On the morning of May 5th, 2008, I saw the headline on Yahoo! News, and my heart sank. Had it really happened again? I clicked the link and read on: 17 dead after boat sinks in the Amazon…dozens still missing. It was only a few months ago, on February 21st, that I received an email from one of the students who had recently participated in a study abroad trip to Brazil with me. His email contained only two words: “scary, eh?”, and a hyperlink to an MSNBC news page carrying the headline: 10 Dead, 9 Missing in Brazil Ship Collision. In fact it had happened again. I looked at the clock…I was late for class.
As I entered the classroom, some of my students noticed that I appeared distracted and asked about my demeanor. I pulled up the news story on the classroom projector. One asked out loud: “Were any of them Americans?” I bristled at the question, but paused, hoping I could turn this into a teaching moment. “What difference does it make,” I asked. “Are the lives lost less valuable if they’re Brazilian?” A meaningful conversation ensued, about the value of human life and our innate ethnocentricity.
One of the students asked why I was taking these incidents so personally. Two Amazon River boat accidents claim the lives of dozens of people within a few months of each other and suddenly Dr. North is sad. Reflecting on that question, I first responded that when the first boat sank, no more than a month had passed since our study abroad group had disembarked from the Navio Santarem in the jungle city of Manaus, Brazil after a five day trip from the Atlantic Ocean, 1,000 miles upstream. Some of the same students who now sat in the classroom had ridden that boat with me. “Perhaps”, I replied, “this hits just a little too close to home.”
But then I recognized something deeper connecting me to these two tragedies. It was not the possibility that it could have happened to us that caused my sadness. It was the friendships that had developed over the course of five days on a sweltering, smelly and cramped vessel that caused my pain. Within hours of embarking, my students were referring to their primarily Brazilian boat mates as their “friends” and “neighbors”. By the time our journey ended, hugs were exchanged (as were email addresses), and tears were shed. Was it really possible such strong friendships were forged in such a short time?
From this experience and my subsequent reflections on the river tragedies which have followed, I have come to believe three things. First: yes, true friendships can be created in five days on a river boat, in fact, it doesn’t even take that long; second, ethnocentricity can be overcome by a sincere desire to recognize and respect our neighbor; and third: regardless of nationality, race or homeland, every person, every soul, every life has value.