relax and slow down! Time is a much more fluid concept here, it’s more important for things to get done than for them to get done right away. Of course, the climate doesn’t exactly set you up for high-energy exertion, no-one’s running around in 30°C heat and 70% humidity. And even if it was a different climate, would they run then? After all, there’s always more time, and as long as you get where you’re going eventually, isn’t that all that really matters? And this is where Belize (as well as many other places) is fundamentally different to the UK (and many Western countries) – the locals here put much less importance on time and much more on relationships. Most Belizeans spend more time with their families in one weekend than I spend with mine in a year! We’re so fixated on rushing from one thing to another, so focused on time and money and schedules and deliverables, almost addicted to the stress of all these competing influences, that we barely have enough time to do it all, let alone relax and enjoy ourselves. We work ridiculously long hours, never see our friends and families, suffer from everything from ulcers to depression, and when we finally have the time to do something with all the money we’ve earned, we buy a bigger TV (which we have to, because all our friends have got one and we’re bombarded by adverts for it and they’re so cheap in Argos). And then all we do is complain that the channels are rubbish and the broadband that we’re stealing from our neighbour isn’t fast enough. Now all this isn’t to say that hard work is pointless (we didn’t build the British Empire by simply drinking tea), and one of the prerequisites to affluence (for a person, a family, an organisation, a country, or whatever) is a bit of good old-fashioned toil. It’s simply that, despite the differences in our respective standards of living, most Belizeans seem just as happy as most Brits. Plus, they’re much friendlier (complete strangers say hello to you on the street), they don’t complain as much (then again, does anyone complain as much as us?), and when they do complain it’s about something important, like poverty or corruption or crime, rather than about the fact that our new flat-screen HD LCD TV that we’ve just bought from Argos is so thin that there’s nowhere to mount our Nintendo Wii sensor. And when we went to McDonalds they ran out of barbecue sauce for our chicken nuggets, those starving Africans think they have it tough ;-). There’s a great Twitter feed called First World Problems that pokes fun at all the non-things that wind up us affluent Westerners – http://twitter.com/#!/FiWoProblems. My favourite, and one I regularly use myself – ‘Whenever I take a shower, the shower curtain always gets blown inward and touches me.’ Classic.
It’s sobering to leave the UK and travel around developing parts of the world to see how the other half lives. Except it’s not the other half, it’s the other three-quarters, because the vast majority of the world live lives much tougher than the person writing this blog (and anyone reading it) will ever know – 80% of humanity lives on less than US$10 a day. I can spend that much on lunch. While we throw our food away because we cooked too much and don’t want to save it for later, 16,000 people die of starvation around the world every day (there are nearly a billion malnourished people in the world, yet ironically [or tragically] the world produces twice as much food as its population needs. It’s the developed world that’s eats it [or wastes it] all. And while they’re starving, we’re now all suffering from obesity!). A quarter of the world – 1.5 billion people – lives without electricity. And your kids moaned at you at Christmas because you never bought them an iPhone with Facebook connectivity – how are they supposed to message their friends to tell them that they’re playing Angry Birds? More people have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet, and over a third of the world lives on less than the UN-recommended minimum of 50 litres of water a day (in the UK we use 300 litres per person per day on average, the average American uses 600 litres per day!). There are a billion people in the world who can neither read nor write (and in the developed world what do we do with this life-changing ability – we read ‘The World According To Clarkson’ and ‘Being Jordan’ by Katie Price. Or, for a bit of real literature, ‘The Da Vinci Code’, or something by that dead Swedish bloke). And it’s not only villagers living in the middle of nowhere that have these problems – approximately half the world now lives in cities and towns, but urbanisation is no indication of progress, as anyone walking around the south side of Belize City will attest to, there are many families living in dilapidated wooden shacks with poor sanitation and limited power (and those wooden shacks don’t hold up too well during hurricane season). And finally, two last factoids: the world’s wealthiest 10% account for 60% of the world’s consumption, while the poorest 10% account for 0.5%. And the richest half of the world’s population owns 99% of the world’s assets (more than half of the global assets are owned by the top 2%), while the poorer half own the remaining 1%.
That’s not to say that it’s nothing but bad news in these places, many developing countries are doing just that – developing, some of them faster than us, catching up to our standard of living. In the last ten years the average Indian’s daily income has more than doubled, but it’s still only US$3, nowhere near the UK’s per capita income of US$113 a day. Admittedly, that kind of statistic can be misleading, as no country evenly divides its total income amongst its population and, like India, the UK has an unequal society, with bankers making millions in bonuses while nurses and teachers barely scrape by. But my point is that my home country is way more equal than many others, with a much fairer distribution of wealth and, despite three years of financial turmoil, it’s still the sixth richest country in the world. Now I’m not even going to attempt to get to the bottom of why us Brits are so cynical and complain so much (there are just too many reasons, some more justifiable than others), or why most people living in developed countries seem to be unhappy about one thing or another, and I’ll admit I moan as much as (if not more than) the next person (especially about the damn shower curtain). But the next time I’m at home and I’m angry at anything from the train delays to the inability of my local coffee shop’s barista to make a decent latte (and whether my anger’s justified or not), I’ll try to remember just how lucky I am to have the things that I take for granted every day, from modern technology to money, to electricity and clean water, to a roof over my head and a bellyful of food and a flushing loo.
Until next time, I’ll leave the last word to the comedian Louis C.K. – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r1CZTLk-Gk.