Cheeseburgers in Paradise
By John Buckland
According to Jimmy Buffet's Margaretville website, Cheeseburger in Paradise was inspired by a trip on his first boat, the Euphoria. After encountering some rough weather, which damaged the ship, all the ice in his icebox melted. After subsisting on canned food and peanut butter for a while, Buffet found himself fantasizing about a "piping hot cheeseburger." Upon arriving in Roadtown on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, he was surprised to find a restaurant serving American cheeseburgers: "…we gave particular instructions to the waiter on how we wanted them cooked and what we wanted on them-to which little attention was paid. It didn't matter. The overdone burgers on the burned, toasted buns tasted like manna from heaven, for they were the realization of my fantasy burgers on the trip."
Thus was born a somewhat goofy, albeit iconic, American ballad that spawned a successful restaurant chain and still lends inspiration to pop culture, some 30 years after its debut in Buffet's album Son of a Son of a Sailor. A favorite of Parrot Heads everywhere, the song captures the essence of the quintessential beach bum; a love for travel and a love for that mainstay of American fare, the cheeseburger. His "Gulf and Western" style has taken him all across the country, on many successful concert tours, but wherever Buffet goes, he never seems to forget where he is; paradise.
Paradise. The word seems to be synonymous with the phrase "someplace else." It might come as a mild shock to realize that paradise is right here; right where we live in these United States. We so often take it for granted. It is easy to look at someone else who has more money, or better looks, or better opportunities and become disenchanted because someone else has it better. But paradise isn't about who has it better: it is about who has it at all. Cheeseburgers in paradise are much better than filet mignon in purgatory.
In 1990 I had the opportunity to visit the Philippines. Talk about eye opening. When I was there it was rumored that 10,000 people were living on a burning heap of garbage. They called it Manila's Smokey Mountain. The children would fight over our water bottles when we were done with them. Riding down the back streets through the different bayans (towns) you could look to either side and see scores of people living in shacks, a few meager square feet per person, everything they owned, which was next to nothing, on full display. When you can look right into a person's home and take in the entirety of their possessions at a glance, it shocks your sensibilities, as an American, about what is right or wrong with the world. The poverty is so severe and on such a massive scale (about half of the 20 million people in the Manila metropolitan area live below the poverty line), that it forces you to reassess your life. Why me? Why was I born in the lap of luxury, in a land with so much wealth, promise and opportunity?
Some of the guys traveling with me on the trip had played basketball in college. They were pretty big, macho young men, full of bravado and virility. Yet, after a few days of visiting the slums of Manila, these self centered, spoiled brats of American society were reduced to tears when they began to talk about the abject poverty they were witnessing. We were all filled with a profound awareness of how fortunate we were, and I don't think any of us have been the same since.
Twenty years have passed, and since that life-changing trip, I can honestly say that I have never had a bad day. Literally. No matter how badly my day might be going, no matter what happens; a bad day in paradise is worlds better than a good day in so many other places around the globe. Part of me thinks every American ought to visit a third world country early in life. I was never really able to appreciate all that I have until I saw people living with nothing. It has changed how I spend my time and my money. The material wealth, the religious freedom, a stable government, clean drinking water; all of these things are blessings and we take them all for granted. In the United States, even in the midst of the worst economic times many of us have ever seen, we are still the children of prosperity and the custodians of paradise on earth.
Jimmy Buffet is often reported to sing "a Cheeseburger is paradise" in concert. Cheeseburgers are not exactly the healthiest of foods; Buffet is a lot older these days, and it wouldn't surprise me if he's had to cut back on them. But even if he does have to resort to "sunflower seeds", "carrot juice, and zucchini fettuccini", that's okay because; "not too particular, not too precise, (we're all) cheeseburgers in Paradise". "I like mine with lettuce and tomato."
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