Face to face with Jamaica

Enough with the gated resorts. It was time to break out and meet the locals.

By Andrea Sachs
Sunday, October 25, 2009

Kathi Cooke unhinged the gate to her house in Montego Bay and opened her arms. I strode into her embrace and then into her home. As the evening darkened, we gabbed away on her silky red couch, about gardening, dogs, community service, baking, work life and dating in Jamaica. Cooke served banana chips and a juice-and-ginger-ale cocktail that smelled of the tropics. She showed me family portraits, then took some photos of us to add to the shelf. Finally, I stood up to go.

"If you have time tomorrow, maybe you can come over and hang out?" she asked as we swapped e-mail addresses and phone numbers in her kitchen. Our visit had lasted little more than an hour, yet so much had changed: I had arrived a stranger but was departing a friend.

Cooke, new pal to many, is one of about 300 ambassadors who volunteer with the Jamaica Tourist Board's Meet the People program. Launched nearly 41 years ago, it arranges platonic dates between visitors and island residents, basing the matches on shared occupations and interests, though an eagerness to make an acquaintance can be enough of a commonality.

"It's so great to meet new people and share Jamaica," said the 44-year-old Cooke, who works for the electric company and emits her own high wattage. "I find that when you travel, making friends adds to the experience."

On my two previous visits to the Caribbean island, I had been no recluse. But I had been a shut-in. The all-inclusive resorts where most Americans stay encourage guests to remain on the property, shielded behind the guarded gate. If you wish to leave, you sign up for a tour, a bubble-wrapped view of the country. Most interactions are with your poolside neighbors, some of whom may share your area code.

But this time, it was going to be different. No fortress-style resorts; instead, I would overnight at low-key lodgings that were fully integrated into the community. No group shuttles; I would drive myself, so I could stop on a whim and lean on locals for directions and suggestions. And finally, no other American tourists-in-exile. Inspired by Jamaica's motto -- "Out of many, one people" -- I was set to meet the many.

The teacher and the schoolchildren

Kids act the same everywhere: They stare, they swarm and they goof around, including vogueing for strangers' cameras. Once out of the classroom, the children of Robin's Bay Primary School were no different.

Before I was introduced to the students, though, I met with Merlene Anderson, a 30-year teacher who maintains an air of insouciance even in the face of a student meltdown. "I'm not running after him," she said as a sobbing boy streaked across the front yard toward the main road. "He has to come back himself."

Anderson softened when she spoke of the hardships of the school, a simple concrete structure that squeezes in six grades for about 80 children ages 6 to 12. Set on a ridge overlooking the shimmering Caribbean Sea, the school receives the equivalent of about $114 from the government for each three-month term to purchase educational materials and lunch foods, and to pay the cook. But the money usually runs out before the term is over. To supplement its resources, the school asks for donations. Anderson handed me a two-page printout of needed items that included dictionaries, fans, eggs and a PA system. She later added stuffed animals to the list.

In the classroom, 27 children dressed in crisp khaki (boys) and navy blue (girls) were shoehorned into desks that left little room for wiggling. I stood before the hushed students with Kim Chase, an expat from Pittsburgh who runs Strawberry Fields Together, a full-service lodging up the road, and arranges visits to the school. (Chase and her Jamaican fiance, Everton McKenzie, created the Village Inclusive Plan, which encourages guests to interact with the community and the environment; I learned of their immersion program through their Web site.) As a 22-year resident of Robin's Bay and the adoptive mother of 9-year-old Moses, who attends the school, she is also a one-woman PTA.

"Hello, Miss Andrea, and how are you today?" the class stood and chanted in unison after Chase introduced me. Before lunch, they rose again and said a short prayer of thanks for their teacher and their food.

Lunch is prepared in a building that resembles a stripped-down drive-through. On the day's menu: rice and peas and chicken. Beverages are not included. "We can't afford it," Anderson said. "The cook sells drinks." There is also tap water from an outdoor sink.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company