The Pearl of Discomfort

It is a familiar oddity of nature — the grain of sand that irritates the oyster, put it in a state of discomfort, and as a result, the oyster covers the sand with an iridescent coating over and over until the end result is a gorgeous pearl. In this day and age where we are always striving towards increasing comfort, we have forgotten the benefits of irritation, of discomfort in our lives.

Living in a a third-world country on a local level for nearly eight years, I know something about discomfort. Since returning to the U.S. two years ago, my impression is of a life incredibly comfortable in comparison but rarely appreciated. I often say that if every American lived in a third-world country on a local level for at least six months, we would have a much happier, more cooperative country.

When I first made that statement it was in response our lack of perspective as Americans — how we complain about relatively minor things as if they were big issues, not appreciating how truly good we have it here in the U.S. If we get stuck in traffic or the order that we called in isn’t right, then we feel it is a big deal. Heaven forbid we lose power or water, even if for a few minutes it is a crisis. Yet in all third-world countries, much more extreme situations are commonplace and for the most part people are cheerful amidst incredible difficulties.

Tinaco (black water tank) on tope of an apartment building

When I first moved to the Dominican Republic I rented an apartment in Gazcue which is a gentrified district in central Santo Domingo with many foreigners — home to the American Embassy and the Peace Corps. In Gazcue the power almost never went because the power grid also contained the national palace. So here I was, fresh from the U.S., and although I had experience with the third-world as a kid, I really didn’t know what I was getting into. My apartment had power 24/7 for the third-world, meaning it only went out 30 minutes or so a few times a month, but water was a problem. In the sector of Gazcue, water shortages were common but in addition, because power was expensive, the apartment complex adopted a common technique to save money — they only turned on the water pump for a few hours a day — no pump, no water. After missing a shower a few days in a row I soon found out what I needed was called a tinaco, a water tank installed on the roof, a common sight in the Dominican Republic. Quite ingenious actually, when there is water and the pump is on, it fills the tinaco so that when there is no water or pressure, the water comes down from the tank. So I got a tinaco and then I had once again restored my level of comfort that I was used to from the U.S. (or nearly so). Not for long however…

Six months later the Dominican economy bottomed out and my clients cancelled projects. Money was tight so I had to move out of Gazcue, out of the city center, to Santo Domingo Este (East) which was way less comfortable. The first week the power was out for 36 hours straight. When there was no power, as with the comfortable apartment I moved from, there was no pump so no water. I had to haul water out of the cistern with a five gallon bucket. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I was now pregnant with my first child. It was an intense time.

My new place was a two story house in the middle of nowhere. I had been talked into moving there by an American friend who wanted to rent the floor above. The rent was cheap, which I needed, and I agreed to the location because I thought I wouldn’t be alone. But that was not the case because my friend was rarely home and within a few months had decided to move out. Meanwhile, it took me a year and a half to build up my income enough back to the “comfortable” part of town.

An inverter which connects to a circuit box and car batteries

While I lived there I tried to restore the level of comfort that I had before but I could never quite do it. After I made a little money I bought an inverter, a power back up system using car batteries — an inverter wasn’t powerful enough to power the water pump, refrigerator or washing machine but it could give you lights, fans and even television. An inverter, also known as an “inversore” is connected to certain circuits in the house and switches over when the power goes out. When the power returns, the batteries are charged. Another ingenious invention but in my case the power went out so often that the inverter burnt out within a year.

Since the inverter couldn’t run the water pump I had to get another tinaco (old one went stayed with the previous apartment) but the new one leaked, so did the cistern, and I had to make do with barrels of water storage to last me the days between water. Trying to restore comfort was an endless battle for the time I lived there.

But I had to deal with it, the discomfort was greater than me, it was so great that I couldn’t complain about it, I simply had to deal with it. And since I was pregnant, I had to stay calm and cheerful, I had to find joy and pleasure in little things even when daily life was so uncomfortable. Gradually the discomfort changed me. I no longer saw the point in complaining. Things were just the way they were. I did my best to make it better, I stayed positive and continued to look for opportunities to better my life, which eventually came, but until then I took each day for what it was.

With tremendous patience and concerted effort to improve my life, I was eventually able to surpass the difficulties of my situation and move back to the center of town, to a new apartment in Gazcue.

Peace Corp building in Gazcue

Now my new place was not as comfortable as my first one, and living in the third-world could never be as comfortable as the U.S., but it was dramatically more comfortable than where I had been before. It’s all relative, it’s true, and I was so grateful that I had left the extreme difficulties of my past behind me that nothing much bothered me after that. I didn’t realize I had been changed, however, until my second child was born and mother came to live with me from Florida. Compared to Florida, Gazcue was very uncomfortable. There were problems with the trash on the sidewalks — no trash cans (people would steal them) and infrequent sanitation service. There was the noise and pollution from the traffic (no such thing as emission control or even car inspection). We had a tinaco but sometimes the water pressure wasn’t strong enough to fill it and so we wouldn’t have water for several hours. And then electric company was upgrading the electricity in the sector so the power would be out on the weekends for 8-10 hour blocks.

All of these problems were tremendous sources of frustration for my mother, along with many more. In the United States things work — traffic lights turn on and off, roads are maintained, electricity and water stays on, garbage is picked up, the police or ambulance comes when you call. In the third-world none of these things work on any consistent basis.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to be living in comfortable Florida, I am certainly not complaining about that, but despite the discomfort of my life in the Dominican Republic, I am grateful as well for what I have learned from my time there:

  • I have gained perspective — I know that no matter how difficult my situation is, there is someone facing a much harder one.
  • I have learned patience — I don’t feel like everything is a rush, especially when a problem arises, I now wait to see if it works itself out which it often does.
  • I am far more flexible — In the third-world you don’t make plans. “Si Dios quiere.” (what God wants) is a common phrase because in a land with so many infrastructure problems and other issues like monsoon rains, one never knows for sure if ones plans will take place. Instead one learns intent and flexibility to other ideas if one’s intentions do not work out.
  • I am more resourceful — Seeing how much people are able to do with so little is a testament to what we are really capable of if we are put to the test. This is one of the key benefits of discomfort. If that oyster wasn’t irritated by the sand, the pearl would never be formed. I learned this first hand when I lived in Santo Domingo Este and had to earn my way back to the city center.
  • I value money — Living with so little taught me what I really need. Now that my life is getting better financially, I have a totally different relationship with money than I did in the past. I used to do what most Americans do which is to accumulate material things. Now, I make do with less and really consider how much I need something before I buy it.
  • I have more empathy — I am far less judgmental than I used to be because living overseas, I found myself being the one who was judged. The local Dominicans treated me as a rich American, no matter my financial status, because they assumed that all Americans were rich. It was frustrating to be seen that way and there was nothing I could do to change it. I have learned not to do the same to others. You never know someone else’s story unless you ask.
  • I appreciate more and complain less — When you are faced with seemingly insurmountable difficulties, complaining only saps your energy. Instead of complaining when the power went out, I learned to celebrate when it came back on. Now that my life is far more comfortable, a day doesn’t go by that I am not grateful.

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