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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

Stars in Our Eyes

We went camping to Paracas over the Easter weekend. After the usual last-minute irritable rush to pack the car, we threaded our way to the Panamericana and were soon cruising along it at a smooth 100 clicks, the wind grabbing our hair in fistfuls and flinging it back in our faces.

I've noticed that the greater the distance between us and our house, the more carefree we become. It’s not that we’re miserable at home – far from it – but it’s often a relief to temporarily escape the shapes of our lives there. At home, the kids have their school work and washing up duties and screen-time rules, Frank gets nagged by his smart phone and by me (the phone nags louder and is therefore smarter than I am), and my computer is more demanding of my time than a newborn baby. Each of us is separately engrossed in our tasks, worrying about our little problems.

Once on the open road, these subconscious burdens vanish from our minds like wrinkles under a hot iron. Laptops and phones and iPads have no place in our car, so we instantly forget all about them. Instead, we turn to each other for entertainment, news, and updates. We laugh and sing and tease. We become a family again.

Paracas National Reserve, Peru. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk

Paracas is a coastal desert nature reserve where the scenery is stark and invigorating, the Pacific ocean cleanses the senses, and the slow, lilting flight of sea birds soothes and heals. We arrived just before dusk. While the kids scampered after crabs, Frank whipped up a couple of gin and tonics in time to honour the dying throes of a sunset.

Sunset at Paracas, Peru. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk

Later, the kids sat down with us and we nibbled peanuts and olives as we watched the largest stars emerge one by one. They glimmered coyly at first, but as night deepened they blazed bold and bright amongst millions. How often have you heard someone waxing lyrical about ‘feeling like an insignificant, meaningless speck of dust’ in the face of the vast and incomprehensible phenomenon that is the Milky Way? No self-respecting writer would utter such a cliché, right? Wrong. I call it The Star Effect.

After identifying Orion’s Belt, we tried to locate the Southern Cross. Then Saba pointed out that some of the stars we were gazing at had already died, but because they are so stupendously far away, we can still see their light travelling towards us. We digested this information in silence.

Next came the inevitable question of size: how large is our galaxy, and what’s bigger than the universe, and what is beyond the universe? The glib answer to that was “Nothing.” To which I replied - thinking of black holes - “Surely even nothing is something?”

Huh? Where did that come from? You see, this is the type of conversation you have when under the influence of The Star Effect.

In an effort to bring things back to a scale he clearly considered more manageable, Luca asked how many cells made up the human body. And how many molecules? Frank and I began to cast each other desperate glances. Sure enough, it wasn't long before the really sobering questions were voiced: if Hell is below us and the stars are above, where is Heaven? What happens when we die? How can we possibly know? By this time, I wished a big, fat cloud would swallow the night sky, plus the Milky Way, our galaxy, and the entire universe.

Fortunately, Luca shied away from contemplating our mortality and steered the conversation to a practical level by informing us he plans to be a scientist when he grows up. And the first to go to another dimension through a portal he will discover himself.

“Why not,” I said.

After all, anything is possible when you've got stars in your eyes.

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