Postcard: Poverty and terror in the Caribbean

by Brian Clarey

I’m on the fourteenth deck of the Royal Caribbbean Mariner of the Sea, some 180 feet above sea level, though the big blue is all around me, far and wide, its surface glittering like it’s been speckled with polished yellow diamonds. A rim of thick glass windows encircle the Ellington Martini Bar, and from where I’m sitting I believe I can discern the curve of the earth.

It’s our seventh day aboard, and you might think we’d be accustomed to the grandeur, the opulence, the sheer enormity of the vessel.

We’re not.

It’s a behemoth. A titan. The newest and largest ship in the line. And though I’ve caught just about every episode of “The Love Boat,” I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life.

There are a slew of restaurants, shops and bars on board, theaters, swimming pools, hot tubs and theaters. There is a rock-climbing wall, a mini-golf course, a basketball court, a casino, a nightclub and an in-line skating rink. There is Bingo and karaoke and trivia and dancing. Every morning a breakfast expanse awaits, and every evening our cabin attendant makes delightful animals from rolled towels. Last night we had a stingray stretched across our bed; the night before a terry-cloth monkey hung from a coat hanger.

We are living like veal, with free and abundant food around every corner, helpful and eager valets with easy smiles and a directive to please, a soft bed, a grand cabin and a thousand little places to sit, eat, drink or schmooze.

There are 3,300 passengers aboard, and more than a thousand crew – a greater population than the university I attended – and the occasion is a seven-day Caribbean jaunt for employees of an encapsulated herb company with which my wife enjoys association. They’re in from all over the US, with a healthy contingent of Utah Mormons, and a near majority of middle-class Latinos. Also on board: a smattering of Amish and Mennonites who seemed cowed by the luxury the first few days, but by now the bearded men wear bright island shirts with their staid trousers and suspenders. The women have not strayed from their bonnets and ankle-length skirts, even in these tropical climes.

Our first port of call was Haiti on Tuesday – a part of the island owned, apparently, by the cruise line. We made land on an open-decked tender and took in the coarse-sand beaches, the poverty-stricken islanders peddling identical wares in their aggressive manner, the sunburnt and swollen touristas plodding through this facsimile of paradise.

Most of them didn’t notice the high black fence separating the beach from the jungle, meant to keep the poverty and disease of one of the poorest and least stable nations on earth in its rightful place.

We noticed.

As we looked at the fence, a young man slithered down from the jungle canopy, traversed a steep and rocky slope to speak to us in low tones.

“We are very poor,” he said.

I crumpled a dollar bill in my fist and approached the fence, and the man implored me to climb over. I did not, but I tossed the bill over, and he scampered to pocket it.

“I will pray for your whole family,” he said.

As we walked back to our idyll, several more bodies materialized from the bush and joined our man in silent retreat.

Maybe I’ve been hanging around with Jordan Green for too long.

The dissonance between our luxury liner and our island hosts was apparent also in Jamaica, where we successfully eluded the strongarm tour guides at the dock, only to be… kidnapped?… by a Rastafarian cab driver named Cool Marco who took us through the hills of Ocho Rios, where natives alternately waved and smiled at us or glared at us through heavy-lidded, red-rimmed eyes. Cool Marco even took us to his house in the green, green hills, in a place he called “Hand to Mouth Steet,” and showed us the fruits and herbs on his property that have sustained his family for generations.

He was pleasant and good-natured, but the desolation of the dirt-paved neighborhood, the heavy glances from locals and the discovery of a long-handled knife in the front seat of Cool Marco’s cab made for a terrifying experience.

They say travel is an investment in one’s self, and this is an a priori truth. This trip has included many firsts for me – my first time in the islands, my first vacation away from my kids, my first cruise and the farthest away from New York, the place I grew up, I have ever been. And the experience, I can say, has been dynamite for my psyche, blasting away the coagulating stresses of family and work and clearing my neural pathways for the challenges that lay waiting in the months ahead like starving Haitians lurking in the hardwoods.

Tomorrow we make land in the more saccharine environs of Orlando, where we’ll board a plane and then be reunited with our children, who we miss almost more than we can bear, and our lives, which don’t seem as oppressive as they did just a week ago. Things will be, as they say, “back to normal.” But for my wife and me, these poles of opulence and squalor will remain fixed in our memory, even as we struggle to work off the poundage we’ve acquired from all the midnight buffets.

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