Eight-year-old Ava Perkins is walking around Wayne County this Christmastime, the weather below freezing, her hair still in braids and beads from Barbados, but her jellyfish welts healed.
“It took them 20 minutes to do her entire head,” said Ava’s mother, Shawna Robinson, of the street beautician’s work.
After landing in San Juan, Puerto Rico, they boarded the Royal Caribbean Jewell of the Sea cruise ship for Saint Kitts, Antigua, Martinique, Barbados and Grenada.
“There were a few places you could tell had a lot of damage,” Shawna said of Puerto Rico after a devastating hurricane season. “But it’s not as bad as it was. They’ve got a lot of it cleaned up.
“We actually met another couple on the ship, a mom and daughter duo. Their grandmother lives in Puerto Rico—so her dad had been in Puerto Rico since September. He actually already had an air conditioning system in place and a generator going for her, because they’d had so many droughts out there, it’s constant—they always have something [bad] going on.”
Elf on the shelf
The mother-and-daughter trip of Ava and Shawna had been over a year in the making. An elf on the shelf kept it secret.
“It’d actually been planned for over a year and a half,” Shawna said. “Ava didn’t know anything about it until we showed up at the airport.”
At the ticket counter, Ava’s elf on the shelf was waiting.
“She’d been given hints throughout the entire year about the whole thing from our elf, Patrick,” Shawna explained.
“Throughout the year, I’ll be very near,” said Patrick. “You’ll be in shock, but please don’t watch the clock. I will send you three gifts throughout the year. Gift one is very clear, as it is right here.”
Ava’s present was scuba diving gear, which does little good without water.
Patrick’s second gift did not come until Ava’s birthday. It was a passport.
“Patrick came via balloon for her birthday,” Shawna said.
Patrick arrived again this Christmas, a year after the scuba gear and the passport, and woke Ava up at 4:30 in the morning.
“We spent the night at the Ramada Tropics in Des Moines,” Shawna said. “Ava thought that was her final gift.”
“I didn’t know what it meant right there, because I was so tired,” Ava said. “Once I got on the cruise, I was excited.”
“All of her teachers knew,” Shawna said. Ava is in third grade at Wayne Elementary School in Corydon. “All of her family knew. It was awesome how the entire community didn’t say a word to her—the school worked at getting her homework done—kind of fibbed to her to get her homework done the week before.
“On the plane ride, she asked, ‘Are we really going somewhere?’
“I said, ‘Yes.’
“She said, ‘Mom, this is the best ever.’
“We got closer. We had a lot of [bad] stuff happen last year. My parents’ house burned down. I thought, ‘She’s only eight years old once—forget it.’ I booked it. We bicker back and forth like sisters, sometimes, but we’re so much alike.
“I just want to let her know there’s more out there than here. I want her to experience the world.”
Before this trip, Ava had not been any farther away from Wayne County than Branson, Mo.
“She’d never flown before,” Shawna said. “She never been in a taxi or seen the ocean. Everything was happening within 24 hours for her.”
“We even traveled on a train,” Ava said.
“The tram at the airport,” Shawna explained.
In Grenada, Shawna and Ava got stung by jellyfish. Though it was painful, it is not something everyone can say they have experienced.
“They said, ‘It’s fine—they won’t bother you,’” Ava said. “Instantly, I got stung all over the inside of my legs. I got welts. It burnt really bad.”
“She climbed onto me, and that’s not normal for her,” Shawna said of Ava. “She said, ‘Mom, my entire body hurts.’
“They looked like just particles of trash in the water. But, no, we were completely surrounded by jellyfish. They were an inch, maybe two inches big, but as we were swimming to the boat, they were everywhere. Everybody that jumped in had gotten stung. After about 30 minutes it finally stopped hurting. It was like a bee sting, but it kept throbbing.
“Then we went to Calypso Island, with this shack at the very top. They fed us some kind of chicken, and it honestly wasn’t very good at all.”
“It was an intensive itinerary,” Shawna said. “We had five ports of call within a seven-day cruise.”
The first stop, Saint Kitts, might have been Ava’s most memorable, as she got the opportunity to swim with dolphins.
“It was weird and fun,” Ava said.
“We got to do a dorsal pull, where they pulled you,” Shawna said. “You got to kiss them and shake their hand, and push them away. They’d put their nose on the bottom of your foot and literally lift you up and skim across the ocean.
“They’re super friendly. The trainers are fantastic.
“We hung out at a beach after that, and found a whole bunch of seashells. We got sunburnt that day.”
Mother and daughter were not thinking about their skin when it was Christmastime, after all.
“She had met a friend on the ship as well,” Shawna said. “Her name was Miranda. She was 10 years old from New York. She was there with her mom and her grandpa—her mom’s a cop in New York City. They instantly clicked, and I clicked with her mom, Toshey. It ended up, people thought we traveled together.
“She met another girl named Sage from Connecticut. Out of 2,000 people, she met two friends who were there with their moms. Over 1,000 on that ship were from Puerto Rico, so there was a huge language barrier.”
The next day, they went ziplining in Antigua, on a 300-foot line almost 200-feet in the air. Ava was not scared.
“Over just the jungle,” Shawna said. “In the letter from Patrick the elf, it said there was going to be ziplining. Ava said, ‘I love ziplining!’ Well, her ziplining consisted of going to the Harvest Barn [east of Osceola].”
As well, Ava braved the rock wall onboard the ship.
They took the day off at Martinique, where most of the tours involved rum distilleries, though Ava did find a mango at the bottom of the ocean.
“She made three goals on the plane down there,” Shawna explained. “She wanted to get her hair braided, drink out of coconut, and find a mango.”
Ava and Shawna’s trip could be best summarized in the story of a shipwreck, which kept the surviving crew of the 19th century boat intentionally stranded.
“We snorkeled down there and saw sea turtles,” Shawna said. “The shipwreck was so neat, to see all the life living in it—there’re tons of fish all around. It was probably about 20 feet deep, close to the shore.
“I was amazed how well Ava did with the dive down. She’s a very good swimmer. She’s taken private lessons for years at [Prairie Trails Family Aquatic Center] in Corydon. The shipwreck was from the 1870s. The story was, the help actually lit the boat on fire, because they didn’t want to leave the island of Barbados.”