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Why I took my 12-year-old to the Guatemalan jungle

TIKAL
Shutterstock
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Because of a commitment I made a long time ago as a mom, I've had adventures I never would have considered.

It’s a late morning in July and I’m standing on the heights of ancient stone steps, the Guatemalan jungle carpeting the earth below and beyond me.

But why? 

Yes, my insatiable history-major-travel-bug-infected self can muster as much interest in ancient and present-day Mesoamerica as anything – which is quite a bit – but still. There might be a few other places I’d pick to be standing on my 57th birthday before I’d settle here.

But here is where I am in this moment and the reason for it is standing just a few steps away: a 12-year-old boy. He’s listening to Marlon, our guide, explain how the name of this place — Yaxha — means “blue-green water” and that water spreads in the distance, indeed looking something more like a field than a lake. Yaxha – busy with builders and traders, priests and warriors hundreds of years ago — now sits silent but for our murmuring and the shrieks of howler monkeys.

The journey here had been a little rough. A lengthy flight delay, which you might expect these days, but what you might not expect is the pause at immigration in Belize City because you don’t carry your gone-almost-nine-years husband’s death certificate around at all times. Who knew? There was a point in the conversations with unsmiling bureaucrats at which I honestly didn’t think they were going to let my son and me into the country because I couldn’t produce papers proving that I wasn’t kidnapping him. But a still-online obituary opened the door, and no one had thought twice about waving us across the next invisible line, busy and chaotic, between Belize and Guatemala earlier this morning.

And then the road here to Yaxha, not our original destination for today. That would be a site called Naranjo, but after almost an hour of bouncing and jolting around on back rounds, including a massively wrong turn, we ended up stopped short by deep muddy ruts. So Marlon suggested a switch to Yaxha, which was on the way to our primary destination anyway, the place that my 12-year-old had blurted without hesitation when I asked him where he’d like to go during the week that his older brother would be at an engineering program.

Tikal!

No, not Disney World, not even the beach. Tikal.

What 12-year-old jumps at the chance to go to Tikal?

This one. The one who, a few years ago, developed an odd but intense interest in the Maya. The one who envisions a future for himself full of jungles and snakes and ruins.

And what 56-year-old mom hears Tikal, shrugs, and then opens up TripAdvisor and Kayak and starts planning?

This one.

It’s ridiculous, indulgent, and privileged. Who does this? I’m such a skinflint authoritarian in most of my parenting life – no phones until you can pay for them yourself, minimalist wardrobes, limited and supervised screen time — but request a week in Guatemala and I shrug and say sure, why not? 

A friend wondered at my angst. She said, “Why would you feel conflicted about giving your child his dream trip?” And I said, well, there’s value in having to put off your dreams, isn’t there? We all know that, and as parents we are constantly walking that line, wanting to give our kids what we can but so conscious of the damage of overindulgence. It’s education, I argue back to myself. It’s global awareness. But still, I’m not entirely comfortable with it. Might I be playing a trick on him, leading him to think that the rest of his life will be as easy as this?

My son and I follow Marlon through the jungle. We stop and study leaf-cutter ants building their own civilization at our feet. A snake of some sort winds across a path. Hardly anyone else is here. Marlon points out ancient roads and causeways. We come to another collection of smaller pyramids and I stay on the ground while Marlon and my son climb up. The two figures are silhouetted against the light blue sky at the peak and I think, as I like to do, sic transit Gloria mundi.

In this place, a people flourished. They had mythologies, dynasties, literature, civil planning and wars, births and deaths. And then they were gone.

And here we are. 

And here I am. Fifty-seven freaking years old.

And then we are gone.

After a while, we’re done with Yaxha, and Marlon takes us to an ecolodge on the lakeshore for lunch, then into a small boat for a ride across the lake to more ruins on an island called Topoxte.

We’re not alone in the boat. A  psychologist from Guatemala City and her mother are on board. The younger woman speaks some English, so we chat. She’s also a runner, and she’d been here for a race through the vast ruins of Tikal. She runs all over the world, and her mother is her traveling companion, everywhere. After we say as much as we can in broken English (her) and ridiculous Spanish (me), we all turn and gaze at the water and wait to arrive at more ruins.

I think of my other four children, the oldest of whom is 34. We’ve had our ins and outs, but for his adult life, it’s been mostly in, and for all those years, yes, I’ve tried to … what? Be there. That’s it. It’s not about a particular virtue or strength of character particular to me. It’s just – me, the woman who happens to be their mother, and who, because of that, is a mysterious, necessary supporting presence. I don’t get it. None of us do. Who are we? Surely they are mistaken to trust us. We don’t deserve it — or them. But they persist in trusting us, and we keep trying, making mistakes, and trying again. For me, the trying has been in the commitment, no matter what, to be present.

To always pick up the phone, to always listen, to never, ever shut the door. And in return, I’ve found, be enriched by all kinds of mysteries and joy and, yes — adventures that I’d never have even considered if not for them.

Sic transit Gloria mundi.

I remember, one more tiresome time, that I’m 57 today. It’s my birthday. Hooray. Looking at my son, I do the math. When he’s 34 , I’ll be – wait – almost eighty.  

If I’m still around at all, of course. His siblings have had a parent accompany them well into adulthood. The chances are pretty good that this one won’t.

The other mother and her grown daughter speak softly to each other on the bench across from us. On our way from one ruin to another, water lapping the boat, I watch my youngest. He’s scanning the lake for crocodiles. He’s hopeful about the search.

And so, I realize, my heart beating faster, my throat tightening  – this is it. This is all we can be promised – this moment. This lake is the place he’s brought me to. This bright afternoon is the time we have. This is what I can give him, breezing towards ruins, eyes open for crocodiles – today.

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