“I never would have guessed that you’re a mother,” Lena, a fellow traveller, says to me as our collective shuttle meanders through the dizzying maze of streets that make up Guatemala City.
It’s the last day of my weeklong trip to Central America, and the first time I have travelled solo since giving birth to my son. Until this point, I haven’t been away from him for more than a couple of hours at a time.
But Lena’s observation reflects something I’ve realized since leaving my 18-month-old toddler at home (in the care of my supportive husband) and venturing back out into the world: I haven’t felt like a mother here. And I have not mourned the loss of that feeling once since stepping foot in Guatemala.
While I love my son, I was eager to head out on my own and rediscover who I am: not a mother, not a wife, not the person I was before. But I’m also terrified of who that person might turn out to be, and guilt-stricken by the relief I feel when I say goodbye, and anxious about mentally cracking wide open like a postpartum Humpty Dumpty, unable to put myself back together again. Conflicting emotions are my constant travel companions.
I catch a few restless hours of sleep when I arrive in Guatemala City and hop on another plane to Flores, in the country’s north. My destination is the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. As a collective shuttle takes me from the airport to my hostel, I relax as the arid landscape transforms into wild, lush jungle.
That afternoon, as the heavy heat of the rainy season begins to ease, I wander alone through the vast ruins of the pre-Columbian city, a major archeological site originally inhabited from the 6th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D.
I stroll down deserted roads, imagining what this place looked like at the height of history. I hum the theme song to “Star Wars” as I clamber up a teetering flight of wooden steps hammered clumsily into the side of Temple IV. At the top, I’m wrapped in a breeze so fresh I feel reborn, and not even the murderous screams of the howler monkeys can disturb my deep sense of wonder.
As a mother, it’s easy to defer to societal expectations: that a woman who travels alone should be young and unfettered; that there is something inherently selfish about leaving your child. At times, I’ve felt as if the word “mother” has been tattooed so often on my body, there’s no room for who I am outside the role. Could this place allow for a new version of myself, one where the warring sides of being a mother and having time for myself could peacefully coexist?
As daylight wanes, I follow in the footsteps of the Mayans also searching for a new beginning. I gasp when I see the Temple of the Great Jaguar breaching the canopy of the dense foliage that has been clawed back over years of excavation. I revel in this lonely space, watching the sun sink low. It’s just me and the ghost of my former self here, only now I no longer feel haunted.
The whirlwind of my trip continues with a flight back to Guatemala City, and a transfer to the cobbled streets of colonial Antigua Guatemala. That night I toast the view of Volcan de Agua erupting over the rim of my locally brewed pint. My contentment bubbles over like the froth of the beer.
The next morning, I join a two-day guided hike up Acatenango, Guatemala’s most well known volcano. I’ve opted for what the company OX Expeditions calls a “Double Whammy,” in order to get up close with a second volcano, Fuego, and its Instagram-famous fiery eruptions. We wind through the cloud forest, past aromatic coffee fields and packs of dogs, stopping on occasion for puppy cuddles.
At one point, during our push to the summit of Acatenango, a fellow hiker asks if I miss my son. I take a beat, sucking the thin air into my heaving lungs, wondering if I should be honest with the response that punches into my gut.
“No. No, I don’t.” I brace myself: for the judgment, for the shame, for the guilt. It doesn’t come.
I’ve always believed that time in nature is the best therapy, and it’s here, on the summit of a volcano, that my brain is no longer in danger of destruction. The intrusive thoughts of maternal failure for leaving my son at home have dissipated with the ash that belches fleetingly from Fuego’s caldera. I realize that the deep, all-consuming love I feel for my son doesn’t require sacrificing who I am on the altar of parenthood.
The final leg of my trip takes me to Lake Atitlan. I run with abandon on trails behind the Laguna Lodge eco-resort. I wander through villages soaked in music and colour. I wake up early to hike up the Mayan Nose, the ombré shadows of the surrounding volcanoes reaching out across the water toward the fiery embrace of the rising sun.
Before I leave, I savour every sip of the rich coffee from hole-in-the-wall cafés, eventually learning to not make the sacrilegious request for milk. I inhale juicy steak and eggs wrapped in freshly baked tortillas for breakfast, and let the tingle of chili chocolate linger on my tongue.
Every moment is just for me, and me alone. And I finally feel like I deserve it. Then, sated and refreshed, I go home.