Recently I read an inspiring book called Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin. It is the story of Mortenson’s stumbling onto his life’s mission of building schools in remote villages that started as an effort at giving back. What distinguishes Mortenson’s achievement is that he manages to avoid the major pitfalls of giving: undermining the receivers’ self-respect, violating the recipients’ customs or beliefs, imposing external values in return for the gift, or pursuing inappropriate goals. Mortenson’s magic is that he has made a real difference not only in villagers’ daily lives but in how they think about foreigners.
It’s not for nothing that the book’s subtitle is “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School At A Time”. I’ve never met a cruiser who doesn’t believe that one of the greatest gifts of cruising is a more grounded, more realistic perspective of life outside the so-called First World. Even if it’s not what we went cruising for (many of us have sun, fun and water-based experiences at the forefront of our minds when we set sail), we aren’t out here long before we realize what a many-faceted, complex set of cultures and circumstances the world is composed of and that the majority of the world’s peoples are making do with a whole lot less than what we take for granted. At the same time, we see the imprints of those who’ve traveled before us historically as well as cruisers who’ve passed through the previous season (perhaps even the previous week!), and we become sensitive to the impact “outsiders” leave behind.
Three Cups of Tea could easily have been a cruiser’s story, if one could sail in the high mountains of Pakistan. As it was, Mortenson’s adventuring was mountain climbing. But very much the same opportunities are out there for cruising sailors. Many cruisers get involved in organized group endeavors. Some of these are spontaneous responses to a developing situation, like the Earthquake Relief Project at Barillas Marina in El Salvador. After the massive earthquake there in January 2001, many West Coast cruisers from Canada and the US spent months at Barillas contributing time, effort, skill and money initially coordinating relief materials for the families of one small village, but subsequently, in a second stage, working as volunteers alongside those families to build new earthquake-proof replacement housing.
Other charitable endeavors become events with a life of their own, like the annual Zihua Sail Fest, in Zihuatenejo, Mexico, conceived to fund schools for the area’s most disadvantaged children. Every year cruisers gather around the end of January for five days of fund-raising fun along with actual hands-on work at the schools.
Ellen and Tony of Cayenne III return over and over again to Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela to work for the annual Fundamigos missions, through which disadvantaged patients (predominantly children) receive reconstructive surgery for cleft lips, cleft palates and other maxillofacial deformities. “Many of the volunteers are visiting cruisers,” says Ellen. “Tony works in the operating and recovery rooms, translating for the English-speaking doctors, nurses and volunteers who come for the mission, while I’ve folded thousands of bandages and helped make blankets and sheets for the patients.” (Ellen also contributes to the mission by writing articles to solicit support.)
Cruisers at Bahia Redonda Marina raise money for Fundamigos through flea markets, concerts, bake sales, game nights, chili cook-offs, etc. The flea-market-concert-bake-sale-game-night-chili-cook-off -etc formula to support local charities is one you see over and over wherever large groups of cruisers gather for months in one place. Another is to provide organized tutoring for children at nearby orphanages and schools.
Cruisers migrating to the Bahamas each season carry in school materials to children through Operation Bahamas, and in Indonesia two couples in the Sail Indonesia Rally, Rob and Dee of Ventana and Kathy and Bob of Briana started the Sail Indonesia Scholarship Program for “bright but needy” high school students enabling them to attend university.
Other cruisers prefer to contribute in individual ways. Those fortunate enough to bring special skills to share on their travels, like doctors, dentists, even veterinarians, can volunteer in local clinics and hospitals. For example, Sandi of Otama Song, a microbiologist, gave three years to updating a hospital lab and training its staff in Neiafu as she and her husband cruised Vava’u, Tonga. Much of the funding for the improvements came from cruisers and cruiser connections. But sometimes all that’s needed are everyday skills we yachties take for granted painting, rewiring a solar panel to batteries, fixing a radio antenna, putting a screw in glasses, typing up a document, helping to repair an outboard, basic first aid. Yvonne of Australia 31, for example, likes building one-on-one relationships with local people she meets. “To do this one must be relaxed about wanting to interact with total strangers.” You must also be willing to put in the time. Yvonne tells of teaching one girl how to read music (“something she dearly wanted”), an effort that didn’t happen in one afternoon.
“Giving back doesn’t have to be a structured thing,” reminds Lisa of Lady Galadriel. “Just helping out leaves a pleasant memory about cruisers and the countries we come from not just a ‘clean’ wake, but a generous and giving wake!” Trading for fresh fruit or fish with useful items (notebooks, pencils, clothing, sheets, blankets, shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes), gently used items (kitchen utensils, tools or spark plugs), and stores you have on board anyway (rice, sugar, powdered milk and flour) is another way we cruisers can help local people acquire things they need while maintaining self respect.
Giving gifts of the heart, hospitality gifts or thank-yous are always appropriate, but giving indiscriminately, no matter how good it seems at the moment, only emphasizes differences between us. Giving back, of course, is not something we cruisers do exclusively to people less fortunate. Many cruisers volunteer time to environmental efforts, from harbor cleanups to marine research, and many of us contribute time, money, and effort to the cruising community itself, such as manning booths for SSCA, doing seminars at boat shows and yacht clubs, or acting as cruising hosts in cruiser destinations.
“Giving back is one of the most important things any person can do,” says Cayenne III’s Ellen. “It’s a great way to get involved in the local scene and to see issues confronting the local culture from the inside. Best of all, it’s good karma, and we can’t get enough of that!” But it’s important, Ellen continues, to avoid knee-jerk reactions, poorly thought-out responses to poorly understood needs, or, in our own cruiser community, to feel obligated to drum up funds for people who have not done the things necessary to stay out of harm’s way.
Finally, we all contribute to better world understanding when we share our stories and perspectives with people back home who might never go themselves. “I think there are two really important things that happen,” says Linda of Serafin. “First, people are inspired to stretch toward challenging goals of their own because they see what we are doing out here. Second, they get a slice of life that they would otherwise never see, and, because what they read is about someone they know, it is closer and more real to them.” These are just some of the ways cruisers have found to give back to the places and people we visit. Each of us finds our own way, the way that fits best with our own natures, but, small or large, leaving that “generous and giving wake” allows us, like Mortenson, to leave the world a better place.
This article was published in the September 2008 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.
Information for ongoing charitable programs mentioned here (among others) can be found at www.womenandcruising.com.