Nong Kiau, Laos 16 Jan 12
Odometer 74,565 m 120,050 km

If I were a kid, I'd want to live in Laos... I’d run around naked when it’s hot and giggle and laugh until my cheeks hurt. I'd build my own spear gun to fish with in the river and while away the afternoons swimming with my pals. I'd swing beneath the thatched roof of my family's bamboo hut, walk to school with my girlfriends, and gather firewood with my mom. I’d help my dad grow sticky rice out in our paddy and hunt for food and medicine in the forest. And when I’d close my tired eyes at night, I’d fall asleep dreaming of tigers: the ones that prowl our mountainsides; and the one that lives within me.
The first thing that strikes you when crossing the border into Laos is that this diminutive country of nearly 7 million people is positively crawling with kids. What’s prompting this demographic boom I cannot say, but the little guys appear to be everywhere. In fact, a full 36% of Laotians, compared to 20% of Americans and just 14% of Italians and Japanese, are under the age of 14--setting them up for explosive population growth over the coming decades. And I can personally vouch, after playing with scads of them for hours on end, that the second thing to strike you about Laos is the marked difference between these children and their wealthier counterparts in industrialized nations.

Life in Laos, a mostly agrarian society with an average per capita income of just $1,010 per year, isn't easy. Medical and especially dental care is difficult to come by. Food scarcity exists. Infrastructure is typically primitive. And while 82% of kids are officially enrolled in school, those schools are often no more than post-supported tin roofs perched over splintered wooden benches.

Despite these hardships--or perhaps
because of them--Lao kids appear to be significantly better prepared to meet their world’s challenges than do a lot of kids raised in much wealthier countries.
Lunchtime! A band of buddies spent their morning snaring lizards, so that they could serve 'em up for their mid-day meal.
The children of Laos grow up with each other, playing outside with whatever they can find or build for themselves, and begin working at an early age. They don’t have a chest full of Legos, plastic spaceships, the latest Xbox video games, an iPhone full of apps and music, or scores of virtual “friends." No trophies are awarded for simply showing up, pictures of their smiling faces don’t adorn every bureau and wall, and extravagant birthday parties aren’t thrown on their behalf. And while they are just as likely to be the apple of their parents’ eye, they wisely learn early on that they are not the center of the universe.
And while they are just as likely to be the apple of their parents’ eye, they wisely learn early on that they are not the center of the universe.
Instead, they live an unscripted childhood free from the tyranny of one more ballet and flute lesson, one more karate competition and swimming class, and one more soccer match and talent show. They’re unencumbered by helmets and kneepads and thus able to learn from the inevitable bumps and bruises that life brings. Judgment, after all, improves in a hurry when there's a cost to failure--something from which their richer cousins are all too often shielded.

In short, when you possess little, and are neither over-scheduled nor over-supervised, you have to
invent things to play with and do, develop ways to get along with your peers, and learn from your own mistakes--the hard way.
A Laotian boy spearfishes for food and fun.
Who's Impoverished?

Just as wealth has its pitfalls, poverty has its virtues. Austerity fertilizes the imagination--it’s hard to make something from nothing--and fosters problem-solving skills rarely demanded of kids accustomed to getting whatever they want, whenever they want it. Scarcity teaches kids to truly appreciate the few things they do have while imparting a visceral understanding of value and relative importance. And severity, as difficult as it is to bear at the time, serves to focus the mind and cultivate fortitude.

Lao kids learn from these challenges to value their families, their friendships, and their personal standing within the community over materialism and conceit. Indigence doesn’t make them nobler; it just fortuitously exposes them to fewer temptations and the means to finance them.

But let’s be honest, no one
wants to be poor--even if it helps stave off the corrosive effects of affluence. Everyone deserves proper health care, a solid education and a decent standard of living. So, I can only hope that as Laotians continue to develop their economy they will learn from our mistakes: Overindulging their kids, as natural as that primal urge may be, will not help them raise the self-reliant, resourceful, confident and optimistic adults that they and our world need more of.

Similarly, we in the developed nations can learn from the people of Laos. With grit and determination baked into them from birth, they fear little, take difficult tasks in stride, and deftly, if inadvertently, leverage their “poverty” to provide them with the richest gift of all: self-respect.
A go-cart some kids made using local wood, sweat, teamwork and a whole lot of ingenuity.
A group of three young boys hesitantly approached me as I propped Pegasus against a tree and took a break to soak my heat-swollen feet in the river. They were curious about where I had come from, my bike and equipment, and where I slept at night. I drew a crude world map in the sand to try and explain that I had come from very far away to explore their country.

They understood why. They had each other--and an amazing river to play in--and couldn't imagine wanting to be anywhere else.

Yeah, if I were a dad, I'd want to live in Laos.
A trio of young girls race into the river to cool off.

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