Crouching by the side of the opaque, muddy waters of Belize’s Raspaculo River, I held back tears while wringing its muck from my socks. I had just fallen in after a failed attempt to support myself using a dead tree, which broke under my weight and sent me sidelong into the river. You can’t do this, you shouldn’t have tried, you should leave right now, I angrily thought to myself. Until I remembered: There was no way out.
Three days before this incident, I was just beginning my 14-day stint in the Chiquibul National Park as a volunteer protecting scarlet macaws from pet trade poachers. At the time, a Belizean nonprofit called Scarlet Six deployed volunteers like me into the jungle to support their efforts to rebuild the rapidly dwindling population of these birds. I had fallen in love with Belize a few months prior during my honeymoon, so when I found out I could play a tangible role in supporting their wildlife conservation efforts, I jumped at the opportunity.
Growing up as a rough-and-tumble tomboy with fists full of mud and bugs, I’d anticipated living a life out in the field, thriving in harmony with the wilderness while protecting and communing with its vulnerable creatures. My deep fondness for wild creatures led me to study animal science in college, with the goal of eventually becoming a veterinarian, but somewhere along the way my path changed course, and animals ceased to be part of my daily life. Even so, I never stopped believing I was some young, female Dr. Dolittle.
It had been years since I’d willingly ventured into the unknown, playing it safe with a 9-to-5 job, which let me lead an urban life that looked good but felt empty. This from someone who’d spent her teenage years backpacking in British Columbian mountain ranges and navigating rivers in the Amazon, who once aspired to live in an open-air Costa Rican treehouse. Somewhere along the way, my outdoor aptitude gave way to feeling entirely too comfortable sitting on the couch, and it wasn’t until my Belizean honeymoon that I realized how far I had strayed.
A spider handed me my epiphany while my husband and I were cave tubing. Arachnophobia plagued my adult years, driving me to avoid the jungles I had loved as a child. Yet, there I was floating right next to a big fat cave spider, and while my husband, Michael, would normally dispose of spiders back home, he wasn’t nearby to save me now. As the panic started to rise, I realized that there was someone who could help: me. In that moment it was clear just how much I had been relying on my relationship and Michael to solve my problems, from dealing with bugs to defining my identity. And now that I had taken on the new title of “wife,” it was all too easy to fall into the role I thought was expected of me, rather than cultivating the “Indiana Jane” persona I believed myself to be.
Before confronting the spider, I was plagued with self-doubt. Was I even strong, physically and mentally? Was I adaptable? Could I endure extreme conditions for the sake of the wild animals I claimed to love? Most importantly, who was I outside of my relationship? I didn’t know anymore. Maybe my perception of myself as an explorer who could take on anything thrown at her was just the result of the overactive imagination of an energetic child, and settling into society’s expectations of married life really was the only option left for me. But once I came head-to-head with my greatest fear and found that I was fine, I knew right there and then in that dank, spider-filled cave that it was time for me to manifest the woman I wanted to be, the woman I was inside.
There was no way for me to prove to myself that I was in fact more than a wife by continuing to sit on the couch. I needed to reaffirm the parts of myself that I most identified with, particularly my love of wild, experiential travel. During the 11 years of our relationship prior to marriage no one questioned my love of travel, yet once the ring was on everyone from friends to coworkers to family members openly criticized me for wanting to see the world. I expected the inherent dangers of this adventure to force me to witness myself, so that I could prove my ability to care for myself in the challenging, dangerous circumstances I believed I was uniquely cut out for.
So there I was, riding in the back of a pickup truck through the dusty Mountain Pine Ridge region, orange-breasted falcons circling above as they looked for prey disturbed by the vehicle. Combat boots on my feet and machete strapped to my back, I sat silently during the two-hour ride from San Ignacio (Belize’s largest city on the western border) to the launch point for a metal dinghy that would take me and the otherwise entirely male group of volunteers out to our respective camps in scarlet macaw territory. I couldn’t help but feel nervous about being the only woman present, but this anxiety was misguided: For the next 14 days, I would essentially be alone.
“Take as many boat rides as you can,” warned a friend of mine who once spent three days doing what I was about to do for the next two weeks. “It gets lonely out there.” A ranger would be assigned to my camp, but I was told not to expect to see him often. Another volunteer would join me, but ultimately our paths rarely crossed. Four other volunteers were deployed in the Chiquibul, and I would not see them either, as there was no way to perforate the dense, wild jungle without using the very boat I was sitting in (and that was reserved for work pertaining to reviving the scarlet macaw population). Even if the rainforest was navigable, this experience did not attract extroverts, so for the first time in my life, I would need to serve as my own company.
My camp was the first stop, about an hour’s ride from where we launched. Fifty feet of barely visible trail cut from the riverbank through the tall grass to the canopy, under which I hung my jungle hammock. The camp consisted of a small circle of rocks for the fire pit, upon which I would cook my meals, a tarp held up by cut trees to keep the daily rain showers from pouring onto makeshift shelving, and a slab of wood that served as a food preparation area. The jungle was my toilet. It was primitive, and the exact kind of scenario I needed to find out if I could manage, but terrifying to actually confront. Yes, it was what I set out to immerse myself in, but the reality of it — actually being there and having to stick with it for two weeks — hit me like a coconut falling from a palm tree. I had to actually do this. Not just say I was going to do it, but genuinely survive for two weeks essentially by myself in the jungle while fighting poachers. (I had been assured I would never actually encounter any poachers, that my mere presence was enough to keep them away from the baby birds, but still. There was always a chance.)
Just as I was about to go into full panic mode, I was introduced to the reason I was there. Set just steps away from where I’d hung my hammock, twin baby macaws stuck their heads out of the knotted cavity of the tallest tropical hardwood tree in the area and eyed me with deep curiosity. Their screeching parents kept watch from afar, unable to distinguish between the help I offered and the danger other humans presented. Even so, a sense of purpose accompanied me back to my hammock that night, comforting me as I settled in for my first night alone in the jungle.
I became restless almost immediately. After the adventure of cooking over a fire was finished, the other volunteer in my camp silently retreated to his tent, not to be seen again for some time. I thumbed through the book I’d foolishly brought along: a tome on neotropical biology, denser than the flora it described. There was, of course, no Wi-Fi, because there was no electricity. There was just me, the jungle and the birds.
Loneliness followed shortly. I had no one to talk to, no one to advise me or comfort me. Not even halfway through the first day I was irritated by the biting bugs, by it being too cold under the canopy but too hot out in the open, and soon I was ready to call it quits, like the stereotypical overconfident contestant on Naked and Afraid. But unlike on reality TV, there was no producer on standby, no medical team waiting to be called in. The only way out was forward.
So three days later, when I found myself weeping by the river and cursing my bad luck, I gave myself a virtual slap in the face. Remember how crocodiles hunt, a little voice shouted somewhere deep in my brain. Visions of Animal Planet documentaries and National Geographic movies played through my mind in the single firing of a synapse, all with the same footage: a crocodile surging forth from the murky water to grab its prey by the neck, rolling the wretched thing into eternity. There was no time to waste on tears, not when my literal survival was at stake. I could cry later, but I needed to get away from the edge of the water. Right. Now.
During the rest of the first week, I settled into a routine that revolved around meals, permeated by stretches of watching the time go by. Occasionally a surprise boat did show up and I would go count crocodiles with the rangers, or just watch while they surveyed different sections of the river. Six days in they brought me to a waterfall, where I was able to shower for the first time. There is no feeling that compares with the sensation of scrubbing off six days’ worth of bug spray, anti-itch cream, sweat, sunscreen and general jungle grime under a freshwater cascade. Later, it was pure ecstasy touching my freshly cleaned hair, feeling softer than chinchilla fur. I have never taken a shower for granted since that moment.
By the seventh day, humbled by my earlier experience, I felt at ease in the Chiquibul, finally focused on the present instead of being preoccupied by the unknown. My eyes and ears and heart were open, and without the distraction of my iPhone and social media or even the humming of electrical wires, my whole self became attuned to my surroundings: The rustling roar of the canopy leaves announcing the arrival of wind. Troops of howler monkeys hooting softly to let each other know a rainstorm was approaching (which always gave me enough of a heads up to rainproof everything). The bouncy patter of cohune nuts dropping on my rain fly at night before thunking to the damp jungle floor. The chatter of a flock of macaws passing by overhead, utterly unaware of how desirable they are, and the lengths people go to own them and to protect them.
Birdsong was constant, from melodious trills in the morning to bright chirps in the afternoon to soft hoots when the sun went down. But nothing compared to the glorious scarlet macaws. Regal and bright in their coloring, intelligent and playful in their behavior, witnessing these magnificent creatures flying free in the remote Central American jungle was like discovering El Dorado, alone in the profundity of what I’d stumbled upon. Claustrophobia, loneliness, anxiety, fear — all of it was momentarily erased by the flapping of their wings.
When the birds weren’t there to comfort me, I had myself. The person I had come all this way to witness. And I did witness myself, deep in the primeval jungle, surrounded by dark green broadleaf plants in the pursuit of endangered animal conservation. It hit me: I didn’t have to come all this way to evolve into the person I wanted to be, because that was already me. Toughness and strength aren’t born; they’re made, built from experience and exercise. I never stopped being the person I knew myself to be, but over time I’d lost touch with that side of myself. Getting married didn’t change the fact that I’m adaptable, or that I’m the kind of woman who knows enough about crocodiles to not become their lunch. It was my response to becoming a wife, to adding a new tile to the mosaic of who I am, that revealed that I had been failing to nurture certain aspects of my identity.
By the last day, I was beyond ready to get out of the jungle. I wanted the freedom to move around, to eat more than the same two meals (fry jacks and fry jacks with canned meat), to reunite with my friends and family. My two weeks in the jungle made me an expert at withstanding long, unavoidable bouts of tedium, but that was a skill I only wanted to use again if necessary. Fortunately Scarlet Six was right that I didn’t actually have to fight off poachers, though I thrice heard them hunting at night, and once stumbled upon their makeshift encampment.
Knowing they were out there scared me, but a lot of things in life scared me before I went into the jungle: flying on airplanes, spiders, confrontation. Scary things would always be out there, no matter what kind of risk was being taken. But what sitting in the jungle with no escape, waiting for time to pass, made me recognize is that usually the risk is worth taking. If discomfort is ahead, there is growth and grace just beyond it.
Getting married was uncomfortable for me, and so was sitting in the jungle protecting baby parrots from poachers. Both experiences are part of who I am, reflecting unique aspects of what makes me me. Whether it’s my marriage or wildlife conservation work, each can only define me as much as I want it to.