I never felt poor until I went to university. I was one of eight siblings that grew up in a Tower Hamlets council house (vouchers for my school uniform, free school meals), but I never felt that my family was poor until I entered higher education. There, my peer-set changed from Bengali girls like me to those whose families owned second homes, second cars and even thriving businesses – not international conglomerates like you might find at Oxbridge, but impressive nonetheless: a diamond shop in west London, a doctor’s surgery in Surrey, an accountancy firm in Redbridge.
There was one student whose parents owned four homes in London, another whose father owned an inconceivable 17. I’m not sure if it was envy I felt or just sadness at the realisation that my father had worked hard all his life for far less than what these kids would be given. Years later, I would comment to a friend that I wish my parents could have achieved more; acquired a fraction of what these other parents had.
My friend, honest as she is wise, pulled no punches. She asked me how I could dare say such a thing when my parents had shifted across continents to a land in which they didn’t speak the language, had no family or friends, no capital, no jobs, no prospects and raised me never feeling hungry or cold or ill, the hallmarks of true poverty. She called to mind all the things I had learnt from my trip to Bangladesh as a 13 year old. Had my parents not immigrated to the UK, I would be living in a Bangladeshi village shackled by choices made for me by others.
I have been reminded of this time and again on our travels across the Pacific and South America. The reason I (and most likely you) have achieved anything is not mainly due to inherent intelligence but circumstance; a privilege supplied by the country of our birth or the wealth of our families. I’ve met people on the road who could very well be running multinational companies had they been born elsewhere. There was Werry at Port Resolution Yacht Club on Vanuatu’s Tanna Island, Josie the receptionist at Poseidon Dive Centre in Colombia’s Taganga and Amirico, a guide on the Salkantay trek in Peru. All these people had an intelligence and ability that shone as bright as any graduate or executive I’ve met at home.
Perhaps it’s presumptuous of me to assume that Josie and her peers want different lives. Werry spends many a day fishing which reminds me of that old parable about the Mexican fisherman who spends his days playing with his children, taking siestas with his wife, fishing a little, drinking wine and playing guitar with his friends. An American businessman happens across the fisherman’s small business and asks why he doesn’t spend more time fishing, buy more boats and expand his operation. With the high quality of his fish, he could become a multinational within 20 years, says the American.
“What then?” asks the fisherman. “Then,” says the American, “you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
It’s a striking story that says much for the simple life, but the truth is the vast majority of people couldn’t choose a different life even if they wanted to. Josie most likely won’t ever receive a higher education, won’t ever get the chance to use her intelligence to capacity, won’t ever have an opportunity to start a startup that might change the world – but I did and I’ll try never to forget that again.
A friend in San Francisco once told me that the smartest people in the world go to Silicon Valley. That’s not true at all. The smartest people in the world born with a very specific privilege go to Silicon Valley. The very smartest people in the world are most likely in Silicon Valley and in New York and in London and ploughing the fields of Cambodia and farming coffee in Ethiopia and manning machinery in India.
Privilege is so often invisible to those who have it. It provides us security and strokes our egos and lays claim to achievements that aren’t fully ours. Travel is the most effective way I’ve found to pull privilege into the light, to give it shape and tangible form, to force us to accept one simple truth: that you and I are far more lucky than we are smart.