In January of this year, my husband and I took a trip to Curaçao, an island nation just off the coast of Venezuela, that boasts the highest standard of living in the Caribbean. Our intention had been to rest, relax, snorkel, and see if this might be a place in which we could retire one day. God, evidently, had some additional plans for us!
Curaçao is beautiful. Its 18th-century Dutch colonial buildings, painted in bright, tropical colours are stunning.
The beaches and warm, turquoise water are like picture postcards. And the weather…who would not like 365 days of sun, blue skies, and temperatures in the 20’s or higher!
Guarded compounds, manicured “beaches”, pools, cocktails, and entertainment, however, are not the reality of Curaçao. Beyond the gates of these exclusive resort communities, lie poorly-paved roads, crumbling, derelict homes and businesses, and miles and miles of arid scrubland, carpeted in discarded refuse. Water is very hard to come by – in fact all the water on the island comes from the sea! Huge desalination plants exist in Willemstad, to give the community its most basic need – drinking water.
Not only is poverty highly-evident in Curaçao but it is startlingly obvious that the poor are those of colour. We saw not one economically-disadvantaged white person on the island. On an island whose population is a mixture of Dutch, South American, and African descent, we saw but one couple of African descent at a restaurant and only tourists of colour in any of the resorts. None of the servers, housekeeping staff, or indeed security staff were other than of African descent. As visitors to Curaçao, we determined pretty quickly, that Curaçao was a relic of the colonial era and not somewhere we wished to retire. And then the hand of God became evident.
On the second evening of the trip, my husband and my brother-in-law started talking with the security guards who kept watch over our small resort complex. They learned that J., 31, and his mother G., in her 50’s, are from Jamaica, an island nation that has one of the lowest standards of living in the Caribbean. They had left behind a large family, whom they support with their meager earnings.
After getting them a well-needed glass of juice, Henry and Ralph delved further. J. has been in Curaçao for a few months and intends to stay until June or July. He and his mum are working in Curaçao, under what we learned are absolutely appalling conditions. Contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights and The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, they are FORCED to work 10 hours a day, seven days a week. They are not paid overtime, have no breaks, and are never allowed to have a day off – even to attend church. They work 8pm until 6am daily. They arrive at work, however, at 5pm, as their boss will only drive them to work at this time. The alternative…no job. In Jamaica, where the cost of living and rate of unemployment are much higher still, Curaçao is still an improvement.
As the first week of our trip progressed, Henry and Ralph’s conversations with J., accompanied with a cup of coffee or juice became a nightly ritual. They were careful to speak with him before his shift, or in a whisper, fearful that he would get in trouble. He shared that guests sometimes call the security company telling them that J. was not doing his job – this was usually in the middle of the night when he was quietly watching youtube videos or whispering to G. J. told us that before he came to Curaçao, he had never experienced racism. In Curaçao, he found it rampant – particularly at the resort – “…so many time we got insulted by some of the other guest that came there..” Our hearts bled. This bright, positive, warm young man, with so much ambition, so much hope, and so full of joy…yet trapped by his race and his social status.
As we got to know this young man better, my husband and I began to question our lives and the luxury that is travel. I started to wonder why Social-Justice tourism is not as “in vogue” as Eco-Tourism. Are our fellow humans not as important as our environment? When we plan a vacation, should we not be thinking about the working and socio-economic conditions of the kind souls whose invisible presence makes our vacations possible? At the very least, should we not see these “invisible” people roaming the parking lots, keeping us safe, cleaning up our mess, washing our linens…Should we not make them feel as special as they make us feel? In “The Hungering Dark”, Frederick Buechner is encouraged by “..The hope that as individuals, [we] will somehow win at least a stalemate against the inertias, the lusts, the muffled cruelties, and debits that we do battle with, all of us, all the time.” This was the hope and the action to which Christ was leading us that week.
As I look back on my journal for the days of our trip…when I think about the Scriptures I was drawn to both before and during my trip; when I look at the lessons to which I was drawn, I feel completely overwhelmed by God’s grace and by His leading. “Listen to your life”, says Buechner, “For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11
God sounded different in Curaçao. By that I mean, I learned about a different side of God. In Curaçao, Creation smells different, there are different sights and sounds, there are different people, different members of the Body. And I truly understood there that God is Creation, God’s Body is Universal, and by traveling and meeting other members of His Body, you learn something new about about Him. Perhaps you’ve guessed by now that J. and G. are Christians – Baptists who are not allowed to attend church, due to their enforced work schedules, dictated by poverty. J. and G. show the faith of the humble, the joy that is in Him. It shines through in their smiles, the sparkle in their eyes, their refusal to be bogged down by their condition. God had brought us to Curaçao to show them that they were valued as fellow members of the Church. But they were also brought into our lives to humble us, to make us His servants. One of the first texts J. sent to us said “.. I don’t know you guys are angels are a heaven sent, but all my life I have never met people like you, especially from a different colour, you really had change my life n also motivate me to be a better person. Thanks so much God knows how wonderful u made us feel.” The funny thing is, I remember thinking of Hebrews 13:2, and that J. and G. were the angels sent for us to entertain.
We left Canada two weeks ago, thinking about sun, sand, and surf…new territory to be explored, and God indeed gifted us with insight into parts of His Creation we never imagined. But we left Curaçao more blessed than we could imagine – blessed with new friends, humility, and the gift of being used as God’s servants.
J. hopes to continue his Associates Degree in Architecture and continue on with a Bachelors and Masters degree in Architecture. It is extremely expensive to get an education in Jamaica but my husband and I have offered to help him reach his goal one day, of being an architect. We look forward to the journey with him.
January 28, 2016