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.
Jamaica claims to have the world's highest number of churches per capita, but one minority religion — Rastafarianism — stands out among the other denominations. The dreadlocks and wafting scent of ganja definitely draw attention. However, when I met Donovan Slythe, chef-owner of the Reggae Pot Rastarant in Ocho Rios, he smelled of kitchen and was wearing a cap. (The tourism office directed me to this tucked-away eatery.)
The 40-year-old Rastafarian prepares Ital food, the vegetarian cuisine rooted in the religion's beliefs. "Eating healthy is a way of life. Your food should be your medicine, and your medicine should be your food," said Slythe, who learned to cook from his mother. "We need to eat healthy to create a healthier nation and a well-being of people."
At an outdoor table on the edge of a parking lot, Slythe placed before me a plate buckling under the weight of cubed tofu, a gluey brown stew and a mound of rice and peas (actually kidney beans). For a beverage, he presented a plastic cup of cherry juice (good source of Vitamin C) and Irish moss (a seaweed with the same nutritional benefits as fish). Under his watchful eye, I dug into my meal for mankind.
Brother Lion, also a Rastafarian, espoused nourishment as well, though his version was more akin to impromptu raw food. Swaddling his feet in brown fabric, he shimmied up a tree trunk and grabbed a handful of coconuts. On the ground, he cracked them open and passed around the milk and white meat.
Lion was my escort to Reach Falls in Portland Parish, a Slinky of cascading water without the pedestrian traffic jams of Dunns River Falls, the grossly popular waterfall that attracts crowds from resorts and cruise ships. The government recently took over management of the attraction, setting up rules — such as no diving into the main pool — and charging admission. But rogue guides such as Lion lead guests on a back route along a banana trail that wends toward the falls.
As Lion and I picked our way around rocks and roots, he described his life in the hills, a private temple of his own. "The environment makes me strong," he said. "It's like a fullness. There's a better vibe in the mountains." He inhabits a wooden shanty and finds sustenance outside his front door.
Rock Bottom inhabits a makeshift studio and gallery in the Port Antonio market, wedged between T-shirt stalls, racks of made-in-China shoes and tables laden with fruits and vegetables. The woodcarver is a large man with a protruding Buddha belly, arms as thick as a football player's and a bald head that could probably reflect the sun. He's hard to miss, and yet I missed him.
Free-I, the Dutch proprietor of Zion Country Beach Cabins in Portland Parish, where I stayed for a night, had recommended Rock Bottom, whose work he admired, and had sketched out a map of his location. But once inside the whirlwind space, I became distracted by the cacophony of commerce. Women called out, inviting me to peruse their wares. (I fell for a bag of allspice.) A Rastafarian named Bobo showed off his creations, a macrame bikini that would unravel with the first wave and a teeny skirt the size of a tube top. Nearby, a spiffed-up man was selling touristy trinkets but was secretly shopping as well. "Wife Wanted," read his hand-inked sign. Mr. T-Shirt King was looking for a Mrs. T-Shirt Queen.
After a few circles around the market, I finally found the artist chipping away at a face of a Rasta man. He greeted me with a one-potato-two-potato, thumb-rub move, saying "peace, love, unity and respect" with each gesture. Pleasantries over, he plunged into his story.
In his early 20s Rock Bottom had been a diver, catching fish and conchs that he would sell on the pier. He also bought up carved works that he would resell. But a dearth of supply forced him to cut himself out as the middleman and take up the craft.
"I would watch the other guys carve and study them," said the 52-year-old, who's been selling his works here since the market opened more than 20 years ago. "The first thing I made encouraged me to go deeper and deeper and advance with my own designs."
He still remembers his first sale: It was of a Rastafarian man, similar to the one he was carving the day I met him. It takes him about a day and a half to design, sand and paint the artwork, which he sells for about $23. His collection covers a series of walls and tables and features turtles, birds, Arawak Indians, Bob Marley and Maroons, the runaway slaves of Jamaica.
"Carving originated in Africa, and we are African Jamaican," he said beneath the image of a glowering Indian chief. "It tells our history."
Jamaica never goes silent. Early in the morning in Portland Parish, the children of Long Road Community waited for the school bus to the accompaniment of Bob Marley. During a hot afternoon in Robin's Bay, Dolly Williams belted out traditional songs about mangos and men who call girls sweetie pie. In Montego Bay, Kathi Cooke listened to Dance Hall artists Spice and Pamputtae sound off about slim vs. fluffy girls. And on the shaded porch of the Polkerris hotel, above the racket of Montego Bay's Hip Strip, Hedley Jones harmonized the history of Jamaican music.
Jones, whom I arranged to meet through the tourism board, is a musical polyglot who started off on banjo before moving on to bass and guitar. Dressed head to toe in khaki, he dug deep into his bag of memories, pulling out stories from the 1930s and '40s, when he performed in the big city, leading the Hedley Jones Sextet. "Kingston was alive with music in those days," he said. "There were at least 30 nightclubs and six or seven large bands."
When music styles changed, Jones evolved with them. "I played all of the genres: blues, jazz, mento, calypso ... reggae." But he was not just a follower of fads; he was also an innovator and inventor. He explained, for example, how he built the first wooden electric guitar, showing as proof a newspaper clipping that dates his achievement to 1940, seven years before Les Paul and his Gibson. In 1951, after Hurricane Charlie cut off the electricity for four months, Jones and his cousin built Kingston's first traffic lights.
On the plane ride home after my Jamaican people-meeting adventure, I sat near a couple from Upstate New York who had stayed at an all-inclusive. They grimaced as they recalled their claustrophobic experience at the resort. Sympathetic to their reaction, I told them that for their next trip, I knew a few Jamaicans they could meet. And I'd be happy to make the introductions.