Privileged cruisers

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Turquoise water, white sand, the stretch of a tropical island…contrast of our dinghy and a local outrigger. We are so tremendously privileged in our experiences. But our privilege extends far beyond this: most importantly, our privileged lives stem from the place in the world we were just plain lucky to have been born in. A place with a wealth of opportunities and support. Not always easy, but nearly endless possibilities.

My last post, about how cruising wrecks lives, speaks plain truths of uncomfortable differences in the way we look at our culture now, through the lens of the last eight years. It shouldn’t be interpreted as it a rejection of our home. As more than one commenter (friends, thank you!) pointed out – you can be perfectly happy living differently. We don’t have to “go back”…as if we could! But we’re all impacted by our experiences in life, we can use that to make choices or changes.

Sunfish and a sunset sail, Mystic River
Sunfish and a sunset sail, Mystic River

But it also shouldn’t minimize how our experiences have pushed to the fore of our minds how incredibly well-off “we” (anyone in the developed world) are. The consumption I reacted against is just one symptom. More importantly, we have dramatic control over our individual destinies compared to people in so much of the world. There’s enough to eat, and education, and medical care. We are rich enough not to worry about meeting base needs and instead contemplate luxuries like progress toward self-actualization, or benefits of the newest iPhone.

Last night I received an email from a boat that had recently arrived in the Ninigo atoll, Papua New Guinea. Longer term readers know that Ninigo is one of those very special places that’s remain close to our hearts—we’ll never forget our stay there in 2012. As usual, it was because of the people who touched our lives.

Why yes, that IS  a tree kangaroo on Siobhan's head
Why yes, that IS a tree kangaroo on Siobhan’s head! Mal island, Ninigo, PNG: 2012

We only get news from the friends we made on Ninigo’s Mal island when a cruising boat stops in, because they have no communication to the outside world—just a radio to contact another island. Visiting cruisers like Carina’s crew offer a golden opportunity to trade updates. This boat in particular contacted us before they left from Palau for Ninigo, so we were able to ship a small care package, photos, and letters via the good ol’ USPS.

But the news wasn’t good: my friend Mollina, who I call sister, hasn’t recovered from her baby’s birth earlier this year. She’s struggling badly enough that she can’t work in the vegetable garden that feeds her family. She can’t hold her children for long.

Mollina and her firstborn, Finn, madonna and child
Mollina and her firstborn, Finn; Madonna and child

Mal looks like an island paradise, and in many ways it is, but it is a difficult life that shouldn’t be romanticized. Let me put it into a bit of perspective. On Mal, there aren’t any roads; just some footpaths. There’s no electricity. There’s no fresh water piped in, and no sewage piped out. There are no grocery stores or hardware stores or regular supply ships. People get by with what they forage or build. There are very few ways to earn currency.

This family just sailed outrigger back from their vegetable garden, an overnight trip in open ocean
This family just sailed outrigger back from their vegetable garden, an overnight trip in open ocean

Mollina’s illness is much more than a setback or an inconvenience. Health care is very limited: Mollina’s husband has a deep cut on his arm, thanks to chasing a wild pig from their garden with a spear, and it’s not healing well because the local health ‘clinic’ doesn’t have enough clean bandages. At least that’s an obvious problem. I can’t tell from Mollina’s message what’s afflicting her. It’s impossible to know whether she could use the anti-fungals or antibiotics on Carina, or if what she needs is actually surgical. Oh, and surgery, or access to a trained medical professional? The nearest hospital is a two-day ride in an open boat, and it’s probably not a place that you or I would want anyone we love to go for medical treatment. There is a reason we met very few people with gray hair on Ninigo.

My big indulgence during our last weeks in Mystic is attending sessions at a nearby yoga studio. I felt the absurdity of my privilege there this morning, lying on a high-end all natural rubber mat, in a purpose-heated room that mimics Ninigo’s near-equatorial position, worrying about Mollina. It felt obscene. It felt so f*cking unfair. Tears running down my cheeks remain private, indistinguishable from the sweat dripping down my face. I have no right to be so worried about whatever the h3$% is keeping my shoulder from being as mobile lately, about whatever little problems exist in my world, because they really aren’t problems at all in the scheme of things. We have ALL THE POSSIBILITIES. We have so many lifelines to call on in a time of need.

The lovely Caper...Cuttyhunk, MA
The lovely Caper…Cuttyhunk, MA

We may find some aspects of the abundance here at home to be distasteful, or uncomfortable, or whatever it is. But ultimately, cruising brings a new appreciation for how spectacularly lucky “we” are: we have so many options. We should just hope to avoid the sickness of entitlement.

Meanwhile, I asked friends for help with Mollina’s illness, and friends showed up in spades: people offering what they have, whether it is knowledge or connections or funds. With guidance, I have a set of specific questions about symptoms that hopefully can get to a likely diagnosis. In those moments, our world shrinks in the most beautiful ways: friends from Boston, Seattle, New Zealand, Australia and more, connecting through the ionosphere in my text message to a sailing boat anchored in Ninigo. And I wait, and hope, that there will be a feasible path to help her heal.

Sunset watercolors
Sunset watercolors

23 Responses

  1. What an incredible, eloquent message to the world from someone with the privilege of knowing what the real world looks like.
    Here I am on a 06:00 train to my job in London. My wife and I saving every spare penny to leave this pampered “existence” for a far less complex life afloat.

    A newcomer to cruising,I’ve read most of your posts from the past months. But this one …. crikey,

    I sincerely hope your dear friend gets the help she needs and that we privileged few can one day open our minds to what’s really important- each other.

    Got d luck to you all.

    1. Thanks Ade, I hope she gets the care she needs– whatever it is! I’m grateful that at least I can be a point to try and help.

  2. The message in this post is so powerful and it’s one I’ve often wrestled with myself. Here I am, so lucky to have a good job, roof over my head, more than enough food and yet I complain about my life. It does feel obscene (to use your word). One of the many reasons we want to go cruising is to put life into perspective, not only for our son, but for ourselves. But even leaving this life, we don’t leave our privilege. We still have safety nets, family, skills. Being lucky enough to have been born where we were born is like winning the lottery. And because we are so lucky and so privileged, I feel we have a responsibility to help others where we can. I’m glad you’re able to get some help for your friend and I hope she is on the mend soon.

    1. Cruising has definitely been great for perspective! But it’s who YOU are too. Not everyone appreciates winning the lottery. Like the guy who commented on our FB page that this is OK because it’s how they’ve always lived. Ahhh… no, it’s not OK.

  3. I feel your pain. I had to divert to Ile a Vache Haiti a few months back, and even though this country is smack in the Caribbean and surrounded by wealth and luxury, it wasn’t all that different from what you describe in New Guinea. I stopped there because I’d had problems, and was low on fuel. I was definitely low on money, having spent a fortune on our boat to get as far as I had…
    And as my boat was surrounded by beautiful people asking for work, in a horde mass to start and a constant trickle to follow… I felt like a hypocrite telling them I had no work, no money to spare. I shut off my lights, I flushed my toilet, I cooked on my propane stove. I felt like I’d plopped a mansion (and my boat is no million dollar wonder, but an overpriced 20 year old cat) in the middle of a slum telling people I have nothing to spare. It felt kinda gross.
    It was awful telling all these people I have little and nothing, when the smallest item on my boat was worth more than all their assets. It felt terrible refusing to allow anyone aboard – because I was afraid of being overwhelmed by the mass of poverty I encountered. I didn’t even realize all this as I first anchored… It became clear as I toured the village – which is richer than your place in New Guinea. Some of the wealthy ones had motorcycles… and if they could afford health care (which most of them couldn’t) they could make a trip across the bay to Les Cayes – which probably wasn’t a lot better than the clinic you described… but a lot less dangerous of a journey.
    Still, in spite of all the personal discomfort for my position of privilege, I wouldn’t trade that stop for the world. It was an amazing place.

  4. Behan- it is you with your gift of words and beautiful soul that is making a difference. It is hard to unknow these things once the picture has been painted for us. We did very little to actually help during our travels, but I think just understanding the value of what we have is important and allows us a broader perspective on people and the world. It gives us the gratitude in our hearts for the options we have and the ability to actually make a choice – because there is one. In our world of privilege we forget to be grateful for the option of choice. Even if we don’t like the choices – at least we have them. I am sure your friend feels a bit of “privilege” to have you to reach out to – so yes you gave her hope and a chance that without you she never would have had. if it ever could work out, it will because of you and your tiny electronic strings. Big hug

    1. I agree Carol… understanding what we have really is important….and of course that’s a big reason to take our kids, too. Thanks for the flip side perspective on her privilege of contacts – it’s true. xx

  5. During those (few) moments of quiet, I often take a look around and reflect. Usually it ends with, “I am the luckiest man alive.” I’ve got a gorgeous healthy family, a house, and a boat that will be bound for points unknown, hopefully within a few short years. It’s tough to have so much compared to the majority of the world. Good news! You’re aware and conscious of it. That is humility, which breeds humanity, which is the measure against all else. Enjoy life, be thankful, and help where you can. Cheers!

  6. Behan:
    Other than her symptoms of feeling unwell post-partum, you didn’t give me much to work with. Pueperal infection from poor sanitation after birth springs to mind but chronic, perhaps from necrotic and infected remains of unexpelled placenta. A chronic urinary tract infection, problems with post-partum depression, mastitis, a rectal vaginal tear which did not heal are all immediate possibilities. She might also have gallstones if she has symptoms of upper abdominal pain associated with bloating and nausea.

    She needs to see a good general practitioner or ob-gyn. Baseline labs CBC, liver functions, sedrate and a urine for culture are needed. Its possible she may need a dilation and curettage to remove placental remains in a contracted uterus if that’s the problem. Unfortunately, chronic infection and vitamin deficiency also cannot be ignored. Often, while nursing the body will scavenge the mother’s bones of calcium to supplement the milk for the child. She might also be relatively protein deficient, Kwashiorkor.

    As always, a pleasure to hear from you guys regarding your travels, stiff upper lip. “We can only try to save our small piece of the planet…its when everyone tries that we save it all.” C. Edwards

    1. Curtis!! Miss you!! It is so hard to be the remote diagnostician, impossible really! I do have more information, and I’ll email you. And yes, she does need to see a good ob-gyn, and get that care. But the standard of care in PNG is SO LOW (how low is it?)– it is SO LOW, that when she took a two-day boat ride to the nearest hospital a couple of months ago with these complaints, they did not even give her a pelvic exam. Yes, it is stunning and it is very difficult to understand, but that’s the way it is. I love the quote- thank you, Curtis.

  7. Contentment. In all things. It’s what I strive for and struggle with. Being content where and how you are now. And content in daily joys and struggles as we press on to turn the struggles to joy. Even being content when cruising is in the rear-view mirror (of course being content that in an unknown # of years it will come around again!). Thankfully I see that contentment in faces of each picture in this post – particularly in the returning fishermen and Molina holding her child. It seems those with the least grasp the concept the most, whether they know it or not.

    Pretty darn cool that you can create a network to help your friend in a far-flung corner of the world. Praying for successful treatment and healing

    1. D&R, I’m so glad you shared this. I completely agree… so much of being happy is a choice. Sometimes, that’s a hard choice to make. It blows me away (and makes me so happy) that a network has circled around to help!

  8. Reading your post on a cold, wet and very windy Sunday morning and suddenly I realise it’s not so bad – it’s easy to quickly forget how much we have to be thankful for. On St Helena we often bemoan our isolation but compared to Mal it’s nothing. I will try to remember that the next time we’re complaining the ship is late. Best wishes to you all, cheers, Darrin

    1. Love that you can have that perspective Darrin because of all the folks in places with opportunity/access, life on St H is pretty constrained! But true, it’s nothing compared to Mal. Miss you guys, glad your knee is healing!

  9. This was a very good post on man’s lust for more.. It can be hard to say no to that nice this or that when living in so much abundance. Many people have no idea that there are places where life is truly a very hard and real struggle. I have had the humbling experience to go on a few missionary trips to Central America. Those and similar trips can have a lasting change your life and your heart. Though in a modern world, it can be too easy to slide back into the excess.

    I hope your friend Mollina can find the diagnosis and treatment soon.

    sv Redemption

  10. Yes, I know the tears. I was touched by your words. Your insight and the situations your family has witnessed really pulls at one’s heart.

    Many of us are so lucky at home,…… but not all.

    You see, I understand the problems we face within our own Western countries of excess and easy access. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to deal with being homeless right here at home. Just trying to get shelter can be a major worry, and depression is always close by.

    I’ve watched the homeless trying to cope on the street. I have seen the self-medication of alcohol and street drug usage. I have heard of the people who die on the street because of the cold of winter. There are even thugs who attack the homeless in the bushes and weeds which they call home, and of course the ever-present threat from people and governments for them to move on. The catch-22 of health care for street people causes suffering and death all around us here, and we are surprised because it turns out that it might not be available as we thought it should.

    As it is difficult for the people there to figure out what to do, so it is here in a more affluent society. It’s just a matter of context. You see, we have the same problems here in the privileged country; it is just appears in a different form, and is so easy to ignore. So many of us never notice.

    But you have transportation. I don’t know, but how about just giving that poor woman a lift to a better doctor? Is that possible? I’m sure your family would reap huge rewards beyond your efforts.

    I, too, want to be a help to my fellow human beings. Perhaps we all have a part to play wherever we find ourselves. I wish I could better explain or put it all in better words, but I hope you understand.

    Good sailing and safe seas!

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