Living in a foreign country really can bring things into a new perspective. You see how people live different lifestyles, and yet can still be perfectly happy. In a relatively poor country like Bolivia, you see people get along without many things we take for granted in the United States. In my last post, I highlighted some things that really work better in the U.S. – 10 things I’ll never complain about (again). Now, I’m switch hitting. It turns out that the U.S. is not all bubblegum and lollipops either, and that Bolivia does some things better, too. Here are things I WILL complain about when we return to the U.S.: 10 things that kinda suck in the USA, compared to Bolivia:
1) Cost of Healthcare
It’s unfortunate that routine healthcare in the U.S. can cause bankruptcies and defaults in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. We spend a much higher chunk of our GDP on healthcare, and almost 50% more than any other wealthy country. And it’s only getting worse.
My wife spent two nights in a Bolivian hospital for a bad urinal tract infection, had excellent care, and the whole thing only cost about $1,000 total (without insurance). The same basic treatment in the U.S. would cost twenty times as much, or more.
Why is it so cheap in Bolivia? It’s complicated, and beyond the scope of this post. There are many reasons costs in the U.S. healthcare system skyrocket year after year. But politically, we only seem to be talking about who will pay for it, rather than addressing the underlying causes of our high costs. There are many countries around the world that provide basic healthcare at reasonable costs. Why can’t we figure this one out?
Related Content: My Wife Spent Two Nights In A Bolivian Hospital.
2) Rules, Rules, Rules
Bolivia has very few regulations of any kind (very few that are enforced, anyway). For example, in Bolivia, I can buy milk directly from my neighbor. I cannot in most states. I can get a haircut from someone without a license (but not in America). I can start a retail business or a restaurant without a second thought, right out of my house. Zoning be damned! I can even build a house without any permits whatsoever. In fact, I don’t even have to own the land!
Often U.S. regulations are necessary and good, but sometimes they are overkill too. Good and bad, regulations around transportation, housing, food safety, labor, business administration, and every other conceivable area drive enormous complication and costs into life in the U.S. Living in Bolivia has given me a chance to see what a (nearly) completely unregulated world is like. While it can be less safe, it’s not a complete disaster. Life is quite livable here.
And it’s A LOT cheaper! One thing all those rules in America share in common: they drive costs. It is part of the reason the cost of living is so much lower in Bolivia than in the United States.
Rules, restrictions, and complications matter. When we return, I WILL complain about all the damn rules in the U.S.
Related Content: An Extreme Cost of Living Comparison
3) Public Transportation
Bolivia’s got this one figured out too. We’ve been living here for eight months without a car, and we don’t miss it one bit. That’s because it’s really easy and cheap to go anywhere we want using public transportation.
In reality, the system in Bolivia is not public transportation – meaning that the government doesn’t operate the system. It’s more like shared private transportation. It’s like a massive analog version of Uber. It is another example of Bolivia’s unregulated wild, wild west.
In Bolivia, anyone who owns a car can make a little money on the side offering taxi rides. The same thing happens with minivans and buses. The government plays only a very light role in regulating this massive shared transportation system.
The result is thousands and thousands of (privately owned) taxis, buses, and minivans that will take you anywhere you want for cheap. In the capital city, you can commute across town for less than $0.50, and you’ll never have to wait more than a couple of minutes for a ride. Seriously, why own a car?
Compare that to public transportation in the U.S., where you can wait 45 minutes for a bus that doesn’t even route close to your destination, and takes three times as long to get there? Oh boy.
I guess I won’t be complaining about the public transportation in California, though. I just won’t use it.
4) Street Vendors
I love the convenience of street vendors in Bolivia! In America, you have to get in your car, fight traffic, get lucky with a parking spot, and then get some good walking shoes on to hike across the parking lot into a big box store, where you’ll be happy if you don’t wait in line for fifteen minutes on the way out. It can take hours just to buy some paper clips or soap!
Not in Bolivia! Everyone is selling something here. And there’s no restrictions around who or where things can be sold. Here’s a typical street stand selling candy:
This little shop here is in-and-out in about fifteen seconds! But it’s not just for candy. You can buy all kinds of things, often within just a few meters of wherever you are: food, drinks, clothing, household products, electronics, plumbing supplies, tools and hardware, – you name it, it’s probably not much more than a stone’s throw away!
Maybe if you prefer fighting traffic to drive all the way across town to a commercial zone, or the delicate dance that’s required to get a decent parking spot, then perhaps you like they way it works in the U.S. But here in Bolivia, you hardly ever need a car to go shopping!
Although I do complain about the lack of selection in Bolivia, I’ll never complain about the convenience!
5) Work-Life Balance
In the U.S., work-life balance is not real – at least not in any place I’ve ever worked. It’s all just a ruse. Sure, employers want happy workers, but they want happy workers who are working, not happy workers who are doing other things. Work-life balance is not real.
Here in Bolivia, I think more people have achieved a real work-life balance. People work only when they want to! It’s an impressive thing to see. Excuses to get out of work, like a homework-eating dog, are par for the course. And employers actually expect it! People here simply don’t work as many hours. They take long breaks at lunch, and sometimes disappear for days.
The general culture in Bolivia has a much lesser emphasis on work and career. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a party in Bolivia where people ask me what I do for a living. But isn’t that the first question you ask anyone in America?
Our work-first culture brings tremendous economic benefits in the U.S. But, it kind of prevents us from ever achieving a real work-life balance, as a society. And isn’t that what you really want? I know I do. We work to hard in America. Work is nice, but there is much more to life than money and work.
Related Content: Stop The Charade: Work-Life Balance Is Not Real!
6) Free-Range Children
Even my kids will tell you that life in California is too restrictive. In Bolivia, they are free-range children. They can freely go to the park or plaza and play for hours with other kids, unsupervised. They come back at night on their own when it’s time for bed. In Bolivia, our kids are free. It’s a modern Huck Finn childhood.
In California, we hardly let them go around the block on their own. It’s just a different world.
The big difference is that here in our Bolivian pueblo, everyone knows each other, and most people are even related. Our town is like a big, giant extended family. If you want to know where your kids are, you just need to ask someone. Contrast that to California suburbs, where you may not even know your neighbors, much less the people down the street.
Rural Bolivia is a much safer environment for kids to roam free, and it’s a wonderful thing! When we return to the U.S., I WILL complain when my kids can’t just walk to school or the park by themselves.
When I walk to the market in Bolivia to buy fruit, wine, or cheese, I often ask where it comes from. I don’t mean what country or what region it comes from – I mean what specific farmer does it come from? All of our food in Bolivia is fresh and local, and while I really do miss the wide variety and selection of a supermarket, it’s wonderful knowing EXACTLY where your food comes from.
Was the cheese too salty? Go talk to the farmer who made it!
Actually, a really big chunk of the veggies we eat in Bolivia come from our own garden. We have kale, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, squash, corn, potatoes, radishes, melons, beans… the list goes on.
Of course, you can always garden in the U.S. too. Lots of people do. But, I’d never be able to afford a mini farm in San Diego like I have here in Bolivia. And the only way to really know where your food comes from in that case is to join a CSA (which we usually do). Here in Bolivia, it’s just much easier (and cheaper) to have a connection to your food sources.
Related Content: What If All Your Food Were Fresh And Local?
8) Family First
I’m not going to accuse Americans of not caring about family. We obviously do. But, Americans often prioritize work and career over family. And American companies expect it of their workers. And that’s messed up!
Here in Bolivia, every weekend, holiday, and vacation is spent with extended family, without even thinking about it. The whole extended family is first. But it’s not just about weekends and holidays. In Bolivia, your social network and your work network even revolve around family. In contrast, in America, we are much more independent.
My daughter once made a little presentation about Thanksgiving at the local school in our village. She explained that Thanksgiving is an American holiday where extended family gathers together to eat a big meal and be thankful. The local kids didn’t get it… don’t you do that EVERY weekend?? What’s so special about that?
Again, work and careers are wonderful. But, they’re not all that. Family, on the other hand, is a constant. I often see older Americans who eventually regret prioritizing careers over family. It’s a shame that they don’t realize their mistakes until so late in life.
9) Community Fabric
In suburban California, you often don’t know your neighbors. That’s a really sad thing. It doesn’t feel like a community – at least not like rural Bolivia. In rural Bolivia, your neighbors are like an even bigger extended family – and often they actually are extended family.
Neighbors don’t bite (generally). They don’t judge (as much as you might think). They’re really rather harmless, for the most part. In fact, having close relationships with your neighbors can be tremendously beneficial. And yet, in America, we avoid each other (at least in California, we do). We prefer to remain in our chosen bubbles created by our careers, nuclear families, and hobbies, rather than getting out into the wild of the neighborhood.
I know there are exceptions. There are still places in America where neighbors know and support each other, and form a strong community fabric. But, not where I live in California! When I return to the U.S., that is definitely something I will find lacking.
10) Yes, Meat Does Belong In A Pie
Read this very carefully: meat belongs in a pie. I know, it sounds disgusting. But, it’s not.
South America is home of the empanadas. You can get them all over the continent. You can even find them in the States, too. But, you cannot find this:
That is a Bolivian salteña, and it puts normal, sad empanadas to shame. A salteña filled with ground beef or chicken, potatoes, onions, peas, olives, and spices. It’s an explosion of flavor. It’s sweet and spicy and the same time.
Unfortunately, outside of a couple of hole-in-the-wall restaurants near Washington, DC, you cannot get a salteña in the United States. This is a high-crime in food service. When will the salteña be “discovered” in America? It’ll change your life when it finally is. Until then, I will be complaining that there are no salteñas in the U.S.
Travel Lessons: Things That Suck In The USA
One of the best things about long-term travel is that it can really open your eyes. It is like looking in the mirror – you examine both the good and the bad about who you are and where you come from. In my last post, I detailed 10 things that I’ll never complain about in the U.S. again. Those are some really important things. But while the U.S. has some massive advantages over a place like Bolivia, there are a few things that can be improved in the USA, too.
I suppose once you learn to live in a new place, you can find both advantages and disadvantages. It’s unfortunate that I can’t combine the best of both worlds. Or maybe I’ll just have to keep looking for the perfect place.