Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cruising and Questioning

Where I was this time last week
 We just returned from our very first cruise. This trip was born last March when we were living with the remnants of four feet of snow. I could only think about going somewhere the sun was guaranteed to shine on my bare toes. When I signed on for the cruise, I didn’t think about any of the realities – the cost, the details, the extravagance. We don’t vacation like that. Our vacations usually include some kind of physical discomfort – sleeping on the ground, driving a long distance, cleaning up after ourselves. We are not accustomed to five course meals, chocolates on our pillows, and days filled with no other options but – lay around, eat, lay around some more.

As nice as it was to escape the cold, I must confess I was a little uncomfortable with the lifestyle. And I’m not just talking about the tightness of my clothes by the end of the week. It seemed a bit overindulgent, which is nice on occasion I suppose. Seven days of it was more than enough for me. While on the cruise we heard about people who stay on the boat for several weeks or take tours that last months, even around the world in 107 days. There is an elderly woman who has actually lived on the ship we were on for the last 15 years. Doing the math, my hubby and me figured it’s about the same cost as a good retirement community.

All this indulgence got me thinking. Why do we need so much? When we were in Belize City we saw such desperation. The lucky merchants who had stands near the port showcased a tired, but colorful, assortment of items for sale. If you paused longer than a few seconds in front of any one item they were ready to bargain down to pennies to make the sale. As we walked in one open-air market guarded by military with machine guns, women yelled to me through the gates – “Mama, Mama, I will braid her hair! Just a few dollars! Bring her here!” They spotted my long-haired daughter with the big wide eyes and wanted to do business. It made me disconcertingly aware of how much I have. Here we were grumbling about spending too much for the drinks on the ship. These people could live for years on the cost of our cruise alone.

I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy my vacation, I did. I just couldn’t help but be struck by the disparity. I couldn’t help but ask the question, “How did I get so lucky?” Sure, I went to college, I worked hard, I tried to be a good person, but bottom line, it has much more to do with where I was born than what I have done since that day. Seeing such overwhelming poverty made me feel not only guilty, but helpless. Although I needed nor wanted nothing, I tried to spend a few dollars at the market. I can’t imagine it made all that much difference.

Having so much free time to lay in the sun, I did a lot of thinking. I wondered how we evolved in to such entitled people. I liked that Holland America didn’t use paper products wastefully and didn’t insist on washing our towels and sheets every night (although we could have requested it). But there was still so much that we wasted. Foil wrapped chocolates, a breakfast menu, and fresh bucket of ice left in our room every night. My kids had three or four different juices with nearly every meal, not to mention a sampling of each of the plentiful desserts. And the individually packaged butter, sweeteners, tea bags, straws, and yogurts were available by the thousands. At the cafeteria style dining room, full plates of food covered abandoned tables. With so many options, why not try everything? After all, we paid for it! I took a tour of the humongous kitchens and was told that the leftover food is chopped up in to tiny pieces and thrown out to sea for the fishes. They couldn’t say the amount. I imagine enough to feed much of Belize City for the day.

Flying home on the airplane as the flight attendants came around with drinks and snacks, I wondered why it is we need them. We can’t survive a 2 hour flight without food and drink? I know my own children can barely survive a 10 minute drive without nourishment. But why is this? Again, when did we become so entitled?

What would happen if we tried more often to do without? What if we passed on the free soda and pretzels on the plane? What if we simply brought an apple with us instead of stopping to buy a 16 oz soda and individually bagged chips at the convenience mart? Or what if we just waited until our next meal or a water fountain? People survived for centuries without “snacks”. It was such an ordeal to produce a meal, that there was no time to snack in between. Maybe it won't make a difference if I forego these things, but what if thousands did? Following the logic of the butterfly flapping his wings in Timbuktoo, something would change. What would it be? I want to redefine for me and for my family what we truly "need".

My house is crammed with stuff. And when I look around and think about getting rid of a few things, it only takes me moments to convince myself I might need the item in question someday. But I don’t really need this stuff. When we returned from our trip, I learned of a family nearby who suffered a house fire. Everyone was fine, but much of their belongings were damaged or lost. I wondered how it might feel to lose the things that fill my house. How much would I truly miss?

I don’t have any clever answers or ideas this week about living organically with children. I only have questions. How much do we really need? Are there any ways we can cut down just a little? How can my consumption and my decisions affect the rest of the world? If all of us gave more careful thought to the things we buy and consume, maybe there would be a little more to share with those who truly need it. And maybe we would discover that many of the things we're "entitled" to we don't actually need.

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