101: In Hot Water

101: In Hot Water

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

In Hot Water

A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.

~Oliver Wendell Holmes

I felt like an idiot. Had I really just asked, “Is it dishwasher-safe?” We were in the middle of the Peruvian highlands in the Andes, in a little shack where a local artisan was selling ceramic pitchers he had baked in a wood-fired kiln, and I was asking if one of his handmade creations was dishwasher-safe. Because I was going to use it for maple syrup. For pancakes. And I didn’t want to wash it by hand afterwards.

You can’t get more “Ugly American” than that!

The artisan and our tour guide looked at me, confused. Yes, I could wash the pitchers. Why would I think they weren’t washable? The concept of an automated dishwasher eluded them. I realized my mistake immediately, bought two ceramic pitchers, and reminded myself that 90% of the world didn’t use a dishwasher and had never heard of such a thing.

This was in 2003, in an area of Peru where the vast majority of the tourists were hikers. Most of the local residents lived in one-room houses with no electricity and a fire pit for cooking. Toilets were holes in the ground. Everyone had food and shelter and clothing; everyone was friendly, and there was no crime at all against tourists. The children were inspiring, clad in neat school uniforms and walking miles back and forth to school each day through the steep foothills.

People seemed happy and productive and healthy. They didn’t need dishwashers. No one really needs a dishwasher. Life was simpler, more grounded, more self-sufficient. And it made me feel spoiled, privileged, and pretty wasteful.

Ironically, the afternoon before we were to leave for Peru, August 14th, was when that huge blackout had occurred, the one that knocked out power to 10 million people in Ontario and 45 million people in eight northeastern U.S. states. We had scrambled to find a new flight to Peru on the 15th, driving from New York’s shutdown JFK airport all the way to Boston, discovering miraculous pockets of electricity in Massachusetts so that we could fill our empty gas tank, and staying in Boston overnight. We managed to fly to Peru from Boston on the 16th, a day late for our tour and with renewed awareness of our dependence on modern conveniences.

I’ve traveled all over the world since I was a kid, from highly developed countries in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East to Third World countries in South and Central America, and in Africa. I’ve visited forty-two countries so far — some for weeks or months, some for just a day, and many of them repeatedly over the years. They have all been beautiful and exotic and fascinating. All of them have opened my mind and made me aware of how fortunate I am to live in the United States.

We don’t have to go through armed border crossings to drive from one state to another; we can move freely about our vast territory without government interference and live and work wherever we want; we can go to college even if our parents did not; women have (mostly) equal rights; and we don’t wake up every morning wondering what danger the day will bring. Nothing beats the USA for standard of living, for freedom of choice, for ease of movement, and above all, for the opportunity to prosper.

I think one of the best things I did for my kids was taking them on as many trips to Third World countries as possible. That travel opened their eyes to the same things — and they are unspoiled even though they grew up in a pretty fancy town.

I have friends who spent years attaining their U.S. citizenship. But I was born to it, due to the hard work of my great-grandparents. They were the ones who saved up their money and boarded boats and took off with nothing in their pockets for uncertain new lives in America. I have a great-grandfather from Russia who started out selling tea from a pushcart and ended up owning a small chain of furniture stores in Boston. I have another great-grandfather, from Lithuania via England, who ran a commercial laundry in Harlem in New York City — his son went into real estate and that son’s son became a Harvard-educated lawyer. All eight of my great-grandparents arrived with nothing after leaving countries that offered them no opportunity to live and prosper. Here, they were able to work hard and be rewarded for that hard work.

We are the lucky ones. We get to enjoy all the American privileges and freedoms.

And every single morning I stand in the shower and I think about those Andean highlands in Peru. I am grateful for my shower with its unlimited hot water, my clean towels, and the unbelievable luxury of the way that we live. I think about those kids walking miles to go to school as I get in my car to go to work.

My ancestors could have moved somewhere else. But they moved here. And I get to be an American. It’s not something I take for granted.

~Amy Newmark

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