We are in the John Crow Mountains of Portland Parish, Jamaica, resting after a walk through a crystal clear river to Reach Falls.
We sit on a small bridge as Bredda (brother) Lion, our rasta river tour guide, sings another round of his own reggae songs, set to the beat of his snapping finger. In the background, a community member bathes himself from a hose in front of the little hexagonal "tuc" shop. A pile of coconut husks dry in the sun, litter from a week's machete work on the fresh fruit hanging from trees surrounding us. Barefoot, Bredda Lion's 15-year-old son, who is dread-free, scampers up a tree and sends down some fresh coconut, which Bredda makes quick work of, handing us the juice-heavy orbs to drink from. Later, the boy hands his father the cell phone he has borrowed, and Bredda proceeds to tie the phone to the end of one of his long dreads! He laughs at our astonished looks, "Me natty dreads are good for many things!" Such are the typical contradictions of daily life in Jamaica!
Bredda surveys the nearby campsites in the bush. With eyes shining, he talks about the cabins he will build for guests next year, all the things he will share with them: cook for them, places he will take them. I snap a photo of Bredda and ask him if he'd like me to send it to him. "Oh no! Send it to Diane – for the website!" Days earlier, I had heard the same sentiments offered from rasta Mokko, after spending three days and two nights with him in his yard.
Dianne, it seems, is some kind of heroine to them. These two wildly different rastas, it turns out, make what little meager living they get as a direct result of this woman connecting them to the world through the grass-roots organization she and her husband Dave founded for immersion travel.
Dianne is a model for me as well. Unable to afford the cost of most eco-tourism or responsible travel tours, the cost and time of voluntourism, or the time and stamina for a backpacking journey – yet desiring to have an opportunity to really connect to a culture versus simply exploiting the land and people – stumbling across the Worlds Together website was a godsend. I was going to travel for the first time with my family; international travel would not have been an option for me otherwise. And I can tell you, she promised a real experience and that promise was delivered tenfold.
Not only are the prices affordable, the tours and lodgings are not operated by her organization, but by the locals. There is no middle man or organizational overhead. The travel network is merely the means of connection. Through small contributions, sweat equity and launching the website, Dianne and Dave give the people of the area a means by which to support themselves, represent their culture by themselves, through their lives and the lives of their loved ones, while remaining self sufficient and maintaining their pride and dignity.
My daughter and I are sitting in a restaurant in Kingston, discussing our stay with Mokko and his family at his little compound of plywood and zinc cabins/shacks where two rivers meet. Tears fill her eyes as she tries to express what she has seen there and what it means to her, how our brief immersion into their lives has affected her. "It's just so hard, overwhelming for me to comprehend – they have nothing. It's something we romanticize. But that's their life every day. They have no other choice." I nod solemnly and we continue our talk about the lingering effects of colonization, about the colonist that exists in us, about the IMF and "free" trade, about tourism and how much is actually distributed to the poorest of the country's poor. In our brief, intimate stay with them, we have been aghast at the sexual inequality, recognized the devout and secular sides of a little understood and marginaized faith, seen the value of connection with the earth and the rhythm of life that it brings, saw the wisdom and knowledge that was required to live from it, felt the effects of technology and the pain of being left behind, and experienced the discomfort of recognizing our own privilege. My daughter says to me, "I'm so glad you brought me here."
We leave the island, our hearts bursting with affection for the larger than life rastas and their booming belly laughs and infectious smiles. We thank Dianne for giving us, in just a few days, what other tourists may see only from a bus, never experience first hand. The understanding we bring back home with us has given new dimension to our lives: what we have and how we can and what we will now do with it.
I can't encourage Just Cause readers enough to have their vacation dollars go directly to the local population. By staying with locals in their home environments, you can experience their culture in as real a way as is possible, within the limited time frame of a few days – whether it is staying with rastas in Jamaica, Mayan farmers in Belize, camping with Bedoins in the desert, or any of the other locally operated homestays and tours of Worlds Together Travel Network and their affiliated Insights Abroad Program in India. Traveling without exploitation while increasing cultural connections is a meaningful way to find or renew your global perspective.
One love, indeed.
Photos are by permission of Worlds Together Travel Network.