We received the news of the terrorist attacks on America just as we were ready to weigh anchor in Lamen Bay, on the island of Epi and sail toward Port Vila on the island of Efate. I picked up email on our SailMail program and there was only one message, subject “sad, sad news,” from an American ex-pat friend of ours living in New Zealand. I read the words, knowing it was no joke, but still not wanting to believe that something like this could happen in America.
I tuned in the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) on the single sideband radio where there was non-stop coverage of the attacks. The words came out of the speaker, but my ears didn’t want to hear them. I felt both shock and numbness at the same time.
We sailed directly to Port Vila. I felt that we might get more information there and could be with our cruising friends. It was a great sailing day, and we had one ear to the radio during the ten-hour passage. The BBC and Radio New Zealand had excellent coverage. Radio Australia’s coverage was hopeless, as usual, mostly sports! After arriving in Port Vila, we visited the Club Vanuatu, which has CNBC on two big screens going all day long. We drop in and watch for an hour or so every day to get caught up.
Port Vila seems to be relatively well insulated from the rest of the world. It’s not that they are shut off, but for most of the Ni-Vanuatu, the world beyond Vanuatu is something that they have seen only on a television screen. It is as if it is another planet, or something that is indistinguishable from a TV show or a movie. It is difficult to say if much will change here.
As far as we now know, we have no friends or loved ones who were in the buildings or on the planes, but the loss of innocence on that day is something that is likely to deeply affect every American, everywhere. Our freedom and security on home soil is something that we have come to take for granted. The misdeeds of a few men have changed that forever, and most certainly will change the way we will live our lives going forward. For the first time since we sailed out of U.S. waters in 1994, I actually feel safer being away from U.S. soil.
Unquestionably the cruisers here in Vanuatu have all been shocked and disturbed by the events. While the attack is not the predominate topic of conversation, it is clearly in the hearts and minds of all of us, just below the surface. I’m not sure if it is denial, a sense of helplessness or just detachment because we are so far from the reality of the situation. We seem to be getting together more, perhaps just for comfort and support.
It is easy, however, to move about town with the perception that nothing has happened. Other than some yachts flying flags at half-mast, and a few shops with the stars and stripes displayed in their windows, life here gives the appearance of being business as usual. The John Fromm movement had an “I’m Sorry” parade through Port Vila last Friday, dedicated to American visitors and ex-pats. It was a touching gesture, but mostly boycotted by the locals, apparently not wanting to show support for the cult itself.
Traveling as much as we have over the last few years, we have been exposed to different opinions and feelings about America. We have the opportunity talk to many people from many other countries and cultures. We get our news from many sources other than the American media, with much broader points of view. The rest of the world’s perception of America is very different from our perception of our selves. Some misperceptions, but some are painfully accurate. I think this huge wake-up call is a challenge and opportunity for Americans to become more aware of our impact on the rest of the world. Instead of being known as a “super power,” perhaps we should consider working to be more of a “super partner” in the global village.
That said, I am proud of how our leaders have handled this catastrophe. I am proud of how the American people have reached deeply inside themselves and risen to the occasion and pulled together during these tough times. The countless stories of heroism and selflessness are the only things that help make this all bearable and make me proud to be a part of this great society.
An event such as this also brings to light our mortality, the need to live life to the fullest and to follow one’s dream. A very wise man said the following words to me about ten years ago, which I took to heart: “When you are lying on your deathbed, you won’t wish you had spent more time at the office.”