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Port Antonio, Jamaica (Photograph by Michael Melford, National Geographic Image Collection / Alamy Stock Photo)

Home Again in Jamaica

Jamaica is in my blood.

My mother was born in the hills of this tropical paradise. She spent her childhood and adolescence here. Then, in the early 1970s, she left it all behind and headed for Canada to reunite with my father, who had emigrated from Jamaica a year earlier. They were married within months, and I came along soon after.

Since then I’ve been to Jamaica with my family about half a dozen times. I’ve lounged on the white-sand beaches of Montego Bay and eaten jerk chicken out of a steel drum along a road in Kingston. I climbed the rocks at Dunn’s River Falls while holding my father’s hand and then, decades later, holding my future husband’s.

This trip would be a first: Just my mom and me.

Mother-daughter trips are tried and true. The two of you take off to a spa or high tea, relaxing and sharing life-affirming moments.

I’ve had those. This wasn’t that.

I lied to my mother, and told her we were going to Jamaica to take a cooking class together. But the truth was I wanted to take her home.

I’ve often puzzled at how my parents swapped the sand and sea for snowy winters and down jackets with seemingly little effect. An avid traveler, I leave my own homeland (Toronto) often, but always with the knowledge that I’ll return.

Over the years, family and friends in Jamaica have dwindled; visits have slowed. I’ve watched my parents become Canadians. My mother is fiercely proud of the country she chose for her family, but it isn’t where she comes from.

This trip back was a reminder of that.

From the moment we landed, she was Jamaican. It was as if the sultry air of the place awoke a part of my mother that had long been asleep. When she told Granville, our guide, of her birthright, he nodded and smiled. “I know,” he said, “and that changes everything.”

Portland is the Jamaica you’ve seen in the commercials—the ones with the lush green foliage and endless miles of beach.

Ironically, the jungle parish on the island’s northeast coast is an area few tourists actually visit.

I intentionally chose a part of Jamaica that would be new to the both of us (my mother is from St. Catherine’s Parish to the south and west) so we could bond over a shared sense of discovery.

In Port Antonio, the parish’s capital city, Bob Marley images and “Ya mon!” T-shirts disappear, replaced by working-class Jamaicans, small fruit stands, and independent clothes shops. There are more locals at the San San Beach than foreigners.

On the drive from Montego Bay airport to the Hotel Mockingbird Hill in Port Antonio, the scene whizzing past seemed to be on repeat. Tall banana trees, homes dwarfed by bougainvillea bushes, kids in immaculate school uniforms, fish sellers, couples headed for a beach.

But where I saw repetition, my mother saw details, calling out the names of certain trees, wondering aloud if the kids were in middle school, asking about the building that had once stood where an open lot now existed. And the memories came flooding back. My mother recalled tales from her youth that I had never heard before.

In our Jamaican guide and driver she found a captive audience who had an innate understanding of how it felt and craved her insights into how things had been. The three of them were instantly connected and willingly exchanging experiences. They called her Mummy (“Are you okay, Mummy?”), held her arm on the steep hills, and brought her to the market stands when she asked.

At home my mother barely answers the phone. She’s not one for women’s groups or large social circles. Her life revolves around her kids, grandkids, the gym, and her kitchen. Here she was social polestar: Discussing politics without reservation, making her wants known without hesitation, conquering her fear of water on a boat trip with strangers, and never missing a chance to seize the moment—whether it was negotiating the price of a roadside soursop or leaping at an invitation to dance with the Maroons up the coast in nearby Charles Town.

Over the next few days I watched her shed her protective immigrant armor. Something in her core had been unlocked.

It showed in the lilt in her accent, the way she would turn to me to explain some ingredient she had known by a different name as a child, and in her gesture of stopping the young housemaid from making our beds—refusing to be a tourist and insisting on being a guest.

This Jamaican woman ate fried fish and bammy—a dish made from ground cassava—out of tin foil from a vendor on the street. This woman could sing along to the old time songs that had been rites of passage in her youth. This woman drank her coconut water straight from the shell without a straw and knew enough to ask the man with the machete to chop it open so she could eat the fleshy coconut jelly when the juice was gone.

This woman was at home.

I think she was replenishing depleted stock, inhaling as much of the island as possible so that she’d have the memories to take home with her. From snapping photos at Errol Flynn Marina to cajoling a stranger into climbing a tree to pick her a ripe mango, our days were filled with her Jamaica.

On the drive back to the airport to fly back home to Canada, my mother—her bags laden with fruits, recipes, and mementos—was quieter than she had been on the ride in. But every so often I’d catch her humming while looking out the window with a smile.

Heather Greenwood Davis is Nat Geo Travel’s resident family travel advocate, guru, and soothsayer. Follow her on Twitter @GreenwoodDavis and on Instagram @heathergd.

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