Friday, December 9, 2011

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #6: Honningsvag, Norway

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit.
What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment.

Destination #6 : Honningsvag, Norway

Honningsvag, Norway is the first destination on this list reachable by cruise ship, and for some reason, I imagine Honningsvag to be a lot like Barrow, Alaska – minus the English speakers. The current population of Honningsvag is around 2300, and the area itself has had humans roaming around it for at least the past 10,000 years.

An Alaskan cruise is fun, but the two main cruise route options are the Inner Passage and the Gulf of Alaska. Both options don’t take you all that far north. Although I haven’t gotten out the ruler, I’m guessing that Honningsvag is about 700 miles further north than, say, Anchorage, because 700 miles is the approximate distance between Anchorage and Barrow. In other words, a Norwegian cruise may be a lot like an Alaskan cruise, but it goes a lot farther north -- deep into the Arctic Circle itself. Honningsvag claims the right as the Earth's northern-most city, although Barrow disputes the claim.

From what I can tell, Honningsvag makes Barrow seem like a metropolis, and I wonder what there is to do in Honningsvag while in port. On the Alaskan cruise, for example, we had a stop in Haines and elected not to take one of the ship’s planned excursions. As a result, we just walked around town, but the town wasn’t developed for tourism, to say the least. One of the highlights on our stroll around town was visiting the local hardware store, and trust me, it wasn’t all that thrilling.

Part of the thrill of visiting the ends of the Earth, though, is dealing with the fact that there sometimes may be nothing to do there. If I were going alone, I would use the experience to collect my thoughts, to write, or just to read a book. If I were going with someone else, I would use the experience just to share a collected experience. 

My wife and I didn’t exactly enjoy our visit to Haines, Alaska, for example, but it has value in that experienced it together.

A two-week Norwegian cruise that goes all the way up the coast to Honnigsvag may run around $1700 per person. I’m sure that there may be other ports in Norway more worth a visit, but Honnigsvag has value for simply being the end of the line. And according to tripadvisor, the Corner CafĂ© (rated #1 of 1) serves pretty good pizza, as well as a full “English breakfast.”

The Price of Liberty -- Writer's Poke #347

My Levis never come from the same place. I have pairs from Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, and Lesotho. No matter where they’re made, I’m charged the same price at the retailer. So when I go to J.C. Penny’s, I expect to shell out about forty bucks for a pair of jeans.

Just how many pairs of Levis can an average work produce in an hour? I googled this question, but could not find a quick answer. For sake of argument, let’s assume the answer is 10 pairs. The retail value of 10 pairs of Levis, then, is $400. Wholesale value might be $200 for 10 pairs. Material costs might be $100 for 10 pairs. Shipping and other distribution and factory-related expenses might be, what, $50 for 10 pairs? After all this, what’s left over is profit and labor expenses. So how much does the average Haitian working for Levis make per hour? Maybe 30 cents, or 3 cents per completed pair of jeans. Is that fair?

Defenders of sweatshops suggest that they are simply part of the economic development process. If Haitians don’t have sweatshops, they won’t have jobs. Thus, if they have to work 12 hours shifts, 7 days a week, if they don’t have health care, if their government doesn’t have an organization that oversees worker safety, if children under 14 are working rather than going to school, etc., who cares? At least they have jobs.

Levis, like many other products, used to be made in the USA. However, American workers demand fair labor practices – things like a 40 hour work week, benefits, a minimum wage. Apparently, Americans also demand cheap goods. Perhaps a pair of U.S.-made Levis would need to sell, retail, for $150 rather than $40. But if Americans supported fair-labor practices for everyone, wouldn’t this be a small price to pay? If consumers were willing to pay more for U.S.-made goods, it would not only protect workers here at home, but perhaps it would also help workers currently slaving away in sweatshops, because honestly, a sweatshop worker is nothing more than a slave, and while no sane person defends slavery in the 21st century, apparently it’s still acceptable to defend sweatshops.

The argument that “sweatshops are better than the alternative” doesn’t hold water. If the alternatives to sweatshops stink, then address the alternatives. The right to basic human rights should not end at the U.S. border, and American consumers should be willing to pay the price to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live a better life. If the best the people of Haiti and elsewhere can do is 80 hour workweeks at 30 cents an hour, that’s not good enough, and we should not try to make ourselves feel better that we our the reasons that they have such “opportunities.”

Should U.S. consumers be willing to pay more for goods to protect workers, or is the bottom-line at checkout what we should be most concerned about?

“Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” – Patrick Henry

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Flirting with God -- Writer's Poke #346

Okay, so what if malls are our temples? What’s the big deal? According to Phyllis Rose’s article “Shopping and Other Spiritual Adventures in America Today,” Americans know how to handle materialism. To discuss materialism as if it were a problem doesn’t sound very American, anyway, does it? Makes those entering into the discussion sound like Marxists. 

The beauty of American materialism is that everyone has opportunity for stuff. Over the weekend, the Home Shopping Channel was advertising a 73 inch LCD TV for $1399, and it was available on EZ pay. Who can’t afford six easy payments of $233.17 a month? And, the salesman noted, a 73 inch TV won’t even feel like it’s consuming the room. 

Americans are sophisticated. We know that the purpose of shopping isn’t singular. We shop for a multitude of reasons; Rose even shop without any intention of buying. We window shop, and that takes on, she says, the same function as flirting. We can flirt with the 73 inch LCD TV in the store without any need to commit to it. If we leave it in the store, we know where it is if we want to visit it again. We don’t need to buy it and bring it into our living space. Just knowing that it’s there is enough, and we can visit it from time-to-time to maintain the connection. 

I like the idea of the ritual of shopping. Perhaps Americans aren’t as materialistic as those turtleneck-wearing Marxist-wannabes make us out to be. Perhaps shopping is no more harmful than flirting. But then why all the talk about the “spiritual” aspect of shopping? 

Has shopping fulfilled the human need for something greater than ourselves? Is it now okay to flirt with “God” without the need to worry about traditional commitment?

What would someone learn about you just by spending time shopping with you?

“The quickest way to know a woman is to go shopping with her.” – Marcelene Cox

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Mall Is Our Temple -- Writer's Poke #345

This weekend as I was loading up on $3.99 DVDs at Best Buy, I was thinking about the hundreds of statues the Polynesians created on Easter Island. They didn’t recognize it at the time, but their dedication to building these statues ultimately lead to their demise. 

While they had plenty of stones to make their statues, they ended up cutting down all of the trees to help move these statues to their final locations, and the natural resources they consumed could never be replaced. Why? Because Easter Island is a very small speck of land, which is literally out as far in the middle of nowhere as a human being can get.

How the Polynesians originally managed to navigate to and settle what we now call Easter Island is one of the greatest travel stories never written. Somehow, a few brave and hardy souls hopped into their canoes and risked sailing thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean’s name is a bit of a misnomer, of course, as it’s a very rough and unforgiving body of water.

Reaching Easter Island was an ultimate act of luck. The nearest inhabitable speck of land is over a thousand miles away to its west, and today only 100 people live on that nearest speak. In the past decade, Easter Island has itself experienced a population boom, growing from 3900 to 5000. Today, most of the near immigrants moving to Easter Island come from Chile, 250 miles to the east. Why they come is something of a mystery, as the Island’s natural resources never really recovered from building all of those statues. Easter Island itself is not a tourist destination, by any means, so what new settlers expect to do earn a living once they arrive is unclear.

I was thinking about Easter Island as I read Anna Quindlen’s “Stuff Is Not Salvation.” Obviously the inhabitants of Easter Island had a purpose for making all of those statues, but I’m not sure that the outcome they suffered as a result will be any different from the one we may suffer in the future. By comparison, the Earth is much bigger than Easter Island (duh), but the Earth’s resources, like Easter Island’s are limited, and right now 7 billion people are competing for those limited resources.

“If,” as Quindlen ponders, “the mall is our temple,” then consumption to us is every bit as religiously significant as the reason the Polynesians built statues – which, by the way, was to honor their ancestors. Quindlen doesn’t directly connect consumption with religion, but I do think it’s significant that she uses the word “salvation” in her title, as well as makes reference to the possibility that the mall is our temple.

When we buy, buy, buy, then, who are we honoring? It’s too easy to say that we worship stuff, but what is the difference between religion and addiction? What is the ultimate purpose of buying all of the toys that we can? I know from personal experience that it’s difficult to say no to a sale when non-essential items are marked down 80%, but how can we best protect ourselves against consuming ourselves into extinction?

“My first rule of consumerism is never to buy anything you can’t make your children carry.” – Bill Bryson

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #7: Easter Island

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit.
What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment. 

Destination #7: Easter Island

Easter Island is probably the most remote island inhabited by human beings. Located in the South Pacific Ocean, Chile and the continent of South America are 250 miles to its east. No human beings live on an island to its west for over 1200 miles.

So where did the human inhabitants of Easter Island come from? Most likely, Polynesians traveled over 2000 miles to reach the island around 300 A.D. If true, this must be one of the most amazing travel stories never written. The folks who traveled back in that day weren't sailing via luxury yacht, and they certainly didn't have the ability to carry many provisions with them. Needless to say, they didn't have maps, didn't have an end destination in mind, and didn't have any clue when they'd find land suitable for human habitation.

I think I would have been freaking out after, oh say, the first thousand miles without any sight of land. How far could an average Polynesian canoe travel in a day, anyway, and how comfortable was the ride? Just assume that the trip took 4 to 6 weeks, and that's just my poor uneducated guess. How did they manage to stay hydrated? Did they fish for their food, and did they eat the fish raw? The Pacific isn't a very forgiving ocean, so how exactly did the canoes manage to stay afloat, and how many Polynesians became shark bait?

No one knows much about the people that first arrived at what is now known as Easter Island, but they beat the first Europeans there by over 1400 years. By the time the Europeans arrived, of course, Easter Island had already been in decline for centuries. Small island, not enough resources, and eventually, too much procreation. Some suggest that Eastern Island serves as a microcosmic warning of what eventually will happen to Earth itself, and most likely, there will be no extraterrestrial visitors to document Earth's demise.

Of course Easter Island is known for its moai statues, but the creation of these statues may have been, in part, responsible for the island's depletion in resources. Today, they seem so pointless and yet so wonderful, but it makes me wonder what sort of pointless but wonderful temples modern humans are building now. Sure, we assume ours have wonderful purpose, but unlike the original inhabitants of Easter Island who were blind to their own self-inflicted destruction, we should be smart enough to discern the warning signs pointing to our own possible extinction. And yet, we continue to build our own versions of moai.

Currently, only 5000 people live on Easter Island. From Minneapolis, it's not a place to visit accidentally. Average round-trip airfare may be as high as $3,000, requiring connecting flights in Miami and Santiago, Chile. Total time in the air is just 18 hours.

Of all the places on this list, Easter Island may actually be the one that best represents Earth's inhabited end.