Soon after moving to Peru, Edgar and I decided it was a good time to have a child. Edgar was pushing 40, I was without a full-time job, and both of us were ready to give our time and energy to someone else. I have found in my life that as soon as I put an intention out, I quickly see action. We were pregnant within months of trying, which happened to fall right at the beginning of a 6 month backpacking trip through Central and South America. Now we joke that Tina has been traveling since conception.
I suspected we were pregnant in Bocas del Toro (Panama). Our neighbor was a single mom who had been traveling with her 10 year old son for several years. (Molly and Blake, if you ever end up reading this we think about you all the time. Let us know how you are!) She eased me through my initial doubts about being ready for motherhood. (Is anyone really prepared?)
When we passed through Puerto Viejo (Costa Rica) I met a young woman who was 8 months pregnant. She had been backpacking with her boyfriend for the previous year and they were holding out as long as possible before returning home to the US. She was so laissez-faire about the idea of giving birth you’d never guess she was due in a few weeks. I applauded her for being so brave about traveling until the end of her pregnancy. I still had no confirmation that I was pregnant – pregnancy tests were so expensive in all the beach towns that I hadn’t bothered to do one yet – but I was feeling this sense of increasing responsibility as time went on. I finally bought a pregnancy test in San Jose, Costa Rica and we got proof positive. Honestly, that day wasn’t really special – I had already known in my heart that Tina was coming.
Trouble in Paradise
I was fortunate to have an easy first trimester. Sometimes I had morning sickness when I woke up early to surf. But I met my match when we took a 6-day boat trip from Puerto Lindo (Panama) to Cartagena (Colombia). It was brutal. This was no cruise ship. It was a 42 foot sail boat with 10 people on it. My bed was the kitchen sofa. The trip was supposed to last 4 days but due to engine problems and faulty autopilot we were delayed 2 whole days. I puked the entire first night – to be fair, everyone on the boat did – and I laid prostrate for the next 5 days to avoid further vomit sessions. The only time I left the cabin was to snorkel in the San Blas Islands or to steer the boat when the captain needed some sleep. My tour of duty was from 4-6 am and Edgar from 6-8 am. We would sit together in the dead silence of the night and watch for shooting stars, making wishes that Tina would be born healthy. Every morning we felt blessed when the moon descended to our backs and the sun peaked its brilliant golden face above the horizon.
On the third day, the captain announced that the motor needed a prolonged break. There was no wind for the sails so we ended up floating in the middle of nowhere for about half a day. It was a long time to sit in one place when we just wanted to get to our destination. I felt stupid for taking the trip in the first place. My mind was running with all the horrible things that could happen. “What if the engine can’t get going again? What if we run out of food and water? What if a huge storm comes? What if something happens to Tina? What if…?”
Fear is so insidious. Edgar was very quiet. I know he was thinking the same things. I decided to snap out of it and find something better to focus on. I imagined taking the remote control to my mind and changing the channel.
I looked out at the deep blue sea – hundreds of miles out into the ocean with no land in sight – and felt a profound sense of peace. It was the first time we had sat quietly and listened to the waves lap up softly against the boat. We watched wispy clouds pass over us and the sun slowly shift across the sky. I felt gratitude more than fear – I was grateful there were no rain clouds, thankful it was not hurricane season, appreciative of a floating boat even if it wasn’t moving forward, and glad to be healthy enough to sit on deck and enjoy the view.
By the end of that trip I vowed to never get on a boat again – at least for so long – and yet I will never forget the experience. It is one of the most intense of my lifetime, so it is also a part of Tina’s early experiences. I often wonder if her problems with motion sickness come from that week of constant, undulating movement.
When we finally arrived at the port of Cartagena we were overwhelmed by the formidable fortress walls and ominous cargo ships. It was an unreal feeling to step onto solid land after so many days of disequilibrium. Our legs moved like rubber bands and it took 3 days to feel normal again.
Cartagena is a beautiful city with a mix of old world architecture and Miami style beaches. We enjoyed ourselves for a few days but were definitely feeling concern about Tina. I appeared to be strong but was she okay? Actually, we didn’t even know if Tina was a *she* yet. So we found a pediatrician in a private hospital and did our first ultrasound. We were very thankful to hear Tina’s heartbeat, strong and normal, and lay eyes on “The Nugget” – aptly named because at 10 weeks she looked just like a nugget of gold, or a Chicken McNugget, on the scan. That’s what we called her until the gender was revealed several months later.
We continued traveling along the Caribbean coast to Santa Marta and Tayrona. I really wanted to cross the border into Venezuela – we were only a few hundred miles from where I was born – but we changed our minds when we learned of military activity between FARC and the Venezuelan army in the region. After the boat trip we were definitely trying to avoid risky travel experiences for Tina’s sake. So we went south to Bogota on one of the worst night buses ever. (I will write about that in a future post, with all the other crazy bus stories!) We arrived around noon and hailed a taxi outside the station. The driver took us to Candelaria, one of the more economical parts of town. Upon discovering that every hotel within our price range had prostitutes sitting in the lobby, we told the driver to take us right to the airport. Yes, we spent about 2 hours in Bogota and decided to move on. That’s the benefit of traveling without reservations – we can change our mind whenever we want. It’s an attitude that can be both scary and liberating.
We were lucky to find same-day plane tickets from Bogota to Guayaquil, Ecuador, with a 24-hour stopover in Quito. We saw an immense amount of Quito in just one day – old town, churches, museums, main plaza, typical lunch – but we nearly missed our continuing flight because the hostel was locked and unattended when we returned to recover our backpacks from the storage room. The airline was kind enough to move us onto the following flight to Guayaquil at no cost. Those were the kind of experiences that taught me to stop worrying so much. Even when things felt out of control, they always worked out fine.
Guayaquil was a nice town to explore and take advantage of solid internet for my new job training. Then we headed to Montanita on the coast, very eager to find some waves. It was a big pain to carry two surf boards across thousands of miles with no opportunity to use them for more than a month. Unfortunately, we were sorely disappointed with Montanita. The waves were small and the party scene was not fitting for a pregnant woman and her partner. So we moved on…
Back to Peru
Edgar was very excited to visit Mancora because he had heard so much about it. Most surfers in Lima spend part of the year in the north of Peru, having summer homes in Mancora or Los Organos. I’ve come to learn that it’s dangerous to have big expectations about travel destinations. They can be such a letdown if the expectation is not met. Such was the case with Mancora. To me, the town is really nothing more than a glorified truck stop with hotels and restaurants built right off the highway next to a surf break. We arrived when the waves were as flat as a swimming pool and felt no desire to stick around for a swell. Everyone promised that Lobitos, a famous surfbreak about an hour to the south, would have waves. So we moved on…
Only to find that Lobitos as one of the most forbidding towns we have ever seen. Many years ago it was a thriving oil town with casinos and Colonial homes. When we hopped off the bus it was like stepping foot into an old Western movie. Nothing but dilapidated buildings and tumbleweed blowing across the long, sandy beach. We made our way to the one building that appeared inhabited and found four surfers smoking weed. I asked to use a toilet and they showed me to a hole in the ground that was straight out of a bathroom nightmare. When I came back out I found Edgar watching the wave. It was incredible. A perfect barrel with only two surfers on it. Unheard of in most parts of the world. I thought he was going to rip out his board and run to the water. Instead he said: “We have to go. This isn’t the kind of place for you and the baby.” So we moved on…
We stopped in Piura for a few nights and pondered our next move. I was now about 3 months pregnant and my body was changing. It was getting harder to carry my backpack and the surfboard, I was getting tired more quickly, and our mentality had shifted. We were no longer up for the challenge. We were starting to let doubt enter our minds. Is it really safe to travel while pregnant? I certainly didn’t feel like that girl in Costa Rica who traveled until she was 8 months pregnant; but I did feel that if we could find a place to settle for a bit we’d be fine. We take risks any time we leave the house. I didn’t want to submit to the idea that I had to sit at home in bed just because I was carrying a baby. But I listened to my body as well. I was getting tired of all the moving so we opted against a difficult trip to Kuelap (ancient ruins). We skipped towns like Chiclayo and Pacasmayo and headed down to Trujillo and Huanchaco. We finally found a place to rest.
Huanchaco is one of my favorite beach towns in Peru. The people are warm, the climate is pleasant year round, the food is rich and cheap, and the surf is consistently good. Except the same lull in waves that kept us moving south in search of something better was no different in Huanchaco. I was getting antsy because my belly was beginning to show and I knew it was time to give up surfing – at least until after Tina was born. When the swell finally arrived it was bigger than usual. Edgar thought it was too much but I decided it was my last opportunity to surf. So I charged out into 3 meter waves (well over my head) and Edgar sat on the beach praying to God I wouldn’t get hurt. It was one of the best surf sessions of my life. Surfing is a mental sport, so if I had let my fear get the best of me I wouldn’t have even paddled out. Instead, I focused on the task at hand, connected with one wave at a time, and trusted my instinct. In other words, I shut off fear and lived in the moment. A mindset I was glad to practice before going into childbirth.
I enjoy international travel because it forces me into extreme situations. Lessons are learned hard and fast. I think backpacking while pregnant was one of the best things I could have done to prepare myself for motherhood. It taught me to:
- Trust my instincts.
- Replace fear with gratitude.
- Let go of plans.
- Stop worrying.
- Accept that I can’t control everything.
- Put family first. (Well, maybe after just one more surf session!)
- Live in the moment.
Pregnancy is not an illness that needs to be nursed. It’s an opportunity to grow along with a child.