The continuation of the story of our first R&R from Malawi to the U.S. and Jamaica.
On the morning of our second full day in Jamaica, we had no plans. Having no plans kinda makes me crazy. But we were at an all-inclusive in Montego Bay, so it was not hard to find something as the resort had a list of the many, many activities they had going on. We had breakfast, then took a walk around the property. I found an intense pool aerobics class and C played in the water just behind me. We has some of the all-inclusive “free” ice cream, and part Native-American C enjoyed more pool time while fair and freckle-skinned me hid under a towel watching. We had lunch. Then we prepared for our PM activity – horseback riding into the sunset of the last day of 2018. Is that awesome or what?
Once again it was a group tour with a third heading out on ATVs, a third went with dune buggies, and the rest of us had signed up for horseback riding — an hour on a trail through historic farm land, complete with a 17th century windmill, ending in a short trot through the surf. This would be followed by a ten minute horseback ocean jaunt.
C loves horses. I try to get organize a horse experience for her whenever I can. She always insists that she is old enough to handle her own horse and is annoyed over an over when someone holds the reins or rides alongside or even with her. Boy was she stoked to not only have a horse all her own. This would not pass muster in the U.S. at all, and I would be a liar if I said watching her did not raise all kinds of nervous butterflies in my stomach, but we did have several experienced guides who rode up and down the line checking on us all and the whole “ride” was more a horse walk, and C was the picture of pride, sitting tall on her horse.
It was a lovely ride along shaded trails and across grassy fields lit golden by the setting sun. We arrived back at the mounting station and then switched horses for the ocean ride. It turned out to be a full on ocean plunge. The horses were quickly up to the base of their necks in the water, fighting the waves, which were on the rough side with the strong, steady wind. I was immersed past my waist, practically floating over the saddle. It was exhilarating and somewhat terrifying at the same time. C was ahead laughing with delight. I was so grateful when we turned around and headed out; C started to cry because it was over already and she wanted to go again. The guide offered to take her out again. And out they went. C said it was the “best day ever!”
That night we attended the huge New Year’s Eve buffet dinner. There were mounds of food on dozens of tables decorated with half a dozen ice sculptures and an entertainment revue. Being NYE the music was louder and went longer than the other days, our room reverberated with the noise. Still C fell asleep long before midnight; I heard the count down, then nothing more til morning.
I woke to an overcast, yet sunny morning, a rainbow across the sky. It was so perfect.
That and the next day were spent doing very, very little. Sleeping in, pool time, mini golf, watching movies, eating ice cream, doing water aerobics. Then on our next to last day we had a full day adventure — another group tour, this time to Mystic Mountain for the sky lift, which takes visitors 700 feet above the forest floor, then a Jamaican bobsled ride, and finally a zipline course. C, not quite 7 years old, did it ALL, even as some adults were not so keen and even backed out.
Following Mystic Mountain the tour group shifted to Dunn’s River Falls, another of the “top” tourist sites in Jamaica, or so every Internet search told me. If you take everyone on a cruise ship to only a few places, then naturally they become the top spots… Not to say that Mystic Mountain was not fun or Dunn’s River Falls was not both beautiful and cool (both meetings of the word), but I was regretting not renting a car. I had mentioned it to one tourist info woman and she tsk tsk’d, reminding me that “we drive on the other side of the road.” It was with great glee that I explained I live in a country in Africa where I drive on the same side. Still, I had not rented a car and by this point was losing interest in handing over my credit card for much more.
So we had to do the giant tour bus tango. You know, where, no matter what, you seem to be the first to be picked up and the last to be dropped off. Where the tour bus drives 30 minutes of an hour drive and then stops for a “break,” which is really a completely unnecessary shopping stop. And you get herded off the bus, have to “gather around” for instructions, are only two people but have to wait for ten families of 5 people to get their wrist bands first, and the “free” lunch included in the tour is nothing to write home about it… Oh, the joy….
We opted not to climb the falls. I had read online that it was not such a good thing for younger children, and also that tour guides force their groups not only to buy unnecessary pool shoes but also link hands like kindergardeners, making a daisy chain up the falls. Also, not necessary. We did look at the falls. C splashed around in a shallow pool. Then we went to the splashpad and ate popsicles, blissfully away from the maddening constraints of the tour group. At least for an hour.
It will likely come as little surprise that we opted to do nothing on our final day. We were tour bus’d out! We needed a lazy day before another all day travel day.
Back to Jacksonville for another overnight near the airport, then, in a rented car, we drove to Lake Buena Vista, the home of Disney. Oh the joys of driving on a fully sealed, pothole-free, multi-lane highway with clear lanes and actual shoulders! We stopped at a gas station to stock up on U.S.-car-trip staples like string cheese and potato chips and gum. Thank you America! We arrived around noon to check in to our hotel then head over to Disney Springs where we had a lunch reservation at the Rainforest Cafe followed by C’s appointment at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for her princess make-over.
The next day we began our Disney park experience. This was our 10th visit to a Disney park and our 3rd visit to Disney World. I have seen a few articles on taking your child traveling but NOT to Disney. I absolutely understand giving a child the gift of travel, but I believe mixing in a bit of Disney (or more than a bit in our case) not only does not hurt, but can also richly reward a family.
We had tickets for an early morning experience at Hollywood Studios, it seemed the only way to guarantee we could experience all the new Toy Story Land had to offer. We had a chance to ride all three of the new rides several times before the park opened to everyone and the lines grew rapidly. And there we were at 9 AM having already done all we had wanted to at Hollywood Studios. So I upgraded to a park hopper pass and we headed over to the Magic Kingdom. By the time we were done for the day – with C still going strong running to the car in the parking lot – I had 27,000 steps on my pedometer!
On Tuesday, after a painful vacation club presentation (never again I always tell myself – when will I ever learn??), we drove about 45 minutes to Winter Haven, FL to visit Legoland. C loved it because she could ride every single ride (and we did) and there were no crowds. On several rides we rode it multiple times in a row, on two of them the ride operators did not even make us disembark and run around, we just stayed in our seats for another go. My limit though was three times in a row.
Wednesday was Epcot; our first time to that park. Crowds were relatively light and we were able to ride all but two of the rides. More importantly though we lunched with princesses at the Akerhaus Royal Banquet Hall and caught up with a few others — C’s photos with Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, and Jasmine meant we had completed the goal of meeting all the Disney princesses.
By Thursday we were about theme-parked out, but I had bought a four day Disney ticket and we had two more days left. We dragged ourselves to Animal Kingdom on a suddenly chilly day, and then back to the Magic Kingdom on the final day. Lesson learned: three days at Disney might be our limit and/or build in some rest days!
Before heading back to Jacksonville for yet another night we stopped for another bit of fun Americana style. When in Jamaica lazing about our room on one of our no tour days the movie Happy Gilmore came on. In it, there is a scene where the mentor of Adam Sandler’s character Happy takes him to a fancy mini golf course to refine his short game. C could not believe such a crazy mini golf place could be real and not just a movie set. So I vowed to take her to one. Congo River golf, complete with a realistic plane crashed into a waterfall, fit the bill.
We made it back to Jacksonville in time to meet my aunt for a late lunch – Mexican of course! No telling when we could have it again. The following day we flew to Dulles Airport to spend the evening before our flight back to Lilongwe. My family lives right near the airport, one of my sisters works there, so we all met at my other sister’s place for a few hours. We had a few less hours than originally planned as a snow storm had delayed flights — but for C the snow was the cherry on top of seeing her cousins and was the grand finale to our pretty perfect trip.
A note on the shutdown: This is not a political post; this is not that kind of blog. But as a State Department employee in a designated “non-excepted” position, the shutdown, which started at some point as we flew over the Atlantic Ocean, meant I was among the 800,000 federal employees furloughed without pay. It was a strange time — hearing some officials characterize the furlough as a “vacation,” which is patently incorrect, yet here I was on an actual vacation, an R&R earned for serving overseas in a location that has “distinct and significant difficulties.” As the shutdown wore on, I did feel increasingly uncomfortable. In the past I was “excepted” and worked through the shutdown. One of my sisters, who works for the Transportation Security Administration, continued to report to work as scheduled, without promise of a paycheck. I had colleagues at State both at work and at home. I earned my R&R and my daughter and I deserved to enjoy it to the fullest, but it was not completely without guilt. I returned to Malawi with the shutdown still in effect and remained at home furloughed another week. Although the shutdown focused on Washington, D.C., the majority of federal government workers serve outside the capital, and there are tens of thousands of us working overseas. We have families, pets, responsibilities, go to the office to do our jobs, and for the most part live normal lives, just like other Americans.