I stood in aisle 7 of my local grocery store for a solid fifteen minutes today, eyeing the dozen or so different olive oils in stock. It’s my Nice Dinner Night, something I came up with soon after getting my own apartment. See, I love to cook, but it’s hard to find the inspiration and motivation when I’m the only one enjoying the meal. I end up putting it off to another day and eating more spaghetti or salad. So, one night a week, I seek out an interesting new recipe, hunt down the ingredients, and give it a go. It’s also the night that I allow myself a tiny splurge if a certain favourite ingredient is on sale. Yay, shrimp! A benefit of living alone near bulk stores is that I can just buy the six shrimp I need for my dinner, instead of a massive bag of them. Tonight I had a Korean shrimp stir fry (here’s the recipe) served over sweet potato noodles. The catch? I was out of olive oil. Sesame oil, more specifically, but let’s be honest: I won’t use sesame oil again for a month.
So, there I was, checking the price tags and trying to remember how many one dollar coins I had left in my wallet from busking yesterday. I couldn’t afford much, but I also couldn’t with good conscience buy the cheap, store brand olive oil. And that’s when it hit me.
Travel has completely ruined my ability to shop on the cheap in the Western World.
Now, that’s not to say that I’m not thrifty. I’m thrifty as hell. I make my own clothes when I can. Just about everything I own is pre-used. I buy stuff off of fellow students, hit garage sales, and DIY it up. For the most part, I try to just do without. But when it comes to things like grabbing a cheap bottle of olive oil off the shelf at Metro, things that other people my age have no problem with, I just can’t handle it.
I remember being about twelve and wrapping my headscarf around my neck and face to keep the sand out of my hair. We were in Tunisia at the time. The grandparents had flown from Canada to spend Christmas with us, and as part of our family celebration we rented a car and road-tripped the outskirts of the Sahara to Douz for a Berber camel festival. Along the way, we passed miles of glorious olive groves. The trees were gnarled and twisted, like the hands of the old women who went along the groves, branch by branch, carefully picking each individual olive for the harvest. It’s a tedious process. The olive trees are fragile and grow so slowly that a grandfather might plant a tree for his grandson to sell oil from years down the line. Mechanized methods of harvesting are unreliable and can damage the trees, so most olive farmers choose to harvest by hand. It’s rough, long, taxing work. And that’s before the process of turning olives into oil, shipping the oil, tending to the groves, or procuring adequate water for the groves in times of drought.
I think of this as I stand in the grocery, weighing my options. I remember the calloused hands of the pickers I met. I remember learning about how so many olive farmers are underpaid and cheated in order for companies like my grocery store’s ripoff brand to sell cheap olive oil. And so, despite the fact that I can just barely pay the bills and have next to nothing, I go with the expensive brand. Because it does matter, and I can’t have looked those people in the face and then willingly contribute to their near-slavery. For them, I can go without a thing or two this week.
Travel alone doesn’t create this awareness.
I feel the same way about coffee, and sugar, and bananas, and fish. I didn’t have to go to Jamaica to understand. I didn’t need to visit Brazil or board a fishing vessel. Awareness comes from education, and education can be achieved without ever having to leave the country. But you do need to seek it out. You need to allow yourself to be made uncomfortable, and to recognize that you might end up sacrificing new (used) towels for a grocery choice you can be proud of.
It’s funny how even when someone has nothing, they’ll find a way to give to what they truly care about. For me, that’s olive grove workers in Tunisia. For you, it might be your community, or art, or music. Whatever it is, keep learning about it. Keep expanding your horizons. Don’t be cowed by the immensity of the world’s problems. You might just be able to make a difference where it matters, even if only a small one.