May 10, 2011

The Spice of Life

A couple of weekends ago, I took my second business trip ever to Baltimore for a work conference.  In the airport, as I was waiting to board the plane for Maryland, I kept smiling winningly at fellow travelers, hoping to be asked the question “business or pleasure?”  I pictured myself looking down demurely, and answering with a nonchalant “oh, business”.  The totally nerdy, small town girl in me still can’t believe she could ever be able to say “yeah, I’m coming in from Chicago, traveling for work”.  I guess it is true that you can take the girl out of the country, but not the country out of the girl.  Or more accurately, can take the braces and glasses off the girl, but can’t take out the inherent nerdiness too. 

Being on a plane again reminded me of how, for as long as I can remember, I have loved hearing the flight attendants' speech at the end of the flight.   The one where they thank us for flying, wish us a pleasant stay in Baltimore, “or wherever your final destination may be”. 

I’m not entirely sure why I love that last part so much.  I always stop gathering my things and focus just so I can hear that line.  I smile a little when I hear it and feel incomplete if I miss it.  These have been the parting words on almost every airline I've flown with, and it is a universal message.  I like the implicit acknowledgement from the flight crew that goes so much farther than wishing us a pleasant stay.  To me, they are saying that just because we’re at a particular place at one time, doesn’t mean this is where we have to stay.  Those airlines have been sending us a hidden message that actually means “hey, wherever you are right now, you're not stuck here.  It’s ok if you’re staying, but it’s also ok to move on, just have a good time while you’re at it. We support whatever you choose.”

On this trip, Baltimore happened to be my final destination.  My second night there, I went out for dinner by myself to a seafood restaurant.  As I was eating the delicious, fresh shrimp, scallops, and what claimed to be the best crab cakes in Maryland, a thought occurred to me – food tastes better when eaten with loved ones.  A delicious meal is one of those things that is better when shared. 

Baltimore's Inner Harbor

The food was great and I could do things like eat the inside from the rolls and leave the crust, hog all the dip, and devour the good parts of the crab.  However, delectable as it was, it lacked…something.  Like the chef forgot to add a key spice to the recipe.  I suspect the food at the table next to me was much more flavorful.  I couldn’t help overhearing that the diners were made up of a son who was about to leave for a long-distance college, taking his mom and girlfriend out for a seafood meal.  Their scallops were tinged with nostalgia and sadness, which might have caused a bitter taste, but the strong feelings of family togetherness and love balanced the meal out, I’m sure. 

My meal lacked…people.  Of course there are some things/times where it’s better to be alone.  I need a certain amount of quiet time in order to stay happy.  But I still think there are so many things in this world that are just that tiny bit better when shared.

Things such as wine. Sure a glass of reserve with a hunk of Manchego cheese or a few squares of chocolate is a great thing.   Curled up on the couch in front of an episode of Gilmore girls, with those things by my side is my favorite way to unwind.  But you know when wine tastes even better?  When it’s the wine in the last two glasses from that second cheap bottle and way past my bedtime.  It’s in the sip I take, of which half drips down my chin, in between laughing hysterically at something only funny to me and the best friend laughing with me. 

Other things like movies, long walks, comedy shows, board games, pitchers of sangria, and long days at the beach are also better, in my opinion, when someone else is there to help me enjoy.  Accomplishments give me a feeling of elation at two points – one when the thing is accomplished, and two, when I tell someone else about it.  There’s a reason why we want to call everyone we know when something good happens.  Winning the lottery, finishing a crossword puzzle, getting engaged, and getting a promotion are more exciting when there is someone on the other end of the line, hearing the news.  Like adding nutmeg to béchamel sauce, the process is not quite complete until the extra ingredient is in. 

Brainstorming is another thing that is best done with more than one brain.  As we’ve started telling people about the non-profit, we’ve seen many different reactions.  Most have been of support.  Our friends and family overwhelmingly want to help.  Those we've talked with really agree with what we are doing, and offer support in any way possible.  It’s nice to have those words of encouragement from friends, especially on those days when it all seems futile. 

On the other hand, one reaction I really appreciated was a bit different.  This one was more of a challenge.  The person essentially said that we were doing well, but the big questions are:  How are the people, are they happy?  Do they really need our help? Sometimes, he said, it seems like we push what we think life should be like onto others. 

This is a perfectly valid question.  It goes along with other views I’ve seen when doing research for this non-profit.  Some say that it’s arrogant to feel sorry for people.  It’s a luxury to even feel sorry for them and pitying in an insult to the way they live and how hard they work. There's this idea of a Western, "white" man hero complex that is viewed as completely disrespectful to the plight of the "brown" people. 

I can’t subscribe to that school of thought.  In fact, I think it's an indirect way of releasing yourself from any feeling of responsibility.  We’re not starting this non-profit out of a place of pity, superiority, or entitlement.   Sure, I believe the people in the Philippines are content with what they have.  They get up and live every day.  It’s human nature to do the best they can with the resources that exist.  But what if, they had a little more?  I can’t believe that we shouldn’t feel compassion for people who don’t have enough to eat, or don’t have running water because it’s some kind of insult to them. 

We do not want support for our organization because it’s noble, for recognition, or because of a feeling of extreme pity for “those poor souls”. We're not out trying to convert anyone to our way of thinking, or to get anything in return.

Support should be as simple and agenda free as offering a stranger an umbrella when it’s pouring down rain because we have two.  Why give?  Simple: because we have an extra umbrella.  That's it.  For us, there's no room in this organization for anything more complicated than that.  

A main focus while we are in these initial stages of planning is just this – how to determine exactly what people need versus what we think they need.  Decidedly, we’re not going to run over there and force questionable help on them.  Each aspect will be carefully considered for validity.  Food,  running water, electricity, waste disposal, medicine, clothing and education,  – those are easy.  It’s harder to determine if they need computers, birth control, faster boats, and businesses.

Due to the lack of running water, the one communal tap in the village doubles as a washing tub where you can clean clothes, utensils, dishes, kids...
Minimal light is obtained from a diesel generator that runs 3 hours per night. A mesh of electrical wires hang precariously across the village, exposed to the elements and within children's reach.

Here you can see some of my cousins who gathered at my grandma's house to do their homework during that 3 hour period in which the generator provides lighting.

Now that’s what makes me feel arrogant – determining that people don’t “need” this or that.

I think that those who are giving help will always run into critics.  People are quick to point the finger at the bad or imperfect with these types of organizations, instead of edifying the good.

It’s a delicate balance, but one that can be achieved with some planning and insight. The planning part is something we can control, the insight is something that we can only hope we've been blessed with. 

We do know we have been blessed with great people in our lives so far.  So to all of our friends, family and loved ones spread all around the world, thanks for making life taste better.   

Our current goal is to be the ones adding that missing ingredient for others - through volunteering with local groups here, during our next backpacking trip abroad with a bigger budget, with our non-profit in the Philippines or... wherever our final destination may be. 

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