Monday, September 28, 2009

Aruba: The sand that burns your feet

Aruba. The spread of shockingly aqua bathwater out against an almost colorless sand. The ripple of palmtree shadows on the sand as they ruffle in the wind. A nearly clear powder blue sky, at long last allowed to be as big as it really is with only that iridescent, blue speckled sea holding it back from falling off the edge of the horizon. Yep. Aruba. This is some boondoggle.
Im in a rubbery blue lawnchair in a ridiculous-looking, big, white, old-lady sunhat (hey, it works) with my laptop propped in my lap, sand grinding in between the keys as I type. Swathes of shiny, speckly-red American bathers lounge in the shade all around me as the early-afternoon sun moves away from us and out over the sea. I am alone and aware of it. I don’t feel like falling asleep in the sun. I don’t feel like dipping my thighs luxiouriously into the clear shallows. I don’t feel like going back to the very corporate air conditioning of my hotel room to face the mess I made of my suitcase the night before. So I pick up the book I picked randomly off the shelf in Portland, the one I have been putting off reading on the assumption that it will be cryptic, overly academic and completely lacking in human mystery – yet extremely beneficial to my overall knowledge of the world. Therefore I will get to reading it when I have more time and brainpower to spend – which will probably be never. But somehow I feel stupidly better just by owning it, kept next to my Kant collection, along with whatever’s in my 401k and a one way ticket to the English countryside. However, in this instance, the steaming sun and the sunscreen bubbling on my legs bores me more. No company (my boyfriend is at the business conference that brought us here), no phone service and my ipods out of battery. I got time. Might as well go for it. Concluding that I will swap it out for another once it makes me heavy-eyed, I reapply sunscreen until my shoulders shine and reposition myself on the chair to optimize my tan lines, before opening the book as if I were opening a glossyTown and Country on a weekend excursion to the Hamptons – with only half, airy interest.

The book –“Africa Doesn’t Matter: How the West has failed the Poorest Continent and What we Can do about it” by Giles Bolton—turns out to be less boring than it is very simply direct in its message, one that crouches me over in my lawn chair to read better in a little slice of shadow. A message I immediately get: ‘why have you been waiting to so long to read this book? Because you were afraid to be reminded of what you know haunts the early mornings you have been sleeping through lately. What have you been doing for the world and what is your place in it?’
Fifteen minutes later I am doused in acute and almost painful awareness of the vast difference between where I currently sit in the world (on a beach chair at a tropical resort serenaded by chart-topping pop hits from the pool aerobics class somewhere behind me) and the places that I sit on (literally and figuratively), places that support my every move without any realization or graciousness on my part. The book addresses a few very big questions with the skepticism of an academic but without the pessimism of most academic theories. If so much of our taxes, charity dollars, 10k benefit races , foreign policies, public product awareness efforts and mental energy are going to the aid of the developing world, why are things not improving? If we cant possibly understand all the complex factors that contribute to third world crises (take your pick – HIV, malaria, national debt, famine, poverty and co.), then what can we understand? And why do we need to?
What is it that we give back to the developing world? Is it Bono, democratic dogma, P ditty posters, corporate responsibility (whatever that looks like) or foreign aid freckled like paintballs pointed in random directions by lobbyists, public sentiment and corporate agendas? Is it the tourism industry where we can enjoy foreign resources, accents and beaches without having to face any greater cost other than what we put on our Amex card? Aren’t our good intentions good enough? Can globalization be fair and still exist?

As they should, these questions lead to more questions - and I am sweating under my sunhat as I digest each crumb of knowledge (1 out of 5 African children will never reach the age of 5, hunger and simple malnutrition kill more people than all other diseases combined, and so on)– What about the first world has naturally pre-qualified us for a chance at a cleaner, longer, more resourceful life (Bronx-dwellers will tell you that even this is not gaurunteed, with or without social services and subsidized vaccinations). What would we as the first world have to give up if somehow we could extend economic and educational equity to the entire world? And would we give them up if we had the choice?

Some might ask (and many do), that confronted with the risks of foreign meddling, the innate complexity of international dynamics and the limitation of simplistic public awareness for the sake of optimism, who would be dumb enough to attack development? But with all that piercing human suffering, dedication, resilience, cruelty and livelihood all breaking through in every story you come across, how can you turn away? Once you know even just a paragraph beyond your basic CNN education of the mire of the international economics, policy and history that have created withering inequities and heartrending accounts of people just like you, only thumbtacked at birth somewhere else on the globe, why turn the page of your newspaper to keep your midnights from exploding with questions about where you sit in the pantheon of humanity and why. What would you do if someone switched those thumbtacks? Would you trade a whole week’s food of just one meal a day for you and your family to save up enough for a malaria mosquito net? If your life expectancy was thirty years and you spent most of it cleaning toilets or cutting salt in the heat, would you count your joys or your misfortunes, or would you just redefine your defition of joy? None of us made the world, but all of us live in it. Can I sit ankle deep in white sand and tell myself I owe nothing to the world and I cant change it enough to matter? What is it that I am so sorely missing, here sitting on a throne with a melting margarita in hand and letting that kind of logic keep me from looking down? Its not that I don’t have some sense of what I might see – its just that Im afraid knowing that once you look down, you might not ever be able to sit on that throne again without considerable discomfort. But is life better lived outside the palace doors?
It is a mistake to pity the developing world – intead, there is much to be admired, and supported at the same time. As that hot, raw humanity in every story keeps me in fiery pursuit of some kind of international work, what am I so afraid of discovering when I find it... and what is it that I’m so terrified I’ll be asked to give up? Perhaps it is not so much the rest of the world who needs my help, but me who is in desperate need of theirs. As I fold up my towel, I feel fairly certain that no amount of sleep will help this fever pass. Show me the road to riches and I’ll know which path isn’t mine. Africa or Bust.