Our guide, Luis, was lost. Or, at least, not entirely sure where we were.
We were a few hours into our hike in the Amazon jungle, three kids in tow, and we were due to encounter both a Ticuna fishing village and the motorized canoe waiting for us that would carry us on the next leg of our journey.
Instead, we’d been going in circles for half an hour, avoiding the smoldering ashes and still- roaring flames consuming small patches of jungle to allow for greater cultivation.
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“I got some more,” Finn called, shuffling back to us with his hands full. While Luis deliberated about how to find the village, our 10 and 12-year-old sons had climbed another guaba tree and freed a few more of the fruits Luis had introduced us to that morning. Like candy boxes, guaba were foot-long woody seed pods which, when cracked open, revealed neat rows of pulpy white balls tucked around large, smooth seeds.
Along with the fruit, Luis had shown us the medicinal plants used by local people to treat everything from stomach ailments to diabetes; he’d taught us to identify bebe leche monkeys with fringes of white around the black fur of their mouths, and illustrated how the sound of a thump from a stick against the buttress roots of large trees was a sound that could carry code across vast distances of the forest like a jungle telephone.
Beneath the dense forest canopy we were sweating profusely in our rubber boots; the air around us felt alive with the faintly mechanical clicks and buzzes of insects. Luis told us how his people had once been cannibals while his fingers were mindlessly working to strip a large dried flower into the shape of a spider for our smallest son, Julian.
“We might once have eaten you just for being strangers here!” he exclaimed, grinning amiably. “But not to worry. Not anymore!”
Most people back home had expressed surprise or even outright concern that we were taking our three kids with us not only to Colombia, but also to explore the Amazon.
Countless people had frantically asked us, “Do you have kidnapping insurance?What if someone gets sick?”
“Hold on to your three-year-old at all times,” one mother advised. “Hold on tight.”
But we saw risk differently. Both biologists, my husband and I were parents of a 12-year-old son about to enter the shark-infested waters of junior high, a ten-year-old battling recently diagnosed OCD-related anxiety, and a vivacious (read: headstrong, wild) three-year-old. Under the circumstances, taking the kids out of their comfort zones and exposing them to the enormity of the planet they inhabited honestly seemed like the safest (and sanest) course of action.
At its pinnacle, travel is a tight wire act requiring the balance of risk and discovery; as parents we’ve found that we sometimes lean more toward the somewhat unpopular stance of weighting the value of discovery over the avoidance of risk.
Our Amazonian base for the week was Leticia, a port town at the junction of Colombia, Peru and Brazil. It’s about 800 kilometers from the nearest Colombian highway, so the only way in or out of Leticia was by air or water. We’d flown from the Caribbean city of Santa Marta to Bogota, then from Bogota over the breathtakingly vast Amazon rainforest that had stretched beneath the plane’s wing to the horizon, broken only by muddy ribbons of water.
From Leticia, we arranged travel by boat to Micos Island, home of a nearly domesticated flock of tiny squirrel monkeys that happily climbed all over visitors. Our older boys traded terms in English for the Spanish vocabulary Luis taught them. Our guide was also eager to learn English in return, though there wasn’t much English spoken in Leticia while we were there.
After more monkey cuteness than we could handle, we traveled onward by river to seek out freshwater dolphins. The Amazon River itself was awe-inspiring, vast and animated, thronging with boat traffic, strong currents, and schools of fish, lined by jungle broken by occasional villages. Small gray river dolphins were everywhere and easy to spot due to their affinity for athletic leaps. Harder to find – but among the Amazonian animals we most hoped to spot – were larger, pink river dolphins, which are the largest freshwater dolphins in the world, reaching up to nine feet in length.
Almost as anxious to spot them as we were, Luis told us the pink dolphins held special significance in his culture. He directed our boat captain toward the swirling brown currents where pink dolphins were likely to be fishing. We didn’t want to hope too much for even a glimpse and jinx ourselves, but after only a few minutes, flashes of pink surrounded our boat, mothers and their babies slipping through the water while we watched in awe.
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“It’s Julian’s spirit,” Luis announced, hugging our three-year-old. “His happiness and energy for life draws them.” I wondered how often we’d thought about our three year old’s zest for life as the work of a miniature tyrannical overlord, but here was a man we’d just met telling us that instead he was full of the kind of magic that could bring dolphins.
I was still under the spell of my new, gentler Amazonian parenting perspective as we continued our overland trek, and the kids maintained their good spirits even as the hike grew longer than we had planned. At long last, Luis guided us to the Ticuna fishing village for which we’d been searching.
In the village, we located our motorized canoe and traveled down a small and muddy tributary lined by local Ticuna fishing for piranha. When the waterway widened into a vast freshwater lake, we switched over to kayaks to finish out the day’s journey through shallow wetland passages.
As we kayaked, I watched our two older boys start out poorly, clanking paddle heads and arguing over who was at fault. Then the boys asked Luis whether it was safe to swim (really they wanted to know was: ‘will I be nibbled by the piranha we saw in the stream’)? When Luis gave the go ahead, both boys leapt into the water, their suddenly empty kayak jolting from side to side. By the time they climbed back aboard their boat, they were both smiling and as we followed them upstream, I noticed how my usually anxious ten year-old’s shoulders were relaxed, his posture smooth and easy.
From the reeds all around us, a tremendous white burst took flight and we found ourselves beneath a sky filled with the heartbeat sound of a thousand beating wings, the Amazonian horizon filled with great white egrets.
As we finally reached our put-out point that day, a full three hours late but with three exhausted, muddy, and beaming boys, I thought again about the balance of risk and reward. Travel wasn’t that different than parenting itself: a leap into the unknown, a journey to a destination you didn’t know you needed to reach until you had arrived.