Black market salmon and contraband beans

Had one of those incomparably perfect days today – great morning meeting with the rest of the ‘corps, walking around town afterward enjoying the sun with Mr. Pitts, having an enlightening and delicious lunch at one of my favorite restaurants with the local head of the newly burgeoning Americorps Alumni chapter of Western NC. Followed that up with some more walkabout – to the local gourmet chocolate boutique for dessert, thence to the place where we bought our futon bed to scope out some platform bed upgrade possibilities.

The afternoon mountains were doing that fading-away-into-the-distance thing that they do so well, daffodils were blooming left and right and all in all it was just a damn good day.

Came home for a while after we got done walking around, got a bit of work done, then headed back out for a hunger banquet being held at a local spiritual center. Basically, when you get there you pull a ticket that tells you whether you will be eating as a member of a first world country (4 course catered meal with wine, at a nicely set table), a second world country (rice and beans, seated on cushions on the floor) or a third world country (rice and “dirty water” – water mixed with a small amount of juice to “dirty” it – seated on cardboard on the floor). In keeping with real world proportions, most of the diners are in the third-world country corner.

There were speakers and presentations about world hunger, micro-finance organizations and so forth. During all of this, the third worlders (of whom I was a member) were continually harassed by toy gun toting militias who would loom over us and distract us from our meals. Occasionally, someone from outside our group would smuggle in some “black market” goodies, which we would have to eat and hide from the militia, who would confiscate it if they saw it. Several humanitarian drops of first world country tidbits like chicken and salmon resulted in mass chaos when the militia descended en masse to hunt down the packets and take them away. I managed to hide a bundle of salmon behind my back during the confusion, waiting until our “guards” were distracted to pass it on to the meat-eating members of my “tribe.” I managed, in addition to my rice, to score a spoonful of contraband beans, a few snatched pieces of whole-grain bread and even -during a thankfully interference-free humanitarian drop – some absolutely heavenly eggplant Parmesan and braised green beans.

One of the things that struck me about this setup was how well it modeled, in a very small and literally way, the reality of being in a third world country and struggling to get enough to survive in violent and unsettled conditions while all the time you can see (literally in our case, usually but not always figuratively in real world settings) others unconcernedly sitting at a table overflowing with food. It goes a long way to giving folks a real feel for how it feels to be in a situation where you can see that there’s enough for all and then some, but no one seems to care that you don’t have enough. A lot of the third world’s anger, anti-Americanism and so forth spring from just this highly visible disparity.

It brought to mind a photo that I once saw that haunts me to this day. I wish I knew where I saw it and how to get a copy, but basically it showed a vista looking out over a Mexican border town either at dusk or in night. In the foreground, you can see mudbrick and cinderblock houses, dirt streets, and tightly packed houses you associate with a poorer section of a typical of a Mexican town. It looks dusty, it looks crowded and it looks poor. In the background, you can see the brightly lit skyline of a prosperous Texan city just over the bridge (I can’t remember which one, but it was probably Laredo, given the geography).

Just looking at the photo, I could feel boiling up in me the sheer anger, hopelessness and frustration that, say, a poor mother of hungry or sick children would feel staring at that city night after night from her back yard, knowing that it’s just over there, knowing that there are jobs, food, medical care, sanitation and other perks of first-world living that could save her children and give them a chance at a decent life so close geographically that she can smell the scents of the city when the wind blows the right way, but so far away politically that her children will probably die of disease or starvation in it’s shadow well before their time.

That image has eaten a permanent place into my brain since I first saw it. I couldn’t get rid of it, or the feelings it created, if I wanted to – which I don’t. It keeps me humble, knowing how improbable it is that I should be born outside of that and into a relatively lucky life. It keeps the fire of healthy anger burning in me to change it. And it also keeps me honest – knowing that it’s there, seeing it in my mind, keeps me from pretending and acting like it’s not.

One speaker quoted micro-finance Grameen Bank founder and Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, on why poverty exists. It is an idea I find both chilling and encouraging at once. I will leave you with this excerpt:

We get what we want, or what we don’t refuse. We accept the fact that we will always have poor people around us, and that poverty is part of human destiny. This is precisely why we continue to have poor people around us. If we firmly believe that poverty is unacceptable to us, and that it should not belong to a civilized society, we would have built appropriate institutions and policies to create a poverty-free world.

We wanted to go to the moon, so we went there. We achieve what we want to achieve. If we are not achieving something, it is because we have not put our minds to it. We create what we want.

What we want and how we get to it depends on our mindsets. It is extremely difficult to change mindsets once they are formed. We create the world in accordance with our mindset. We need to invent ways to change our perspective continually and reconfigure our mindset quickly as new knowledge emerges. We can reconfigure our world if we can reconfigure our mindset.

[Read his entire Nobel Prize acceptance remarks]

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