“What do you think?”

As an expatriate living in Merida, Yucatan, and now traveling through Central America on a journey to the southern tip of South America, this question arises most often among our fellow travelers.

“What do you think?”

And in the early days, beginning with Mexico, I frequently heard a rather forbidding assessment of the people and the land.

“The poverty is so pervasive.”

The trouble is, I do not see poverty. I keep looking everywhere, awaiting with some trepidation that terrible moment when I shall witness a barren and abject poverty, but time and travel make me realize that I do not see what other travelers see; that is, I do not see poverty. Nor do I believe that we only have different definitions, although that is the crux of the problem. My definition is indeed forbidding: poverty is the severe lack of essential goods. I believe, however, that most travelers see poverty as simply the severe lack of wealth. This vital difference in viewpoint becomes judgmental when my fellow travelers verbalize their experience, and to me their judgment is not just unkind, but unfair. The implications are demeaning, and they promote a distorted view of cultures that are anything but poor, except perhaps in wealth.


“What do you think?”

I answer this question differently.

All through the Yucatan, in Cuba, in Guatemala, in Belize, and in Honduras, I have seen people with a severe lack of wealth, but who are uniquely rich in many qualities of life, including the rewards of their labor-intense productivity. I am talking both personally and culturally. These cultures promote an impressively high regard for human labor, often employing people to accomplish through intensive effort what a machine might accomplish with none – with positive human consequences for all concerned. Recently, on a local bus traveling through the central roads of Honduras, taking local people from city to village to town, I watched two young men assisting our driver by managing the flow of people on board, managing necessary interactions with others on the road, engaging with local vendors and roadside suppliers along the way, and all in a spirit of high humor and energetic antics meant to keep their customers happy.

Such a wealth of spirit.


“What do you think?”

Yes, the dwellings of these people often appear to be ramshackle, or even dilapidated, or just plain poor – until you go inside. These cultures are not besotted by exterior displays of wealth, but the citizens of these cultures are often godly in their attention to the cleanliness of their homes and their warmth toward a lonely, hungry traveler. They might be entertaining angels, after all.


The only true poverty I see is with the homeless, who so often are the victims of mental illness – just like we see in our hometown. These few are truly poor; truly lacking in essential goods, but this is not true of the community in which they live.

Beggar 1

“What do you think?”

I think: what I see where others see poverty is actually basic living, and probably the kind of basic living that sustains a planet, where people work hard for their most essential needs, care about their fellow men, and live within a means measured by what their community supports. And when I see the consequences of such a life in the generosity and warmth of smiles meant for me, I feel quite poor in comparison.


Poverty, after all, must be a state of mind.

Joel R. Dennstedt
Photos by Indochine Photography


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Joel R. Dennstedt
Author – Journalist – World Traveler



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