TRAVEL: Jamaica friends the easy way

The snag with a luxury hotel on an idyllic Jamaican beach is that talking to the barman is the nearest you get to meeting the locals.
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IMAGINE sitting at home and receiving a phone call from the local tourist board. A couple of Germans are in town and they'd like to come round for dinner, if that's convenient. Oh, and maybe you could show them a few of the sights as well.

In Jamaica, such requests are commonplace. More surprisingly, perhaps, they are usually granted. Rose Morrison from Montego Bay, for instance, recently entertained a couple from Milwaukee who were interested in the local cooking. After a communal trip to the market, Rose made her guests a meal of swordfish and ackee (a pear-shaped fruit), roasted breadfruit and the staple Jamaican dish - rice and peas. Sweet potato pudding followed, washed down with freshly made lemonade and fruit punch. "I like to make people happy," Rose says.

Then there is Eddie Heslop, a retired broker in his seventies. "I never refuse anyone," he says proudly, "Australians, Japanese, French. You name it, they come and see Eddie and we rap a lot - we talk." He also takes visitors on a "joyride" around the island, but does not see this as a chore. "It's a pleasure," he says, "because I'm a mixer and a people person. I show people Jamaica in my own social way."

Though Rose and Eddie effectively "sell" the island, their hospitality - astonishingly - is free. Both are members of the Meet the People programme, a voluntary venture involving hundreds of Jamaicans who are willing to meet and entertain complete strangers. The programme is determined by what visitors want to do. Some join families for dinner or Sunday-morning church; others prefer a trip to the theatre, sight-seeing or a walk in the countryside. Many are simply keen to meet Jamaicans with a similar hobby or profession, for conversation and a beer or two.

"You and your husband will be going to a dinner party," I was told over the phone. "Mrs Ford will meet you outside your guesthouse on Wednesday at 6.30."

Hyacinth Ford is the vice-principal of a local boys' high school, and a Meet the People volunteer. As well as teaching English and acting in amateur dramatic productions, Hyacinth works part-time at the Montego Bay tourist board on Cornwall Beach, and helps place visitors who want to take part in the programme. "Your hosts are Gordon and Ann Townsend," she told us, driving west along the coast towards the suburb of Unity Hall. "They were already having a party this evening," she says, "but I really chose them because of Cuba."

Montego Bay, as I had explained to Hyacinth in my preliminary interview several weeks earlier, was basically a relaxing stopover before a longer pre-planned trip to Cuba. Gordon and Ann, it transpired, ran a travel company specialising in trips to Cuba. When asked, I had also listed food and drink among my interests. As far as activities were concerned, I'd said that I didn't really mind as long as I met some Jamaicans.

It had been five years since my first visit to the island, an organised affair in hotels where everything is paid for in advance so that no money need change hands once inside the resort. By the end of a relaxing rum- soaked week, I had neither seen Jamaican currency nor spoken to any locals other than waiters and bar staff. The Meet the People programme, I decided, would redress the balance.

The sun had set by the time we reached the Townsends' home, a beautiful colonial-style villa on a hill overlooking the Caribbean. The ubi-quitous strains of Bob Marley filtered through the ackee trees and joined the cicadas. Hyacinth had arranged a perfect match. Gordon and his Ger-man wife, Ann, as well as being Cuba experts, are also consummate entertainers. Rum punch in hand, I nibbled fried plantain chips and chatted to all manner of professional Jamai-cans - including Gordon himself.

"Come downstairs," Ann eventually pleaded. "The food is ready." Beneath the balcony, in front of a shimmering outdoor pool, a line of silver dishes stood waiting: rice and peas, swordfish and ackee, mounds of spicy jerk chicken and barbecued pork with deliciously fragrant blackened conch. "You have to beat it to death after it's dead," said one woman "to get conch this good."

Everyone sat around the pool, eating, talking and sipping endless cocktails until Ann produced coffee and a 12-year-old rum brandy. Our hostess was finally able to relax.

Not all members of the Meet the People programme are as affluent as the Townsends, of course, but Hya-cinth views each experience as equally valid. "Jamaica gets a bad reputation," she admits. "Sure we have problems and poverty, but there are a lot of misconceptions." Two tourists, for example, couldn't contain their surprise on being entertained in a middle-class home. "Good grief," one of them cried. "They've got a modern kitchen!"

Not even the media are exempt. A British TV crew was disappointed at the lack of thatched huts on the island. "We can build some for you," Hyacinth said, but the irony was lost.

Today, when exclusive, all-inclusive resorts encourage limited contact with locals, there has never been a better time to use the Meet the People programme. Yet it all began nearly 30 years ago, in 1968, initiated by a Danish resident called Inger Rice who felt that visitors, even then, were often missing out on Jamaica's best asset - its people.

At first the programme worked through word of mouth. Not surprisingly, given the islanders' enthusiasm and generosity, the number of visitors expanded until the Jamaican Tourist Board took over the administration in 1970. Today around 400 families are enlisted throughout the island and, according to Hyacinth, volunteers harrass her if they haven't been used for a while. "One man phoned the other day to tell me off," she says, laughing. "He said, 'Hey! Don't you want my house any more?'"

Many of the volunteers make lasting friendships, and repeat visits are common. "We are privileged to have guests in our home," Rose Morrison explains, "and those friends are like family now."

Though the programme has been tried on other Caribbean islands, it has been most successful in Jamaica. Hyacinth attributes this to the national love of parties. "Jamaicans love to socialise," she says, "so this programme is made for them."

In the town of Montego Bay itself, it's often hard to avoid the hustling type of "friend" who will immediately demand cash for pointing out a local restaurant or souvenir shop. Nobody in the Meet the People programme, however, is paid, for time or effort. It works thanks to the genuine hospitality of people like Hyacinth, Eddie and Rose - who has been a volunteer for 27 years. "I can't help it," she says simply. "I just love it." !


GETTING THERE: Caribbean Gold (0181-741 8491) offers flights to Montego, Jamaica on 5 June for pounds 199 return, 12 June for pounds 299. Otherwise BA have a special deal for pounds 330 plus pounds 10 UK tax bookable until the end of June, and valid until 21 July, bookable through Caribbean Gold or Trailfinders (0171-938 3232).

FURTHER INFORMATION: The Jamaican Tourist Board, 1-2 Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BZ (0171-224 0505)

TO TAKE PART IN THE MEET THE PEOPLE PROGRAMME: It is best to contact the Jamaican Tourist Board before your trip, although you can call in to the nearest office on arrival. The main office on the island is in Kingston (2 St Lucia Avenue, New Kingston, tel: 809 929 9200), but there is also one at Cornwall Beach, Montego Bay (tel: 809 952 4425). A coordinator then sets up a meeting.