Back in 2008, Paul and I went on a month-long backpacking trip in the Caribbean. Fresh out of university, this trip was all about freedom, exploration, soul-searching, and adventure. We were not yet married, but both now being free from any school obligations, we were turning over a fresh page in life. Paul had already decided to move back to the mountains. And it was on that trip that I decided, “heck, why not go back to Banff for a year and see where that takes me?” I have my answer now.
Considering this newfound freedom, my thoughts on that trip were far from any notions of motherhood or having a family. But on the island of Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, there was a couple and their three-year-old daughter staying in the same campground as us. One afternoon we sat with them and talked while the little one ran bare-bummed into the ocean and climbed a few feet up a tree that bent over the water. I have always been so grateful to my parents for instilling in me a love for travel through our family trips to places like Florida, Hilton Head Island, the Bay of Fundy and Banff National Park. But these hippy parents, far from their home on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, gave me my first personal encounter with a young family travelling well off the beaten track.
As we talked, they offered their perspectives on alternative parenting practices. Their philosophies and opinions were more extreme than mine are as a parent now, but I appreciated the exposure it gave me to a different way of raising children. It seeded the idea that it was possible to continue pursuing travels and adventures as parents. Meeting that family will always stand as a milestone and pivotal moment in my personal life.
Seven years later, here we are, husband-and-wife in Belize with our almost two-year-old. The other morning, Maya and I went to the beach to play. We cycled by the ocean, dodging palm branches and skidding through piles of sand on the path. She told me all about “Monsieur Crab” as I relished in the care-free feeling of rolling along on two wheels, sun rising out of the ocean, the wind in our hair. We turned onto Avenida Hicaco and began the dance of weaving cautiously through tourists, golf carts and men on bikes selling coconut bread. Our path took us past the local football field, around the corner next to abandoned bikes and boats, and finally to the beach outside the Iguana Reef Hotel.
There we got out the shovel, cups and rubber ducky. Playtime on dry land lasted only a minute or two. Soon, we were in the ocean, Maya squatting so low that her shorts and diaper were completely submerged. Returning to the beach, she sat down in the sand with a piece of coral in each hand. Wet, dirty, happy.
As I looked up from my perch next to her, I glanced across the water between this West coast of Caye Caulker and mainland Belize. The scene was rather cliche: a few sailboats bobbing in the distance and pelicans perched on wooden posts jutting out the sea. But the scene right in front of me was far from ordinary. It mimicked exactly the scene of that family on Tortola: a young girl playing happily in the sand on a beach far from home.
In that moment, I realized we had come full circle. That seed of an idea – of venturing off the beaten track with a family – is no longer just our inspiration as parents. It is now life as we know it. It is kayaking in Maupiti and trekking to freshwater pools on Niue, driving New Zealand’s Forgotten World Highway and biking the sandy beaches of Belize. As parents, it requires an investment – emotionally, financially, even physically. We have endured many discomforts for the gains of adventuring as a family.
Time will tell how that influences Maya as she grows up, or whether it does at all. But, I like to think that the immersion in other cultures, the discomforts of long-distance travel, and the unknowns of new places will teach her some valuable life lessons, and ones that aren’t easily taught in a classroom.
The world can be her education – and ours.