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What makes us wealthy?

After Africa, Peru and Cuba, the Cayman Islands were a bit of a culture shock.

These three tiny little islands (known collectively as ‘Cayman’) are surrounded on all sides by countries in varying degrees of poverty – Cuba to the north, Central America to the west and south, and other Caribbean islands to the east. Yet because of its role as a tax haven, Cayman is incredibly well-off.

These tiny unassuming little islands, stranded out in the middle of the sparkling Caribbean ocean, have become a key international financial district, and have reaped the financial rewards.

Cayman Island dollars are worth more than US dollars. Even the actual notes seem to be better made than most other currencies. The main street in the capital of Cayman is lined with diamond, jewellery and watch stores (and they’re not cheap!). Cayman even has a TV station called ‘Wealth’ proclaiming that “wealth unlocks the door to all life’s experiences”.

It’s interesting to consider what ‘wealth’ really means. And just how different it is across cultures.

Ask a Tanzanian what makes someone ‘wealthy’, and they may say a healthy crop of corn. Ask a Peruvian, and they may say a herd of alpacas that can be bred for their wool and meat. Ask a Caymanian (or many of the American tourists you will find lying on the beach there), and they are more likely to say a mansion, a yacht or a diamond necklace.

Years ago a friend of mine told me about a sailing trip she took with her husband to the Caribbean. At the time she and her husband had well paying, busy jobs in London and they saved so they could afford to travel. As they sailed through the turquoise waters, locals would approach them in canoes selling fresh fruit, hoping to make a few dollars, and would marvel at their beautiful sail boat. My friend said it made her wonder who was really richer – the people that earned executive salaries and could afford to sail to the Caribbean, but that lived stressful and busy lives, or the people who earned hardly anything by comparison, but were surrounded by natural beauty every day with no expectation of 9-5?

While access to money increases freedom by providing choice (perhaps some of the Caribbean locals actually hate the beach, and would prefer to live in the rain in London?), I’m not sure that money and wealth actually have a lot to do with each other.

Wealth is a mindset as much as anything else, and it’s also relative.

It’s interesting reflecting on our time in Africa. By comparison to the Cayman Islands and the rest of the Western world, Africa is far from wealthy in financial terms. But there is wealth of other kinds to be gained from living in a place that doesn’t beat to the rhythm of the capitalist drum.

In Tanzania we automatically lowered our expectations. In fact in general we didn’t have any expectations at all. We embraced a very simple lifestyle and stepped into sync with the slow pace of life. And it was surprisingly freeing.

When you don’t expect hot water, you aren’t annoyed when your shower is cold. When you only have one pair of jeans with you, you don’t waste an hour of your life deciding what to wear out. When you know that ‘soon’ can mean three hours later, you cool your jets and just wait.

When you stop striving for whatever version of ‘The Great Australian (capitalist) Dream’ you aspire to in order to become ‘wealthy’, you find that you’re no longer stressed about how close or far you are from achieving it. There is more room to breathe.

It’s the juxtaposition between places like Tanzania and Cayman that brings into sharp focus the absurdity of spending a lifetime working to enable you to consume to meet the Western ideal of wealth, when that doesn’t necessarily leave you ‘wealthy’.

The Africans and Peruvians were some of the happiest communities of anywhere we’ve visited. In that sense, they are incredibly wealthy. There were limited signs of the ‘diseases of excess’ (obesity and stress) that plague the Western world. So which countries are wealthier?

What if we altered our mental frameworks to embrace an idea of wealth beyond the image imprinted in our minds by the right wing capitalist media machine?

How freeing might that be? How much happier might we be, if we no longer had to strive for more, and more? And in increasing our happiness, how much wealthier might we become?

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