My Virtuous Vacation

In which the author visits a ganja field, learns to play cricket, does some shoddy carpentry, and discovers that when Americans pay to do volunteer work overseas, it’s hard to tell who’s helping whom.

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We met Mr. Battieste at the roundabout. He was waiting for us there, in the broken glass by the side of the road, and we knew at once it was him. Amid the rush-hour melee of Kingston, Jamaica— city buses grinding their gears, motorcycles roaring in unmuffled splendor, jalopies wafting black puffs of soot toward the aqua-blue water of the Atlantic—Mr. Battieste stood out, as serene as a statue. He was tall and lean and bald, with a square lantern jaw and extremely dark skin that shimmered in the sweltering heat. His posture was impeccable. He was unmistakably a man you’d call “Mister,” and just seeing him made us feel a little giddy.

We’d flown to Jamaica, Patrice Benoit and I and five other Americans, to take part in a sort of mini-Peace Corps program coordinated by Global Volunteers, a Minnesota nonprofit that last year sent 2,000 paying clients to dig ditches, build health clinics, and teach school in 69 impoverished communities throughout the world. Patrice, who is 27, was the leader of our team. She is also the volunteers relations manager for Global Volunteers, and earlier in the week she’d warmed me up for Jamaica with an ebullient note—a Global Volunteers e-postcard complete with a festive little snippet of Caribbean steel drums and a picture of her hugging a dark-skinned child. The note promised me a “nontourist” experience, and it echoed Global Volunteers’ Web site, which assured that, for my $1,145 (airfare not included), I would transcend the Caribbean kitsch of “sandy beaches and all-inclusive hotels” to attain kin-ship with real Jamaicans—with a people who are “resilient, proud, and resourceful.” Now, finally, having put the hassles of the long flight behind me, I was meeting a real Jamaican. Mr. Battieste was a middle-school teacher and our host in Hagley Gap, a town in the mountains 90 minutes from Kingston, where our group would be spending the next two weeks.

We pulled over and Mr. Battieste got in, carrying nothing but a paperback book in a worn plastic bag. He said, “You will be turning on the right.”

Patrice whirled around the roundabout and whipped past our exit, the steering wheel of the rental car wobbling in her hands. “This is so weird,” she said, “driving on the left!” Mr. Battieste said nothing, and we drove on through the outskirts of Kingston. “Goats!” said Patrice. “Oh my God, are those really goats in the road?” “Yes,” said Mr. Battieste, “there are goats.” He smiled and his teeth glimmered, snags between the gaps in his gums, and then we turned north into the rugged Blue Mountains. The roads were so rubbly and so steep and so winding that we moved, it seemed, in slow motion. The people we passed—now a barefoot man carrying a machete back from the cane field, now an old woman balancing a few gallons of water on her head—were not a blur, but individuals I came face-to-face with for a moment through the open window in the gathering dusk. I stuck my hand out and waved with exuberance. “Good night,” said the Jamaicans as they trundled on up the hill, their eyes on the rocks underfoot. “Good night.”

Travel to the developing world has always been a stomach-wrenchingly awkward endeavor for well-meaning liberals. Ever since the early 19th century, when the poet Lord Byron popularized the practice of visiting “primitive” cultures by venturing to Albania, Turkey, and Greece with his valet and personal physician (not to mention a little perambulating zoo), Third World tourism has resembled a reluctant form of mining: You go, you get a few natives to pose for an oil painting—snapshot, dvd movie, whatever—you marvel at the natives’ strength and simplicity and recoil a bit at the poverty, and then you come home with a hard question hanging about you like a bad odor: What did I give them in exchange for being allowed to delve into their culture?

Beginning right after World War I, activists saw that they could give back to their impoverished hosts by laboring for them. The volunteer vacation was born, technically, in 1920 when Service Civil International, a pacifist group, brought French and German youth together to rebuild bombed cities. SCI soon expanded to the developing world, running “work camps” in India in 1934, and in Egypt and Palestine a decade later. In 1958, the movement expanded with the founding of Operation Crossroads Africa, which brought its first volunteers to Ghana for a six-week service stint and served as President Kennedy’s template for the Peace Corps.

But all this time the practice of laboring abroad, on your holiday, remained marginal. It was an activity reserved for idealistic twentysomethings—”readers of I.F. Stone’s Weekly and affiliates of Students for a Democratic Society,” according to Bill McMillon, author of the guidebook Volunteer Vacations. The volunteer vacation industry didn’t take root until 1980, when Minnesota state legislator Bud Philbrook set off on his honeymoon with Michelle Gran, a publicist. The couple spent a week in Guatemala, helping to build an irrigation system, and a week at Disney World. Then they came home and founded Global Volunteers.

Their new agency retained the idealism of the work camps. It began with the premise that locals, rather than visiting Americans, would decide which projects should be done. It stipulated that, on every job site, there be an equal number of locals and Global Volunteers, and it also set aside a portion of each client’s payment for materials—lumber or food or books—that would stay in the community. But what was remarkable about Global Volunteers was that it reached out to the mainstream. It picked clients up at the airport, rather than leaving them to find their way to camp on crowded local buses. It furnished them with elegantly prepared meals (in contrast to the work camps, which still oblige laborers to sling their own hash), and it shifted the focus from hard labor to cultural exchange. “The work project,” as Philbrook sees it, “is a vehicle for getting to know the local people. Service is a byproduct.”

Philbrook’s programs are also vastly more expensive than the work camps. Participants pay between $500 (for a week building a fire station in Mississippi) and $2,400 (for three weeks teaching English in China), compared to the $300 that work campers pay for a typical two-week sojourn. Global Volunteers’ popularity has skyrocketed since the group dispatched its first-ever team to Woburn Lawn in Jamaica in 1984. It now takes roughly 2,000 Americans abroad every year and is leading an industry that since 1990 has roughly tripled in size, to some 7,000 volunteer tourists annually. At least eight outfitters specialize in serving youth, seeking to make the service trip de rigueur at elite high schools nationwide. Roughly 1,000 kids went last year, with tour providers ranging from the inexpensive Amigos de las Américas to the for-profit Rustic Pathways, which allows participants to surf for 10 days in Fiji and then add on an optional “community service ‘snapshot’ in a welcoming, clean, and interesting environment.”

Media coverage of volunteer vacations has been unremittingly glowing. When People profiled Philbrook and Gran last spring, for instance, it called the couple “angels” and ran with the story a picture of a smiling Tanzanian man shoveling mortar alongside a pretty blond woman, also smiling. The truth, I learned during my stay in Jamaica, is somewhat more complex.

There were seven of us on the team—Patrice, me, three college students, a 35-year-old social worker, and Patrick Hossay, a muscular 37-year-old political-science professor who had the word Resist tattooed on his biceps in six languages. We were quartered in Hagley Gap’s community center, in a single concrete-floored room so cavernous that, at times, the local kids wheeled their bikes inside, weaving right past our cots. Patrice told us that “community leaders” would visit us to explain the details of our work project, which involved building a decorative four-panel pine door inside the center’s prison-like steel gates. The community leaders (whoever they were; no specific names were mentioned) never came.

So for the first three days, we basically just hung out in the lush, fog-shrouded mountains, guiltily cognizant that we were languishing in a place of great need. There are no telephones in Hagley Gap, which has a population of roughly 2,000, and only a few people have running water. The roads, unrepaired for the past two decades, are a disaster.

We ate wonderful food—salt-fish and plantain fritters, curried chicken, and dumplings. Our chef was a Hagley Gap native, Kevin Williams. Kevin ate separately from us, in the kitchen. We played with the Jamaican children who came spilling into the community center, giggling, at all hours. We taught them how to make friendship bracelets. Patrice enlisted one kid, a 17-year-old boy, to paint her a postcard and then, once he’d rendered a wistful-looking coconut tree on a desolate beach, she said, “I don’t think I’m going to send it—uh-uh. It’s so beautiful it’s going over my desk.”

We went to the Four Square Gospel Church. We swam in the Negro River, the women in our group shaving their armpits as Jamaican boys splashed around them and leaped, in their droopy underpants, off a rock ledge into the water. Patrice rushed a pregnant woman to the maternity ward and then, in the waiting room, suggested that the woman give her child the nickname G.V., for Global Volunteers. The woman gave the child the nickname G.V.

We climbed the hill up to the town center, in the gap between two mountains, and drank Red Stripe beer. We went on a field trip to a nearby town one afternoon and happened upon an ex-convict, Douglas Burke, a.k.a. Zulu. Zulu, 45, spent 20 years in U.S. prisons for attempting to kill a Brooklyn police officer. Now he was back home, trying to make an honest living growing ganja. He took us up to his one-acre field—way up, over switchbacks and through a jungle of banana trees and mangoes to a small clearing—and shooed a cow away from his crop (“Look at that dirty devil! He’s eating my ganja!”), and then he reached into his coat pocket (Zulu was wearing a brown pinstripe suit over his bare, sweaty skin) and pulled out some product. He lit up a fatty and there we stood, in the blistering sun of real Jamaica, getting baked.

Mr. Battieste was with us on the hike to the ganja field, but he trailed behind, silent, and when the spleef came round to him he demurred, regarding it with bemusement, his mighty arms crossed on his chest. I wondered about him. I wondered what he really thought of Americans. He was the kind of guy who revealed himself only in bursts. In church, he was the only member of the congregation who did not sing. He sat alone, with a tambourine, and he stirred only when the music neared a crescendo. Then he stood and banged the tambourine on his hip and danced with a slow, shuffling grace as he gazed into the distance, at the banana trees bending outside in the breeze.

He showed up at the community center sporadically, but usually he just stood to the side of the rampaging children, a wooden matchstick dangling out of the corner of his mouth. One time, Patrice was having trouble sending the kids home at bedtime. Mr. Battieste shouted, “No disrespect!” The children dispersed, instantly, and then he too left the building.

What we didn’t realize was that, when Mr. Battieste was gone, he was often working on our behalf. Global Volunteers had not recruited anyone else to coordinate our work project, so that task, as well as a quotient of tour guiding, fell to Mr. Battieste, whose school was on summer vacation. The job involved rushing. Global Volunteers does not, as a matter of course, send community hosts advance checks for supplies. Mr. Battieste did not have any construction funds until we arrived, and even then he did not have enough to hire a truck to transport materials from the nearest lumberyard, in Kingston. Global Volunteers had given Hagley Gap $100 for every paying member of our group, for a total of $600. So one morning, Mr. Battieste walked five miles to the local coffee factory to see if there was a truck available to take him to Kingston for free, to fetch lumber for us. There was not. Mr. Battieste walked home. He walked back the next morning, rounded up a truck, rode into Kingston, and arrived home in the evening with 29 long, thin pieces of tongue-and-groove pine, which he stacked next to a pile of two-by-fours, paint, and nails he had already bought.

On several occasions, Mr. Battieste walked the 10-mile round-trip to the nearest pay phone—to call the van driver who took our group to the beach, for instance, and also his member of Parliament, who, he hoped, would pay for lumber Global Volunteers could use to build a back door at the community center. Mr. Battieste owns a motorcycle, but he is now saving up to replace its ruined engine. His teacher’s salary is $250 a month, and he makes a few dollars more growing a quarter acre of coffee. He is not paid by Global Volunteers.

At last, on our fourth day in Jamaica, the work began. We laid the lumber on sawhorses; Mr. Battieste rounded up an ancient, dull-bladed handsaw. For Patrick, the professor, the chance to lay hands on the wood—and to crack out the Black & Decker tool kit he’d brought—was sweet relief. Patrick had read a dozen books about Jamaica before coming down. He had lobbied his dean at Richard Stockton College, a private school in New Jersey, to let him lead a for-credit class to Jamaica in 2002, and he had already delivered preview lectures for us at the breakfast table. “This isn’t charity,” he thundered one morning when it was his turn to provide the Thought for the Day. “Working here is our responsibility. It’s the rent we pay for being human beings.”

More than anyone else on the team, Patrick yearned to throw himself into helping Jamaica. But for days he had been forced to wait and to pace the community center in pained self-awareness. “I’m frustrated,” he told me one evening. “I’m a white American male. I’m used to getting what I want, when I want it.” Now, finally, it was time to wield a hammer. He labored with gusto.

But his Jamaican counterpart, Cain Osbourne, brought his own passion to the construction of the door. Cain, a 26-year-old carpenter, had been roped by Mr. Battieste into helping us on his day off, and he did not want to be there, at all. Five times he asked Patrick why he had not brought a Skil saw. Once, when a local kid was sawing the wood crookedly, Cain snatched the saw from the kid’s hands. “A week and a half of working with this guy,” Patrick confided to me, “and I’ll blow a gasket.”

Cain saw us talking and he raged outside, into the shade of a mango tree. Ten minutes later, I went out to check on him. “How you doing?” I said.

“I’m eating mangoes with my friends, mon. I’m relaxing. Why aren’t you working?”

I explained that, actually, the work was stalled—that Global Volunteers had a policy, one Jamaican for every American, and that, well, we were waiting for him.

Cain rolled his eyes and snorted and then went inside and beheld, as luck would have it, four nails that I had pounded into a board myself. Two of them were bent. “Bad work!” Cain said. He pried the board free and then, glowering, he did the job over.

Over time, I learned that Mr. Battieste’s first name was Oswel. He was 45 years old and had seven children. He lived with two of them, along with five of his grandchildren and his girlfriend, in a two-bedroom house. His students had written a rap song about him. It went, “When it comes to Mr. Battieste, he numbah one! Whoa hey, Mr. Battieste aboom! His Highness Battieste aboom!”

Mr. Battieste grew up in Hagley Gap. His father left home when he was a child, and his mother was bedridden. He was raised by his older brother, and, when he was a teenager, he decided that the conservative Jamaica Labor Party could rescue Hagley Gap. But Jamaican politics was then dominated by the People’s National Party and its near-mythical prime minister, Michael Manley, who espoused democratic socialism and introduced a minimum wage in Jamaica, as well as a literacy program and a nationalized health care system. Manley financed his reform in part by levying a tax on American bauxite-mining companies. He also invited Fidel Castro for a state visit in 1977 and generally antagonized First World power brokers. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank stopped making loans to Jamaica; Manley’s peaceful revolution fizzled and Hagley Gap remained economically choked. “All [the government] could do for us in the ’80s,” Mr. Battieste recalls, “was build the community center, and that didn’t even get completed.” The center, now used for occasional dances and basketball games, is a cinder-block shell containing a kitchen, a derelict office, a paltry library, and the hangar-like room that served as our dorm. At one point, a community-owned honey factory was supposed to be built in it, but the contractor ran off with the construction funds.

Mr. Battieste was so disenchanted that in 1989, when he was president of Hagley Gap’s Labor Party chapter, he quit politics and allied himself instead with the Institute of Cultural Affairs, a Belgian nonprofit that was building a school in a nearby town. When Mr. Battieste learned that a similar group, Global Volunteers, was looking to expand in Jamaica, he jumped at the chance. “I held a meeting,” he says, “and everyone in the community said, ‘Yes, bring them here! Anything at all is a help.’ As a deep rural area, we need all the help we can get.”

Over the past decade, Mr. Battieste has worked with at least a dozen Global Volunteers brigades. “They haven’t made poverty go away,” he says, “but at least there are monuments of their work.” Teams have painted murals and made school desks for children.

The crew that preceded ours, a contingent of Alaska high schoolers who came to Hagley Gap in May, dug a 400-foot-long ditch and installed a pvc pipe from the river to the community center.

They also witnessed a tragedy, the death of a 12-year-old boy. Barb Degroot, Global Volunteers’ publicist, had mentioned to me that the death had been “very hard” on the Alaskans, but I didn’t know anything more, so one morning I asked Mr. Battieste what had happened. His tone became suddenly technical. “Okay,” he said. “Two kids were running on the playfield at school. They collided. One child fell. There was not a word from him. I sent for the Globals’ first-aid person. The boy was not talking and his mouth was locked, but everything seemed okay, so the boy went home. His parents took him to the hospital in Kingston that night, but the doctors sent him home, too. They couldn’t find anything wrong with him. But all this time the pain was in his stomach. His small intestine had punctured and the feces came out inside of him and poisoned him.”

“Was he a student of yours?”

“He was my girlfriend’s grandson. I raised the boy for 10 years. His pet name—Squeegee.”

I didn’t know what to say. I told Mr. Battieste I was sorry, and then for a second or two his jaw slackened and his brown eyes went soft, betraying, it seemed, anguish and weariness. “It’s the way the game is played,” he said, shrugging. “It’s the way of the world.”

Connections: I taught a 10-year-old girl how to play Frisbee. I met a guy walking one morning just after sunrise. He was on his way to the coffee factory, to work for a dollar an hour, and I was walking for recreation, for exercise, but still we walked together, stride for stride, on a gravel road for a quarter mile or so. I met another guy in a driveway outside a store. It was dark out and he stormed into the driveway in his old car and held his fist high out the window, clenched, so he could hail me with a greeting that is common in Jamaica. “Respect!” he said. “Respect!” I said back. We bashed fists, knuckle against knuckle, and then he threw the car into reverse and tore right back out of the driveway, before my knuckles even stopped smarting. I had not seen his face.

The work on the door continued. Indeed, the friction of the first day burned away, and a tacit fraternity grew in its place. Cain had accepted that Patrick and another Global Volunteer, a stocky college student named Josh Hursey, were competent workers. Josh and Patrick, meanwhile, were in quiet awe of Cain’s ability to make do without power tools. Cain trimmed the excess wood off the door with a machete. A throng of teenage Jamaicans followed, each making a few smoothing cuts with a plane. The whole endeavor was very involved. Each of the door’s panels consisted of 15 tiny slats nailed diagonally to a two-by-four frame. Making each slat entailed three cuts with the saw. But gradually the creation emerged: The door was sturdy, elegant, and endowed with the rough beauty of natural wood.

Until it was painted, that is. Global Volunteers funds had paid for two cans of paint, one white and one red, and in a complex intercultural dialogue it was decided that these two paints should be mixed. The door was painted hot pink. It was ugly as sin, but it encompassed a thousand small reconciliations and the promise of friendship, and, after the third afternoon of work, when everyone was hanging around letting the sweat cool on their skin, we were content. “I am very proud of this door,” said Josh.

One morning, Mr. Battieste walked to the bus stop, five miles away, and rode into Kingston, to meet with his Member of Parliament and lobby—successfully, as it turned out—for the $375 we would need to do the back door. He arrived home after dark and I ran into him then and we chatted for a bit in the lamplight from an idling car. “Bill,” he said after a while, “it is a far journey to the call box. Sometimes it is difficult. I would like to buy a cell phone.” Patrice had brought several used phones from the United States, but none of them worked in Jamaica. Mr. Battieste wanted Global Volunteers to buy him a functioning one—a Nokia that cost $120. I relayed this message to Patrice the next morning.

“He has to get his own cell phone,” she said. “I don’t think we’d spend a dime of our time in the office raising money for that. Quite honestly, I’m very frustrated. Mr. Battieste did not coordinate the community very well. Normally, the community host is just a person you make a phone call to. The host doesn’t have to do everything.”

I said that, as I saw it, Mr. Battieste had tried to get other people involved but couldn’t find anyone willing.

“Well, then we have to question why we are here,” said Patrice.

During the last couple of days that I was in Hagley Gap, Josh and Patrick helped a few Jamaican teens fix a basketball backboard and repaired a ceiling in the office at the community center. Patrice had her hair braided into cornrows by a couple of girls. I learned how to play cricket. Mr. Battieste weeded his coffee field.

Then one afternoon he took me to Woburn Lawn, the nearby town where he had encountered his first crew of volunteer vacationers. I was supposed to interview some folks there, but no one was around and so the whole outing turned out to be a bit awkward. Mostly, Mr. Battieste and I just traipsed around on a hot, dusty road trying to make small talk with each other. I bore a deep respect for him and he seemed appreciative of my craft, stoically waiting whenever I stopped to take notes. But neither of us could give voice to our respect. We were too different. We lacked a common language, and so both of us were relieved when a flatbed truck rumbled along, heading toward Hagley Gap. We climbed in the back and rode, as passengers in Jamaica usually do, standing up, holding the side of the truck. Mr. Battieste held on with his hand limp, even as we whipped at low branches and splashed across rivers and hit potholes so huge the truck lurched to a halt.

I did not, I am sorry to say, demonstrate the same sangfroid. And later, after we hopped off and went up to the Gap and grabbed a couple of Red Stripes, I decided to reenact my ungainly truck dance for Mr. Battieste.

My arms swam loose and gangly through the night air. My feet slapped at the ground, and my beer sloshed out of the bottle. It was a dance (I realize now, in sober reflection) about the silliness of Americans, and it was a dance about the fallibility all humans share, and it was, above all, a dance about the value of trying—to stand up, or to build things, or to span the huge chasm between cultures and make friends—even if you make an idiot of yourself in the process.

Mr. Battieste laughed, a lot harder than I’d expected him to. And then we lingered there on the hill and finished our beers.


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Our team has been on fire lately—publishing sweeping, one-of-a-kind investigations, ambitious, groundbreaking projects, and even releasing “the holy shit documentary of the year.” And that’s on top of protecting free and fair elections and standing up to bullies and BS when others in the media don’t.

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