By Eileen Ogintz
MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica – Bammy anyone?
Bammy is cassava that is ground, shaped into patties, and fried – a very typical Jamaican dish– as is ackee and salt fish, roasted breadfruit, and sweet potato pudding.
But we’re not at a local Montego Bay restaurant. We are visiting Doris Morgan, who has been welcoming tourists—more than 1000—since the mid-1980s, showing them a bit of
Jamaican cuisine and culture through the little publicized Meet the People program. Did I mention she does this for free and that there is no charge to the tourists?
“I like to share my experience with visitors, and I get to meet people from different places,” the attractive grandmother explained. “I get a lot of satisfaction from this.” We met her husband Clayton, a prominent Montego Bay attorney, her daughter, Nneka Morgan, visiting from Florida, and her nephew, Michael Hemmings, a local attorney.
“As long as we can learn a bit more about each other, this is a good experience,” said Hemmings, 25.
That’s what Granville Morgan wants to hear. At 29, he’s been put in charge of growing the Meet the People program that has been in place through the Jamaican Tourist Board for more than 50 years. “You have beaches and sunshine many places,” he said. “What makes Jamaica unique is the people. This gives visitors the opportunity to see Jamaica a different way.”
Morgan notes that millennials aren’t interested in simply staying at their hotels or doing traditional cruise ship excursions. They want an authentic, immersive experience.
Here’s how it works: you fill out the form on the Visit Jamaica website: Morgan (no relation to Doris Morgan) will match you with one of his 200+ volunteers around Jamaica. Maybe you are a musician and want to meet Reggae musicians (or your kids do). Maybe you want to visit a local school. Maybe you ar interested in architecture or art. He’ll do his best to match you—with as little as 48 hours’ notice. The volunteer ambassadors will pick you up, and you might spend a few hours or an entire day.
“The important point is that this isn’t a traditional excursion,” he said. All of the volunteer ambassadors are carefully vetted in advance so you don’t need to worry about your safety. Last year, some 500 matches were made: in 2016, he hopes to double that number. Learn to make Jerk chicken perhaps, or if you are a lawyer, meet a Jamaican lawyer; a teacher might visit a school. Go surfing with a passionate surfer or fishing with a local fisherman. All you need to do is offer a small gratuity as a thank you.
Though this program has been around for decades, he said, the majority of tourists aren’t aware that it exists. That’s why they’ve enlisted Jamaicans who are working aboard cruise ships to act as “ambassadors,” telling passengers about the program; they are hopeful hotel concierges will as well. For a family, he explains, they’ll seek out a family with similarly aged kids, if possible.
Though there are other programs like this, in the Bahamas, for example, he doesn’t think anyone is doing it on this scale. It all started when one Montego Bay matron started to invite visitors to visit her church and return to her home for tea. When the Jamaican Tourist Board was formed more than 50 years ago, the program was formalized with doctors meeting doctors, lawyers meeting lawyers, etc. “Now we have volunteers all over Jamaica,” he said. “We choose people with particular skills, and there is a long waiting list.” Once Morgan gets a request from a tourist, he works to match them appropriately. A cooking lesson—such as we did—is one of the most popular requests. Haven’t you always wanted to learn to make Jerk chicken?
“This isn’t like going to Dolphin Cove or Dunn’s River Falls,” he says. “You are getting an entirely different experience with local interaction on a personal level.”
The millennial travelers, whether with their families or on their own, he adds, want to see and experience different things. He adds that they particularly feel safe venturing out of their hotels. “The volunteers are doing this because it is their passion,” he adds. “Whatever you want to see or do, we will try to make it happen.”
That’s Mrs. Morgan certainly. “I want to share my Jamaica,” she explains.
Certainly different from a manicured resort, as beautiful as it might be, or on a cruise ship.
Mrs. Morgan offers me more food—cod fritters, star apple fruit (similar to a pear), pumpkin bread . . . . “eat,” she says. “Enjoy!”