Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Amsterdam - Final Stop

As our voyage draws to close, it's time once again to get packed and bid farewell to a few wonderful folks. Yes, we met hundreds, but then acquaintances are a dime-a-dozen. True friends are priceless. There's Johnathon, Assistant Cruise Director. Hannah, the bass player in the band, and Dorrine, Travel Guide. The five of us enjoyed each others company many an evening after they got off work. Oh, and Mariana, the Purser. We had dinner with her one night and after that, she kept pretty close...either because she wanted to make sure we paid our bills or because she enjoyed spending time with us! There was only one server we developed a friendship with, and that was a young man from the Philippines named Michael - his contract with the ship ended a couple weeks ago, but we're already hooked up on Facebook. A very fine young man with a bright future. Then there's Jim & Gwen from Ottawa, Canada - travelers similar to us. Don & Susan from Florida - Katherine & Frank from Toronto. A Chinese family from Vancouver...Louis, Margaret, & Chris. Last but not least, Renate & Bert from Rotterdam - they're already making plans to come visit us in Arizona this Fall.

Our biggest challenge with these folks when trying to describe what we do with our retirement time, aside from traveling,  was trying to explain the activity of drum corps. Those of you who are familiar with it, enough said. Those of you who aren't...that's a subject for another day...actually several.

So, any life-lessons from this trip?  I have a few. Some I've expressed before in one form or another. But having visited Russia and a few other places for the first time, I'll expand a little. Frankly, I had preconceived notions and expectations going in, and not all necessarily good. And much the same with other long voyages and new destinations, you have a picture in your mind's eye - you brace yourself based on what you've read or have been told. Right?
First, I think that everyone (everywhere) basically wants the same thing. Vastly different as the world’s cultures are, even if you DON’T speak to Italian millionaires, Russian guards, homeless Brazilians, Dutch fishermen and Filipino computer programmers in their own languages, you will still see that we are all incredibly alike where it matters. Everyone just wants validation, love, security, enjoyment and hopes for a better future. The way they verbalize this and work towards it is where things branch off, but we all have the same basic desires. You can relate to everyone in the world if you just look past the superficial things that separate you.

Second, we spoke with many folks (now using canes & wheelchairs) who waited years before taking a long voyage. Deferring your happiness to the future is a terrible idea, but of course I didn't share that with them. Too many people presume that when they have that one thing they can work towards for years…then “everything will be alright”. This is delusional. When you get it, there’ll be something else missing in your life. I fundamentally believe that long-term pure happiness from one particular situation or achievement is a pipe-dream, but we can learn to be content with what we have, live in the now, all the while enjoying the progress and changes we are making. If your whole life is working up toward one really big major goal that you hold on to for years, you will have a major anticlimax after the dust settles. Work toward it, but stop deferring your happiness, if in fact you are.

“Someday my ship will come in” is, in plain English…bullcrap. You will NEVER win the lottery. But really, be practical about it. People seem to have a strange concept of how luck works and how the universe, some deity/karma, their lucky shoe or how “they deserve it” will mean that things will eventually fall into place for them. You are “due” to win the lottery or will get swept away by prince charming any day now. After all, “you deserve it” (as if others don’t). This is a misunderstanding of how the world actually works. Perhaps I’m wrong and praying or hoping that it will all work out, or that generally being a nice person is what really “does the trick”, but why not actually get off your fanny and do something tangible too while you’re at it? My philosophy: Do what’s right – do the very VERY best you can at whatever you do – & always treat others with dignity & respect. Pure & simple.

I personally don’t believe in magic or fairies or astrology or sky wizards or large-scale invisible inexplicable forces at work on petty daily activities of humans. I’m very skeptical about such things, and believe they are all impossible & ridiculous – and the knowledge of this has enriched my life. As a practical person, I see the world as a very logical place with physical and social rules, and truly understanding this has helped me/us live reasonably comfortable.

Seriously, folks. The universe owes you nothing; you owe it to yourself to be the master of where your life ends up. There’s no such thing as destiny. Destiny is used as a cop-out and standard excuse by most people for why they don’t do something with their lives. The thing is, it doesn’t exist. Your limitations are not set by who you know, where you were born, what genes you have, how much money you have, how old you are right now, what you did before or other things that you can claim are your stamp of failure for life. If you are determined enough, there’s a boatload of opportunities in life that are totally achievable with minimal cash, regardless of who you are.

While I'm at it, here's another thought. Seek out people with different beliefs and views of the world to yours and get to know their side of the story. As you can probably tell, I have some beliefs about the world that don’t necessarily jive with a lot of people’s. However, a lot of people get their meaning in life from believing in things I don’t. If everyone thought like me, the world would be a very boring place. So when I meet someone with a very different belief system to mine, it’s better to get along than to try to “convert” them. This is as true for how the world works as it is for various language learning methods, fashion, movie tastes, you name it. When someone is sure about something and has believed it for many many years, then you can’t convince them with a few cleverly picked words. Everyone is closed-minded about something, including me. They have to discover it for themselves over time or just continue believing what they do. Hey, I voted for Trump, but I won't take responsibility for convincing the world I'm right. It’s important to acknowledge that maybe you are actually the person who is wrong. The world is much more fun with people of varying interests and beliefs. Despite my skepticism, in our travels I have met and have spoken with doctors, lawyers, engineers, astrologists, palm readers, politicians, very religious folks, conservatives, and people who hate technology. And my life and overall experiences are enriched so much more because of it. Spending time exclusively with people who agree with you on everything would never challenge you and allow you to learn so much more. 

Something else. Nobody has it all figured out. Almost everyone has problems and puts on a brave face – don’t presume they have it easy. You see of each person what they let you see. You have no idea what they are going through or what they had to put up with to be in a situation that you might consider “easy”. This is universal – millionaires, students, the cool kid, the party animal, the introvert and everyone in between has more to their story than the superficial restricted one you see. Never dismiss them as having it easy if you don’t know the entire story.

Oh, and about money. More money will NEVER solve your problems – period. As long as you are not living in the street or going hungry, then you do not “need” more money. When you spend enough time with people who are actually living on next to nothing, but having a full life, then you will truly understand this. Trust me – I’ve seen it everywhere, particularly India & Africa. Everything that is wonderful about life doesn’t cost a penny, and the rest is a lot cheaper than you think it is.

And possessions you own? You never really know if you get the straight scoop from some folks you meet on a cruise, and the ones who are quick to describe where they live and how many cars they have in the garage are the folks we stay away from. I mean, look at the real reason you want to buy more expensive crap and realize that it all comes down to validation from others in one way or another. You don’t really need any of it unless it’s directly related to essentials in how you work, care for your family, or survive. The need to buy new crap dictates your life – it fixes you in one location with that house and furniture, and it governs how much money you need to earn. And it almost never actually enriches your life in any way. The less you own the better. 

TV channels on a cruise ship are very limited to begin, and only as good as satellite reception will allow. We heard many folks gripe and complain. In my opinion, TV is the greatest black hole of time available to mankind. After spending nearly 2 years living on a ship with minimal commercial broadcasts, I realized I wasted so much of my life, spending 2-3 hours a day watching TV. Following shows that I “had” to see, in order to “relax”. I now regret almost every second of it. The whole world was passing me by outside. That being said, I will share with you I have two weaknesses. One, I follow high-profile court cases, i.e., O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias, & George Zimmerman. I found those to be very intriguing – it was our American justice system at work, though I didn't always agree with the jury verdicts. Two, I rarely miss a rerun of Andy Griffith. I know…you’re laughing by now – but absolutely no regrets. There’s just something about the good, clean, down-home living (and comedy) that appealed to me, not to mention the character of Andy himself – a genuinely good man, and a fine behavior & disposition example for everyone. 

So, back to what I was saying. TV was an important part of the 20th century, bringing communication and news to the masses, but now it’s wasteful. People get biased, often times exaggerated news when much better alternatives are available. As Trump calls it..."Fake News" - and there's a lot of it out there. It's all about ratings. People watch terrible TV shows that teach them, and it sucks so many hours of their lives away that they seem to forget about when they delude themselves into thinking that they don’t have time to pursue real passions in life. TV encourages people to be antisocial. The only TVs you should be watching are someone else’s – go to your friend’s house to share a series you like if you must, or go to a sports bar with your friends to watch a game or two. Your life will not be enriched by sitting at home watching a screen with zero interactivity to it. And that leads me to the internet. The internet is the greatest tool ever available to us, but daily use should be capped in my opinion. Unlike TV, the internet is interactive and allows you to take part and become virtually social. It connects communities all over the world and without it, the last 15 years simply would have been much more difficult for me for many reasons, but primarily business. Having said that, it has the same potential as TV to become a black hole of time. Use it to enrich your life, but put a cap on how much you use it so you can get out and live that life. Replacing one screen with another (even when you use it to chat with people) is just escaping the real world, which is much more beautiful. The world that is worth experiencing is not on TV or computer screens. It’s with other human beings. Get out there and meet them! Have you ever seen two people sharing a table in a restaurant, only to be texting independent messages in total silence? I know you have! It's comical & sad at the same time.

And a quick thought on foreign culture, and my opinion that modern foreign culture does NOT have to satisfy your stereotypes. OK, what do you mean? I mean that every country in the world is modernizing, but this doesn’t mean they are Westernizing or Americanizing. What makes them unique does not have to satisfy your “quaint” tourist-brochure view of them. Leave ignorant stereotypes aside and have an open mind about how modern life is like in that culture. Not all Irish people drink, not all Brazilians samba and play football - & Germans, Dutch, Filipinos and everyone else will surprise you if you leave your presumptions about them at the pier. Respect the differences, try to adapt to them yourself, and realize that to them, YOU might seem backward in many ways. As you work your way through this travel blog, you'll note many instances of my disgust with certain countries & their people. It's not so much dislike as it is compassion & empathy - some of these places could be so much better and the quality of life for their citizens so enhanced if someone in a power position opened their eyes and said, "we can be better". 

Next, making new friends is easy, and so is appreciating your current ones. If you are friendly, genuine and charming, making friends with people from every culture and background is possible. People make not speak the same language or come from the same mold, but courtesy and treating others with dignity & respect is recognized by all human beings. I can’t begin to count the times where we interfaced with a cab driver, a bus driver, a train conductor…whether we rode elephants in Sri Lanka or Camels in Egypt, the words "please" and "thank you" are common terms recognized & appreciated all over the world. Be a kind human being. When people who are surrounded by family, networks, work and school colleagues, other friends, clubs and communities they are a part of… tell me that it’s hard to meet new people, I feel like slapping them in the face to wake them up to the opportunities – just look around you!

Doing anything specifically to impress people is stupid. People will never give you the validation you seek if you try to be a dancing monkey for them. Saying how many languages you speak, how rich you are, who you know, what you drive, where you studied or what you do for a living, or trying to show-off in any other way to get someone to like or acknowledge you - working for these things just for the bragging rights will leave you really disappointed. I can’t begin to tell you how many people we’ve met over the last few voyages who felt an immediate need to share their personal accomplishments in life and ‘successful stature’ in society. People are impressed by those who aren’t trying to impress them and are comfortable in themselves, and have the ability to be social and interesting. Sometimes to be “interesting” all you have to do is be a good listener.

And last for now…the most important lessons in life can never be expressed in black and white, but must be experienced. Back in Iowa, I thought I knew it all in school – that everything of importance could be found in books. But the truth is… that the most important things in life are very challenging with pen & paper, including what I’m sharing with you now. When most of the world’s information is at our fingertips & a mouse-click away, it somehow makes it feel like we don’t need to experience any more. Movies, books, or “living vicariously through someone else” means we can apparently get the general gist of anything. This is false. Experience is the greatest teacher of all. Stop reading about or watching the world passively…start living it. That includes this blog. When you see a place or places you'd like to visit, write them down, develop a plan, make a commitment and go for it!

And for the first time in recent years, I have a couple 'firsts' to share.

The first weight gain this cruise. Cheryl always watches her diet...but me? One trip I gained 21 pounds...lost it...then gained 19 the following year. Lost it...then...see a pattern there?! I was a little fat when we left, but was determined not to be fatter when I got home. The difference - we walked a lot! Or I should say, Cheryl walked my legs off!

The second first...we have no future voyages planned at this point. We have a lot going on back home. Maybe a book, time permitting?

We leave Amsterdam Saturday morning at 11:30 on a 45-minute flight to London. After a 2-hour layover, an 11-hour non-stop to Phoenix, arriving 5:30 same day.

Home sweet home!

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