A Very Special Place
This week, by pure chance, we ended up stopping at an ecolodge in a somewhat off-the-beaten-track location en route from the town of Bacalar to Valladolid. The ecolodge, Selva Bonita in Spanish (Beautiful Jungle in English and Kiichpam Kaax in Mayan), turned out to be a very special place. The lodge sits on property owned by a Mayan family that has been developed, over the course of the last decade, into a beautiful eco retreat, containing a restaurant, a number of cabins, swimming pool, nature trails and more. Selva Bonita’s website describes it as a “family run co-op centre, commited to the rescue and care for culture, nature and family relations of our community . . . to share with our visitors a new type of experience in which they will be able to interact with nature through a sustainable type of turism with activities that promote respect to the environment and Mayan cultural identity.”
We arrived, hoping for a meal and a place to park Wolfie for the night. We left with a greater understanding of Mayan culture, considerable appreciation for the enormous work and dedication that the family — Damian, Margaret and Juanita — has put into developing Selva Bonita, and an enormous respect and admiration, nearing awe, for the traditional beliefs of the Mayans. For the 48 hours of our stay, we were a part of this family. And these 48 hours exemplified, perhaps more than any other experience we’ve had in the past 16 months, the reason for this road trip.
During our time at Selva Bonita, we spent a day on a “tour” of the jungle, oriented toward identifying the many plants that the Mayans use (past and present) for medicinal purposes – plants used for venomous snake bite antidotes, for the treatment of asthma, diabetes, dysentery and more. We saw monkeys, turtles, the web of a tarantula, and more birds that we can mention. We tasted bark of various trees and several types of flowering plants. We saw how the Mayans harvest the chicle from the sapodilla tree from which chewing gum is made and tasted natural chewing gum made with this chicle. We learned of the predictions of the ancient Mayans of many things that are occurring to our natural world now and their philosophies concerning stewardship of the earth and conservation of natural resources. After our time in the jungle – a long, hot, sweaty 5+ hours of walking – we visited several traditional Mayan homes owned by relatives of Damien including a home owned by his aunt who, at age 72, boasts of a marriage of nearly 60 years, since she was married at 14 to her husband, who was 15 at the time. Under the protection of a traditional Mayan “palapa-style” roof, they sleep in hammocks and raise most of their own vegetables. Their home is equipped with electricity and they do enjoy modern conveniences such as a refrigerator and television (for watching telenovelas, Damian’s aunt confessed, with a twinkle in her eye) but their lives are simple and humble. They shared stories of their grandparents and of their culture; of the Mexican government banning Mayan language books from their schools and of bullying by others for being Mayan. And so it ultimately came as little surprise that Damian and family have dedicated their lives and their work toward sharing their Mayan cultural identity with others.
During our time in Mexico, we have visited many Mayan archeological sites and spent many hours combing the exhibits of museums dedicated to the history, culture and lives of the Mayans, past and present. but nothing compared to our experiences with the owners of Selva Bonita. It was the kind of immersive, albeit short, experience that sets apart the way we are traveling with the kind of vacationing we have done in the past. Of course, the two styles are not mutually exclusive. At Selva Bonita, we were joined by a French couple on their honeymoon who were on “vacation.” We learned that they sought out Selva Bonita because they wanted to experience an ecolodge environment. We are fairly certain that they, like us, learned that they had little idea of what they were about to experience. It is likely that they, like us, left Selva Bonita as changed people.
Another Very Special Place
The Selva Bonita experience made us want more of the same and we were fortunate enough to find another unique eco camping experience near our next stop in Valladolid. At Ecocamping Valladolid, our host, Ramon, has created a self-sufficient, eco campground that he built from scratch, including several VW Beetle “bedrooms,” solar powered electrical systems that run his refrigerator, water heaters, lighting systems and more. We are awed by his ingenuity and continue to discover his various inventions throughout his campground. Ramon boasts that everything thing in his campground was created of recycled items that he (later joined by a few friends) created from the ground up.
We know that sleeping in the cavity of a vintage VW Beetle or in a cabin in a jungle rich with Mayan traditions and culture is not necessarily for everyone. But we are loving these experiences and have added these to the very top of our “favorite road trip experiences.”
Nature or Nurture?
Both Roque and I come from families who valued travel and what they learned through their travels and it is possible that we would not have considered a lengthy road trip such as this had it not been in our “familial DNA.” No doubt that our exposure to travel whetted our appetites for the kind of exploration we are undertaking. As a bit of an aside, this is particularly noteworthy given our families’ modest backgrounds. In both of our families, neither Roque nor I have a single grandparent who attended college – in fact, we are not certain that any of our grandparents even graduated from high school. And nearly all of the miles traveled by our grandparents in their lifetimes were used in traveling from their countries of birth to the United States when they emigrated. Yet in the single generation between our grandparents and us, all of our parents not only graduated from high school and college, but also earned graduate degrees as well. Both of our families demonstrate some of the best of what was possible for immigrants to the US in the 20th century including home ownership, educational advancement, financial stability and securing enough free time to be able to vacation and travel.
We are fairly sure that we never really spoke to our parents about the value of “recreational” travel to them but from their examples (and the thousands of slides that we watched upon their return from their travels), we inferred that their lives were enhanced from the knowledge they gained from their travels. Clearly, we grew up wanting some of the same (as did our siblings as well).
We’ve given a fair amount of thought and more than a few hours of discussion to the subject of the value of travel in our lives – particularly in the style of this epic road trip. Our experiences this week have reinforced many of these thoughts and while there’s more that we will learn as the lessons percolate through us, we share some of them with you:
Travel Provides Understanding
We travel because we don’t want to just observe the lives of others – we want to experience and understand as much of the lives of others as we can. Entering cathedrals in every city exposes us to architecture and history but walking through a local shopping mall exposes us to manners of dress, and how people spend their consumer dollars and how they behave. We have watched how families in Mexico honor family — bringing elders and youth with them everywhere they go. They sit in multi-generational groupings in restaurants and parks, in theaters and at swimming pools, taking turns caring for those who need care and seemingly never getting ill tempered or impatient with each other. We have listened to the cacophony of car horns blasting the instant a light turns green but nary a sound when a man is helping his elderly mother (or mother-in-law) across the street. Shopping at the markets exposes us to the kinds of foods they eat and the way they shop. Eating at small roadside stands allows us to create a list of favorite foods that include things we couldn’t even (accurately) understand through Google. There are a thousand and one similar experiences and we haven’t even experienced Central America yet!
Travel Provides Perspective
Whether within the US or outside, we have learned that not all “universal” experiences are universal. We’ve learned that it is customary to tip the grocery store bagger and the gasoline pump attendant in Mexico because often they are not paid and rely exclusively on tips. We’ve learned that sometimes, U-turns are made from the left lane and sometimes, the right and sometimes, there are dedicated “returno” lanes for just this purpose. We’ve come to understand that traffic rules are largely unenforced throughout all of Mexico and yet traffic accidents are remarkably rare. While waiting to see a doctor, Mexicans always allow the elderly to advance to the head of the line and rarely are prescriptions necessary to refill maintenance-type medicines largely available at prices that are cheaper in Mexico that standard prescription insurance co-pays in the US.
It’s unusual for a week to pass – throughout the US, Canada and Mexico parts of our travel — where we don’t see something that makes us say “wow – wish we had THAT back on the East Coast or in the US. ” This is part of the reason for this trip – to see the US and our lives there through a different lens, for better or worse.
Travel Provides Insight into Ourselves
Living on the road requires us to live outside our comfort zone nearly daily. The challenges we’ve faced have made us recognize that we are stronger and more resilient than we may have thought, and that we possess the ability to make decisions that require us to trust ourselves in ways we have not tested before. We have kept ourselves safe and we have overcome fear and learned that challenge is healthy. It keeps us aware and alive and alert, constantly resourceful. We have experienced simplicity and the beauty that comes from it. Along the road, we have finely tuned whatever patience we previously possessed, and have become people with infinitely greater abilities to see beauty in seemingly mundane experiences and things. We have become grateful for tiny things and have fewer expectations than in the past.
Simply put, our travels have humbled us and permitted us to become more accepting, particularly of ourselves and our limitations.
Some of all of this is summed up perfectly by friends of ours, Vanamos, who recently moved from the Washington, DC area to Mexico, following a year of overlanding travels from the US to Panama and back. In Vanamos’ blog post called “Our Mexican Revolution,” Paul wrote that:
When we told our friends and family that we were packing up the homestead and moving it south, we heard a lot about how brave we were. We discounted that sentiment. When we thought about what it means to be brave, we considered feats of strength and courage on the battlefield. Quitting a six-figure job, uprooting your family, and voluntarily leaving a country where you can safely drink the water from a gas station lavatory wasn’t brave, it was slightly irresponsible and dumb. But in a way we’ve come around to the idea that we are brave. Having made the move overseas we realize that brave doesn’t have to mean a tally of how many men we’ve killed with our bare hands. It can mean having the courage to change the path of your existence from a fine and comfortable but less than fulfilling lifestyle to something that is uncertain and sometimes difficult, but, hopefully, better.
Reading Vanamos’ blog was an “aha” moment and helped us understand more about the significance of the decision we made to move to Panama and to take this path there. Our lives were rich before we left on this trip but they are richer for having followed our dreams. And we believe that living a life knowing that dreams can come true gives us purpose and hope. Everyone deserves this and we are grateful for these opportunities, over and over again, to experience these lessons.