I ran into my neighbor Barbara Ann at the supermarket. We chatted for a bit and she dropped the news that she was going to Maui for two weeks. I don’t know whether she had something in her mouth or I had something in my ears, or something got lost in the general hubbub, but she actually said she was going to Mali, not Maui.
Mali is an impoverished, landlocked sub-Saharan country in north central Africa; Maui is a beautiful Hawaiian island full of tourists and honeymooners, resorts and spas. But thinking Barbara Ann was going to Maui, I exclaimed, “That’s wonderful! You’ll love it!”
She gave me a very puzzled look because, although she had never been to Mali, her minister had described it as one of the neediest, poorest countries in the Third World. Barbara Ann was going as part of a church group to help build a high school there out of mud bricks and tin. “You’ll love it” simply did not fit in with her mental picture.
“It’s so beautiful,” I yammered on. “Every time you turn a corner there’s another spectacular view. The ocean, the volcanoes, the whales ...”
“I thought it was landlocked,” Barbara Ann stuttered.
“No, it’s an island all by itself. There’s water everywhere. If you take the Hana Highway, there’s a waterfall at almost every turn in the road.
“But the desert ...”
“What desert? Wait until you taste the food. The roasted pig is great, you’ll love the fish, you can pick the fruit right off the trees.”
“You’re kidding. I was told they don’t eat pork and the people are going hungry.”
“Going hungry? Some of the natives are enormous. Like sumo wrestlers. I don’t know, maybe it’s all that Spam they eat for breakfast. Going hungry? Well, maybe some of them are, but those aren’t the ones you see out surfing or golfing.”
Barbara Ann was as confused as I had ever seen her. “I wish you would talk to Reverend Tompkins about this. He’s under the impression that everyone’s starving and that they could use all the help they can get over there.”
“Maybe the Reverend goes to places that are off the beaten path, places tourist like me don’t see. I suppose the resorts and hotels could always use more help. There’s no way they can keep up with all the Japanese tourists.”
“Tourists? They’ve got Japanese tourists?”
“Tons of them. They come because the prices are so low. They come to buy all the Prada and Louis Vuitton they can carry. I guess compared to what it would cost them in Tokyo, it’s a bargain.”
“They sell Prada there?”
“Well, I haven’t been in a few years, but they used to. They’ve got all the fancy stores there.”
“Then why am I going over there to build a high school? If they can build a Prada store and a golf course, they can certainly build a high school. It sounds to me like they should come over here help us build things.”
Barbara Ann had a good point. I don’t remember seeing any high schools on Maui, but then, I wasn’t really looking for them. I was doing the normal tourist stuff. Riding bicycles down the volcano, whale watching, eating, shopping.
“Are you sure you’re going there to build a high school?” I asked. “It seems to me that’s something you’d be better off doing in some a poor African country.”
“But I am going to Africa. I’m sure of it.”
“You’ve been misinformed. It’s in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Trust me, I’ve been there, I know.”
“And you went to Timbuktu while you were there?”“
Timbuktu? I don’t think so. Maybe that’s on one of the other islands. Molokai, maybe. I didn’t get there.”
Weeks later, I again ran into Barbara Ann after she’d finished her humanitarian mission, and she informed me icily that Mali is certainly not in the middle of the Pacific, and there are no Spam-eating natives or spectacular waterfalls and that Rev. Tompkins doesn’t seem to rely on her the way he used to.
“It sounds like you could use a vacation,” I told her. “Have you ever been to Maui?”
Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at email@example.com
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