For months, I was too terrified to speak of our big family trip to Jamaica in anything above an internal whisper. To do so would surely invite a giant hubris fueled smack-down from above. So in the weeks before the trip, as more local friends fell to a four day stomach bug, I squirted both girls' hands with sanitizer at random intervals and gave stern lectures about keeping their fingers out of their noses/mouths/BOTH. I checked the weather forecasts hourly and only packed at the last moment. Mostly I kept my fingers crossed, feverishly hoping that the planets would align to allow us all to make the journey.
In the end, we managed to line up two of the three planets. My girls stayed well (until a cold caught them at the end of the trip). After two bouts of pneumonia and a prolonged hospital stay, my dad was just barely strong enough to travel. Luckily, no monster snow storms thwarted our departures.
But my brother and his family, who were supposed to join us from California, were hit by a stomach bug and forced to cancel their trip. The luck of the draw was not on their side and we were struck by how it could have just as easily been any one of us that didn't make the trip. On each day in Jamaica, we struggled to balance our joy at being together in this beautiful place with mourning the obvious absence of my brother's family.
When we arrived in Jamaica, a driver was waiting for us. He loaded us into our rental car and drove us to the house my parents had rented, right on the ocean. Bumping along the road, we gazed out at lush greenery sprinkled with roadside stands selling fruit and fish, clusters of people awaiting informal taxis, and tiny shops selling biscuits, beer and cell phone cards.
There also seemed to be a lot of nightclubs, and every one featured pictures or photos of voluptuous women in profile. One squat cement building the size of a small one car garage was emblazoned with the words "For Your Guilty Pleasure" in script on the side next to lurid drawings. I was desperately glad that Z was looking out the other side of our van. Later, when we met a Peace Corps volunteer who told us he was disturbed by the rough, sexual dancehall scene, I tried not to think too much about the fact that I didn't see a single window in that building.
When we got to the house, we found we had a full staff. A "headman", two nannies, a cook and assorted other people to fetch us fresh towels, sweep sand off our floors and restock our drink coolers. This was, of course, part of the draw of this house; we wanted to relax, not have to work, be waited on. Nevertheless, I spent much of our time there deeply uncomfortable with this. Our first night at dinner, I noticed a metal bell in front of my place at the head of the table. I was supposed to ring it, I guess, to get someone in from the kitchen. At one point, we needed something and someone suggested I give it a shake. It was quickly set aside, never to return to the table.
I should have been reveling in having someone else working at the stove, clearing plates, scrubbing stains from tiny t-shirts. But whenever I caught myself enjoying the beautiful surroundings and glorious infantilizing comfort of being waited on, I feared this was surely evidence of my moral bankruptcy. Of course, any time I spent brooding about this, or worse, annoyed at the staff's slow pace or vague answers to pointed questions, I felt stupidly ungrateful and joyless.
Is there any way to make this much coveted type of travel feel guilt-free and morally okay?
On our last full day, CG and I slathered on bug spray and sunscreen, picked up our binoculars, hats, water bottles and sunglasses, and went on a hike. We wanted to see more of the beautiful birds of Jamaica, maybe a few unusual plants and spectacular views too, as well as work off the plentiful food that we'd been stuffing in our faces all week. Our guide took us up a wide, overgrown path, pointing out plants that shrink when touched, tiny birds with long forked tails and woodpeckers with bright red heads. We learned which herbs are used for which ailment and held crushed leaves to our noses that smelled like exotic cousins of our basil, cloves and rosemary. It was a glorious, clear morning.
As we picked our way through the trash strewn path, I almost stopped to pick up an empty bottle and crumpled wrapper at my feet. After all, when hiking at home, I always clean up litter. But I quickly realized that I would need several large trash bags just to make a dent and I had nothing but my hands. So I left it all there.
About half way up, we came to a village of tiny wooden and metal homes. Goats bleated from their rope leashes, open trash fires burned, women squatted next to plastic wash tubs and children walked about in holey t-shirts and stained underwear.
I instinctively tried to hide my binoculars behind me and smiled my nervous smile. Did they need my water bottle? Shouldn't we have brought something for them: clothes, food, water? Should I be able to look upon this village and not feel wrenching guilt?
I smiled at the people we passed and waved or offered a small "hi". But we picked up our pace just a bit, uncomfortable I guess, and ready to enjoy the easy scenery on the other side.
Once past, we asked our guide about water, sanitation, schooling, which were all ways to get at our essential questions: "Are they okay? Are they happy? Shouldn't we do something?" And the one I could never ask: "Should we feel sorry for them?"
Perhaps they should feel sorry for us, with our Pr0zac and our concave therapy couches.
Perhaps this all sounds hopelessly privileged and paternalistic.
We are home now, washing and putting away bathing suits and shorts, scratching fading mosquito bites and shaking sand out of our shoes into the gray snow outside our back door.
As I pull out my morning pills- fish oil, multivitamin, vitamin D, Pr0zac- I think about the twice daily fresh fish, the papaya smoothies, the plentiful sunshine and soothing sound of lapping waves and wonder if I'd need these pills if we lived in a place with views of the turquoise water.
And as I carry the loaded laundry basket to our cluttered basement, I imagine the village's women, bent over wash tubs, high in the hills overlooking that blissful sea.