I have always thought that everyone in America should be required to spend some time, at some point in their lives, in a third world country. I felt this way long before I ever spent time in a third world country, and I do even more so now.

The trip could be for any reason. Mission trips are already common, but trips for business or education – whether to teach or to learn – would also be acceptable. As would vacations, especially if they were the kind of “working vacation” where people help to build houses and community centers or prepare and serve food for other workers.

In addition to whatever good we could do for the people living in these other countries, there would be many benefits to us as well. Some are obvious, like being reminded of how much we have and take for granted. In the same way that we appreciate electricity when it comes back on after a storm, or our good health after we’ve recovered from being sick, we would come back from our third world experience with renewed awareness and gratitude for the food we can grab out of the refrigerator any time we want it, the constant supply of clean water we can use for drinking, cooking, and bathing, and the solid walls and doors we can lock to protect us from the elements and from people who might do us harm.

In all likelihood, we would return not only with a renewed appreciation for the things we take for granted, but with a new understanding of how and why we should protect and conserve them. When we’ve been in a place where we had a single bottle of water to use for drinking, washing, and rinsing off our toothbrush, we’re not as likely to come home and leave the faucet running full-blast while we brush our teeth.

Another benefit to spending time in a third world country is having the opportunity to unplug, unwind, and slow down. Many people would consider this more of a hardship, annoyance, and inconvenience than an opportunity. And I think the majority of Americans would consider it not only undesirable, but impossible, to spend more than a few hours away from cell phones, email, and other electronic gadgets and programs. But when we do, whether we choose to or are forced to, we develop a powerful connection with something much more important than instant access and online everything. We connect with history. With the universe. With our soul. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to explain. You’ve got to feel it and experience it for yourself. And the only way to do that is to go there. Wherever “there” turns out to be for you.

I haven’t even mentioned the benefits that come from meeting new people, experiencing a new culture, or listening to new perspectives and points of view, but I have to at least point out that even in a third world country – perhaps especially in a third world country – these can be rich and rewarding as well. More so than you might ever expect.

At this time of year, it’s common for us to list – or at least think about – the people and things for which we are thankful. And with the added benefit of having just returned from Uganda, I have a list that’s much longer – and a bit different – than it is in most years.

In addition to my family, my friends, my health, my home, and all the things I am thankful for that I normally take for granted, I’m grateful for the opportunity to travel to, and become part of, an area of the world that I had never been to before. I thank God not only for the way of life I am able to enjoy, but for a new way of life that I was able to experience. I am thankful for all the new people I met, and especially the ones who have already become dear friends and from whom I have learned so much. I’m grateful that my eyes and my mind have been opened to things I have never seen or known before, and I’m thankful I was able to help other people to open their eyes and minds as well.

As always, I am grateful that I have a place where I can share my thoughts, my ideas, my discoveries, and my experiences, and I am very, very thankful for the friends, neighbors, and people near and far who enjoy reading about them.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on November 24, 2011.
© Betty Liedtke, 2011