Friday, February 11, 2011

The Help

On Wednesday morning I went kayaking by myself while Jason and the girls searched for shells.  The sun had risen but wasn't too hot in the sky, and it was just me and the impossibly turquoise Caribbean water as I hugged the shoreline and tried to peek into the houses I came upon.  Jamaica - our little patch of it, at least - is full of decrepit beauty.  There is riotous tropical foliage next to a crumbling stone wall, elegant china and silver set on a plastic table at the shore, one blue kayak passing houses that look like something out of colonial England.

We essentially have a staff here.  There is Aldeen, a warm, efficient, cheerful butler-type who offers fresh drinks at every turn and serves us at our meals.  There is Kerry-Ann, the nanny, who comes with us to the beach and feeds the girls an early dinner and bathes them each night while we're eating in peace.  There is Nisha the cook, Neville the driver, Feldon the beach attendant, and a whole host of other people who are eager to pull a kayak into the water or cart a cooler down to the beach.  One day, we asked if the pumpkin fritters we'd had at lunch were made from traditional pumpkin or a local squash, and Feldon told us how he used to make a living by making and selling pumpkin juice.  We expressed curiosity and surprise, and two hours later, Feldon came to find us by the pool, toting glasses of pumpkin juice he had made just for us.  The attention is astounding.

On the one hand, this is amazing.  I have no experience with having "help," but what it's allowed us to do here is have a true family vacation, to be at home in a house and wring every second of joy out of the day while somebody else worries about the cooking, the laundry, the bedsheets, the bathroom towels, the drinks, the washing-hands-before-dinner.  I have never felt more spoiled or more rested.

On the other hand, this is guilt-inducing.  (When you're a mom, the guilt follows you everywhere you go, even to Jamaica.)  Jemma has her little fit at breakfast - "I don't LIKE French toast!" - and I am mortified by the thought that, less than a mile away, there are certainly little children who would very much like to eat her French toast.  The girls, drunk with power at having several kinds of beverages at their disposal all day long, have become demanding and imperious:  "I want my apple juice!" Jemma says.  Jason and I fall all over ourselves saying thank-you and thank-you-so-much a million times each day.

Yesterday morning, Feldon took us for a hike up into the mountains while Kerry-Ann got the girls dressed and fed them breakfast.  Before we got up high on the rocky trail, we walked up roads (I use the term loosely) that were lined with houses (another term I use loosely).  Trash littered the sides of the road, dogs barked from behind wire fences, and the smoke from garbage burning in barrels rose into the air.  Some of the houses - built mostly of what looks like found timber, with metal roofs - look like they might fall apart if the wind blew too hard, which I am sure it does during a hurricane.

Later yesterday afternoon, we took the girls in sea kayaks to the beach.  As we paddled closer to the ever-waiting beach attendant, Scott, Annie remarked, "Why does Scott always wear that shirt?"

"Why do you think he always wears that shirt?" I asked back.

"It's his favorite," she said.  I smiled.

"Maybe," I said.  "Or maybe he doesn't have very many shirts, like we've been telling you about a lot of the people who live here."

Annie was quiet for a moment.  Then she said, "I have a lot of shirts."

"You do," I agreed.  "And that's fine.  We're lucky that Daddy has a good job that makes money to buy us nice things.  But we don't really need lots of shirts to be happy."

"And we should help people with our money, too," she said brightly, which devolved into a discussion of her school raising money for local kids who don't have their own lunches, where the money in the church offering goes, and what she wants to do next with the "share" portion of her allowance.

And then we beached the kayak and spent two hours making the biggest drip castle we've ever made and drinking cold ginger beer while we sat in the sand.

I joke a lot at home that we live in a bubble, and we do.  In our town, people are mostly college-educated, live in tasteful old houses lined up on leafy green blocks.  People have money, mostly, for babysitters and dinners out and maybe gym memberships and fancy vacations.  But this villa smack on the bay in Jamaica is truly a bubble of service and relaxation and privilege right in the middle of more poverty than my children have ever seen.  And I remind myself that we work hard and save to be able to take them somewhere like this:  I drive a ten-year-old Subaru so we can spend our money traveling, Jason would rather buy his work clothes at Nordstrom Rack than go to the mall any day.  But typing this from a canopy bed with a view of the ocean, it feels a little strange to know that, less than a mile inland, someone is waking up in a two- or three-room house with a goat in the yard, getting ready to walk here to serve me a drink.


  1. I love this post, Stephanie, especially the last, perfect sentence. I've been composing some similar thoughts for a post, but now I may not! You've said it so well.

  2. I really appreciate this post. I know how you feel--we've gone to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands twice, and we love it there, but it's a weirdly awkward feeling to be "served" during a tropical-island getaway vacation by people whose lives are decidedly less privileged than yours (and in our case, by people who were almost all of African descent). I know they're glad there's a tourist industry on the island, but still, it always made me feel slightly guilty.

    We've worked hard for our money, but we were also raised in an environment that was extremely conducive to becoming as privileged as we are now. Definitely something to ponder, especially when traveling...