MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica - Kathi Cooke unhinged the gate to her house in Montego Bay and opened her arms. I walked into her embrace and then into her home. As the evening darkened, we gabbed away on her silky red couch, about gardening, dogs, community service, baking, work life, and dating in Jamaica. Cooke served banana chips and a juice-and-ginger-ale cocktail that smelled of the tropics. She showed me family portraits, then took some photos of us to add to the shelf. Finally, I stood up to go.

"If you have time tomorrow, maybe you can come over and hang out?" she asked as we swapped e-mail addresses and phone numbers in her kitchen. Our visit had lasted little more than an hour, yet so much had changed: I had arrived a stranger but was departing a friend.

Cooke, new pal to many, is one of about 300 ambassadors who volunteer with the Jamaica Tourist Board's Meet the People program. Begun nearly 41 years ago, it arranges platonic dates between visitors and island residents, basing the matches on shared occupations and interests, though an eagerness to make an acquaintance can be enough of a commonality.

"It's so great to meet new people and share Jamaica," says the 44-year-old Cooke, who works for the electric company and emits her own high wattage. "I find that when you travel, making friends adds to the experience."

On my two previous visits to the Caribbean island, I was a shut-in. The all-inclusive resorts where most Americans stay encourage guests to remain on the property, behind the guarded gate. If you wish to leave, you sign up for a tour - a bubble-wrapped view of the country. Most interactions are with your poolside neighbors, some of whom may share your area code.

But this visit was going to be different. I would stay at low-key lodgings that were fully integrated into the community. No group shuttles; I would drive myself, so I could stop on a whim and lean on locals for directions and suggestions. And finally, no other American tourists-in-exile. Inspired by Jamaica's motto - "Out of many, one people" - I was set to meet the many.

Teacher Merlene Anderson speaks of the hardships of Robin's Bay Primary School, a simple concrete structure that squeezes in six grades for about 80 children ages 6 to 12.

Set on a ridge overlooking the shimmering Caribbean, the school receives the equivalent of about $114 from the government for each three-month term to buy educational materials and lunch foods, and to pay the cook. But the money usually runs out before the term is over. To supplement its resources, the school asks for donations. Anderson, 30, hands me a two-page printout of needed items, including dictionaries, fans, eggs, and a PA system. She later adds stuffed animals to the list.

In the classroom, 27 children dressed in crisp khaki (boys) and navy blue (girls) are shoehorned into desks that leave little room for wiggling. I stand before the hushed students with Kim Chase, an expat from Pittsburgh who runs Strawberry Fields Together, a full-service lodging up the road, and arranges visits to the school. (Chase and her Jamaican fiance, Everton McKenzie, created the Village Inclusive Plan, which encourages guests to interact with the community and the environment.)

Lunch is prepared in a building that resembles a stripped-down drive-through. On the day's menu: rice and peas and chicken. Beverages are not included. "We can't afford it," Anderson says. "The cook sells drinks." There is also tap water from an outdoor sink.

Most of the residents of Robin's Bay work as farmers and fishermen. But graduates of the school have become lawyers, doctors, nurses, police officers, and teachers, Anderson says. Among this year's class, I met a potential pilot, a veterinarian, and a soldier. But for that day, they're just kids, horsing around beneath a big blue sky.

Jamaica claims to have the world's most churches per capita, but one minority religion - Rastafarianism - stands out. The dreadlocks and wafting scent of ganja definitely draw attention. However, when I meet Donovan Slythe, chef-owner of the Reggae Pot Rastarant in Ocho Rios, he smells of kitchen and is wearing a cap.

The 40-year-old Rastafarian prepares Ital food, the vegetarian cuisine rooted in the religion's beliefs.

"Eating healthy is a way of life. Your food should be your medicine, and your medicine should be your food," Slythe says. "We need to eat healthy to create a healthier nation and a well-being of people."

At an outdoor table, Slythe serves me a plate buckling under the weight of cubed tofu, a gluey brown stew, and a mound of rice and peas (actually kidney beans). For a beverage, he presents a plastic cup of cherry juice (good source of Vitamin C) and Irish moss (a seaweed with the same nutritional benefits as fish).

Brother Lion, also a Rastafarian, espouses nourishment as well, though his version is more akin to impromptu raw food. Swaddling his feet in brown fabric, he shinnies up a tree trunk and grabs a handful of coconuts. On the ground, he cracks them open and passes around the milk and white meat.

Lion is my escort to Reach Falls in Portland Parish, a Slinky of cascading water without the pedestrian traffic jams of Dunns River Falls - the grossly popular waterfall that attracts crowds from resorts and cruise ships. The government recently took over management of the attraction, setting up rules - such as no diving into the main pool - and charging admission. But rogue guides such as Lion lead guests on a back route along a banana trail that wends toward the falls.

As Lion and I pick our way around rocks and roots, he describes his life in the hills: "The environment makes me strong. It's like a fullness. There's a better vibe in the mountains."

He lives in a wooden shanty and finds sustenance outside his front door.

Rock Bottom lives in a makeshift studio and gallery in the Port Antonio market, wedged between T-shirt stalls, racks of made-in-China shoes, and tables laden with fruits and vegetables. The woodcarver is a large man with a protruding Buddha belly, arms as thick as a football player's, and a bald head that could probably reflect the sun. He's hard to miss, and yet I miss him.

Free-I, the Dutch owner of Zion Country Beach Cabins in Portland Parish, where I stayed for a night, recommends Rock Bottom and sketches a map of his location. But once in the whirlwind space, I become distracted by the cacophony of commerce. Women call out, inviting me to peruse their wares. A Rastafarian named Bobo shows off his creations - a macrame bikini that would unravel with the first wave and a teeny skirt the size of a tube top. Nearby, a spiffed-up man sells touristy trinkets but also is shopping. "Wife Wanted," reads his hand-inked sign.

After circling the market a few times, I find the artist chipping away at a face of a Rasta man. He greets me with a one-potato-two-potato, thumb-rub move, saying, "Peace, love, unity, and respect."

In his early 20s, Rock Bottom was a diver, catching fish and conchs that he would sell on the pier. He also bought carved works, which he would resell. But a dearth of supply forced him to take up the craft.

"I would watch the other guys carve and study them," says the 52-year-old, who's been selling his works here since the market opened more than 20 years ago. "The first thing I made encouraged me to go deeper and deeper and advance with my own designs."

He remembers his first sale: a Rastafarian man, similar to the one he's carving this day. It takes him about a day-and-a-half to design, sand, and paint the artwork, which he sells for about $23. His collection, covering walls and tables, features turtles, birds, Arawak Indians, Bob Marley, and Maroons, the runaway slaves of Jamaica.

"Carving originated in Africa, and we are African Jamaican," he says beneath the image of a glowering Indian chief. "It tells our history."

On the shaded porch of the Polkerris hotel, above the racket of Montego Bay's Hip Strip, Hedley Jones harmonizes the history of Jamaican music.

"When I was 5, 6, 7, I used to listen to musicians who played for the neighbors," the spirited 92-year-old says. "I knew songs like, 'Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today.' "

Jones started on banjo before moving on to bass and guitar. Dressed head to toe in khaki, he digs deep into his bag of memories, pulling out stories from the 1930s and '40s, when he performed in the big city, leading the Hedley Jones Sextet.

"Kingston was alive with music in those days," he says. "There were at least 30 nightclubs and six or seven large bands."

When music styles changed, Jones evolved with them. "I played all of the genres: blues, jazz, mento, calypso . . . reggae."

But he was not just a follower; he was also an innovator and inventor. He said he built the first wooden electric guitar, showing as proof a newspaper clipping that dates his achievement to 1940 - seven years before Les Paul and his Gibson.

On the plane ride home after my Jamaican people-meeting adventure, I sat near a couple from Upstate New York who had stayed at an all-inclusive. They grimaced as they recalled their claustrophobic experience at the resort.

Sympathetic, I told them that for their next trip, I knew a few Jamaicans they could meet. And I'd be happy to make the introductions.

Face-to-Face With Jamaica

Air Jamaica, United, and US Airways fly nonstop to Montego Bay from Philadelphia International Airport. The lowest recent round-trip fare was $376.

Getting around

Island car rentals

Montego Bay and Kingston airport terminals

1-866-978-5335

Convenient, professional, and inexpensive car-rental service. For example, daily rate for a Toyota Yaris is $27, plus insurance. Remember, Jamaicans drive on the left side of the road.

Places to stay

Strawberry Fields Together

Off the North Coast Highway in Robin's Bay

Secluded cottages and villas with a private beach and on-site dining. Rates from $90, plus $27.50 for Jamaican breakfast and dinner, or $35 for three meals. As part of the owners' Village Inclusive Plan, guests can visit a local school and explore the coast and mountains by ATV or horse, among other tours.

Zion Country Beach Cabins

Long Road, Portland Parish

876-451-1737

Four charmingly rustic cabins set among tropical plants, steps from the water, where manatees live. Doubles cost $50 and include breakfast. Drinks and dinner (fish, chicken or vegetarian) also available for $7-$8. Ask Free-I, the Dutch owner, for bar and restaurant suggestions and information on climbing nearby Reach Falls.

Polkerris

13 Corniche Rd.

Montego Bay

305-722-3567, 876-877-7784

An elegant yet homey B&B overlooking the Caribbean and up the hill from Montego Bay's Hip Strip. Doubles cost $110, including a lavish breakfast.

Places to eat

Reggae Pot Rastarant

86 Main St., Ocho Rios

876-422-4696

Sample the Rastafarian cuisine called Ital, such as stew, rice and peas, and healthy juice drinks. Plates cost less than $4.

Mama Joice Cook Shop

Long Road

Portland Parish

Mama Joice prepares home-cooked Jamaican food in her simple restaurant (four walls, no art). Dinner comes with very lively conversation from the chef. About $4.

Things to do

Green Castle Estate

Tower Road, Robin's Bay

612-986-4709

Tour the country's largest organic farm and learn about coconut oil production, allspice berries, and the history of the estate. $20.

Port Antonio Market

The sprawling market in the center of town is crammed with produce, clothes, souvenirs, spices, and crafts, such as woodcarvings by artist Rock Bottom.

Meet the People

The tourist board matches visitors with locals who share similar interests. Free. Fill out a request form at www.visitjamaica.com/about-jamaica/meet-people-programme.aspx?terms%20meet*+the*+people*.

More information

Jamaica Tourist Board

1-800-233-4582

- Andrea SachsEndText

Ways to Meet the People

To really enrich your Caribbean vacation, you need to meet the people, not the American tourists at the resort bar. Here are some programs that bring visitors and locals together in a variety of settings.

Bahamas

People to People

242-356-0435

This Nassau/Paradise Island program connects visitors with volunteer hosts. Sample activities include sharing a home-cooked meal and meeting Bahamian children. Cost: $35.

Grenada

Homestays Grenada

473-444-5845

Opens the doors of locals' homes across the island, as well as on the sister islands of Carriacou and Petite Martinique. Rates start at $30 a night.

St. Martin

Guest Enrichment Program

Radisson St. Martin Resort, Marina and Spa

011 590 590 87 67 00

Lets visitors embrace the French island's culture and people through such activities as a history lesson and French language instruction by locals. Most of the programs are free; for guests only.

Aruba

EMBRACE Project

Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort & Casino

011-297-523-4539

Guests can make friends while doing some good. The volunteer program began in May with the cleanup of the Bushiribana gold smelter ruins; the second session was in August at the Balashi gold mine ruins. During the excursion, a local person is on-site to teach the volunteers about the history and importance of the landmark. The program will continue through 2010, with sessions scheduled once a quarter. Open only to guests.

Belize

Maya Village Homestay program

011-501-722-2470

Offers the opportunity to live with a Maya family and learn the customs of the ancient culture, such as harvesting corn, making tortillas, and doing laundry in the creek. More than 20 families scattered around three villages near Punta Gorda, in Belize's southern region, participate in the program. Cost: $6 per day, plus tax, in addition to a one-time $5 registration fee and a $2 coordination fee.

- Andrea SachsEndText