Photo Credit: Higher Level JA
Higher Level JA: The Airbnb In Jamaica Where Black Women Solo Travelers Feel Safe
When Ellis moved from the UK to the hilltops of St Thomas to meet Rohan, a St Thomas native with a dream of creating a wholesome space in Jamaica’s tourism landscape, Airbnb Higher Level JA was born.
Since opening their doors in 2017, this hilltop farm and cabin has proven to be a healing and rejuvenating escape for many a traveler, especially solo traveling black women. Ellis and Rohan share their lessons and talk us through their journey as Airbnb hosts, welcoming travelers into the real beauty of Jamaica’s tourism.
Travel Noire: Higher Level JA has developed massively since you first started documenting it on Instagram, how would you describe what Higher Level JA is today?
Ellis: Higher Level JA is a social enterprise, a family run business, an eco-retreat, a call to nature, a place for people to escape to, to collect themselves, to learn about how to grow food and live sustainably, and ultimately to learn about real Jamaican culture.
Rohan: Exactly. I would also say that Higher Level JA is deeply inspired by the Rastafarian lifestyle, which teaches us to be mindful of humanity and the Earth. We incorporated this into Higher Level JA by creating an eco-wellness space, a hilltop farm to sustain our guests naturally as well as by staying true to the grassroots aspects of Rastafari and Jamaican culture.
TN: That is such a wholesome foundation for an Airbnb rental. Could you tell us where the idea for a hilltop farm/cabin came from?
Rohan: I had this dream from very young. I always wanted to turn my yard into a park and because I grew up here (the same area where Higher Level JA now stands) we were surrounded by beautiful nature, mountains, fruit trees etc. I got most of my skills from being around my mum and building, watching and learning from her. I used to build benches and lay stones to make a path up in the mountains, and so I learned that landscaping was always the biggest interest for me. Afterwards, I met Ellis in 2017 and the idea of the Airbnb all started to fit together.
Ellis: Yes! I had visited family and friends in Jamaica before, and I had wanted to visit again, so when Rohan invited me to come visit him, I was absolutely blown away by the natural beauty, much like all of our guests who stay with us always are. Leaving the UK and coming to stay in the hills with Rohan felt like I had gone from black and white to HD colour.
Rohan: While discussing the kinds of lives we each wanted to live, it became so clear. As a rebel, I never wanted to work for anyone and Ellis, frustrated with the lifestyle and pace of England really connected with the stripped-down natural life in St Thomas. From then, we started to join our visions, and we haven’t stopped. Ellis knew that there were other people in the UK who were also frustrated with the pace of life, and so that alone was enough to motivate us to launch Higher Level JA. Ellis designed the hilltop cabin layout and used social media to document our journey, and I used my building skills and knowledge of the area to bring the Airbnb into existence.
TN: Beyond the Airbnb experience of staying in the cabin in the hills, what other experiences does Higher Level JA offer?
Ellis: We’re big on local trips, we think about what local people like doing in Jamaica and that usually involves being near a body of water, cooking by the river or taking day-trips to the beach. We tend to offer a lot of trips and excursions on the eastern side of the island in particular because it is often neglected, but it has many, many beautiful spots. Our most popular trip at the moment is Bath fountain, a very special, spiritual, cleansing place. There’s local people there that will give you full body massage and even hot springs. As part of the day-trip, when we drive out of the St Thomas area we like to take people to try different fruits that they may have never tried before, we take people to the local Rasta restaurant and bookshop, we work with local guides who can show the many neighboring waterfalls and rivers. It truly is a full day with amazing experiences led entirely by the local community. We’ve had people really connect with themselves on this trip – one of our guests started crying when she got to Bath Springs, others burst out into joyful laughter – it really is a healing space, and we love giving people the chance to experience that.
Rohan: And that’s why we say that we offer a unique experience of grassroots Jamaica, you can’t always experience that unless you’re a part of the community.
TN: That is definitely the feeling we get from the Instagram and all of the reviews on Airbnb. What observations and thoughts do you have about tourism on the island in general?
Ellis: To me, a lot of the tourism that most people experience is sometimes performative and disconnected from the reality of Jamaica, which is quite sad. Yes, it has its challenging parts, but Jamaica is much more beautiful beyond the resorts. Yes, you’re probably going to get a nicer cocktail. Yes, you’re probably going to get the fancier side of travelling the Caribbean, but you’re not going to sit down and have a conversation with somebody who’s going to tell you their life story about growing up in Jamaica, which is invaluable. If people had the confidence to come out of the resorts to meet local people I think that they would have much more spiritual, wholesome experience of Jamaica rather than picking the parts that they want to see or understand.
Rohan: We also recognize that some people come to Jamaica to get away from the office, the cold, their routine etc, and so they actually seek out the beaches, resorts and packaged version of the Caribbean. We have to give a shout-out to Airbnb in this sense, for shifting the whole narrative of tourism in most of the Caribbean and the world in general. Imagine being able to stay in someone’s home? This provides the option for genuine conversation, encountering local people in their everyday rhythm, real Jamaican food, and that is the Jamaica we want our guests to see. If there are two things we as Jamaicans love, it is conversation and taking care of people, so Airbnb really works in our favor.
TN: How would you describe the guests who typically spend time at Higher Level JA?
Ellis: This month we’ve received guests from five continents because we’ve had somebody visiting from Australia, which makes us feel really proud! This year, we have had a lot of Black women solo travelers, which has been amazing. That’s been incredible for me to feel that we can open up a space where Black women feel so comfortable and safe. Most of our Black female travelers fit very well into our environment because we do a lot of outreach projects which a lot of them get involved with. We’ve had writers, yoga teachers— all sorts of individuals with different specialisms, and they all want to come and do workshops with the kids in the community, or maybe they just want to do something on the land, like gardening. Seeing them in the space has been a real joy for me. We’re very grateful for the first few Black solo female travelers who left us in-depth reviews because it’s been a domino effect since then. It feels good to have welcomed so many into our little village in Jamaica.
TN: How has Higher Level JA become a part of developing the community in St Thomas?
Ellis: Being an English teacher, I’ve always been involved with the children of the community. We always wanted to make a place where children from the village— and traveler’s children— feel safe to some and get creative. I’ve set up a book club, we’ve had art and painting sessions, cultural enrichment for children. SA lot of the children in the village don’t get a chance to meet children from Israel or Malawi and a lot of the guests are keen to meet the children who are full of personality, full of charisma. It’s a joy to bring people together, and a lot of our guests have skills that they want to share. Because we’re a small community, it is really easy to gather everyone and share that we’re having a campfire night for example or a yoga class for the kids. It’s great for everyone, it’s like getting to be a kid again.
Rohan: Some of the natural skills that we live by every day at Higher Level JA are rare for some of our guests – for example not everyone knows how to start a fire, or plant a tree and this is something we like to offer to everyone the chance to learn. This is essentially the education side of Higher Level JA, which we never expected to be such a huge part of the business. Now we’re faced with questions daily from guests such as ‘what is this herb good for?’ or ‘How do I grow this food?’ and it is nice to extend our knowledge or connect with those knowledgeable in the community. I have always been a socially active member of my community, so I have always loved extending that knowledge. I know we have a rich mix of talented people in our community, so naturally we include them as part of the Higher Level JA experience.
TN: Rohan, what is the best thing about offering people the opportunity to see the village you grew up in as an Airbnb host?
Rohan: For me, the best thing about doing this as an Airbnb host is seeing the smiles and hearing people say that they feel like they’re in a dream when they visit our home. Everything is created with these two hands, the Creator blessed them so that I can create and see the effect that it has on visitors. When a person steps foot on the property from somewhere else in the world, we get to see how appreciative they are of the surroundings and the space we created. Just seeing the smiles and good energy that it brings to people spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally. That does it for me, being able to do it with my family and meeting people from all over the world is a bonus.