By Tiana Miller-Leonard (Mama Hope Intern and UCSB student)
When my mom first proposed the idea of a summer trip on the Peace Boat, a ship that would take us to eleven countries in six weeks, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I hadn’t had much travel experience as a nine year-old and it sounded like an incredible adventure. I was right; it was. I didn’t realize, however, how this trip would transform my world. I didn’t know that the Peace Boat would shape my perspective in a way that would last my whole life. I had no idea that the cultures it exposed me to would have such an impact on my future aspirations, or that I would continue to think about those countries every day nearly a decade later. All I knew was that it sounded like fun.
Just months later, my world had changed.
In Japan, I learned that some cultures consider the boisterous antics of children “rude” rather than “cute”. I met kids my own age in Morocco who already spoke English and French, while I could barely say a word of Spanish. My nine-year-old self may have been more awed by the gelato in Italy than by the Vietnamese beggars collecting money in old war helmets, but the significance of the experience I was having was not lost on me. The Peace Boat opened my mind to countless new dimensions. One country that especially struck me was Eritrea.
Even though Ethiopians and Eritreans had come to a peace agreement four years earlier, Eritrea still felt like war. I don’t remember a single building that wasn’t decrepit and covered in bullet holes. In one square, residents had converted an old war tank into a decorative fountain. You were reminded of the struggle everywhere you looked.
I had heard about war after 9/11. I knew that somewhere out there, American troops were fighting. But since most wars were fought far from American soil, I had no idea what war really meant for a country. In Eritrea, I saw the effects of violence with my own eyes. On top of the reminders of war and fighting, I also saw a country ravaged by drought and poverty. Eritrea was hot, there was minimal water sources around, I saw people living in ways that I couldn’t imagine being able to endure.
But that’s the thing. They endured it. They went beyond enduring it; they still managed to enjoy their lives. Despite the brutal conditions, the kids still played around like kids, and the adults still welcomed us visitors into their society. I went to a soccer match and none of the outside hardship mattered. It was just soccer; everyone laughed and cheered and yelled at bad calls.
I learned so much from that visit. Yes, I learned what real struggle looked like, and I learned that my American life was incredibly privileged. But I also learned that all that privilege wasn’t necessary to live. The Eritreans I met were still able to live dynamic lives, even without the excess I had become used to. I am sure that at times they wished for more and felt unsatisfied, but they didn’t let that define them. They showed me that I didn’t need a lot to be happy. On the other side of the globe, in a country unlike mine in every way, I learned that people are still people, no matter what.
Lots of people wonder why my mother decided to drag me around the world at such a young age. Wasn’t I too young to really appreciate it? Wouldn’t I have been overwhelmed and too wrapped up in myself to see what was happening?
In fact, I think that it is because I was so young that the Peace Boat had such an important impact on my life. I went into that trip with no previous knowledge—I had no preconceived notions about what the world was supposed to be like. Rather than changing my worldview, the Peace Boat created it. It inspired me to give back to the world when I grew up, so that I could use my privilege to help make the lives of the people in Eritrea slightly less difficult, but it also showed me that I shouldn’t presume my way of life to be better. There were things they had that I lacked. As much as I want to help people in poverty to the best of my abilities, I want to continue learning from their cultures as well.