Image: Seth Hahne

I promised my wife for the last few years that we would take a special vacation for our 10th anniversary if she could keep putting up with me. The tenth year came, we got child coverage, searched high and low on the Internet, and booked a cruise to the Eastern Caribbean. We hadn’t had a vacation that did not involve shuttling around to visit family in years, and I had never been on a cruise in my life. For weeks leading up to the trip, I dreamed of sunny beaches and time alone with my wife.

There is so much to look forward to on a cruise! There is the beautiful ship to explore, the glory of the open sea, and all the food you can eat. You can eat steak every night and you never have buyer’s remorse because everything is already paid for. Bring out the lobster! Bring out the filet mignon! And keep it coming because we will need our energy for laying out on the deck getting suntans[burns] tomorrow!

Our cruise ship was a virtual floating city with around 6,000 people on board. Upon arrival, the crew was ready to serve us by carrying our handbags and offering us pina coladas with a smile. This was the dream vacation we were waiting for.

I have a love for internationals. I find their stories interesting, and I know that when I meet a new comer to the US, they are inevitably feeling homesick and alone. I know about culture shock because I’ve experienced it, so I do my best to seek out international folks and try to befriend them. Five minutes after stepping onto the ship, I noticed that almost every worker in every shop was an international. I was excited about making friends with as many as I could, and so this observation did not bother me in the least, in the beginning.

But soon, it did begin to bother me. I noticed that the people of color had the hardest jobs, and that they all came from depressed economies. The waiter in charge of putting my napkin in my lap at dinner was from India. The waitress in charge of filling my water glass was from Columbia. The shopkeeper across from our room was from Mexico. The guy who cleaned my room was also from India, the other guy on my hall who cleaned rooms was from one of the islands. The guys hawking margaritas on the deck all day were also people of color. And they were all smiling all the time, even when they cracked my lobster tail for me.

I noticed that when the officers of the ship were introduced that they were all white. The captain was white. The engineer was white. The cruise director was white. Most of my fellow cruisers were all white. I began to feel like I was suddenly in a big house in the ante-bellum South, with servants waiting on my every whim. I say servants, not slaves, because these people were at least paid. A better comparison may have been something about Downton Abbey, but I am from the the Deep South, and the plantation comparison felt more apt and immediate. I began to feel some kind of strange, creeping guilt about being on this pleasure cruise at all.

I tried to tell myself that I was being ridiculous, but my wife felt the same way. We discussed how if we did not pay for the cruise, these folks would not have a job at all. We talked about how they had volunteered for this kind of work, and that this was probably a great living wage compared to the average wage where they are from. I have been to India, Africa, and South America. I have seen the conditions that some people have to endure. I knew that this ship was better than what I had seen in those countries.

Still, my rationalizations did not assuage my conscience.

We decided that since there was little we could do about it, we would simply redouble our efforts to be friendly and as easy to serve as we possibly could be. At dinner, I chatted it up with our waiters and waitresses, and I could tell that behind those smiles there was fatigue. I have been in pastoral ministry for almost a decade now, and I could tell that something was especially bothering our waitress from Columbia.

After the other guests had left our table, I stopped her and asked if she was okay. At first, she seemed surprised and a little apprehensive at my asking. She realized that I had seen through her facade of happy servitude, and she seemed to fear that she would be in trouble for it. Maybe it was my friendly face, or her sorrow was so great that she couldn’t help sharing when I asked. She told my wife and I that she had been married less than a month, and that now she was going to be at sea for six months. She had to take the job, and she missed her husband terribly. She didn’t know if she could take six more months of this. My wife and I sympathized as best we could, were as friendly as we could be.

That night, we stayed in our room and watched television and the white entertainers led a block party in the promenade. My wife said to me, “Tomorrow night, I want her to sit at the table and let me serve her.”

* * *

When you are on a cruise, you feel like a celebrity. Almost everywhere you go, someone is trying to take your picture. They try to sell you that picture at the end of the cruise, but it serves a secondary purpose of making everything seem glamorous. One evening, I struck up a conversation with a guy taking our picture. I asked him how he was doing, and his facade dropped as well. He said he had been working twelve hour days for nearly six months now. His tour was almost over, and he was completely exhausted. Twelve hours a day, almost every day, he had been stopping folks and getting them to smile. All the while, he was missing home and exhausted. He was taking pictures of happy families, telling them jokes and getting them to smile, and he hadn’t seen his family in six months.

* * *

One afternoon, I retreated from the sun to read a book in our cabin. Instead of reading, I watched a documentary about a refit for a very large cruise ship. They were putting balconies on some of the higher end rooms, and they only had a little bit of time before the ship had to be back at sea. The documentary tried to build the drama on the time crunch and fire hazards. All I could see was that all the grunt work was done by Filipinos, and every executive, contractor, and boss was white.

* * *

On our way out, our friend who cleaned our room and made us little animals out of towels each night stopped us. He said, “Mr. John, Mrs. Amy, I hope that you found my service acceptable. Would you please fill out your card to indicate this? It is how . . .” his voice lowered. “It is how we are evaluated for pay and promotion.”

He looked a little desperate to me, and I was saddened that he would feel like he was overstepping some protocol by asking me this favor. I told him that I had already filled out the ‘satisfaction card’, and that we said he had done the very best job and were extremely pleased. He thanked me. We got our bags, and left.

This trip that was meant to be an escape from the toil of our daily lives only more richly reminded us that toil, somebody’s toil, is really inseparable from our lives.

Brad Williams is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. He served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard’s Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.