Up until last year I had never really traveled. I mean, I’ve been to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico for family events, but I’ve never traveled for the purpose of exploration. I went to Nebraska at 13 for a wedding and hated it, and now I am planning a trip to Nebraska for the sake of exploration at a time in my life when I can appreciate it. I have flown twice in my 42 years, and despite living on the East Coast, I have never been to Disney World or Florida. Up until last year, my 13-year-old son had done more traveling than me.
Though photography and the arts have always been an interest, it wasn't until my separation and divorce in 2013 that I threw myself into learning photography more seriously. In 2017 I was given an opportunity I never would have had without my interest in photography. I was offered an all-expenses paid trip to Honduras to photograph a birthday party for a work friend and colleague. I would have to fly there alone, and I’d be picked up by my friend and her driver and taken to the location of the party. Aside from the event, I was told I would be on my own with a guide she would set up for me. I was both scared and elated.
I boarded a plane in April. Alone and with my passport in hand, I was flying into a country not known for its safety, where the only person I knew was my friend and colleague, and the language was largely unknown to me ("dónde está el baño" sums up my ability, forget about the Garifuna dialect). This was truly a life-defining moment for me. Up until now I identified as a divorced single mom who worked three jobs and who’s confidence was barely present. I had lost my identity as an individual. I was no longer Jen. I was Anthony's ex-wife (formerly Anthony's wife), Elijah's mother, a social worker and employee who functioned on autopilot like many of us do in the day-to-day rat race of life. When I accepted the offer of the trip from my friend, I had no idea the impact it would have on my life and my confidence.
When I arrived, I was picked up and driven to a small resort in Tela, which is located along the northern Carribean coast. Though this area is popular among beach goers, particularly during Easter and Holy Week, Lonely Planet describes it as a "run down urban resort" that is generally unsafe. With a population of close to 100,000, it is dirty, littered with trash, and crowded. The majority of the buildings in Tela (including the building where I was staying) have running water and electricity, but there are a number of buildings that are comprised of thatch and bamboo. Interestingly enough, this area also has a high concentration of protected lands, making it a big tourist attraction.
For the better part of the week I was busy dealing with details of the event and sunning myself on the beach. An armed guard stood watch, but his presence wasn't unnerving; it is hard not to relax in a hammock on the beach. I spent the last two days wandering through the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens photographing flowers, trees, and birds, including my first toucan. While driving through the countryside, I was amazed by the dichotomy and coexistence of unspeakable poverty and extensive beauty. At times the contrast brought tears to my eyes, and I was unsure if it was due to the awe-inspiring mountains shrouded in fog or the poor children running through the streets (it was quite possible from both). I was totally enthralled with the sights, sounds, and scents that enveloped my senses. I was, for the first time in a very long time, fully present in the moment.
On the last day I found myself with my guide traveling through the Garifuna coastal villages of Tornabe, San Juan, and Miami on my way to Punta Sal (Jeanette Kawas National Park). This was an incredibly humbling experience. The Garifuna natives, living in huts with thatched roofs along the coast, some just yards from the sea, sat outside talking to my guide (I later learned that many of the natives I met were either family or friends of my guide) as we prepared to embark to the national park on a small motorized boat. I took in the sights and sounds of the community while they prepared the boat.
At last we boarded and set off across the bay to Punta Sal. At one point I looked to my right and what appeared to be an egret was flying parallel to us at head height, so close I could have reached out and touched it. Once we arrived, we hiked through the rainforest, which also happened to be a preserve for panthers.
As we hiked through the wet, humid, dense, lush, green vegetation, the scream of the howler monkeys rang out, stopping me dead in my tracks both out of fear and curiosity. Still now, as I write, I recall with clarity the feeling and sound. As we exited the trail, about a half mile in, we came to a lagoon where I was able to swim and photograph. The only people present for the time we were there were myself, my guide, and a member of the Garifuna community who knew my guide. The howler monkeys and panther cries provided our soundtrack for the afternoon. Soon the captain of our boat returned and we departed. On our return trip back to the Garifuna village we stopped at a beachfront shack and restaurant where I ate the freshest fried fish, rice and beans, and plantains.
The most remarkable part of this adventure was that it took place on Earth Day. It only seemed fitting that I was sitting in the middle of a rainforest on this day when we celebrate and bring the fragility of our land into the public consciousness. With that said, it also made me painfully aware of all the trash that had either washed up or had been left behind by tourists. The refuse was a candid reminder that we need to do better by our earth and for those who inhabit the lands we visit; our footprint on this planet must not be so heavy.
To this day, while the purpose of the trip was to work for someone else, I can’t help but to think that my colleague did more for me by giving me this opportunity. I’d like to say that I came back to the states, left my job, packed up my kid, and started my new life as a travel blogger and photographer, but that did not happen. What happened was even greater than that. I had a new sense of self-awareness and confidence. Alone and not knowing the language, I was much more aware of my surroundings. I found different ways to communicate. I was not distracted. In fact, if a caption balloon could have captured my thoughts, it would have been empty, because this experience went beyond a linear thought process and encompassed all of my senses. Most importantly, I took away from that trip the desire to see more, do more, share more, and appreciate more; to look beyond the mundane, day-to-day life, explore at every opportunity, and to tell my story.