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Firework of dollars

There is a sweet, gray-haired 70 year old woman with a pretty smile named Elena on the corner of Aurora Blvd. and General Aguinaldo Ave. I see her nearly every day. She travels ten miles from her slum home to beg for money in the high traffic Araneta Center area. I always stop for a moment to ask how she is. We have a cordial conversation. Elena asks about my newborn baby, And how is your wife? She always looks so pretty! She asks if I am having a good day, and squinches her cheeks with delight when I reply in Tagalog. Mabuti naman po. 

She has picked a good spot in the bustling city of sixteen million people. Not that everyone is overly generous, but every coin counts, and adds up. I’d say she’s doing pretty well for herself—relatively speaking, of course, pretty well as far as the beggar’s lifestyle goes, pulling in more than a hundred Pesos a day.

She makes me think about the lifestyle that I have been blessed with. She makes me consider finances and food and entertainment and all the good pleasures of this world. She makes me feel rich.

But opulence is a funny thing, a sticky conversation full of loopholes and relativity. The rich announce that they’re poor. The poor makes you think they are rich by their amiable smiles. The middle class always want more. Beggars are always reaching for another coin. Millionaires never have enough.

So how wealthy are you? Where do you fall on the global rich list? Here are five ways to get rich, or realize that you already are.

Walk less than fifty meters northeast from Elena’s spot on Aurora Blvd. to watch infants sleeping in makeshift cardboard boxes strewn across the sidewalk. They are usually asleep next to an older sibling, a toddler or ten year old. Traffic is heavy with personal vehicles and public jeepneys, and the humidity collects billions of smoggy molecules, stuffing the black soot inside tiny, helpless nostrils. You can’t believe how dirty the poor baby’s cheeks are. Their mother’s empty eye follows me as I walk past them with a hampered cringe in each step. I’m pretty sure she’s wondering how rich I am.

Take a twenty-four hour overnight sleeper bus from Kunming city to The Edge, the northern point of the Golden Triangle. Home to the former headhunting Wa tribe, the landscape is dotted with lush poppy fields and grass huts. Methamphetamine production and ethnic genocide (amongst a myriad of other tragedies) have ushered in a tidal wave of poverty. Spend the night in a Wa hut, sip some of the local rice wine jet fuel, converse with a toothless old man puffing a silver pipe, and pinch the children’s cheeks as you hand them gifts of balloons and used clothing. The wide open wet skies outside will remind you that you don’t have it that bad after all.

Set out for a shopping day in Kunming city like any decent consumer. But watch your step as you stroll under the branches that hang over the Chinese souvenir and trinket venders at the Bird and Flower Market. Fate is not so fair to every human being, you will see. I have always wondered about that man’s story—the legless man with polio shriveled arms, contorted in inhuman posture, with hollow tin can laid in front of his face. When I see him, I am shocked and saddened and pissed off. His gnarled vertebrae is a hump of bone and flesh, pathetic and hopeless. On a busy day at the market, you may not even see him until it’s almost too late as you nearly trip over him and despise yourself because of it.

Watch from inside your vehicle as the hoard of excited children run toward you, smiling, waving, What’s your name? hugging your leg, Will you be my friend? Your car has not even come to a complete stop yet, and you are surrounded. The moment your foot steps on the Liberian soil, you are engulfed in a swarm of loveably curious little children. Some are late in their teen years. Others are toddlers. The sun beats down on you as the African temperature soars. A five year old boy named James holds your hand as he looks up at you with those big, black eyes. He has seen war. He has felt loss. His parents are gone. His eyes are more articulate than he himself, and they tell a story of hope and longing. Suddenly your first world problems seem more trivial than ever.

Look to your right, south toward the Mekong River, as the swooping valley bursts with greens and yellows. Banana and pineapple plantations as far as the eye can see, and the smoke of a thousand villages rise in the dusky purple haze. The Yao tribe is one of the poorest of the poor people groups in Southeast Asia. Tonight you are sitting on an unnaturally short stool, crouching over a splintery wooden table laden with boiled cat, leafy water spinach, and raw grub worms. Your stomach churns as you scan the delectable delicacies with worry in your eyes. But you are an honored guest, and they are serving you the best that they can manage. You squeeze your chopsticks awkwardly, pinch a glob of bone and flesh, and chew slowly, savoring every unique flavor as your host scrutinizes with innocuous eyes.

Take a moment to pause and reflect. Linger a little longer than usual in front of the mirror. Inspect your jeans. Scrutinize your shirt. Examine your shoes. Survey your stuff behind you in the room, your electronic devices, your gadgets, appliances, furniture, light fixtures, wall paint. Perhaps a sudden epiphany will shock you with a thought like, Wow, I am not as poor as I thought. Yes, there are bills and obligations, and it always feels like you wallet is filled with more receipts than cash. But that may simply be because you only use plastic! Just a moment more. Linger there in front of the mirror a little longer. Are you poor or rich? Are you well off or just getting by or keeping up with the Jones’s? If you are reading this, the reality is, you are most likely in the the top ten percent of the world’s rich.

Confirm how rich you are on the Global Rich List.

I’m sorry if this blog was deceiving, and you haven’t walked away with newfound wealth or secret steps to becoming rich. But I hope that you realize how blessed and well off you truly are. Now, why not find a cause to give toward.

To whom much is given, much will be required. 

Perhaps it’s time to become more intentional with how you use your wealth for the benefit of both yourself and others.






The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog. I’m pretty happy with it. I am inspired to finish my book in 2013—once I awake from zombie mode because of the recent birth of my baby girl! Yes, there’s a lot of sleep deprivation going on around the Joannes household right now, but there are glimpses of deep inspiration as well. I hope to draw on that inspiration to create a book that satisfies your craving for unique missionary stories.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.


There are so many layers of poverty, from the flaky outer shell to the sweetish center. But like an onion, the whole thing will make you cry.

As a traveled American, it’s hard for me to swallow the poverty stories of most of my countrymen. We live in the Disneyland of the world, but I guess waiting in lines for the rides all day long gets overwhelming too. It’s just that after all the sights I’ve seen on international streets, it’s hard for me to give a buck to the guy holding the “will work for food” sign.

Manila taxi drivers are notorious for their stories. They used to ask for a tip every time I’d get comfortable, but thankfully that seems to have died down. “Christmas, sir?” a forty year old driver recently asked me in childish vernacular. I inadvertently rolled my eyes at his request as we passed a group of street kids on Gil Puyat. “No Christmas this year, sir?” I paid the meter without tip, and unapologetically alighted

I’ve eaten bee larvae in a Yao village along the China/Vietnam border. I’ve eaten dog and cat. Those were novelty dishes—delicacies that come with the territory of interior travel among China’s ethnic minorities. I looked into your eyes across the crooked wooden table where our meal was laid out. Lotus root, oily greens, some mushy stuff, and kitten. The room was hazy from the open fire and blackened kitchen kettle. A thick smoke hung between us as we exchanged glances, daring each other to take the first bite. “Ladies first,” my eyes told you. You pinched a furry clump of cat meat between your chopsticks, and lied as you chewed, “Hmm. Not bad.” We had to do it. The poverty we see among those ethnic people groups is horrific, and how dare we turn down the best meal that they are able to prepare?

Let’s just say, orphanages around Monrovia are not quite the majestic half star hotels I’ve stayed at deep inside China’s rural countryside. The little boys wear tattered clothes and the sandals are falling apart under the feet of little girls. They look up at you with those huge brown round eyes that tell a million silent stories—like Puss In Boots—and it’s tough to return the stare for too long without tears. The orphans suffer from all kinds of open wounds and bloated bellies and malnutrition. The injustice of it all makes you mad and sick to your stomach.

So I guess poverty is relative, right? Everyone feels it in their own way, and expresses distaste. Gina says that when you talk about your own poverty, you are spiritually bankrupt. “It’s a poverty mentality.” Everyone’s got it—the rich and the poor alike. I agree to a point, but it may not ring true for a woman sleeping on a Monrovian sidewalk as her baby sucks on her sagging breast. The theory may not be so easily received by the poor when it comes from the lips of the rich.

“I am a poor man,” 15 year old Emmanuel tells my camera. “If you can help me, I will be very grateful.” At night in his orphanage outside Monrovia, he dreams to become a doctor. Maybe someday someone will find him online and be stirred by his story. But let’s face it, most people will never even know that he exists. We’re too distracted eating our cotton candy, waving at Mickey, and complaining how it’s taking forever to get through this line for our next ride.


Patrick James is a 23 year old professional Liberian soccer player in Monrovia. He has been invited to five different countries by five clubs after they heard about his talent. He is a star in his own nation, but has never had the cash to put up front for a plane ticket to get to international try outs. It costs $1,800 for airfare. “So, if you’re walking down the street in Monrovia, do people recognize you?” I ask him. “Of course!” He smiles and slaps my back in the shoe store. We’re buying 50 pairs of shoes for orphans. Not only is he a professional soccer player, he is a part time minister at Jubilee Church, and an inspiration to young Liberian men.

There is a sudden commotion outside as ten trucks drive by with bullhorns and blaring speakers. “That’s the opposition party. Tubman’s supporters,” Patrick says. We sit down on white plastic chairs as the men outside shout their support or opposition. Near the equator it’s hot. The shoe store is muggy, so we sit across from a single electric fan pointed in our direction.

“You know what we should do, my man?” (I learned a couple hours ago that “my man” is the local way of saying “bro”, so I put my cultural skills to use immediately.) “We should shoot a video, like a short commercial of you introducing yourself and your skills. Maybe that way we can get it into the hands of soccer managers. It’s the power of social media and the Internet!” But Patrick James isn’t really into the virtual lifestyle. “That’s why I can help you,” I reassure him. “Why don’t you come over to the hotel tomorrow morning and I will shoot a video of you.” He says he’ll be there, and tells me that he has soccer practice on Monday. I should come and shoot video of him in action. “The stadium in Monrovia can hold thirty thousand people.”

I am waiting for Patrick and his professional soccer player friend, Emmanuel, in the lobby at Royal Hotel. Before we go to Jubilee, we’ll get their story on camera. I’m not trying to make a star shine. I’m just trying to showing a shining star to the world.