"You're going where? By yourself?" my mother asked, like I had just set out along the Oregon Trail with nothing but a bag of beef jerky and a slingshot.
It was 2006. I was 25 and headed to Belize. Alone. Solitude wasn't necessarily my first choice, but I was single and couldn't coordinate vacation time with friends. Belize wasn't my first choice, either — more of a destination compromise, due to the vacation's last-minute conception and a minuscule budget. Of my vacation Venn diagram, Central America occupied the common space: international, inexpensive, and a little unexpected. Then, Belize was slightly more obscure than Costa Rica and Panama, had less of a known reputation for violence than Nicaragua and El Salvador, and had cheaper flights than Honduras and Guatemala. While I dreamed of Kenya or Japan, my wallet wouldn't allow me to leave the hemisphere, so Belize it was.
I was still monumentally excited, but my mom clearly didn't share the enthusiasm. In my mind it would be swaying hammocks and coconut drinks, and in hers it was fist-size insects and watery graves. To her credit, she never explicitly told me I couldn't go, or even that I shouldn't — she just made it abundantly clear that I would be abducted if I did.
"You're just very young and inexperienced," she said. "And a girl traveling alone? That's just ... that's ..." she trailed off, unable to verbalize whatever doomsday scenario was playing out in her head.
And on this, I have to concede. Slightly. Yes, navigating the world in a female body can be dangerous, but that's just as true in the jungles of Central America as it is in the fraternity houses of the United States. And of course there are some parts of the world where women can be particularly vulnerable due to antiquated societal norms and it's better to travel in a group. Belize was nothing that some pepper spray and an ear for my gut couldn't handle.
"I'll be fine!" I huffed, irritated by how much of a total bummer she was being.
What did she expect me to do? Stay home? Visit her? Go to a Sandals ?! I wanted adventure! I wanted culture! I wanted affairs with foreign men! And I just couldn't stomach the idea of censoring my own life's experiences based on the absence of a companion. It felt so hopelessly Victorian.
So, despite my mother's protests, I booked a flight—
—Which I promptly missed. OK, so maybe there were some things I still needed to learn.
Lesson 1: Even when your connection is domestic, if your final destination is international, you have to arrive two hours ahead.
Then, once I landed I got food poisoning. Lesson 2: Not drinking the water doesn't work if you're still eating the raw vegetables washed with that water.
Finally, I realized I had switched ATM cards with a friend back in LA, and my bank account had been frozen. Maybe iPhones and Square have changed it, but in 2006 the jungles of Central America were cash only. Lesson 3: Don't be a bonehead.
Luckily, I had $400 in traveler's cheques, which I was able to survive the week on, thanks to my lingering nausea and inability to eat. Lesson 4: Sometimes, listen to your mom.
I wanted to call her immediately, but I didn't. Partially because I didn't want her to worry, partially because I didn't want to prove her right, but mostly because in my delirium I heard a voice. It had the unmistakable mix of glass-ceiling-shattering strength and calming velvety smoothness of feminist patron saint Murphy Brown. In my hour of need, she came to me in a smart blazer and said, "Come on, girl. You got this." And because she's a no-nonsense pragmatist, Murphy also pointed out that the pay-phone instructions were in Spanish, so regardless I was shit out of luck.
Once my fever dream broke, the trip did not get better. On the way back from a tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal, a Mayan cave filled with human sacrificial remains, our truck broke down. Because this particular deserted dirt road was crawling with banditos, a unit of Belize Army commandos arrived frighteningly quickly, and I rode back sandwiched between their AK-47s. Later, in a flurry of enthusiasm over some hot springs, I fell and gashed my toe open. The best medical treatment available was provided by a disgruntled Vietnam vet living at my hostel, who thought I "probably wouldn't" contract gangrene. And finally, there was the discarded American yellow school bus I took to the coast. En route I got my period, bled through my shorts, and was told by the only other nonnative aboard, a wild-eyed and leather-skinned old hippie woman, about that time last week when she had been held up at machete-point.