Educating through Travel: Pave Your Own Path

Jon and Loulou Voeklel ascend a Mayan Pyramid.Jon and Loulou ascend a Mayan Pyramid.

Jon and Loulou ascend a Mayan Pyramid.

Educating through Travel: Pave Your Own Path

By Peter Sacco

Spend your nights in a seedy Panama City hostel at the age of 22, and a beachside Floridian resort when you’re 42. Travel when you’re young, then settle down, get a steady job, and quietly raise a family in the suburbs.

The desire for adventure travel in foreign and exotic lands is just a phase, something we simply grow out of.

This is the conventional view on travel to the underdeveloped parts of the world, but I don’t buy it. To me, that hotel in South Beach sounds boring. I can’t imagine growing tired of exploration or the pump of adrenaline, and neither can Jon or Pamela Voelkel.

Their stance on international exploration? Never stop. Travel abroad with your family to offbeat destinations in Africa, South American and Asia. Explore and discover, expose your kids to what the world has to offer in full.

Though many parents would undoubtedly shake their heads at this notion, Jon and Pamela have successfully pioneered family adventure travel, showing that it can indeed be done. Both are writers, archeologists and ultimately parents.

Together with their three kids, Jon and Pamela have traveled across Central America. They’ve visited ancient Mayan pyramids and trekked to bat-infested caves, ultimately giving their kids the experiences of a lifetime.

As a family, the Voelkels have been traveling together since day one. Seven years ago they embarked for Belize, Guatemala and Mexico along with their 11-year-old Harry, 8-year-old Charlotte and 2-year-old Loulou.

Jon and Pamela captured their Latin American adventures in the award-winning book Middleworld, which draws on the families’ personal adventures as well as ancient Mayan mythology to weave a compelling tale. Middleworld is the first in a series of four, possibly five, books named The Jaguar Stones.

Jon and Pamela are living a dream. They’ve combined work with family, family with travel, and ultimately found a way to pursue their passions without missing a beat. They may qualify as the world’s most interesting parents, and this is how they made it happen.

Traveling Is In The Blood

“For me, traveling has always been the norm, like walking and talking. It’s just something you do,” says Jon Voelkel, “I grew up in Central America, and my parents were constantly on the move. We used to bounce around all over the place. It wasn’t luxury; we stayed in some pretty seedy places,

>Volador spinning to the ground in Mexico.

Volador spinning to the ground in Mexico.

which wasn’t always easy. I learned a lot from traveling with them as a kid, so now I try to incorporate the lessons I learned into a more positive experience for our kids.”

While Jon grew up traveling extensively through the third world, Pamela’s childhood in the English countryside proved to be quite the opposite.

“I went to grad school in Spain, and traveled around Europe until I met Pamela in England.” Says Jon. “She grew up in a small coastal English town. I think she felt isolated, sort of detached from the world around her, just waiting for the opportunity to experience it. We started dating, and we pretty much haven’t stopped traveling since.”

When Jon tells me that he hasn’t stopped traveling since he met Pamela, he is including his years spent in early parenthood.

So, how exactly does one go about traveling around the developing world with three small children in tow?

“When we started traveling for the books we wanted to write, our youngest daughter was two. It was wild, we’d visit these ancient Mayan archeological sites, and I’d be climbing the temples with my daughter in my arms,” Laughed Jon.

Loulou drawing the Temple of Inscriptions in Mexico.

Loulou drawing the Temple of Inscriptions in Mexico.

“I think one of the keys to successfully traveling in this way is to stay in a nice hotel room. It doesn’t matter what you do during the day as long as they have a good meal and a hot shower waiting for them when they get back. I remember once we were all out in the jungle, and Pamela was filming me eating bugs. The kids were into it too, eating termites… that was one of those days when they really appreciated the hot shower.”

“Travel prepared. Bring plenty of sunscreen, bug spray and snacks. There’s nothing worse than traveling in a challenging environment if you’re already uncomfortable. We also go out of our way to rent a vehicle. A lot of times, public transportation is hot, sweaty, and frankly quite miserable.”

“Remember that the kids are on vacation too. Don’t try to do too much, and don’t be afraid to take a day off and relax by the pool as a family.”

Capturing The Essence

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of traveling off the beaten path comes when you immerse yourself in local history and tradition. Traveling internationally is an eye-opening experience, and one that you should make the most of. When Jon and Pamela travel, their main priority is to discover and explore different lifestyles and cultures, which are often hard to detect in touristy areas.

“When we write, we try to focus on the quirky parts of a culture or destination. It’s a lot of fun to get under the skin and tease out the weird stuff. One of the coolest things we’ve stumbled upon was festival for the ‘near-dead’ in Spain. People who had encountered near death experiences closed themselves inside real-life coffins and participated in their own funerals. Then, just as they are about

>The temles at Tikal, Guatemala.

The temles at Tikal, Guatemala.

to be buried, they popped up, jumping out of their coffins to celebrate life. Truth is often a lot stranger than fiction.”

Like most of their unique experiences, the Voelkel’s experience at the near-death festival in Spain was incorporated in the story line of The Jaguar Stones. However, it is Mayan culture that inspires most of their first book.

“As we began to learn about the Maya in Central America, we realized that there was a lot of rich history and mythology that we could use as the basis of our first book, Middleworld. We visited dozens of Mayan archeological sites and really got in touch with Mayan culture, which, a lot of people don’t realize, still exists today.”

“Present day Mayans are a people still struggling to reclaim their identity from centuries before. They’re people just like us, and as we got to know them we accepted this duty to advocate for their cause. That’s why, in our books, all of the present-day Mayans are positive characters.”

A Look Into The End Of The World Club

Having completed and released two books, their third book will release August 28th, 2012, and continue the story of Max, though this time in Venice. The Jaguar Stones was originally meant to be a trilogy but Jon and Pamela now expect that there will be four or five books in the series.

Canoeing through caves in Belize

Canoeing through caves in Belize.

“We had to split the third into two books, it was just way too long and way too in-depth. Of course than we had to develop a whole new plot for the fourth book, so only about 25 percent of it is derived from the original third book.”

The books are a unique style of fiction that tell the story of a boy named Max with two eccentric archeologists as parents. Together, they travel extensively through much of Central America and later Spain. The Voelkels successfully combine elements of Jon’s wild childhood, ancient Maya folklore, the modern Maya, and the family’s recent travels into an action packed and relatable adventure story.

It is grounded in both reality and legend, both the past and the present.

Following is an excerpt from their latest book in the series, The End Of The World Club:

“Ironically, his friends thought he was lucky to be the only child of the famous archeologists Frank and Carla Murphy. But then, his friends just saw the gifts his parents lavished on him: the video games,

the laptop, the electronic drums- all peace offerings for being too busy at work to support their son at school concerts and class nights and sports meets. (After the recent events in San Xavier, he was expecting a “sorry for opening a portal to the Maya underworld and unleashing the forces of evil that almost killed you” gift any day now.)

Max had long ago accepted that his parents cared more about the ancient Maya than

>Jon and Pamela doing what they love.

Jon and Pamela doing what they love.

about their own son, but recently they’d reached a new low in the history of bad parenting.

He could still remember the shock of that afternoon, a few weeks ago, when they’d come home early from work and dropped three bombshells, one after the other.

Boom! They’d cancelled the upcoming family vacation to Italy.

Boom! They were leaving there and then for a dig in San Xavier, the tiny Central American country where his father had grown up.

Boom! Max’s whole summer was shot to pieces.

And that was it. They were gone.

But their irresponsible behavior didn’t end there.

It turned out that his father had got his hands on a Jaguar Stone, one of five sacred carvings that supposedly gave Maya kings their special powers, and his parents had gone to San Xavier to test it out.”

Peter Sacco is an editorial assistant at GoNOMAD. He also writes our Travel Reader blog, updated daily.

Read more articles about Central America on GoNOMAD.

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