The flight was 15 minutes to San Pedro Town, in a 14-seat Cessna over crystalline waters, with the sky impossibly close at our shoulders and our life jackets folded into pockets at our knees. My husband, Charles, said the duct-taped sun visor over the pilot’s seat looked like something from a ’75 Chevy Vega. My daughter, Lily, tugged my sleeve and told me, nearly breathless, that we’d just gone inside a cloud. She was almost six and three-quarters, the salad days of six and a half receding behind us faster than the pink plush snake she’d begged for at the Belize City airport gift shop.
We’d spent the night in Houston, an unexpected layover after we missed our first flight from La Guardia because we didn’t have a copy of Lily’s mother’s death certificate. You see, Lily is not my daughter by birth. She is simply the daughter I am helping to raise—as if simply could ever apply to her loss, or our family, or any family; as if you could control everything, or even really anything, about taking a six-year-old to an island 1,800 miles away. Travel is ultimately a series of intentional disruptions, and we found that our disruptions had been disrupted.
“So I found myself planning a different kind of trip from any I’d ever taken before.”
But now Ambergris Caye was appearing under us: its shimmering mangrove swamp and the long brown fingers of its jetties. We saw an unfinished spiral staircase made of concrete twisting into the sky. A small motorboat met us at the docks in San Pedro, where dark frigate birds hovered over the water as if suspended by strings, waiting for fishermen to clean their catch so they could dive for the scraps. The boat took us up the coast—salt wind in our faces—until we reached our resort, Coco Beach, an imposing flotilla of villas facing the ocean, their eerie prefab splendor like a record skipping in place: villa, villa, villa.
The resort’s buildings, all peach stucco and crimson tiled roofs, flanked a terraced honeycomb of swimming pools, circled by sauntering iguanas and urgently plural: a hot tub enclosed by a warm tub enclosed by a cool pool, a shallow moat around the swim-up bar. All this was just the first pool, actually. The second was a massive lima bean that held a faux-rock centerpiece Lily would come to call “the rock-jumping valley,” a tower that looked like outsize macramé, with hidden passageways and grottoes and cubbies, a concealed stairway and—its pièce de résistance—an interior waterslide. If you’ve never paid this kind of attention to a pool feature, then you’ve never traveled with a child.
Our hotel represented everything I hated about travel in the developing world: soulless luxury divorced from its context, profits funneled abroad. I had been to Central America before. As a 16-year-old, full of good intentions, I’d joined a service trip to a small Costa Rican village in the foothills of Chirripó, the country’s tallest mountain. I’d stayed with a family and spent a month laying a concrete path between the main dirt road and the church. The only thing worse than my Spanish was my ability to mix concrete, and it became clear that my “service” was really an experience I had purchased—or my parents had. At 23, I’d spent a summer in Nicaragua, teaching at a two-room schoolhouse outside Granada and drinking my body weight in rum. In each case I had felt the limits of what I was doing—the fraught complexities of being a privileged do-gooder sojourning somewhere beautiful and impoverished—but at least I’d been doing something besides turning money into pleasure. I’d turned it into memories of altruism and unremembered nights of drunkenness. Those days had been restless and messy but also committed, however naïvely, to something besides my own enjoyment.
We’d been through a huge year—a new marriage, a move to a new apartment, a newly forged motherhood—and it felt good to think that I might be able to give something to our family, some experience of giddy, visceral beauty. But it was the first trip I’d ever planned for all three of us, and I struggled with the fear that I’d do something wrong, something that betrayed my total misunderstanding of a child’s needs or that suggested I was placing my needs or desires above hers. So I found myself planning a different kind of trip from any I’d ever taken before. Our double-pooled resort, our swim-up bar, our balcony—these felt like an insurance policy I badly needed.
Actually, we didn’t have just one balcony—we had two. Our front deck overlooked a life-size chess set; our back deck perched above a construction site of stray lumber and debris piled onto a dirt yard, rebar gaping out of concrete shells. Something was being built here. On Ambergris Caye, it seemed as though something was being built everywhere. This is nothing new. Foreign interests have shaped the land now called Belize since the 16th century. English and Spanish are both widely spoken because the two colonial forces vied for control of its resources. The Spaniards were the ones who first stole the land from the Mayas, but the British kept doggedly going after its lumber anyway. It had other things, too: sugar, bananas, oil. But these days the primary resource is beauty, and the main commodity is pleasure itself.
On the first night, we decided to rent a golf cart and drive it into town. I asked for directions and was told, “There is only one road. Take a left.”
The golf cart had a half-drunk can of Belikin, Belize’s local beer, in its cupholder and an accelerator you had to pump into compliance. It maxed out at something just shy of 15 mph. I loved it. I loved the wind in my hair and the lagoon to our right glimmering in the sunset, the liquid roots of mangroves curling into the water. We braked for thick ropes laid as makeshift speed bumps. We passed teenagers on bikes wearing decade-old NBA jerseys. We passed fruit stands with banana bunches hanging like bats in the shadows.
We stopped for dinner at a little roadside bar a mile out of town. Boat buoys hung from its thatched roof, Christmas lights looped around palm trunks, an old rusty anchor lay abandoned in the ferns. There was an empty birdcage with a tray full of peanuts and feathers caught in the wire, but no parrot in sight. The crescent moon was sharp, glowing pale, and the sky was like a naked version of our sky back home—as if its skin had been peeled away to show more stars.
We misted ourselves in an organic rose geranium bug spray made by a nonprofit that was offering a prize for the best photograph of the spray in an exotic locale. Lily was thrilled with this mission, a gauntlet thrown down at her small sandaled feet, and we would photograph this bug spray everywhere, like a tiny inanimate runway model in a series of photo shoots. We started right there at the bar, tucking it into a hammock behind a rotting fishing net. We ate coconut curry and pork chops that had been smoked in coconut shells. We heard a woman get in trouble for ordering a Red Stripe instead of a Belikin.
On the ride home, we picked up a hitchhiker—an old woman carrying groceries back home to a place called the Reggae Shack, a rusty trailer with light seeping like fluid from its seams. I spotted the silhouettes of scorpions crossing the highway, their raised tails black and regal in our golf-cart headlights.
By day, each day, we adventured. I rode in the copilot’s seat of another tiny Cessna, with the pilot’s orange soda at my knee and his flip-phone resting on the throttle between us. We flew over a rum distillery that rose like a metal pagoda from the green fields of cane. It had been owned, we were told, by a workers’ union—which had been bought out recently by a company based in Florida.
We took a boat upriver to the Maya ruins at Lamanai, passing Mennonite farmers in overalls on break from building a massive barge for their sugar crops. (Sugar had long been Belize’s biggest industry until tourism surpassed it.) We pulled over to the riverbank to pee. Where’s the bathroom? Lily asked, expecting a building. I taught her how to pee in the woods, as my mom had taught me. Our guide, Antonio, paused to hand out bananas to a group of boys harvesting ironwood. He pointed out sleeping sac-winged bats flattened like furry brown pancakes against the trunk of a dead tree. He gave us the full scoop on pretty much every plant in sight—the strangler fig, the elephant-ear tree, and the give-and-take palm with spines that inflict nasty cuts and sap that soothes and disinfects them. When Lily got tired and her mood started creeping toward meltdown, we brought out the bug spray for art shots: Bug Spray on the Royal Mayan Ball Court; Bug Spray in the Ruined Bedrooms of the Royal Palace; Bug Spray and the Carving of Lord Smoking Shell.
Also, we snorkeled. We snorkeled like nobody’s business, though of course it was business, for everyone involved. We snorkeled with de-fogging dish soap in our goggles and greed in our hearts. We wanted to spot everything. I heard someone say octopus and felt my rubber flippers twitch with resolve. At Hol Chan, we snorkeled over little brains of coral and past a turtle munching on patches of sea grass, its shell an intricate jigsaw of lacquered puzzle pieces. We snorkeled over a wrecked supply barge that had become its own ecosystem, fish like slips of quicksilver darting in and out of the ragged mouths where rust had eaten through the metal. We jumped into the water with great urgency to snorkel with manatees. (“You’ve got to get on your flippers and GO!” our guide yelled.) We snorkeled with sharks, the water rippling and frothing around their muscled bodies—15 of them fighting for the bloody chum our captain, Giovanni, was tossing off the back of the boat. From her perch, Lily reminded everyone, These are the nice sharks. She said it several times, a kind of mantra.
“Traveling offers us the chance to constitute ourselves with taste: what we love and what we don’t.”
Lily loved snorkeling the first time, then things went downhill. The water got choppier, her snorkel kept filling with salt water. By the end of the trip, her dislike for snorkeling had become an identity statement. Weeks later, when people asked about the trip, she’d answer by saying how much fun she had “except for snorkeling.” She’d say, “I’ll never go snorkeling again.” I felt her pleasure in this insistence—she had preferences. Traveling offers us the chance to constitute ourselves with taste: what we love and what we don’t. I fought the impulse to say, But you liked it the first time, because I could recognize in that impulse the need for her tastes to be my tastes, and I wanted to fight the imposition.
What Lily did love was our afternoon on Bajo Caye, where we stopped for lunch one day. It was a tiny strip of sand the size of a football field, the bathroom just a shack over the sea, a wooden bench inside cut with an oval of perfect blue. Lily wondered how the fish felt about our peeing in their ocean. She teamed up with a little boy to solve the mystery of an abandoned shack that had a half-built solar panel lying on its defunct stove, a hammock in its tiny loft, a T-shirt full of Oreo cookies on the sandy floorboards. Lily went around collecting clues: There was a parrot on the island. The parrot liked Oreos.
Captain Giovanni told me he used to be a deep-sea diver and would dive the atolls off the coast, Turneffe and Glover’s Reef. He used to do “crazy things”—he once dove to 285 feet—until his mom heard about how extreme his dives had gotten and made him promise to stop. Now that he was a father, she told him, things had to be different. He said he’d made that promise and kept it—he hadn’t gone diving since. He told me this story as if to say, You know how it goes. Strangers always assume that Lily and I are mother and daughter because she calls me Mommy and our hair is the same wavy brown. We are both dramatic gesticulators and constant question askers. But it still surprises me to be—now, suddenly—the mother of a six-year-old. I feel perched at the edge of failure in each moment. This is nothing unusual. Every parent feels this way. It’s just that if I fail, I am failing another woman’s child and my own child at once.
In town, we ate lamb curry and lobster tacos piled with radish and corn, big stewed chunks of meat drizzled with lime. We ate chicken salbute on deep-fried tortillas and crema de calabaza—a squash soup with crushed seeds sprinkled on top—and tamalitos de chaya, moist tamales full of island spinach. We ordered pork pibil and coconut chipotle fish. We scarfed tiny stewed plums like they were candy. We ate little balls of coconut and ginger called dulce de coco. We drank café de olla—a local coffee that tasted like cinnamon. No matter where we were, Lily asked for chicken fingers.
Our hotel might have represented everything I loathed about travel, but it was also ours—ours as we kept returning to the wrong villa (they all looked the same), ours as we played Clue and ate our morning bananas, ours as we built one of the first stories we’d shared as a family. Lily eventually faced down her nerves to jump off the rock-jumping valley, to let it earn its name. She climbed up the stairs, came back down, uncertain, pumped her fist in the air—“I can do this”—went back up, and finally jumped. The triumph of the moment was palpable. The rock tower was a monstrosity, the resort a touristic obscenity, but it was also fun to swim there, and it brought Lily joy. It made me think of Marianne Moore’s notion of poetry having “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Lily’s bliss was something real inside the absurd theater of those fake rocks. There were real iguanas strolling the imaginary gardens of the hospitality machine.
For me, the manicured features of our resort challenged my sense of self, or angered the ghosts of prior selves: the self who’d mixed concrete (terribly), the self who’d taught second-graders (with a hangover), the versions of me that slept in beds skittering with cockroaches and ate tamales by candlelight when the power went out. What was that self doing in this villa, with a daughter, trying to decide between balconies?
Lily, on the other hand, loved our hotel but felt uncertain about the rest of Belize. She told me she didn’t like going on the golf cart because the rest of the island was creepy. The national flag scared her because it showed two men holding an ax and a bat. I worried that by choosing our hotel I’d done exactly the opposite of what I wanted to do—which was to make her feel comfortable in a strange place—and had instead polarized this place into a familiar world she loved and an unfamiliar world she didn’t.
But I learned something from how Lily traveled as well. She got excited about the parts of traveling that I could easily dismiss as packaging around the actual “experience.” She loved putting our laptops into bins on the baggage belt at airport security. She adored the water taxi, those bursts of spray when it smacked the choppy water. “This. Is. Awesome,” she said, giving each word its own moment. She defeated the notion of child as ego extension. She wasn’t a sculpture we shaped from clay, an incarnation of our vision for what she should be. She was beautifully and inevitably herself—an engine of curiosity running on peanut butter and watermelon juice. And her dance card was booked with glorious business: solving the mystery of an abandoned shack, hurling herself off a pile of fabricated rocks, organizing a moonlit search for mermaids in the moat around the swim-up bar. What grace for all of us that she was more than a collection of our desires for what she might be—that her curiosity glowed on its own terms, always.
Standing in the customs line at Houston, on our trip back, an agent gave us the wrong information about which forms we needed and a burly American guy standing in front of us tried to commiserate: “There’s a reason some people work minimum wage jobs,” he said. He understood the world as a place where some people deserve five-day Belizean vacations and other people deserve to provide the human labor that makes them possible—that all of this is as it should be. Taking care of a child made it easier to forget my privilege, or somehow justify it, because I felt selfless—attending to her needs, trying to make her world possible and pleasurable. Because I still felt uncertain of my motherhood in every way, all this felt virtuous. But our obligations as parents don’t displace our obligations to strangers, and the act of caring for a child doesn’t obscure the inequalities that emerge with clarity whenever Westerners arrive in the developing world—hungry for its beauty, for its difference, for its coral reefs and ancient temples.
We left our money in Belize—where much of it went back to U.S. real estate developers—and we left our tips in the hands of men who delivered us to regal manatees and shipwrecks covered in coral. We fed our daughter chicken fingers in the land of coconut chipotle snapper. We leapt from the grip of our guilt and landed in the deep end of the swimming pool, where her bliss at chasing mermaids was one truth and the construction workers beyond our balcony were another—the truth of joy and the truth of profit—and neither truth ever cancelled the other.
>>Read more on the stages of travel from Leslie Jamison: Sri Lanka: The Two Faces of Paradise