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Faith in Vermont: Fear of Falling

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Posted on July 10, 2018 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



The other night, I dreamed of snow.

In my dream, the world was white. I was at my daughters’ preschool, sitting on a sled that was perched precariously atop the roof ridge. This didn’t seem particularly odd, because the roof was covered with snow, and snow was piled halfway up the sides of the building. Down below, the preschool teachers urged me to push off.

It’s not often that I remember my dreams, but this one stuck with me. 

The obvious explanation was that, the day before, our family had returned to Vermont after a week spent celebrating my father-in-law’s 70th birthday on a Caribbean cruise. The cruise originated in Florida, and docked at the islands of St. Maarten, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. In late June, these places are hot, with temperatures in the 90s and humidity you could cut with a butter knife, ocean breezes notwithstanding. 

By the end of our vacation week, we longed for Vermont’s climate, which, at the time of our departure, was delivering unusually cool temperatures. 

Then we exited the Burlington airport into a long and brutal Vermont heat wave, which, when temperatures topped out at 97°F, exceeded anything we’d experienced in the Caribbean – and without any ocean breezes, at that. 

Snow was looking pretty good. 

But my dream was also about a fear of falling – about that stomach flipping moment just before you push off and lose control to gravity.

***

Because I fear falling, I am terrified of flying.

This might surprise people who know me, because I’ve travelled quite a bit in my life. Since my husband has family in California and my family is on the East Coast, I’ve made more transcontinental flights than I can count. In my younger years, I traveled to Europe and back four times, to East Africa twice, and halfway across the Pacific to the islands of Bora Bora and Hawaii. In Tanzania, I flew in a tiny plane that I’m pretty sure was partly held together by Duct Tape. 

Still, I’ve always considered flying a necessary evil for getting where I want to go.

In recent years, my dislike of flying has intensified. This is because I’m flying less often than ever before, and because I love my home in Vermont so much. Loving home means that there’s more to lose if something goes wrong, and it also means that there are fewer places to go that make flying seem worth it. 

When we flew to Florida and back for our family cruise, it required four separate planes.  All but one of those flights was extremely bumpy. As I sat shaking in those tiny metal tubes tossing around at 30,000 feet above the ground, I thought: This was never how people were meant to travel.

Sure, I know all the facts. I know that air travel is still the safest way to get around. I know that being stuck in turbulence is like being a cork on water – it isn’t likely to bring the plane down. Still, the thought of all that space between me and the ground sends my stomach into flip-flops. My fellow passengers drink soda and munch pretzels, seemingly undisturbed that we’re bucking like a bronco through the clouds. It makes me want to stand up, wave my arms, and yell, “ Why are we doing this?!? What is wrong with us?!?”

***

I had never been on a cruise ship before this recent vacation. The ship we sailed on was Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, the second largest passenger ship in the world. Our cruise contained roughly 5,000 passengers and 2,000 crew – exactly as if the entire town of Middlebury were packed onto a ship. 

Cruising is full of superlatives; everything is extra. Music is pumped extra loud through public speakers all day long. Every show is a spectacle of sound, light, and derring-do, and one extravaganza we saw included “the largest piece of scenery at sea.” The food is outrageous – even though I knew that the average person gains one pound per day on cruises, nothing prepared me for three-course dinners at which people ordered three entrees apiece, for plates of cookies delivered after dessert, for the waiter who force-fed my daughter calamari, or for the chocolate fountain.  There was even extra cleanliness: Because cruise lines are petrified of norovirus outbreaks, our cruise included an orientation video about proper handwashing, a mandatory sink station before entering the main buffet, and automatic Purell dispensers at every doorway. 

Another superlative on Harmony of the Seas is The Ultimate Abyss, which is touted as “the tallest dry slide in the world at sea:” two ten-story-tall twisty tube slides, entered through the mouth of a giant fiberglass anglerfish. 

My three oldest daughters were tall enough to go on the Ultimate Abyss, and they did – a combined five times, with reactions ranging from elation to “that’s enough for me.” In order to keep them company, and with an attitude of  “when in Rome” (because if anything recalled the last days of Rome, it was this cruise) I decided to try The Ultimate Abyss myself.

Like most thrill rides, it was fast and short; the satisfaction came from having done it, rather than the experience itself. For me, the scariest part was not the slide itself, but that the slide was entered via a clear platform ten stories above deck, with the ocean pitching and rolling underneath. There it was again: my fear of falling, the sense that gravity might have its way with me.

It was almost enough to make me want to wave my arms at all those people in line  and shout, “Why are we doing this?!? What is wrong with us?!?”

***

Our cruise agenda took us right through the region that was devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria last August and September. 

Although St. Maarten had obviously put effort into sprucing up its tourist area, the effects of Irma were apparent: buildings encased in scaffolding, boarded up windows, and – according to my in-laws, who’d been before -- noticeably fewer trees.

In Puerto Rico, where current estimates place fatalities from Hurricane Maria at just slightly under the number of passengers on our cruise, we were warned not to drink the water. Our tour guide through Old San Juan told us that her neighborhood was without power for three months, and they’d had to cook over wood fires. 

In Haiti, we saw nothing, because we were on Royal Caribbean’s private beach, which is surrounded by a cement wall mounted with security cameras. As the cruise director said the night before we docked, “We just go in there and take over.”

Sure, I know the facts: I know that the tourism revenues cruises bring to these islands are significant, and that this will aid in their recovery. Still, there was something about being one of 5,000 overfed consumers spit ashore for a few hours to be entertained by these struggling islands that made my stomach go flip-flop. A certain colonial overtone? We just go in there and take over.

I felt the same flip-flop when my daughters and I sang “Happy Birthday” into our waiter’s phone for his daughter in the Philippines. His daughter was turning three years old, and he wouldn’t be there, nor would he be there for the birth of his second daughter in September. 

The 2,000 crew members on Harmony of the Seas sign seven- to nine-month contracts, during which time they remain at sea and away from their families. They represent a wide-ranging set of nationalities, but on our cruise the bulk seemed to be from India, the Philippines, and the Caribbean. 

Sure, I know the facts: I know that the crew members are making a choice, and that they’re probably earning more money from cruise lines than they would back home. Still, given equally good options, I suspect that most people would choose to be home with their family: to celebrate their daughter’s birthday, to witness the birth of their child. I dislike a world in which a complex web of economic and political forces might compel people to make choices that they might not otherwise wish to make – choices, in other words, that aren’t really choices at all. 

It’s almost enough to make me want to wave my arms and shout, “Why are we doing this?!? What is wrong with us?!?”

Or is that too judgmental?

If I prefer to stay home with my feet on the ground, I can hardly judge those who walk calmly onto planes.

If I prefer my vacations to involve quiet, family, and reasonable amounts of food, should I judge those who pay to sail on a loud, crowded ship where they can order three entrees per meal and sign their children into childcare until 1 AM? No, again: Judging individuals only strangles relationships and curdles our souls.

But can we judge ideologies, cultural trends, systems, and corporations?

If I prefer the world to be healthy, can I judge a cruise line that spews particulate pollution into the air and dumps sewage into the ocean (while encouraging passengers to “save the waves” by reusing towels and not throwing trash overboard?) 

If I prefer the world to be just, can I judge an economic system that supports “going in and taking over” hurricane-wrecked islands, and the financial necessity of leaving home for months on end in order to over-serve, over-entertain, and over-feed tourists?

When, in Rome, do we wave our arms and shout, “Why are we doing this?!? What is wrong with us?!?” even if they might throw us to the lions?

I am less sure of those answers, so I dream that I’m perched on a snowy roof ridge, stomach flipping, about to fall. 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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