We are on our way to Boracay, an island in the Philippines, and I’m on high alert. We’ve reached the last leg of the journey, which is turning out to be a little bit trickier than I anticipated. It’s raining and we’re outside a tiny airport, under a leaky thatch shelter, waiting for transport to our boat. Beach rain doesn’t really bother me, but everyone who is helping is quite eager, so the insistence on covering us with umbrellas every time we move through the raindrops is a little bit aggravating. I’m trying to watch our two children, Max and Maya, who are flitting about like little blonde butterflies, lighting on everything they should definitely not be touching, like the walkie talkie the driver uses to communicate with the boat. My husband oversees our five small bags and tipping. He’s concerned because we haven’t mastered the exchange rate and he doesn’t want to either slight or wildly overcompensate anyone.
Years of travel have taught me to always keep one eye on my bags; where they are and who is dealing with them. This is hard to do when one of the transport employees is very kindly trying to keep an umbrella over us to make sure that the children and I don’t get wet. In the process, he is blocking my view of our stuff, so I’m torn between trusting the strangers around us or offending this very considerate man with my mistrust. Eventually, we reach the bus, the bags arrive, and everyone is tipped. The transport drives us the equivalent of one city block, and we disembark.
The boat we are about to board makes the non-swimmer in me catch my breath. It’s old; really old. Looking down the beach, I see more modern vessels, but they aren’t here for us. No, we’re about to climb onto this oversized canoe with a lid. As the gentle waves run onto the shore, they cause the boat to creak slightly. I tell myself that the bamboo water strider appendages on either side will keep us from capsizing, but they won’t keep this thing from splitting in half like saturated tinder. My daughter, Maya, who’s four, stops trying stomp in every puddle long enough to ask, “Is that our boat?”
“Yes,” I answer, ready to soothe her fears and convince her that she’s safe. I love that my daughter is so eager to take on the big wide world. I used to be like that. I was once trusting and fearless. Many years and two kids later, here I am, holding my daughter’s hand and fretting a ten-minute boat ride. I look down into her little upturned face and see she’s grinning.
“Awesome!” she yells, and I can’t help but laugh despite my own fears. In that single moment, I realize that I’m an idiot. I’ve become so overwhelmed by caution that I’ve forgotten the most important rule of travelling. Don’t be an alarmist. Put yourself out there or stay home. I don’t like to travel with people who complain. I don’t like to read what they write about their travels. I’m the first one to tell them to lighten up, so what the hell am I doing being paranoid? I need to stop and look to my preschooler for guidance and a slight attitude adjustment.
She’s right. The boat is awesome. We are on the shores of a small Philippine Island, getting ready to take a very traditional boat to an even smaller island where we will lounge on white powdery sand beaches. Small sea craft of different types dot the horizon and the sun is trying to burn off the thick grey clouds. We are knee-deep in awesome and I almost missed it because of my preoccupation with keeping track of my children’s little blonde noggins.
I wasn’t always like this. I shrugged off much greater peril than this before I had kids. I’ve crossed the border into Panama by walking over a river gorge on a bridge that had slipped into such disrepair that the bus and its passengers had to cross separately. I’ve passed a rum bottle with the locals on a violently thrashing night ferry as it crossed Lake Nicaragua. In that moment, drinking out of the same bottle as strangers ranked low on my list of immediate peril.
Over the years, I’ve learned to be cautious, and that usually keeps me from being outright scared. However, the combination of looking at that funny little Philippine boat, my fear of water, and the prospect of making a stupid decision that endangers my children gives me a little stomachache. Unfortunately, none of the locals pass me a bottle of rum, which at that moment, was a service I would have valued a lot more than a lifetime of umbrella-carrying assistance.
Single file, we climb a skinny, time-worn ramp and make our way along the edge of the boat to get to the covered area in the center. Just before we step down to the seats, one of the luggage-haulers stops my husband to ask for a tip. Money is offered, and soon two of our bags are precariously balanced on the roof of the boat. In an instant, I’m worrying again. A mental inventory of those bags follows. Most of my precious electronics are down with the passengers. Everything in the suitcases is replaceable. We put life jackets on the kids, who are busting with excitement. I allow myself a minute to worry about the bags. Then, I look at my children, who are squealing with joy every time the boat catches a wave and bounces. They aren’t afraid. They don’t care about the luggage. They just know that the ride is awesome.
My daughter is all emotion. She’s never had a feeling that wasn’t pronounced to the world, and today is no exception. She squeals and bubbles out her delight in a way that only a four-year-old can. She reaches out to grab my hand, yelling over the sound of the boat crashing on the waves. “Mommy, look!” she commands. “Palm trees!” I am reminded that I had the same reaction to my first palm tree sighting. I was twenty-seven at the time, not four.
Maybe, I think, my preoccupation with safety is there for a reason. I’m cautious so she doesn’t have to be. Perhaps this is my job, to shoulder the worry so that, at least for now, her life can be all awesome, all the time. I pull her into my lap and listen as she describes everything she sees, taking the time to share her enthusiasm. These moments of pure joy are the reason we travel.