Martin Chambers

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The Gift of Self

The gift of Self.

A few years ago I was navigating a yacht through the Indonesian archipelago. We sailed and motored during the day and anchored off beautiful tropical islands by night. At each stop enthusiastic crowds paddled dugout canoes to meet us and beg for gifts, and we would go ashore to buy fruit and vegetables from the local market followed by those same crowds. We believed that by trading locally we were supporting the people, although we declined to buy turtle or dugong meat not because it was fly soaked but because we believe those species should be protected. 

Sometimes far out at sea we would come across a fishing boat that would motor over to trade, and I am sure we paid too much and still thought we got a bargain. Once, we traded fish hooks for a big fish that we BBQ’ed on the beach that night. Well, what use is cash to an islander who lives on a sea of plenty?

The luck of our birth is that we have been born wealthy and these places are poor and live by subsistence. There was no running water and limited electric power. Hardly anyone wore shoes. Others who had sailed this route before had told us what sorts of things would be appreciated so we handed out small presents to those we met. It felt good, this charity, and it was easy, and the crowds around made us feel popular, and, truth be told, superior. But when the gifts ran out and the crowds left we had time to be reflective. Like in the movie, ‘The Gods must be crazy’ there are consequences of what we do.

In our glossy white fiberglass yacht we were millionaires amongst the poor and it would be very easy to think by trading and giving gifts we could do no wrong. But, maybe that fisherman’s family ate a rare and endangered turtle because we took the only fish he had caught that day. During three months of cruising we caught only two fish ourselves. Or, in the village a family who runs a small shop selling fish hooks or soccer balls from a lean to at the front of their shack goes hungry.

Maybe by handing out pens and beach balls and swim goggles to the outstretched hands of inquisitive and noisy kids we are unwittingly destroying. Will those kids, grown and educated with the idea that everyone in the west is wealthy, reject the village when they are older? Their experience of the west is that we all have luxury yachts and can spend idle years doing nothing other than giving things to others. If they have television would they get a more balanced view?

It would be easy for each of us to think that the decline of traditional life will probably happen anyway and the little we do will make no difference. But each season hundreds of yachts sail these waters and eventually the arrival becomes expectation.  It is not hard to imagine a day when the next yacht to visit is mobbed by a crowd demanding from a cargo cult mentality, or that by giving gifts to the village chief for later distribution we influence politics in unforeseen ways. Indonesia is, after all, a democracy. Should we simply sail on by, take photos, and not say hello? 

One of the best times we ever had was in a small and exceptionally poor village. We came across a game of volleyball being played by two teams of women. The men play soccer but we didn’t realize it at the time. We joined in, pretty sure we would show them a thing or two about the finer points of the game. Afterwards we lost at soccer too, but by then the entire village had joined in, for or against us I’m not sure. Sport is not about winning , anyway. They gave us a drink of coconut.

Another time and another village I taught some juggling and simple magic tricks to the kids. I gave my juggling sacs to the best juggler for he was good and he had earned them. Another time we bought a guitar (for $50!) from a shop and held an impromptu concert on the beach. Everybody in the world knows the Beatles. I still have that guitar.

All travel is a cultural exchange. By whatever means we travel we go to see the places and the lives of others. And while there, by our behavior we demonstrate our own selves and how we live. Only a fool would believe we live in paradise and I suspect living barefoot and eating coconut and turtle flesh might not be paradise either. There is no place like home because we are happiest with the familiar, and this happiness comes not from materials or possessions or geography or climate, but from friendships and contentment with the world we are born into. Friendships are not bought by the giving of trinkets. 

By all means hand out gifts when visiting exotic lands. Give first, I say, the gift of your humble self. By revealing who you are, what you can do – juggle, fool, fish, sing, play soccer and lose – you build a world of friendship and laughter where people feel good about themselves and their place in the world.

And, by the way, you don’t have to sail halfway around the world to do that.

first published in Medium April 2015