This is the story of how I reached my 40s without having any contact with nature, not even one night camping, and suddenly found myself exploring with my children in the jungles of Central America.
I’d always been adventurous, if you can apply that word to a willingness to tackle the world’s public transport systems unaided. By the time I met my husband, I’d caught a night train from Moscow to St Petersburg; explored Cuba by bus; sipped tea in Samarkand, tinnies in Sydney and saki in Tokyo; I even lived in Hong Kong for six months. But my destinations were always urban. I liked crowds, shops, subways. Even sprawling cities like Los Angeles tested my patience. I didn’t do mountains, beaches, fields, any kind of water, or jungles. Definitely not jungles.
As a child in England, I hoarded foreign postcards and spent hours poring over my Junior Atlas, planning my escape from the little town where I was born. So one of the first things that attracted me to my husband, apart from his infectious laugh, was his exotic background. He was an American citizen who’d grown up in Central and South America, and who spoke Spanish as easily as English. Best of all, he was a city person. Although he’d grown up in the jungle, he never, ever, wanted to go back.
Twenty years and three children later, we began writing adventure stories. They were based on bedtime stories my husband made up for the kids – which were, in turn, based on adventures he’d had as a child. They were set in the jungle, full of action, with some cool Maya pyramids for local color. We didn’t know anything about the Maya then. We must have written five drafts in this blissful ignorance before I realized that I couldn’t go on. If we were going to set our books in the jungle, I had to go see it for myself.
Will the Baby Survive?
At that time our children were 12, 8, and 2, so I looked for the most family-friendly place in the Maya area and came up with Belize. Even my husband was won over by reviews of comfortable hotels with nice bathrooms.
Knowing we’d be in jungly areas, I got anti-malaria pills for everyone except the 2-year-old, who was prescribed a foul tasting liquid she would instantly spit out. Getting her to swallow that stuff was the hardest thing about the trip. I packed so many kinds of insect repellent, anti-itch creams and bite treatments that I took one holdall solely for first aid.
My heart was in my mouth as we landed in Belize. Would my baby be eaten by jaguars? Would we all be attacked by scorpions or snakes? And, honestly, how would I survive two weeks without shops?
Terrified in the Jungle
Although I never quite relaxed in the presence of nature, I loved that vacation. We took a boat down the Monkey River and tracked howler monkeys in the jungle. We ate termites (carrotty), and learned to tell the call of a toucan from the call of a macaw. We explored Maya ruins and paddled canoes along underground rivers. All pure bliss, except…
…I was terrified every single minute. I got vertigo climbing pyramids and carsick on potholed roads. I got separated from the rest of them tracking monkeys and spent a terrifying 20 minutes alone in a stand of bamboo, jumping at every little noise. The underground river was my worst nightmare – deep water, caves, darkness, bats … but I had to pretend it was fun so as not to scare the 2-year old. In fine Disney tradition, I learned that if you pretend to be brave, you actually start feeling braver.
A New Jungle Adventure
The next year we went to Guatemala. That was a stretch for me. There were so many insects in the bathroom, it took 30 minutes of hunting them every night before the youngest would clean her teeth. Even then, when you turned out the light, you’d often hear a “ribbit, ribbit” from a big green frog that liked to hide in the room.
But most alarming of all was the nightly banshee performance from a troop of howler monkeys on the roof who’d wake us at 4 am with their other-worldly noises. The girls and I would huddle under the sheets, but by the third night, Jon was brave enough to go outside and record them. (Watch and listen to the video here.)
Since then we’ve been back to Central America several times, but I’ve never got over my fear of heights enough to run gaily up a Maya pyramid. I’ve never learned to keep calm on swinging rope bridges nor to zipline through the forest canopy. And I have never, ever joined my family in jumping into a limpid rock pool beneath a scenic waterfall.
Finding Each Other in the Jungle
But I love our jungle adventures because, away from television and the Internet, we have to talk to each other on a deeper level, and actively enjoy each other’s company – which for children of such different ages is not always easy. I love the way traveling with kids slows you down and makes you live in the moment.
And I love how much easier it is to talk to the locals when you have children with you to break the ice. Along the way I’ve learned that most things don’t want to hurt me, I can live without a hair dryer, and real people are more interesting than any amount of shops. I think the little girl with the postcard collection would be proud of me. But prouder still to see her three strong, brave, adventurous, well-traveled children.
Pamela Voelkel is co-author of the Maya-themed adventure series, The Jaguar Stones. Learn more about her books at www.jaguarstones.com