Like many an aunt, I skew over-indulgent. S’mores for breakfast? Why not?
But on a recent trip to Jamaica with my two nieces, I laid down the law. If they were to miss two days of school and leave their younger sisters back home in Tampa, there would be one hard and fast rule: to be open to new experiences.
The girls nodded their heads enthusiastically. Maddy, 8, is the daredevil, always up to proving her first-born bravery. Ella, 7, is Maddy’s biggest fan, with a quick wit but a tendency toward wimpiness by comparison.
“We promise, we promise we’ll try everything,” chimed the girls.
As our plane swooped down toward Montego Bay, and the emerald hills of Jamaica sprang into view, I saw the wanderlust hit them like a wave. We’d been in the air less than two hours, but this place was not like home. “Mountains!” they shrieked, eyes expanding, in the same way a Colorado kid might react to a Florida beach.
Once past immigration, most of the American families from our flight were shuttled off to Sandals, Half Moon and other all-inclusive resorts in MoBay. I picked up our rental car and headed toward downtown, navigating roundabouts on the “wrong side of the road” as the girls whooped it up roller-coaster style. They rolled down the windows to let the sounds and smells in. People selling mangoes on the roadside went flashing by and the sounds of dancehall music thumped from the stereos of passing cars.
“Aunt Terry, we roll down the windows and you turn up the music!” they shouted, determined to do like the locals.
It was November, and the air was hotter and sultrier than in Florida. From the balcony of our 12th floor studio apartment ($120 a night), we could see the palm trees and rippling turquoise water of Doctor’s Cave Beach below. The girls quickly changed into their bathing suits for a swim.
Down on the street we stopped at a fruit stand, where a little old lady with a sizeable machete deftly carved pineapples into spiraling shapes, cutting off the bumpy skin and making them easy to eat.
I’ve seen a lot of fruit stands around the world, but seeing one with the daredevil and her biggest fan was like seeing the business for the first time. The woman cutting the fruit tossed in a custard apple as a bonus.
“This is going to be interesting,” said Ella, who bit into the fruit with gusto but gave up after a few slimy, seedy bites.
“Aunt Terry, was that woman cutting the pineapple poor?” asked Maddy. Kids always ask tough questions. I told her I didn’t know, but that she had a job selling fruit to tourists. There were many jobs in the world, I said.
The beach was busy with Jamaican families splashing in the shallow water and pasty Brits slick with tanning oil on the sand. The Florida girls went into autopilot, donning their goggles and shrieking with joy at the translucency of the water.
Later, as we walked past the tacky tourist shops of the Hip Strip, we were stopped by locals every few yards with two questions: “Twins?” followed by, “Braids for their hair?”
“Why does everyone want to braid our hair?” Maddy and Ella asked me after a while. And I told them that braiding hair was a tourism job. All they had to do was say “no thank you” with a smile, and move on. I hoped it was a travel lesson they would remember, and get to use often throughout their lives.
That evening we drove 20 minutes to the Rose Hall Great House, a Georgian-style former sugar plantation built by a British planter in the 1770s. As we headed up the long driveway, the house glowed red for the evening haunted tour that brings to life the story of Annie Palmer, the so-called White Witch, who is said to have murdered her husband at Rose Hall, along with several slave lovers.
It was heavy content complete with scary reenactments. The daredevil loved the fright of it all, joining a group of British Airways flight attendants to edge up as close as possible to the spots where howling actors were apt to pop out. But Ella cowered by my side, begging to go and leaving me feeling like an irresponsible aunt. When it was over, she turned to me and said, “That was interesting, Aunt Terry. But I wouldn’t do it again.”
We rose with the sun and ate scrambled eggs on our balcony as an enormous rainbow spread across the beach. Then we drove to Sandy Bay for a horseback riding outing through a former sugar cane plantation that’s now used as a polo field, and lined with fruit-trees.
The daredevil rode Country Boy and her biggest fan saddled up on It Wasn’t Me. The girls giggled at their horses’ names, and paid close attention as our guide pointed out goats gorging in the bushes (Jamaican reindeer!) and plucked guavas from the trees for the girls to taste.
At the end of the tour, back on the beach at Sandy Bay, the horses’ saddles were removed and we hopped back onto them for a watery ride. The girls were equally brave as the horses pushed past the small breakers. “Look Aunt Terry, a sea horse!” exclaimed Ella, as she bobbed up and down in the frothing water on It Wasn’t Me.
The next morning I told the girls that our adventures for the day would require bravery of a different sort. Going on a Trip Advisor lead, I’d reached out to Alrick Allen, whose company, Your Jamaican Tour Guide, offers, among other excursions, tasting tours of the Montego Bay area.
“I try to explore the real Jamaican food with my guests,” explained Alrick, “cow’s head, cow’s feet, chitlins, the stuff we grew up with. I try to show them the real vibes, but a lot of the time we just end up having some fries.”
At a wooden shack of a restaurant called Dragon Lounge, just behind the airport’s landing strip, people selling piles of glistening ackee fruit (a breakfast staple in Jamaica) and counterfeit CDs from their car trunks captured the girls’ attention.
“Is that like a garage sale but with fruit?” asked Maddy.
We walked a short way to the water, where fishermen were cleaning their catch. Piles of parrot fish, goat fish, snapper and grunts glistened in the sun, as colorful as a bowl of Fruit Loops. Freedivers with their wetsuits unpeeled to their waists unloaded king and queen crabs from the boats, while Alrick taught the girls how to hold the crabs’ claws tight and pose with them for a photo.
When we sat down to eat, there was snapper and a steaming plate of oxtail stew. “Wait, is it really an ox’s tail?” asked the daredevil. “This is going to be interesting,” said her biggest fan, proudly taking a bite as Maddy bought herself some time by prying open the mouth of her fish and looking to see the glinting teeth inside.
Next, Alrick took us to a Rastafarian fruit stand, where more fancy machete work was being performed on pineapples. We bought the sweetest mangoes we’d ever tasted. Then we stopped at a bamboo Rastafarian restaurant painted red, yellow and green, where we sucked down drinks made with fresh ginger and Alrick walked us through the vegetarian menu and explained a bit about Rastafarian beliefs.
Finally, Alrick took us to his favorite bakery, an island-wide chain called Tastee, to try his favorite cake. “My grandmother’s recipe is best,” he said, “but this one is good, too.”
The girls hid their disappointment when a slice of sweet potato pie – a sliver of brownish tart glistening from a paper bag – arrived at the table. They kept their end of the deal, though, trying the tiniest of bites, and my pride surged when they consulted each other and then said, respectfully, “It’s interesting, but we don’t really care for it.”
“It’s a different kettle of fish from what you girls are used to, isn’t it?” Alrick said, and we all laughed, yes. A different kettle of fish indeed.
On our last evening, we headed to Glistening Waters, an easy-to-miss marina off the highway between Montego Bay and Falmouth where small wooden boats head out to a bioluminescent lagoon. Here, where the limestone-rich Martha Brae River empties into the ocean, a fascinating phenomenon occurs during the warmest months. Almost immediately after we’d left the shoreline, a swirling trail of green materialized in the boat’s wake. Fish darted through the water, rocket-like, as we peered off the side. The night was inky black and the daredevil couldn’t wait to jump in, but her biggest fan clung to me with trepidation.
When we stopped, Maddy was the first one into the water, and her splash lit up the night with the glow of a billion dinoflagellates. “Oh my god, oh my god! Woah! It’s amazing!” she cried with joy.
Ella clung to me tightly as we stepped down the ladder into the water, four feet deep. My feet sank into the mucky silt of the lagoon with the weight of both of us.
“Don’t worry,” said the captain to the people still on the boat, “There are no barracuda, piranhas, crocodiles or great whites. Only great blacks – and we’re vegetarians.”
Ella gripped me tighter still, while I assured her that he was not talking about great black sharks.
“On the count of three let’s all go under water,” I said to the girls. And when we popped back up our faces glowed blueish-green as the water streamed off our hair in a trail of sparkling stars. I’d seen bioluminescence light up Florida’s waters before, but nothing nearly as intense as this.
Not even the greatest theme park ride or the most thrilling scene from a Disney movie could entrance the girls like the power of this place.
“I never wanna leave, no no – I’m not getting out!” Maddy yelled, swimming away from me and splashing in every direction, making me nervous that she could just slip away into the night, fueled by her ecstasy. I was relieved that she was glowing as brightly as she was.
“Come here, come here, little Milky Way!” I shouted to her when it was time to board the boat. She filled her mouth with saltwater and sent a glowing stream our way.
“If she’s the Milky Way then what am I, Aunt Terry?” asked Ella, her cheeks covered with blue squigglies from the bioluminescence.
“You’re the universe,” I told her. And then I said that we were all made of stars.
“That’s very interesting,” she said, smiling.