Perched on high ground, a row of small cottages clustered above a rushing mountain stream. Each backyard had a handful of chickens and banana, avocado, and mango trees. Every simple concrete house had a small front porch where people gathered in the evenings after the sun had sunk down behind the steep ridges of the overshadowing Blue Mountains.
Over the years, Jamaica has given much to me: Wildly syncopated reggae, a fertile paradise in contrast to the barren limestone of my own childhood island, rich vibrant reds and greens and yellows, fiery spicy food with hints of Africa and India and China, all healing fodder for my soul-hungry urban self. It was time, I had thought, to give back to Jamaica — and, anyway, I wanted my teenage daughter to experience something beyond mall shopping and Internet snooping. And so we had come, she and I, to a remote mountain village to help the villagers construct a bridge.
This was a village that depended on its yearly harvest of coffee. If rains raised the mountain stream to unfordable levels, they were stranded. Instead of being able to download the coffee beans onto a truck, they were forced to carry their harvest by shoulder up over rough mountains paths to the next valley over with a road. A bridge would solve the problem.
What did we accomplish in the week we were there? Perhaps not so much in the grand scheme of life, but in small ways miracles occurred. The bridge was only half done when we made our tearful good-byes, but beyond that, hauling rocks, sharing a tiny house with 14 other souls, making friends with children who had never experienced life beyond these confining hills, jolted my teen-age daughter permanently out of her self-absorbed Los Angeles life. Years later, she still values authenticity more than venerating false celebrity.
As for me, I can still hear the roosters calling in the night, the sound of a man chopping wood for the fire on which he would cook a whole curry goat, the broad smile of greeting with which a coffee farmer heralded my arrival in his tiny grove, the lovely sight of an 80-year-old gyrating next to a toddler at the town wide bashment thrown for us, and a deep awe and gratitude at getting more back than I gave.
If you and your family would like to try something like this, try looking at these sites (we booked our visit through the last of them): www.jamaicavolunteerprograms.com/volunteer-vacations; www.gooverseas.com/volunteer.../jamaica/jamaica-volunteer.../30504; www.globalvolunteers.org