It’s taken until my third visit to Jamaica to fulfil an ambition of getting up into the Blue Mountains – it’s the longest mountain range on the island, reaching 2,256 metres above sea level at its highest point.
A couple of months ago I finally managed it, taking a day trip from Ocho Rios with Blue Mountain Bicycle Tours. The scenery was spectacular, and though the steep downhill cycling was a little hairy at points, it was a wonderful way to experience the beauty of the thickly forested mountains.
The tour guides were excellent, stopping along the way to tell us about different plants and herbs, and to point out simple houses on the mountainside that have no electricity or water. But when the tour guide mentioned, during our morning briefing, that we would be stopping in on a primary school, I cringed inwardly. Taking tourists to visit schools in developing countries has become a popular feature in holidays described as ‘culturally immersive’ and ‘responsible’, but some warn it can in fact be an irresponsible thing to do.
Visits from a group of snap-happy tourists can disrupt the school day, taking children’s attention off learning, and how would we like strangers coming into our own schools to photograph our children here at home? Sometimes tourists are given chance to ‘help out’ with lessons – despite having no qualifications. And when well-meaning tourists distribute cash or stationary, it can lead to squabbles between children and encourage them to expect gifts from every foreign visitor. I like the way a charity called Pen & Paper is trying to make distributing stationary in Gambia more effective – you can read about that here.
Happily, my experience in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica felt much more responsible than I expected. When our group of thirty-odd cyclists arrived at the tiny school, the school-teacher told us no photos of the children would be allowed, and we spent just 10 minutes listening to the dozen pupils sing a couple of songs. There was no uncomfortable cuddling of the children, though they did shake our hands and do some high-fives. The teacher finished by asking that, if we felt we would like to make a donation to the children’s education, we could send stationary to the school once we were back home.
So that’s why there is NO photo of a cutely-dressed school child or even of the school itself in this blog-post. But here’s my photo of the crayons, pencils and craft-paper that are winging their way to Cascade Primary School in the Blue Mountains instead. If I’d had more time, buying stationary locally in Jamaica, instead of a London pound shop, would have also helped support the local economy…something to consider next time!