During a recent cruise, my family and I toured St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Our destination was Magen’s Bay whose beaches are as enticing as any postcard. As alluring as the landscape is, I was taken back by the poverty there.
Our bus driver, a gentleman named Steven, drove us to a scenic overlook. Two men approached us carrying turtles and asked for tips while our children posed with them so we can take snapshots. It’s tough to earn a living that way and I felt a tinge of guilt as a sightseer in paradise. Without tourists, these men and their families might starve, I thought. Yet, technically, I was not a foreigner, and we had much in common.
Born and raised on Long Island, my family was not rich. My dad worked two jobs and my mother had a part time position at the library. We didn’t have a lot of money to spend on luxuries, much less a vacation to the Virgin Islands. Yet, like my fellow Americans in St. Thomas, I grew up near the water. The best my parents could do for us during summer was to take us to the beaches at Jones Beach or Robert Moses State Park.
There, I learned to swim, dig for clams with my feet, and to body surf. It was a local paradise where everyone could afford the sunlight and the surf. Rich families could sun themselves inches from our blanket and we would never know. The beach was an equalizer for me.
St. Thomas brought back memories, yet things had changed since my youth. My education took me to a level of affluence my father didn’t have. My children don’t wear hand me down clothes and the holidays are bountiful. Still, my wife and I work hard to maintain our standard of living. Then why did I feel guilty?
Perhaps I misjudged these folks whom I never met before and assumed that they thought like me when I was a boy, gaping at wealthy visitors to the South Shore. I wanted to explain to the driver and the men with the turtles that I was born and raised on an island too, and I lived in a small home with five siblings. My father worked eighty hours a week to support us, and our mom broke her back cooking and cleaning. I may have been a visitor, but I can relate to them.
Steven most likely does not remember me or my family. The men with the turtles may have been the happiest folks in the world. In much the same way I do not want others to look down at me with sympathy for my humble childhood; I should spare the inhabitants of St. Thomas my gratuitous empathy. The world is full of people with similarities and differences which should be celebrated and embraced. I prefer to remember my vacation with a fond fraternity with my fellow islanders.
-Michael J. Kannengieser