For someone arriving at London’s Heathrow International Airport, it’s easy to believe that we all live in one world. Thousands of miles from Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, or New York, one is faced with so much that is perfectly familiar. I was at Heathrow for the second time in two weeks, and the fact that I was on my way back from Düsseldorf only added to the impression. More so, perhaps, than in Miami or in Düsseldorf, I found myself in a shopping mall, but not infinitely more so. I was looking through the same stores, selling the same sorts of things, made by the same companies: French perfume, Scottish whiskey, Italian silk ties, Japanese cameras, Iranian caviar, Belgian chocolate, American sunglasses. Heathrow may be an extreme case. Not all airports carry caviar. But it hardly seems all that extreme.
I used a payphone to wish my grandmother a Happy Valentine’s Day, and only needed to enter my Working Assets Long Distance code to charge the call. My small provider was connected through a larger American firmer-probably MCI or Sprint-to something called “Worldcom.” When I punched in my card number, I heard the same familiar operator’s voice welcoming me to the system and giving me simple recorded instructions for dialing the States.
The spectacular array of languages that I heard and the looks and forms of dress that I saw amplified the effect all the more. Flights seemed to be coming from everywhere and to be going everywhere: Dubai, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Lagos, Oslo, New York, Seoul, Addis Ababa, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Athens make up only a very partial list. And all the people, going to all their various places, speaking all their different languages
were buying the same French perfume, Scottish whiskey, Italian silk ties, Japanese cameras, Iranian caviar, Belgian chocolate, and American sunglasses. I found it all pretty stunning.
I was hungry, so I stepped into a not-quite fast-food restaurant, one very much like scores of American chains. It offered, among other things, American-style grilled burgers and sandwiches, various pasta dishes, several stir-fries, and espresso. There certainly was no hint of Britain in it. Even the chips were called french fries. I didn’t have a British pound on me, so I paid with my Visa card. The same card I had used to pay German marks for a train ticket to meet a Turkish-German student in Bielefeld who’s interested in alternative education, the same card I had used to pay French francs for a textbook in French on auto mechanics that I ordered over the internet for my friend and neighbor in Ka Glo, Toto.
Which brings me back to Haiti. The reason I ordered the book is that although Toto goes to a for-him-expensive auto mechanics school in Pòtoprens, descending an hour by foot and another thirty minutes by tap-tap every day, and although he spends significant time every day trying to do homework, he doesn’t have access to the book his teachers use, or to any other book on auto mechanics. Few of his fellow students do. They take dictation in French, or copy texts that their teachers write on the blackboard. Then they learn their lesson by heart.
My point is not, however, that Toto’s school stinks. I don’t really know that it does. My point is, rather, that Toto lacks something that those like me who were sipping double espressos at Heathrow, enjoying our one world, probably take for granted: If we are students in a school, we have access to school books. And that is just one obvious way that Toto-and here he stands for almost all of the Haitians I live and work with-lives in a world apart, without a share of the Heathrow-world. It least without a share in any positive sense: It is worth knowing that Toto, like many young Haitians, pays close attention to whether his sneakers have three stripes or a swoosh or another of the fashionable trademarks.
But my point is also not that Toto, or anyone else, should have more access to the consumer-world. Nor do I wish to preach against that world. I myself am only too comfortable shopping on the internet, I enjoyed my Heathrow espresso, and was glad in Düsseldorf to be able to buy a Steiff animal for the daughter of a friend whom I would see when I got to JFK. The sermon against consumerism is some else’s job. It’s a true sermon, though, and I wish I knew how to respond to its truth.
All I really want to do is describe my own sense of the interconnectedness among the places I visited during a twelve-day trip from Ka Glo, Haiti, to Wesel, Germany, and back. And I wanted to note how deceptive, how one-sided, that sense seems to me to be. For surely there is also a close connection between the tightening unity of London with Miami and Düsseldorf-and, for that matter, with Singapore, Dubai, and Tokyo-and the
poverty I see in Haiti every day.