As I've found with every trip I've taken like this, the end comes too quickly, although home is always a welcome thought. Every exposure to a different culture brings with it lessons to learn and apply to our own lives - here are a few of my observations from this trip:
1.) Slow the heck down. I wish I could photograph the expressions I get when explaining how much Americans work to the locals here. They're astounded. The drive to succeed and be profitable is what has made America the economic power it is. It seems, however, that we've forgotten how to relax. Personally, I'm convinced a lot of the heart problems abounding in the United States stem from our inability to relax. Two months ago, my blood pressure was way high for someone my age...now I'm finally back to postorial hypotension making me lightheaded every time I stand up. Ask yourself, when's the last time you took a vacation? How long was it? Taken your spouse on a date lately? Written a letter to a friend (a real one, with a pen and paper) in the past month? Read a book?
Most of the time, it's not easy. It takes a special kind of person to want the type of job requiring constant access to oneself. As if cell phones weren't bad enough, someone had to go and market the Blackberry, destroying any possibility of a private life. Some people love them, some hate them. I can see their worth, as long as you have the ability to turn them OFF. Here in Meri, cell phone reception isn't available in the house, or really anywhere near it, so the phones are off most of the time...it's been nice.
2.) Try something new. While things catch on in the U.S. pretty quickly, many innovations are overlooked because they're not mainstream (e.g.: electric cars, recumbent bicycles, etc.) Read a book on a subject you don't know about. You'll find time if you try. Ride your bike to work, or the grocery store, or walk. Bake bread from scratch. Read about what's going on in your congressional district. Do something differently.
Here, the people tend to welcome change whether or not ideas are popular. They give new ideas a try, and for that, development is taking good steps forward. The culture of change towards what is popular has been shown to cause problems, as SUV's don't fly off the lots like they used to, and people who own them are, in many cases, looking for alternatives. Even the search for appropriate technology, which can sometimes demand giving odd ideas a try, is simply a search not for the most advanced solution, but the best one (see previous article). Flexibility and acceptance of change is the best way a society can drive innovation, and it starts with every one of us, as consumers.
3.) (and this is the biggie) Try and understand global contexts. While that statement says little, bear with me here: one of the many supervisors I've had in the past few years said something that has always stuck with me: "How can you come home from that and feel like what you're doing here [manufacturing engineering] is significant?" Kurt had a good point. In light of the developing world's multifarious problems such as malaria, potable water, genocide, oil corruption and subsistence farming, producing fluorescent lamps can seem a bit...superfluous. At some point, we must question the global value of our work.
I've found that Kurt's question has two real answers: you can and you can't. One must realize that the reason we can enjoy such infrastructure is because of plants that produce millions of fluorescent lamps every day. Someone has to do it - obviously they're getting sold somewhere. We can't consume what can't be made, so on some level, every little cog in the economic machine is essential to its operation as a whole.
HOWEVER - we cannot assume that we are fulfilling our duty to humanity simply by going to work each day. As voters in the most powerful country in the world, we have the onus of understanding how our actions (economic policies, consumer expenditures, even lifestyles) affect the rest of the world. In a society of such globalization, it's hard to sneeze without making something happen across some border somewhere. Therefore, we need to start reading up on the rest of the world.
Know what's funny about the rest of the world? They know a whole lot about us, even though we don't know much about them. I can't even tell you when Ghana's last national election was, but Ghanaians know who the different candidates are in ours, and their platforms. Humbled? You should be. I am.
So, ask yourself questions you don't know the answers to, then go find the answers. Here are some to get you started:
What are the five largest countries in Africa? What are their exports?
What started the Darfur Conflict? Who is involved?
What countries make up Eastern Europe?
Where does gasoline come from? 'Middle East' won't cut it here...look up Nigeria.
We have the power to understand this information at our very fingertips. It is up to us to use it.