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Reality Island
In Jamaica, Investigating the Possibility Of a 'Duty-Free' Family Vacation

By Craig Stoltz
The Washington Post
Sunday, March 1, 1998; Page E01
   


The fantasy is ancient, perhaps as old as the urge to procreate itself: to get away with the children and from the children at the same time.

Let me rush to insist that my wife, Pam, and I love our children without qualification. And that I've come to realize that one of parenthood's most poignant pleasures is to share some fresh sliver of experience with the boys -- I suddenly able to view it partly through their eyes, and they, perhaps, partly through mine. It's these spontaneous moments of perspective-swapping, I'm growing to suspect, that create the very fibers of the odd and powerful web we know as family ties.

On the other hand, well, the kids sure can bicker. And make a racket. And, when it comes to entertainment preferences, they enjoy some things -- endlessly riding the lawn glider, watching "Mighty Ducks 3" again or playing the card game War until somebody actually wins -- that I can find nearly unbearable. Seven-and-a-half-year-old Caleb can squat on the carpet snapping Legos together until he drops dead asleep, and Jordan, entry-level raconteur at 6, will spin a single narrative in nearly surreal detail until long after his audience has slipped away. The boys, meanwhile, cannot fathom why Pam and I derive enjoyment from taking really long walks, eating food we've never even tried before and spending hours just sitting there, talking to other grown-ups and sipping those scary-smelling drinks.

All of which is a long way of explaining how we wound up at the Franklyn D. Resort in Jamaica over the winter holidays. The all-inclusive property offers a service that, from the moment Pam and I learned about it, shot it to the top of our list. While other family resorts offer all-day kids' recreation programs and babysitters for hire, the FDR is unique in that every suite comes with its own "vacation nanny," a Jamaican woman who serves as day-care provider, kid-companion, activity assistant and all-around-extra-set-of-adult-hands. As part of the FDR's package -- which runs from $250 to $310 per adult per day, with kids "free" -- the vacation nannies work from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily, with an hour off for lunch. For an extra $3 an hour U.S. they'll baby-sit as often and as late as you'd like.

This is potent yuppie-bait: the twin promises of family and freedom. Simultaneous indulgence of one's inner child (the one who wants to go snorkeling and then nod off in the hammock with a margarita) and the "outer" one (who wants an ice cream cone, just stole a toy from his brother and needs another dousing of sunscreen). The pleasures of having the children at hand, but never underfoot! Sand castles for them, long beach walks for us! A vacation, in other words, both with the kids and from the kids.

Although I'd visited the Caribbean before, I hadn't been to Jamaica, and had often wondered why so many of its resorts were of the all-inclusive variety, the sort that provides all meals, activities and entertainment on-campus and bundles all costs, including tips, taxes and various fees, into a single per-day rate. It wasn't long into our visit that the reason became very clear. The gorgeous, mountainous island nation is still staggering in post-colonial poverty that looms at the margins everywhere. It has a per capita gross domestic product of around $2,000 per year, 20 percent inflation, 16 percent unemployment and very high levels of illiteracy, underemployment and corruption. Drugs are everywhere, and they remain a major source of crime and underground economic activity. To be fair, Jamaica suffers neither the political and civic disorder of its closest island neighbor, Haiti, nor the shabby Mel-Brooks-Meets-Tito communism of its other neighbor, Cuba. But Jamaica's profusion of all-inclusive resorts is clearly a response to the island's grim economic and social conditions. The all-inclusive compounds try, and largely succeed, to deliver the ocean, beaches, weather, water sports and a bit of screened Jamaican culture, all without the other, less-pleasant realities of life on the island.

Even the U.S. government seems to endorse all-inclusives. The U.S. State Department's Consular Information Sheet on Jamaica, after reporting the "serious problem" with crime and violence in Kingston, and encouraging visitors island-wide "not to walk outside after dark," offers this: "Resorts that feature self-contained facilities offer a higher degree of security than other facilities. Particular care is called for at isolated villas, smaller establishments and facilities which have fewer security arrangements because of eco-tourism concerns."

All of which became quite evident to us the moment our motor coach came roaring out of the Montego Bay airport and headed east down Route A1. The lush roadside greenery was periodically broken by clusters of tin-and-packing-crate huts, and half-dressed kids played in the dirt with goats and empty bottles. We passed opaque streams the color of mud where women washed clothes on rocks. One man stood naked in a river up to his knees, pouring water over his head with a plastic bucket. We passed through two towns, where the walls of even the more formidable buildings, the ones with high fences and guard dogs, were marked with political graffiti from the elections just passed.

"The prime minster, he always find a way to call an election just before the holidays," our bus driver commented, "so there's no trouble when the touris' come." We passed a pretty, uninhabited park located at Discovery Bay, where Christopher Columbus is said to have landed during his second voyage to the West Indies in 1494. We passed a prominent billboard that encouraged Jamaicans to treat tourists kindly, reminding them that tourism accounts for one in four Jamaican jobs. The roadside rest area where our bus stopped halfway into our trip was patrolled by two armed guards, one of whom appeared to be in his teens. When we finally made it to the FDR, about half an hour later, a sentry in a guardhouse raised a metal gate to permit our bus entry into the property.

There, of course, we encountered several acres of oceanfront paradise. The FDR, owned and operated by Jamaicans, is a cluster of Mediterranean-style villas located along a modest beach facing Runaway Bay and the Caribbean Sea. The louvered rear doors of our suite -- all accommodations are suites at the family-friendly FDR -- opened onto a palmy courtyard and a view of the water. The shaded balcony featured two Adirondack chairs with matching stools, aimed perfectly at the horizon.

And right after we walked into our room we were greeted by Annette, our vacation nanny. She had a shy, luminous smile and the sort of easy grace with kids you normally see only in veteran preschool teachers or nurses in pediatricians' offices, but without any of the officiousness or fatigue. She wore the resort's required nanny uniform, a pink dress with a white T-shirt underneath. She squatted to the boys' level and introduced herself.

"She seems nice," Jordan reported after Annette -- pronounced AH-net -- excused herself to fill our suite's refrigerator (!) and retrieve the day's activity lists. Pam and I smiled at each other.

When I tell other parents about our vacation at a family resort with a nanny, they get as dreamy and bug-eyed as I got when I first heard about it. Wow, that sounds perfect, they say. One reporter for this newspaper, a mother of two preschoolers, let loose with a candid confession: "Once my kids are old enough to take one of those places, I'm just going to dump and run," she vowed with great relish. "I'm out of there."

Well, I'm here to tell you, just as Jamaica is a paradise moderated by some unpleasant realities, so too the "duty-free" family vacation. Call us neurotic, call us overly enmeshed or just call us loving parents who have grown accustomed to the inextricably woven burdens and joys of parenthood, but for the first couple of days Pam and I felt a little odd sending the kids off with Annette. Caleb and Jordan regarded it with the low-key, joyless acceptance they display when going off to school in the morning or being left with the babysitter when we go out from home.

But we did separate, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon and, once, nearly all day. Pam and I got in several great snorkeling sessions (ignore the snobs who say Jamaica has inferior snorkeling; the reef off Runaway Bay is full of life, the water clear as rubbing alcohol). The snorkeling was best when we took the resort's chuggy little dive boat to a spot a couple hundreds yards offshore. We played some hellacious beach volleyball that left me looking like a breaded veal cutlet. We swam lapettes in the pool and napped in the sandy shadow of the villas (SPF rating: 7 million). We sea-kayaked nearly every day (although it continues to annoy me when Pam uses the term "rescue" to describe the actions taken by the FDR's crack water sports staff when, facing high waves and cramping thighs, my kayak and I were battered first into a close encounter with a seawall, and then well outside the property boundaries and onto a seagoing route that, the resort manager joked after I had been pulled safely ashore, was "headed to Cuba." I prefer to think of what they rendered as simple "assistance"). We took a resort bus on a sponsored shopping trip to Ocho Rios, a major tourism and shopping zone half an hour down the coast, largely for the purpose of procuring the clothing and toiletries we needed because Air Jamaica lost all of our baggage and did not deliver it until Day 4 of our six-day visit.

The boys, when we observed them, seemed to be having fun. We would meet them at lunch, and they'd show us bracelets they'd made in the crafts class, or tell us about what they played in the video game parlor (which, with its air of nervous anticipation and whiff of depravity, felt a bit like an underage opium den). Then we'd take them kayaking or swimming in the afternoon. On Christmas morning an enthusiastic native Santa came riding into the beach on the dive boat, delivering trinkets for the kids. Sometimes we'd happen to observe the kids with Annette in some group activity -- the FDR's a small place -- and they simply wouldn't notice us: Pam and I watched from a distance one afternoon while the kids played a game where they mixed different carbonated beverages together and gave the concoctions names. One afternoon Caleb and Jordan were entranced by a poolside magician. When I approached them they paid me no mind, so I went and swam. Cool trick: A magician who can make your kids disappear!

By the time Pam and I had relaxed into the concept of "separate vacations," a funny thing happened.

"I want to spend more time with you and Mom," Caleb announced one morning. Jordan agreed.

Uh, oh. The guilt thing, tossed down on the sand like a damp jellyfish.

We caved. Instantly.

That day, we decided to spend our time together on the FDR's small twin beaches, avoid all planned activities, and simply camp out on the lounges while the kids played, much as we would have done had we been at a family resort without a vacation nanny. Annette hung around -- resort rules prevented her from leaving early, which we asked if she'd like to do -- and helped get towels and drinks and snacks for the kids. But mostly the kids played junior Army Corps of Engineers in the sand with their vacation pals while Pam and I interrupted our naps with swims, drinks and chatting with the other guests. Pam went on a good long solo snorkel. Those days, the ones spent aimlessly with our children, were probably the best we experienced at the FDR.

Right next to the FDR is a nude beach. I can think of no better technique for ensuring that family guests not stray into the fascinating netherworld of Jamaican culture. Sure, you can take your kids for a walk, but to get past the nude beach . . . well, you'd just have to explain too much. But with Annette watching the kids one morning Pam and I walked past the resort's chain-link fence and beyond the handful of sulking European nudes and continued onto the beach fronting the adjacent all-inclusive property, Breezes, a couples-only resort. The sand was wide and white and gorgeous, much better than the skimpy brown rings facing the FDR's rocky breakers. The moment we stepped beyond the Breezes property and its uniformed guard, a lanky man in a ball cap approached.

"Hey, mon," he said, "you here with your wife? I can help you. I can get you ganja, whatever you want, I can get it."

"No thank you," I said firmly. I'd read all about Jamaican beach hustlers, known as "higglers" and alleged to be the among the most skilled and persistent on the planet. I assumed my well-practiced hustler brushoff, honed on the mean streets of Northwest Washington, would serve the task. We kept walking.

I clearly had no idea what I was up against. To say Michael was simply a higgler would be to say Liberace was a piano player. The man was perhaps the prime example of the thing he was, the ur-higgler. The guy was good.

"Mon, I'm here to help you. What's your name? My name's Michael. Where you from?"

"Michael, let me tell you right now that I'm not carrying any money."

"Money?" Michael affected a look of shock. "Mon, this isn't about money! You're in Jamaica! I'm here to take care of you! I take care of you when you're here, you take care of me when I come to America! Jamaica is about people, not money!"

I looked directly at Michael, who wore a suspiciously clean Penn State ball cap, cheap sunglasses and a couple of pieces of discarded laundry. His hair was matted under his cap and he was missing several teeth.

"I can give you a tour of the beach," he said, matching us stride for stride.

Now I suppose that if I were the sort of commanding presence who had, say, stood down evil dictators or challenged ruthless killers -- or was as wide around the neck as Big Joe back at the FDR, who looked like he had played defensive tackle for a Midwestern college a decade ago -- that I could have gotten Michael to buzz off. But I am who I am, Michael is who he is and he clearly had nothing better to do that morning. Nothing short of a public display of hostility well outside my range of comfort -- or Pam and I both running zig-outs directly into the reef -- would have gotten rid of him.

And so I decided to submit to his company -- it was broad daylight, there were plenty of people around and he seemed unarmed. The three of us continued to stroll the beach. Michael turned out to be a delightful nut, full of stories about the Mercedes that the drug-runners had abandoned after a chase with narcotics agents just off the reef (and which you could still see at low tide), the rich Brits who owned one of the private properties along the beach, the place along the reef where the lobster-harvesting was done, how you could rent horses to ride on the beach and details about each of the vacation properties we passed, including a number of unsavory comments about the Germans, who apparently were not as "friendly" to Michael as, for instance, we were. He picked up fruits and nuts from underneath trees and ate them, telling us which allegedly provided vitamins and which had calcium. He scooped up a couple of nice shells and picked a flower for Pam's hair. He snapped off a branch from an aloe bush and demonstrated how the aloe inside could be used to heal cuts.

"The stuff you buy in a store, it has chemicals," he said disapprovingly. He spoke constantly, and sometimes I could swear his teeth were missing in different places each time he spoke.

He escorted us to a row of shacks where other higglers were selling T-shirts, ganja and wooden carvings. Apparently we were now traveling with "protection," and the other higglers left us alone when we declined.

Michael told us he lived on the beach, that he felt the beach was his home. He said he had a wife and kids elsewhere on the island, who he tried to send money to sometimes. He referred to a storm that had wiped out a hotel "a couple of days ago."

"When you say 'a couple of days ago,' that's not what I mean when I say 'a couple of days ago,' is it?" I asked.

"No, mon. In Jamaica it means like, a few months, a few years ago." Later I determined that the hotel in question was wiped out by Hurricane Gilbert, which passed through Jamaica in 1992. Meantime, the ruins of the hotel had become home to a village of squatters who lived off the sea -- and off the tourists who visited Runaway Bay.

"Don't go there," Michael advised. "They bad people." He mimicked someone huddling and scowling. "They just do this and steal. Me, I'm in the touris' business."

Indeed, he was. Which we discovered as we turned back at the end of the beach and stopped at the fence outside the FDR where, of course, Michael started to explain about how he could really use some money, some food, some help . . .

"How much do you want, Michael?" I asked.

"I knew you were a good mon when I first saw you, mon" Michael was nearly choked up with gratitude at the prospect that I was going to give him some money. "A few dollars, a couple dollars, five dollars, a beer, whatever you can. You good mon."

I dispatched Pam up to the hotel room to get $10, mostly to ensure Michael came no closer to our hotel or family. I sat with Michael on a flat rock and waited. A nude woman got up off her lounge and walked languidly out into the waves.

"You know, Michael, let me tell you something about Americans. If you would have come up and told me, 'I'll give you a guided tour of this beach for $10,' I would have said okay. I want to know what things cost. Americans like to know what things cost."

Nearby, leaning back on a chair under a tree, a uniformed guard shook his head with they'll-never-learn amusement.

"Mon, that's not how we do things in Jamaica!" Michael said with the same enthusiasm he had the first time. "It's not about money! It's about people!"

One truth about a family resort, with or without a vacation nanny, is this: You are vacationing not only with your children but with everybody else's children, too. For all the elegance of the FDR's food service (a bit too continental for our tastes; we hankered for Jamaican) and the white tablecloths at dinner, many meals in the main restaurant had the feeling of the barely suppressed riot you sense on, say, a Thursday night at Fuddrucker's. One night Pam and I chose to go to the resort's "adult's only" restaurant and paid Annette to take the kids to dinner.

As logistics have it, the adults' restaurant is located at the end of a pier on one side of the resort; the regular restaurant occupies an identical pier on the other side. We sat, quietly eating our fish stuffed with lobster and drinking white wine, the perfect Caribbean breeze buffeting us. The sunset was the color of a watermelon Fruit Roll-Up. Right across the lagoon, Annette and our kids were eating fish balls and french fries. It's a moment I recall with a certain sadness.

Some of this may derive from the fact that Annette had told us she had two kids of her own at home, just about our boys' age. I'm sure she is a lovely, loving mother to those kids. But, Jamaica being what it is, and the world being what it is, she spends her days administering the fun times for other people's children while neighbors and family and friends raise her own. I couldn't help but wonder whether those were Annette's kids by the roadside, playing with the chickens and the trash, that we saw on the bus riding to the resort for the first time. And what it meant that we were paying her -- a pittance by our standards, a windfall by hers -- to "relieve" us of our much-lighter burden of attending to our own kids.

By Jamaican standards -- certainly by Michael's standards -- Annette has it very good: a safe, stable, enjoyable job and legitimate, legal access to a stream of American currency. But of course, compared with us and any of the other resort guests, she did not have it very good at all. It is foolish to expect an island vacation to diminish the fact that the world's goodies are distributed unevenly among its people. Still, despite the resort's oft-stated no-tipping policy, we tipped her at the end of our stay and fretted whether we had been generous enough.

And maybe that's the message about the FDR, or about anyplace that promises parental freedom: In the end, there is no fantasy island where you can escape the fact of parenthood. From the moment of fertilization forward, for better and worse but mostly for better, a family is on a joint excursion, where no refunds are permitted and alterations to the itinerary are prohibitively expensive. I take great joy in knowing that both boys, as we flew back to BWI, proclaimed our Jamaica trip "the best vacation ever!" Pam said the same.

I am very glad that I was a big part of it.

But I am also glad, I'm quite sure, that Annette was part of it, too.

The Franklyn D. Resort has 76 suites, ranging from one bedroom to three. Nearly every visitor there is traveling with children. Rates are $250 to $310 per day per adult (weekly: $1,785 to $2,100 per adult); kids are "free." If this sounds expensive, be sure to calculate that the rate includes everything but the sunscreen: your Vacation Nanny; unlimited food and beverages (including alcoholic beverages); bus trips to Ocho Rios and Dunn's River Falls; all kids' activities and family outings; pool and fitness center; evening entertainment; taxes; and tipping. Air fare from BWI direct to Montego Bay runs from $250 to $400. Information: 809-973-4591 or http://www.fdrholidays.com. While most Jamaica all-inclusive resorts cater to couples or singles, Boscobel Beach (1-800-859-7873) also caters to families with small children. If you're headed to Jamaica for the first time with small children, we recommend an all-inclusive property. More independent, adventurous and culturally oriented travelers will likely prefer

   
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