Your money or your life

We’re not expecting a rescue for the next several days. The sea is too rough. The waves are already topping three metres and are expected to go up to five.

As night fell, we took turns going up on the foredeck and playing “Titanic”— two by two, going up to the prow of the ship, throwing our arms wide open and feeling the wind in our hair.

When I saw that movie, even nearly 20 years ago, I remember being stuck by the classism that showed through in the fate of the characters (although, being in primary school at the time, I had never head the word ‘classism.’ Rose and people like her survive, and Jack and many people like him end up drowning. Why? Because the wealthy are in the upper cabins and the poor are in steerage. It wasn’t Jack’s fault that he was poor! What a cruel society we lived in in 1912, when people found it acceptable for wealth to determine who lived and who died at sea. How lucky we were to live on the verge of the 21st century, when society was fairer and things like that didn’t happen anymore!

At the time, of course, I didn’t realize it, but that was pure self-delusion.

Even today, your chances of living or dying at sea are determined by the size of your or your family’s bank account. If you have money, you can get a visa and a plane ticket, or a seat on a big, sturdy ferry boat. You can walk through customs with no worries and be welcomed to your destination country with a stamp and a smile. You may not even be asked what you’re doing there.

If you don’t have money, you don’t travel at all. Until a situation— a war, a terrorist attack, a wave of religious persecution, a community dispute, child or spousal abuse, or pure frustration— makes the situation unbearable. Without money, you can’t get a visa, you can’t travel through normal channels. You grab on to the burning metal of desert trucks, you cross under cover of night, you spend weeks in a holding camp with hundreds of other people where you’re beaten, abused and often nearly starved. You endure a series of small, stinging humiliations— strange children throwing stones at you in the street. You pay your life savings to get you and your family on a boat. You wait for days or weeks in a squalid detention camp with one pita and one bottle of water per family per day. When departure day comes, you climb into a cheap rubber boat which might start to deflate as soon as it’s been pushed off, or you’re shoved into the hold of an unsteady, overcrowded wooden boat which is at best a seasick person’s nightmare, at worst a capsize waiting to happen. No beds or meals on these improvised ships. The seats are often shared by two or three people, leading to days of joint pain and pinched nerves. Forget about lifeboats.

Some of these boats are picked up by boats like ours, which bring people to port. Others are never picked up and never heard from again.

There are people going to sea every day who, like Jack and his fellow passengers, die from bad luck and poverty. Yes, it still does happen in the 21st century.


About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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