Climbing the Castillos

People know the Yucatan peninsula for a variety of reasons. The public has given it this famous–well, infamous rather­–status for several reasons, among them: all-inclusive, alcohol-rich resorts, "Montezuma's revenge", and wild spring-breakers. The Real Cancun, playground of the rich, famous, and drunken holds 140 hotels with 24,000 rooms and 380 restaurants. About 3000 years before the first resorts popped up in the 1980s, however, the Mayan people held this peninsula as the center of their great empire. So it came that in 2002, while the majority of the tourists relaxed and sipped their margaritas, my family and I found ourselves trekking through the rain-soaked jungle and climbing the 91 narrow steps of the east face of El Castillo at Chichen Itza. As I climbed these steps and considered my position, I began to recall some memories of my earlier life... About three years and three months earlier, April 1999, I had come to find myself at another castillo, this one the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, FL. Though that spring break trip was really more to Orlando and "El Castillo de Cinderella", the trip could not be allowed to pass with out any educational value. It was on this day, at this 327 year old fort, that a 9 year old little boy first vocalized one of the great lessons his mother had taught him, "Wow Mommy, you sure do like to teach us things on vacations."

I have traveled from the geographical wonders of the Grand Canyon in Colorado to those of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. I have also traveled from the historical site of Independence Hall in Philadelphia to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, HI. I have seen both the cold waters and ice of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and the hot sand and air of Saguaro National Park in Arizona. I have stretched from the island Kauai at the westerly end of HI to Point Udall at the easternmost point of St. Croix (and the US as a whole). If there is one thing I can say about my childhood, it is that I certainly have seen my country.

I have had a wide range of amazing experiences, and if the reader did not know me (and had failed to see any of the dates or ages in the first two paragraphs), he might at this point logically assume that I, the author, am around 40 or 50. He would probably be quite surprised to discover that I only recently turned sixteen. Why, then, have I seen and done so much? My mother. I once asked her why it was that while many families bought new cars, built expansions on their house, or bought expensive jewelry, our family went on vacations. She said that in the world there are several types of priorities; one often hears about "things people" or "people people" and while she certainly would not exclude my family from being "people people", she, and now I, would supplement by saying that we are also "experiences people".

My family does not just travel, we travel to learn . Like the examples I gave earlier, my mother has always used similar devices to make sure that a trip is never entirely frivolous. In this way, I have gained not only experiences but, at the same time, knowledge. I have learned the histories of several states, in addition to that of Virginia. I have learned geography of the nation, the wonder of nature, and a wonderful, if not necessarily standard, system of basic values. This is not to say that my family did not, for example, go to the beach while we were in Cancun, we did. The important fact is, however, that we made the extra effort to visit these ruins. Therefore, when I later studied Mayan Civilization in World History I, it was much more relevant to me. This particular visit also drove home, for me, the way in which a civilization can dominate the universe as they know it and just a few centuries later be nothing but a pile of rocks in the middle of the jungle.

So now, a line of photographs of my family in various locales lines the large entertainment center in the den, photo albums of vacations fill the cabinet across from it, and memories of beautiful and amazing places fill my memories. At least partly because of these experiences, I regularly look into topics beyond the classroom. I owe a fundamental piece of myself, my unquenchable thirst to learn, to these vacations that my mother always so dutifully and cheerfully prepared for her children. It was because of these vacations and because of my mother that I learned that learning is not about school or grades, about struggle or difficulty. Learning is about passion for the topic and enjoying the experience. I love to learn because my mother showed me that learning can be, and usually is, fun.