How tuning in, turning on, and dropping out every once in awhile may be the best thing for all of us.
Yelapa, Mexico—which sits on the Pacific coast south of Puerto Vallarta and has a population of 715—has one small beach and one huge jungle. There are no cars because there are no streets, just burros and cobblestone pathways, which are often very steep and cut through people’s yards or through the middle of their restaurants. As we soon discovered, the jungle contains red snakes, purple flowers, spikey trees, and waterfalls that create swimming pools. The ocean is home to sea turtles, which you don’t want to miss, and to manta rays, which aren’t dangerous like stingrays—but you might want to avoid them anyway.
My hope for this excursion to rural Mexico was about more than just throwing my family into a new situation with good visuals. My husband and I had a small budget and big plans: to prevent the loss of incorrigible passions and wonder for life, which may sound grandiose, but wonder is grandiose, and plans to foster it are unapologetically so.
It’s true that travel can contribute to “neuroplasticity,” a neuroscience term that refers to the ability of the brain to rewire itself through new experience. Seeing new places and experiencing new cultures (or any intensely new experience, for that matter) can contribute to better cognitive functioning and awareness. And, admittedly, it is pretty easy to be wonder-filled when whales rise from the ocean surface—especially when you’re used to life in Colorado.
Just showing up at a village in order to increase my kids’ brain function, however, wasn’t my goal. What I really wanted was something to spark our souls, to forcibly remove us from routine and smack us alive. To create a mindful sense of who we are, why we’re on this planet, who we are as a family, and what we should be noticing and doing with our time—those big existential questions that get lost in the everyday.
What I am hoping for, in other words, is to raise a couple of philosophers (call me crazy, I know). And removing my family from our little Colorado foothills home and plunking us down in Yelapa did, in fact, work its wonder. There was no big bang. There were no epiphanies, per se. But the evidence was there in small moments, like seeing my kids in a tiny tienda, trying to buy new and strange candy, their brains furiously attempting to work out conversion rates and count pesos. And then seeing their eyes go wide as their taste buds expanded with something completely new, like red licorice covered in chili pepper spice. Or when they used their stilted first-semester Spanish and tried to speak to a local on the beach. Or when an Internet connection was located and the first thing they did was Google “types of red snakes in Mexico” rather than loading a game they’ve played a hundred times. Or when my son stood staring at some wild iguanas climbing over each other in a big tree and said, “Well, here’s another crazy crazy thing,” and my daughter said, “Yeah, when are these crazy crazy things gonna end? My brain is tired.” There was something in their voices that reminded me of their earlier years—a mixture of surprise, curiosity, and awe.
All this observational wonder led to the bigger kind of wonder I was hoping for. We all curled up on the couch at night and, with no window pane to separate us from the outside, looked out at the ocean and were quiet together. There was a buzz of love in the air, and it was a small moment, and yet so huge.