'Scooby-Doo? Do you know Shaggy and Scooby-Doo?"
My four-year-old has discovered an icebreaker in less than 30 seconds, making fast friends with the dozen Jamaican Grade 3 pupils chasing him around the courtyard at Columbus Primary School.
Pam, our family's Jamaican "blind date," drove us here. She picked us up from our hotel 20 minutes away in Runaway Bay and, after my Ontario junior kindergartner checks out the kindergarten room, she will take us on a tour down the lively main drag of her "old-time Jamaica" hometown of St. Ann's Bay, make an "essential" stop at the Lady of Perpetual Help Church, where Pam is a devotee, then turn up a long zigzagged road, past shack-homes roofed with zinc sheeting, navigating packs of uniformed school kids slurping Ting at roadside stands. When we get to her hilltop home, fried breadfruit, salt fish, banana chutney, Solomon-a-gundy (a smoked herring paste) and bowls of peppery curried goat are served on the terrace next to a bottle of white wine.
I met Pam on the Internet. The Jamaican Tourist Board set us up. A simple online form requested our travel dates and accommodation, our interests and occupations and bingo - we have a Jamaican buddy.
The Meet-the-People (MTP) program is a little-known initiative linking tourists with locals in a low-stress, low-commitment, low-cost (in fact, it's free) safe arrangement. Individuals and families are invited to locals' homes, churches, schools and farms.
Collect stamps? There's a local Jamaican outside your resort walls who wants to show off his album. A nurse? Come visit the hospital with one of the staff. Into snails? The program can connect snail hobbyists for an outing to find some of the island's 300 species.
As for our family, my father, who is travelling with us, is a retiree of Air Canada; our hostess is retired from Air Jamaica.
Pam and the more than 600 screened volunteers of varying socio-economic backgrounds are determined to prove that there is more to Jamaica than sand, sex and violence, an all-too-simplified portrait of this gorgeous country, whose most treasured resource is its dynamic, friendly and passionate people. Yet outside of ordering a drink from the resort bartender and tipping the airport bus driver, most tourists don't connect with the locals.
News reports of gang violence, in Canada and on the island, combined with a tradition of all-inclusives with their high walls and guards stationed to keep locals out doesn't help to dispel this fear. But really, the trouble here is confined to a few localized poor areas, and certainly involves only a small number of the population.
Pam and the MTP team represent the responsible, people-loving and law-abiding majority of Jamaicans.
In a recent press release, Jamaican Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett said his ministry is looking to the locals to satisfy what he sees as a growing trend in tourists' desire to engage with a culture. What better way than through its people?
"As such, it is imperative that our focus be shifted to the development of community-based tourism efforts," not simply the resort model, he said. Certainly a better form of socially sustainable tourism, as well as a shot at getting the much-needed tourist dollar directly into the communities.
In Pam's garden under the breadfruit trees, she tells me that Meet-the-People is not a new initiative; she was part of the original incarnation in Kingston in the late sixties.
"The tourist board funded it. We had a wild time - house parties turned into street parties with a mix of tourists, families and neighbours." That version of the program died out, was revitalized in 2004 and is now undergoing further expansion. This winter, the "MTP goodwill ambassadors" were trained on Jamaican history, geography and cuisine in preparation for a bold new outreach plan: going inside the hotels and resorts hosting cocktail parties and inviting guests to come home with them - into the "real Jamaica."
"Friendships that have grown out of these social gatherings have flourished for decades and led to subsequent trips in both directions," tourism marketing director David Shields said.
Our hostess, in her 60s, is one of five children who grew up in downtown Kingston; her Chinese-Jamaican father baked patties for a living and worked in an ice cream shop. Pam shared stories of life in Jamaica with such frankness and ease, I felt as though I had dropped in on a stylish family member giving me the inside scoop.
You can see the beach from Pam's house on the hill, and hear the hum of the city below, one of the oldest populated areas in Jamaica. The birthplace of Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey, St. Ann's Parish is brimming with culture. I couldn't have asked for a more authentic locale and a cooler connection for my son.
I still keep in touch with Pam. She urges me to join her at the Calabash Literary Festival, a celebration of Caribbean literary arts in southern Jamaica. And if she ever gets up to Guelph, Ont., I'll certainly uncork a bottle of wine for her.
WestJet ( westjet.com) offers seasonal service daily from Toronto and Air Canada ( aircanada.com) flies daily to Montego Bay and Kingston from Toronto and weekly to Montego Bay from Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver on various days.
With more than 600 "Goodwill Ambassadors" across an area of 10,990 square kilometres (one-fifth the size of Nova Scotia), you can meet a local from pretty well anywhere on the island. It's best to register online before you head down at www.visitjamaica.com. Under "About Jamaica" you'll find the Meet-the-People link with program description, testimonials and the simple online matchmaking form.
While in Jamaica, there are other ways of participating in the program if you're not pre-registered: Drop into one of the Jamaican Tourist Board offices in Kingston, Montego Bay, Ocho Rios or Negril, or telephone 1-876-952-4425 ext. 8.
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