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April 17, 2003
Life Perspectives a Year Away From the US

The events that unfolded with the Haitian refugees the other night are still lingering in my head and heart. On top of that, I got a nasty email today from an anonymous visitor to our web site. After reading the letter I wrote to Latitude 38, they more or less chastised our frivolous lifestyle and expressed their disgust at how we can live with ourselves and our relatively rich lifestyle while we travel among such impoverished countries. It's a lot to sort out.

Until we overheard the distress call the other night, pity wouldn't have been a word that I would have even considered using to describe my feelings for the people we live among in our travels aboard. Yes, they are poor by American standards - but Curt and I agree that they seem far happier than the pinstriped businessman with the dull pallor we used to see fighting his way through traffic in San Francisco, or the middle class American kid with his nose glued to his Gameboy screen. We, as well as many of our cruising friends, have often found ourselves admiring the people that comprise the cultures we become a transient part of for weeks or months at a time: their easy laughter, their value of family, their dedication to spirituality. Don't get me wrong, I'm not proposing these people are living the high life or that they don't dream of greater economic wealth. What I'm saying is that we've learned that economic wealth does not hold the same value here as in American culture. Only in the United States is money the first rung of the ladder to happiness - one that Americans pursue at all costs. Until the boat of refugees, we've many times talked of how the friends we've made of Venezuelans, or Dominicans, etc. should be our role models and how much we can learn from them. But I can't recall ever talking of pity per se.

This difference in perspectives brings me full circle to the transition from far-off cosmopolitan city dweller, to traveler. The events on the VHF and the email rebuke I received feel like someone taking me by the shoulders and giving me a swift shake. They are reminders that we are different from the people we meet on these islands and in these countries - they are not our peers as it's begun to feel, and that's something we've enjoyed forgetting.

A year ago, we'd disembark from our boat and be totally aware that we were the only white people in sight. We'd scan the scene and note the people around us warily with same mindfulness we might if we were walking in a shady New York City neighborhood. But as the months have passed, the seams that separate us from the locals have blurred in our mind. With daily confirmation that the locals don't make a big deal of us being different, we have stopped being so aware of it ourselves. I think I can speak for most cruisers when I say that for the weeks we make a bay our home, we see ourselves as residents; peers and friends to the people we meet that live on land there. With all the smiles, laughter, and warmth that greets us in each new place, pity doesn't occur to me. We haven't seen that most people here feel sorry for themselves, if anything we've marveled at their content with their circumstances. I might even go further to say that on some level I find the concept of "pity" offensive. I don't see these cultures as people to feel sorry for. Until now, we've felt fortunate for the lessons they've taught us and the new perspective they've enlightened us to. We've begun to feel sorry instead for the pasty white people in their little boxes back home, making themselves mad in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

But here we are today with recent events to reconcile with all of the forgoing. I can't propose we've found the answer yet. My thoughts turn to Haiti, and I wonder what it's like there. I wish we weren't running so short on time as I'd like to see it. Tonight anyway, I don't believe I can make all the pieces fit together neatly. Perhaps the short-term lesson is merely to step outside of our close perspective to it all and look at the big picture.

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