“You can choose courage or you can choose comfort, but you can not have both.” —Brené Brown
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” —Mark Twain
I took my 11-year-old to Guatemala for a week earlier this summer. By myself. And no, I’m not quite as crazy as that might make me sound.
We did, however, get soaked in a rainstorm or two.
We did not always know where we were or where we were going.
Between the two of us, we speak enough Spanish to get in over our heads, but not actually enough to be very useful.
It was at least 1000% humidity everywhere we went.
There was an earthquake. (Like an actual 6.9, things-crashing-from-cabinets-in-the-middle-of-the-night quake.)
The nearby volcano sputtered and spewed into the sky the day after the earthquake.
We walked a million miles, hitchhiked, and navigated taxis, shuttles, boats, the famed Guatemalan “chicken buses,” and tuk-tuks in order to get to all the places.
There were no beaches for lounging, no resorts, no familiar menus, and not much English to be found.
But at some point nearly every day he looked at me, wide-eyed and grinning ear from ear, and said, “Mom, it’s like the movies!!” And I was reminded, once again, that parenthood is one of the greatest educations on the planet.
As a control-freak-in-recovery, there were many, many opportunities for my old scripts full of fear and anxiety to play out during our week of adventure. But, louder than those tired old myths, were many reminders of something much more important: outside of our comfort zone is where all the growth happens.
On our first day in Panajachel, we spent the morning and early afternoon on a boat tour exploring three villages nestled in the mountains and volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlán, the deepest lake in Central America. When the tour was over, we returned to the docks, got off the boat, and my son looked at me and said, “That was really cool. Now what?”
Once again surrounded by the totally unfamiliar, we set out to find our hotel. They aren’t big on addresses in Guatemala, so this isn’t quite as simple as one might think. My phone service was a bit sketchy, so I felt a bit vulnerable due to my usual dependence on Google maps and GPS. From the waterfront we started making our way in what I hoped was the right direction. As we walked, we passed storefronts full of colorful, unrecognizable things. People whizzed past us on bikes and mopeds and in cars weighed down with oversized loads of firewood and giant mountains of produce. The street was noisy and unruly and full of smells that would assault you at every turn. And, everywhere we went, people stared. We are obviously American/ European, with very fair skin and light hair and eyes. Guatemalans as a whole are incredibly friendly and welcoming; but, I always felt like we were walking around with huge neon signs over our heads that said “Tourists.” This makes it impossible to just fly under the radar, which is my most-preferred mode of transport.
The farther we walked, the more overstimulated and overwhelmed I felt by all the unknowns and uncertainty of navigating the afternoon that still stretched out in front of us. I could feel the weight of being the sole adult responsible for my precious child settle into the middle of my chest. Everywhere I looked were people and things I knew very little about and felt distant from because of the language chasm. My son asked, “Do you know how much farther until we are supposed to turn?” I did not. And I also had no idea what we were going to find when we did locate our hotel. (It had been booked through a travel service by my friend who lives in Antigua, so I’d not seen many details ahead of time. Also very much NOT my usual M.O.)
Just as I was getting to the edge of the cliff in my head and about to launch off into Worry-About-Everything-Land, I looked up from my phone and its frozen map. I saw him walking in front of me, steady and confident, mesmerized by and delighted in his own fascination of this amazing place, with his day-pack securely fastened around him—packed completely by himself—full of protein bars for when he couldn’t eat the food, sunscreen, his camera, his water bottle (which he’d carefully filled with purified water), and also my water bottle and my rain jacket that he had offered to carry for me. In that instant, it was shocking to find not even a remnant of the once-timid, frequently anxious little boy I had known for some years walking in front of me. Instead, there trekked a fearless, young creature utterly comfortable in his charge up this dirty, unfamiliar street 1,500 miles from home. About that time he said casually over his shoulder to me, “Well, we’ve rocked it for three days so far, so I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”
I smiled and chuckled at myself. I turned off my useless map and switched to the camera so I could take a photo of him, hopeful I would remember this moment of transformation.
In contrast, just three days before, we had exited a plane, navigated immigration checkpoints and baggage claim in broken Spanish, and I had felt his nervousness bubbling over in this new place. People are not allowed inside the airport in Guatemala City without a ticket, so just outside the exit doors looms a large throng of people jockeying to see if their friends and relatives have arrived, a crowd of drivers hawking their rides to you, locals approaching you to sell everything you can imagine, beggars, and most certainly pick-pockets and other undesirables sprinkled in the teeming faces. It is quite an intimidating “welcome” to a city that is not exactly safe for Americans in particular. Before we got to the doors, I stopped him and we situated our luggage. I put my phone out of sight and secured other valuables as I had been instructed to do. I told him to swap his backpack around to the front so he could keep a hand on it. He observed all of this, looked outside, and then looked at me with eyes that asked, “Where on earth have you taken me?”
“It’s OK,” I said. “We are just being smart. Remember, this is an adventure. Our driver is out there somewhere, and we have to find him. Stay close and everything will be OK.” I don’t know if he believed me or not, but he took a deep breath and trusted me anyway…and as he stepped through those doors into a wall of heat and diesel fumes, he walked further out of his comfort zone than he had ever been before.
Now here we were, just 72 hours later, and it was him reminding me that outside our comfort zone is where all the excitement happens. He was a walking example of how resilience will grow like a weed when we take risks and prove to ourselves that we are, in fact, capable.
The very next night we found ourselves nearly at the end of a two-and-a-half-hour trip back to Antigua, when he felt like he was going to be sick if he didn’t get out of the vehicle immediately. This time, neither one of us hesitated to just jump off, into the darkness onto an unfamiliar grid of cobblestone streets, miles before our intended stop. As the shuttle drove away, it started to rain, and he laughed at our possible recklessness, feeling instantly better once on solid ground. We looked up and down the streets and, as he handed me my rain jacket, he asked me once again, “So, now what?” I smiled back and offered, “Kiddo, I have no idea, but I do know we’ll figure it out.” And, sure enough, we did.