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What’s the value of choice?

We were sitting in a café in Paris, just after moving to London. We were drinking champagne, and contemplating whether to buy macaroons, or chocolate (or probably both) to bring back to our London apartment. And a memory flooded back of sitting in another ‘café’ – a makeshift tent, high in the Andes in Peru with the faces of 20 porters looking curiously at us.

It was cold. It was night and pitch black outside, the only light from a portable lamp in the corner. It was a ‘meet and greet’ session with the men who each carried 20kg of our camping gear up the Inca Trail. A four day trek they make once a week, for a salary of $50AUD.

We had seen them on the trail, mostly looking at their backs as they ran past us, with packs four times as heavy as ours, to get to the camp sites early and make sure everything was setup by the time we arrived. They did this every day and they did it for the full 43 kilometres of the trail.

We had commented how fit and strong they were as they ran past us, but  hadn’t had the chance to speak to any of them. Now in the cramped, dimly lit tent, face to face, they were suddenly human.

Their faces were eager and curious. Some were very shy, keeping their eyes on the ground. They told us about their families and their hopes. It was only days before that we had met some of their families in the little village they called home, a stop off on our way to the Inca Trail to buy scarves and jumpers they knitted from alpaca wool.

Some were young – 16 the youngest. Some were much older, nearing 50. Just like us, some had families and partners and some didn’t. Some told us they were “still looking” for the right girl (and then asked who in the group was single!).

We had the chance to ask them questions, with our guide translating. My question was why they chose to be porters. On reflection, a question born from ignorance. The answer was, they had no choice. This was their only opportunity to earn enough income to afford to live.

Their questions for us were all the same. Where are you from, and how can we get there? They wanted to go to Australia, Canada, the UK – anywhere that would offer them more opportunity than Peru.

And that’s the key difference. Choice.

One of the things four months of travel taught me was the value of having the opportunity to choose the life you live. The country you are born into is pure chance. And yet it means some will always have choice, and for others, choice won’t exist.

Here we are, two Australians that waltzed into the UK and found work and an apartment in London within weeks of arriving. And here were 20 porters who will most likely never have the choice to do anything other than climb the Inca Trail each week, so that people like us have the opportunity to choose to climb it.

One of the saddest things we heard from the porters that night, was that most of them have never been able to finish the Inca Trail and see Machu Picchu. On day four of our the hike we stood watching in awe as the sun rose over a site that, for the porters, has huge spiritual significance, while they headed in the opposite direction, back down to catch the early trail to return all our camping gear.

That’s choice in action again.

On the one hand you could feel guilty for choosing to sit in a Parisian café, when you know those porters are probably walking the Inca Trail again today because it’s the only way to feed their family. On the other, you could get active and do something for all the porters of the world, whoever they may be. And they don’t just live in Peru, or Africa, or Latin America. You can find them in Australia, in the  UK, America, and Paris.

Some people will choose not to show empathy. For example one couple we walked the trail with chose not to tip these 20 men, and instead upgraded their plane ticket to first class on the trip back to Lima.

Maybe that’s where choice can be at it’s most powerful. When those of us who are privileged, make the choice to help others who are not.

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