Nine months on a narrow sailboat in the backwaters of the South Pacific has a way of changing you. Other than a Bahamian childhood, that’s the longest I’ve spent in the islands, and definitely the longest I’ve spent away from my friends and family. My husband and I were so sad to leave wonderful Tonga and the great friends we’d made there, but really (REALLY) excited to see our loved ones again and of course to experience all those stateside things that I’d whined about missing for all those long months. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things that I’d love to just jump into back in Ye Olde Fyrst Worlde: pedicures, movie theaters and long, scalding hot, luxurious showers. “Man, remember real beer?” My husband and I would croon on the days pending our departure, salivating in anticipation for a good craft brew. We were ready.
Turns out, I wasn’t ready. Touching down in Los Angeles International airport, one of the most hectic and disorganized airports on the best of days, I was shell-shocked by the hustle and bustle and jostling which accompanied the slathering mass of transiting humanity. After almost a year of instant coffee and island time, I saw my first Starbucks and had my first argument with a customer service representative within 20 minutes of leaving baggage claim. I felt like Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel trying to decipher the bus system and even more so trying to absorb all the billboards and buildings and cars and INFORMATION OVERLOAD! I kept feeling like a tourist, like I should be taking pictures of the freeway and the In & Out’s to show our friends in Tonga: “They call this a ‘Taco Bell’. It does not represent real Mexican food, but sometimes you eat it anyway and wake from a queasy, bean-induced haze an hour later.” AND, I couldn’t even take any of those long, hot, sinful showers because of the blankety-blank California drought, though thankfully, I was still used to hasty, 2-minute showers from boat life.
But what I really, really wasn’t prepared for was the sheer amount of options and choices that I’d be confronted with at every turn. In Samoa and Tonga, almost everything was shipped in from elsewhere. So all the stores carried the same plastic bag of white flour, the same lagers, the same moldy broccoli. Everything that didn’t come from elsewhere was limited to a select few types of fruits and veggies: bananas, taro, and papaya, with just a little variation. So, while those fresh things were amazing, if you were craving a strawberry, or Jeebus forbid, some quinoa, you were shit out of luck and better make do with the admittedly wonderful coconut white bread instead. You learn to live with fewer selections and to appreciate the seasons for pineapples and the mystery unlabeled lotion for sale in the small markets.
Stateside, just driving down the highway looking for something to eat, we were confronted with twenty different types of fast food and umpteen million different diners or other chain restaurants. Once we picked one, menus that had more than five items to choose from stymied us. Here, there are movie theatres playing fifteen different movies, there are parallel streets, allowing you to take different ways of arriving at the same place, and not just one circle road rimming the island like salt on a margarita glass. There’s a store 10 times bigger than the boat we lived on that just sells lampshades. The culmination of my own personal Indecision Hell was arriving at a drug store, looking for some eye drops and being astounded by shelf after shelf of different brands and variations of eye drops. Some were for red eyes, some were for dry eyes, some contained aloe, some were for contact lenses. Some of them must have had tiny masseuses shiatsuing your eyeballs for the apparent cost. In Tonga, I’d be lucky to even get eye drops at all, and here I am bombarded with more eye drops than even the most avid stoner could use.
After standing and staring goggle-eyed for about 10 minutes and seriously contemplating just leaving empty-handed, a tag with the cheapest price finally caught my eye and I grabbed the accompanying bottle and ran, hoping it wasn’t the type for one-eyed howler monkeys only. I got lucky that time, but still, after 2 months of being back, I tend to just close my eyes and pick from the menu or grab the closest pair of jeans on the rack and then bolt in lieu of making an actual decision. And science proves I’m not the only one that has this problem.
Study after study has shown that when presented with a larger amount of options (24 jams vs. 6, in one famous study) that consumers buy more often when they are given less of a choice. And not only do they buy more, but they also tend to be happier about the decision they made. I know that’s the case when I’m confronted with a store full of cute outfits: what if the one I choose isn’t the cutest, the most affordable, the one that works the best with other clothes I already have? So I spend hours dithering over the different options, and hoping I don’t regret my decision to get the capris vs. the ankle pants. It’s an exhausting way to live that is uniquely First World. In Tonga, I didn’t have to worry about picking the perfect outfit. If they had pants that fit me at the marketi, which is basically a scattered flea market of hand-me-downs from Tongan relatives abroad, then I bought them, whether or not they said “Trashy Gal” on the butt. And I was happy to have them because my other pairs were stained and falling apart. That’s a lot more choice than some of the Tongan families I met have, because I can at least decide whether or not to buy those pants, while they are often given their older cousin’s outgrown clothes and they can wear that or nothing.
Obviously, I’d be lying if I said that I don’t appreciate the larger variety of things available and other modern conveniences available in the U.S. (oh, Benefit mascara, how I missed you). The ample availability of good wireless internet is also quite delightful. All I’m saying is that when you go to your local Whole Foods (another kind of absurdist enterprise that’s a huge cultural whiplash from the limitations of island life) and are faced with a wall of 100 different yogurts to choose from, perhaps it’s time to take a little reality check from American consumerism. Sometimes the simple choices, like whether you should have coconut water straight from the nut or just plain old water (no choice needed there, always choose the coconut!), make you feel grateful that you have choices at all.