After two weeks of volunteering in small town Haiti without the western comforts of Wifi, air conditioning or consistent showers, I did something I normally don’t do – I allowed myself a few days to decompress at a fancy schmancy hotel once back in the capital. This may not seem odd to some because this is generally what vacationers do, but I’m being honest when I say I’ve never done this. Ever. And it feels weird. Like, really weird.
Typically my vacations consist of either volunteering somewhere rural and dusty with the threat of malaria not far behind or taking a whirlwind backpacking trip which includes sketchy transport and cheap hostels…with the threat of malaria not far behind. However, this trip took quite a lot of out me on an emotional level (to be explained in an upcoming post when I can make sense of my time in Haiti), so here I sit at my 5-star hotel, taking some ‘me’ time before going back to the reality of ‘real life’ and frigid temperatures. Tomorrow.
Doing development work (and being mildly obsessed with it) allows you to stay current on the state of the world and its marginalized peoples, but I can’t lie, it can be quite consuming and draining, especially seeing the two extremes of how people live as I have over the last few days. It has really worn on me this time, so I’m trying to put it all into perspective as I start the new year and make new travel plans for 2015.
Much of the community I was just in is in dire need, to say the least – street children and families plagued by perpetual poverty, lacking education and health care, suffering from familial violence and neglect with little opportunity for better. It was tough to see day in and day out and even tougher to know that where I was had only a small team of compassionate, development ‘warriors’ trying to halt the cyclical nature of the despondence surrounding them.
Add in a few fruity cocktails as I lie poolside reflecting on all this, and my western guilt is on bust. It is equally fuelled by my calculations that what I spent on room service last night alone was more than the medication I bought three days ago for a toddler in the paediatrics ward of the local hospital in Les Cayes. He had severe burns over half his body and hadn’t been given any pain medication because there, it’s basically no money, no treatment regardless if you’re a child screaming in agony. You just lie there moaning all day surrounded by flies and heat and other children in similar pain while your helpless mother Iooks on in a daze and your wounds ooze and worsen.
So does that mean I should feel guilty about my drink with an unnecessary umbrella it in or my breakfast that I didn’t finish this morning? No, but I do, so herein lies what I need to work on for 2015. Basically, I need to find balance or some semblance of it, something I’ve never been particularly good at.
I’ve always been the go-big-or-go-home kind of gal. I didn’t get one university degree; I completed three. I don’t want to work one job each semester; I usually have three or four. I don’t have one opinion on an issue, I have an abundant supply. And I don’t have just one or two drinks when I go out…you get the picture.
When it comes to travel, I’m not much different. I don’t take week-long trips to sunny destinations; I backpack a continent. When I become involved in a development project or cause, it consumes me. And 2014 lived up to my travel expectations and was anything but dull. I worked for a month in Mexico, backpacked Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, spent time in Cambodia for a conference and am now wrapping up almost three weeks in Haiti, volunteering with an incredible NGO. And I want the same life for 2015. I am already thinking of my summer travel plans, which may include Mexico again, followed by a month or so backpacking South America with a volunteering stint along the way or back in Haiti if I can swing it. So since there is no balance to be had in the trips I take, I’m hoping to find it in my perspectives and how I always end up seeing myself and others through the lens of my travel experiences.
For example, as I sit here with my pasty white skin and a backpack full of filthy clothes upstairs, next to a curmudgeon-y colonialist-esque devil chastising the innocent waiter about not enough ice in his margarita or the valley girl two loungers down who keeps talking about the newest celebrity sex tape of someone I’ve thankfully never heard of, I realize I need to stop loathing them. I also need to shed the disdain for the bronzed, manicured couple across from me who have seen little of Haiti other than what this hotel offers (and they’re not too fussy on either, apparently). Their travel choices are just that – theirs, and mine are mine. They choose to be their own ambassadors in how they interact with people and local communities, and I am mine through my actions.
I need to instead focus on what I do, what I take on and what I set out to accomplish and not how I wish others would give back to humanity or treat the planet. I also need to be grateful for what I have and lose the guilt for my position in the world so long as I continue to use it for good.
Realistically this balance will make the upcoming year of travel much more rewarding. It could also lessen the self-imposed shame should I decide to reward myself with a cockroach-free sleeping zone and clean sheets again. I figure that if I can find it sooner rather than later, I can enjoy my fourth rum punch and order a fifth with some well-deserved inner peace. And google itineraries for the summer, of course.
Happy new year to you all and I wish you balance, purpose, and adventure in 2015!