When people say, “You need to face reality,” I laugh and wonder which one? Reality is always in the eye of the beholder, and even then, multi-faceted and elusive.

But still, the term “reality check” comes to mind when friends in the U.S. say things to me along the lines of:

  • “You simply CANNOT have a baby without owning an SUV.”
  • Or when digging through a mountain of clothing in the child’s room, “I can’t find anything for him to wear!”
  • Or, “It’s their future… your toddler must have a cell phone and tablet.”
  • Or, “I’d just love to spend more time with my family, but we just can’t afford it.”

The worst part is, it’s not hyperbole — they believe it.

I’ve traveled two days by boat down a jungle river in the Miskito Coast of Honduras to villages with no electricity or water, staying with people living in a one-room hut on stilts and eating a diet of beans and rice for breakfast, beans and rice for lunch, and for dinner… you guessed it. Fruit, vegetables, and meat were extraordinary indulgences and hard to come by. While I was there, two ten-year- olds were sent on a two-day trip down the river to trade an entire canoe of bananas for a pound of coffee beans with another village. The most educational experience I had there was seeing three-year-old girls wearing slings on their backs bearing their infant siblings. It was their job to watch the infants while mothers tended the fields.

But most important, I saw a community that supported each other in every aspect of life — from field, to flock, to food, to fun.

I’ve been in the back alleys of China and seen whole families living in single rooms with a bare bulb hanging from the 300-year old ceiling and a single sink that served all “water” needs. China has experienced tremendous growth and increase in wealth… but not all of China.

However, I saw an ancient code of respect and courtesy in place in even the most “lowly” of neighborhoods.

In 1990, I stayed with Russians (highly educated people able to converse on any topic of history, politics, and art), living three families to an apartment — one family in each of the two bedrooms and one family in the living room. In the one bathroom they all shared, I called out for my friend Nicholai to pass me some toilet paper (having found none next to the toilet). He called back, “Newspaper on floor not for reading.”

In Moscow with my friend Nastya, we were driven around town by her boyfriend Maxim. (He was extremely wealthy to have a car — a Lada — at the young age of 22.)

He arrived a bit late, said something to Nastya in Russian, and then she screamed, “You didn’t get gas yet!” Wanting to restore the peace without understanding the situation, I chimed in, “Hey, let’s just get gas on the way.” Maxim smiled and Nastya groaned — and soon I knew why.

We turned off a main street and screeched to a halt behind a snarled, tangled mess 15 cars wide and perhaps a block long. I could see the gas station in the distance. In the immediate scene were people, with their car engines turned off, sitting on the hoods and trunks playing cards, drinking, or staring into space. Three hours later, we had gas and were off to sightsee. I’d already seen the most important sight of the day.

Most striking against this backdrop of corruption and poverty in Russia was the incredible emphasis on education. People waiting in line four hours for milk (me, with them) could speak three or four languages with perfect fluency.

In 2001, I traveled though Lebanon and saw a gorgeous country with more than half its buildings and neighborhoods still shattered from a 16-year civil war that had ended 11 years earlier.

BUT, oh, is Beirut fun in the summer! Food, family, and music dominate the day.

That same year I drove to Bratislava, Slovakia — a charming and fascinating town. I stood on a hilltop on the grounds of what was a medieval fortress and saw the telltale sign of Soviet rule below in the city: rows and rows of hideous cinder block, vodka- and urine-soaked buildings called “housing.” From up on the hill, they looked like tombstones. I’ve spent the better part of a year living in that kind of building in Soviet-run countries, and they felt like graveyards.

Yet, the café life in Bratislava rivals any small town in Europe: block after block of charming restaurants and cafes, sidewalks lined with tables and bright umbrellas, people enjoying their town al fresco!

In 2003, I drove through Bosnia and Herzegovina. Fresh out of a vicious war that resulted in the breakup of Yugoslavia, I saw the result of great destruction and hatred. In one of the border towns (I don’t know the names of any small cities I drove through — all the signs were in Cyrillic) was the embodiment of devastation. There wasn’t one person to be seen, yet thousands — yes, thousands — of graves were scattered around any empty field. Even the tombstones were bullet-riddled. I walked through the crushed remains of people’s homes. Most haunting was standing in what had been someone’s kitchen, finding weeds growing over shards of lovely, but crushed, dishware. Everywhere, car chassis like rotting skeletons were turned over, burned-out, shot-up, and rusted.

Yet despite the enormity and recent occurrence of the violence there, I was blown away when I saw downtown Sarajevo. While the civil war had largely been of a religious nature, I saw thousands of U.N. police carrying machine guns — yet — I saw people: old and young, wearing hijabs and kippahs, traditionally dressed and scantily dressed, all strolling and sitting together in what looked like a bustling, happy life. I was enchanted and literally cried tears of joy.

You see the point — I’ve experienced the wealth and the struggle in poverty, as well as the poverty and blessings in wealth. Here in the U.S. — and I say this with love and compassion for those of us in the struggle (been there!) — even if we cut way, Way, WAY back to accommodate our shifting desires to spend more time with family, the majority of us still have it very good and indeed have the ability to enjoy and treasure the things that matter most…the things that are free. Love.

This is an excerpt from Allie Chee’s book Free Love: Everyday Ideas for Joyful Living. Click here for more Free Love on Thrive Global. Click here for more Free Love on Thrive Global

All photos courtesy of Allie Chee.

ALLIE CHEE – In 1993, Allie-planning to move to Calcutta-had a one-hour phone call with Mother Teresa that set her off on a different journey-one that led to 50 countries, great adventure, and unexpected lessons on free love. She learned that we don’t need more time, we don’t need more money, we don’t need special skills, and we don’t need to give up anything we enjoy or desire.

We can experience more fun, more joy, more LOVE-we can get our groove back right now-with the simplest of activities in our kitchen, at home, and in our communities. The everyday ideas for joyful living that Allie shares in FREE LOVE are waiting for you. So what are you waiting for?

Get your groove on and start spreading the love!


Originally published at medium.com