“Allie is ok with silence.” Michele says. I hang on to any piece of advice Allie’s mom can give me as I am quite nervous about how this trip is going to go. This new piece of advice doesn’t make me feel any better. I’m not very good with silence I think- so this should be interesting. I’m not exactly sure why this Niece Project trip has me so stressed and apprehensive, but it does; I can feel it in my gut. I love Allie, my brother’s middle daughter, to death; in some ways she’s the most intriguing to me out of any of my 6 nieces. She’s intriguing because I can’t quite understand her or predict her path to adulthood. I adore things that are unpredictable more than anything; maybe because unpredictable things take you on a journey where you never really know what’s around the corner. So you get high on anticipation of what it could be. And I can’t wait to see what Allie ‘could be’ in adulthood. But for now from my perspective she’s complex often and appears to live at the extremes – she’s quiet, yet vocal; hard, but soft; and there’s so many things going on inside her mind that never comes out verbally. And strangely – that’s the part that I understand, because I’m the same way.
I realize that these Niece Project trips are as much about my growth as it is about their growth. It’s about how I come to grips with trying to relate to a younger generation, to my own aging, and some of my own life decisions I suppose.
Even though this is my 4th trip with one of my nieces, I’m still never prepared for the feeling of responsibility that washes over me when we first leave; that moment where I realize, they are my responsibility. The realization that I need to worry about someone other than myself, I need to protect and teach, yet let them go and discover for themselves. I need to keep parents updated, I need to adjust to not being solo. I need to not control everything – after all, this is their trip. It’s this weird feeling of giving up control and taking control at the same time. And it always, always leaves knots in my stomach and a sense of initial panic.
Allie looks out the plane window, “Are we going fast?” she asks me.
“Yes, “ I answer, “probably 400 mph”.
“It doesn’t feel like we are going that fast,” she wistfully says.
This is Allie’s first big plane trip, her first trip out of the country, and she’s about to get her first passport stamp. I adore these ‘first’ trips as it makes me see the world of travel again for the first time through another person’s eyes. My favorite thing about traveling with my nieces is when I can teach them something I remember learning as a new traveler; that all other countries use a day/month/year format, how and why to fill out an immigration form, the rest of the world uses Celsius and the metric system, how to convert currency. These are all of the things that struck me as I started to explore outside my country borders. It’s a mental journey of going from questioning, “why do they do that?” – to judging “that’s wrong” – to understanding “oh that’s interesting”. I watched Allie closely as she took things in, looking for signs of excitement or confusion; but I get very little reaction to try to read. And then I remember what her mother said about silence.
This was a trip of firsts for me in a way too; it was my first trip to Belize. As we made our way with our driver to Pook’s Lodge in the heart of the jungle, I was surprised and excited about what I saw of Belize. I was expecting a country that was quite developed and ‘Americanized’, but it was grittier and less developed than what I thought. I was excited not only because that’s the type of travel I prefer, but I was excited to expose Allie to something that was quite different from her normal view. She said very little as we drove deeper into the jungle down bouncy, crumbling dirt roads. I wondered what was going through her head as she looked out the window at the simple living conditions and daily life of people in Belize. I wondered if she was car sick, I wondered if I needed to find the barf bag that I have learned to always carry with me on niece trips!
Life in the Belize Jungle
It was called the bird’s nest; our large bungalow at Pook’s Hill Lodge was elevated about 20 feet off the ground and tucked far away from the rest of the hobbit looking bungalows. It was surrounded by green trees and vines; this was the middle of the jungle. In the light of day it was all rather exotic, and I was well aware that it would get even more exotic as the sun went down as I know from experience that’s when the jungle tends to wake up. I could tell Allie was impressed, she had never stayed or seen such a place before – and neither had I. It’s hard to build natural looking, modern living spaces in the jungle! We got settled in that night and had dinner in the communal dining area which was screened in to protect us from mosquitoes. As Allie put one of everything on her plate to try I smiled and realized this was one area that I knew I would have no issues with Allie – she was a daring eater, just like her sister. I love daring eaters.
The jungle touches many senses. Obviously from a visual perspective you are surrounded by dense green jungle everywhere you look – it’s pretty amazing to think about what is inside that foliage, or to see geckos and lizards scurry. But you are also treated to jungle surround sound in the mornings. Waking up at Pooks Hill was a beautiful symphony of birds, bugs, geckos, and the occasional monkey. As the sun came up so did the volume creating a beautiful ‘nature’s alarm’. As cool and different as the jungle environment and creatures are, there’s also a part of me that thinks – there are plenty of things in the jungle that I really don’t want to see.
Pooks Hill All Inclusive Jungle Lodge
After dinner each night we’d walk back through the pitch-dark jungle pathway and open the door to our bungalow slowly wondering what we would find. At night, the creepy crawlies would come out in the jungle. We opened the door, “There’s a cockroach on my bed,” she says in a non-startled angry tone. I look and see the huge bug start to scurry across her duvet. Crap I think – I hate these things and I really don’t want to have to do anything about it. This is the part where I hate playing the adult – the one who is suppose to be calm, cool, and collected. It takes everything in my being to stay calm, cool, and collected in a bug situation. I try to put on my non-startled in-control voice and we try to coral the bugger off the bed as if it’s a cattle drive. We each take a corner, surrounding it, trying to scare it. It runs off the bed and on the wall behind the bed. We both know this isn’t good enough. Sure, it’s off the bed, but we are both wondering what happens when it comes back. Eventually after a few attempts as a team we kill it. I tell her though that the carcass will actually attract more bugs overnight so we should really pick it up.
“With what?” she asks.
“A wade of toilet paper” I reply in my best in-control adult tone. And a few seconds later she comes out of the bathroom with toilet paper and picks it up without complaining a bit and puts in in the toilet.
Not so creepy jungle animals
I knew when we decided to stay in the jungle that we’d run into bugs – it’s inevitable. But I wasn’t sure how Allie would react to it. Most of my other nieces would have freaked out, but one of my favorite things about Allie is that when you tell her something, she doesn’t waste time or vacillate about it – she’ll do it. After she flushed it, we both rejoiced in our good teamwork!
Offline, Unplugged, and Coming Unglued
The jungle held other challenges too – about as scary as bugs in your bed; we were completely unplugged from the grid. Horror! No cell, no texting, no internet, no Snapchat. “What if something is happening and I don’t know about it!” Allie suddenly says as she lies on the bed fidgeting trying to figure out what to do with her phone, which is now as useful as a brick.
“That’s the nice thing about travel,” I reply, “you don’t always have to know what’s happening in the news.”
“Nooooo, I not talking about the news,” she rolls her eyes at me as if I’m a complete adult idiot (which I guess I am!), “I mean Instagram! I’m going to wake up and turn to look at my phone – and there will be nothing there on Instagram!” she whines.
She was like a meth head going through withdrawals from her phone and internet access. She didn’t know what to do, so she sat around balancing a bottle on her head. I tried to explain that it was a good thing sometimes to be unplugged, but that was like trying to have a conversation about taxes with a teenager – she didn’t really care.
Strangely though as an adult I was sort of going through the same thing. Not because my social life revolves around Instagram, but because my work and livelihood revolves around the internet and being connected. I just knew how to mentally deal with it better – most of the time.
A Jungle Send Off
After a number of jungle adventures and our 4th humid night sleeping in the birdhouse, I can tell that Allie is ready to move on to the Belize beach. As we are packing up everything in our birdhouse cabana she asks, “Is this ours?” as she points to a big black box on the floor.
“No,” I reply “it’s just the room safe in case we had wanted to lock anything up.” She starts messing around with it trying to figure out how to open it with our key as I continue to pack.
“Oh my God” she frantically yells as she jumps back, “there’s a giant spider in this box!”
I skeptically peek over wondering what I will really find – and sure enough, there is a giant fuzzy brown spider inside the vault box. We slam it shut again, freak out like young girls, and at breakfast tell the lodge staff.
Our guide, Mike, came to look at it and said in a completely calm manner, “It’s a Wolf Spider” totally unphased by this ‘secret treasure’ inside our room safe. I pepper him with typical squeamish tourist questions about how it got there, is it poisonous, and once again…how the hell did it get in there?! It ended up being quite the excitement for us that morning as Allie and I were now BOTH excited to be heading off on our 3 hour drive to the beach. And I was excited to continue this adventure with her not knowing where it would lead next.
It’s strange what people bond over and how relationships are formed. Most of the time it’s because of things you have in common, but sometimes it’s when bad things or circumstances draw you together. It was jungle bugs that brought Allie and I together and formed some lasting memories on this trip. The bugs were the beginning of teamwork, of bigger conversations, of bonding. I know that even though we had an amazing time doing gutsy adventure activities in the jungle, it was the lack of internet and a few creepy crawly things that would be talked about the most in the years to come.
Belize Jungle Adventures
How You Can Recreate This Trip:
First off, don’t be freaked out by bugs, Pooks Hill is an awesome all inclusive resort, and it’s in the middle of the jungle. It’s basic, and it blends into the environment – and the environment is occupied by bugs, monkeys, and snakes – so it’s the real thing! The staff is great, the food yummy, and there are tons of activities around the area.
I booked through Adventure Life – and they can help you customize your Belize Adventure! They helped Allie and me pick activities such as caving, ziplining, tubing, and visiting butterfly parks as well as organize all of our transfers.
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