A trip to Brazil brought out the daredevil - and the extrovert - in children's author Abi Elphinstone
In 2014, I'd just turned 30 and was teaching English in London in a secondary school. At half-term, my husband Edo and I flew off to stay with a friend who was working in Rio de Janeiro. I'd always wanted to go and I knew we could build an adventure trip from there.
Our friend asked the local samba school if we could partake in the Rio Carnival parade. He produced enormous green outfits and said we were going as limes to represent Brazil's national drink, caipirinha. They were highly flammable with pictures of limes on them, and we wore a green top hat and bright green tights as well. We looked ridiculous.
I was terribly shy as a child, but my mother's advice to me growing up was "Do it scared". I like dancing when no one is watching, but I would never have thought I would dance my way through the streets of Rio. But the carnival is such an expression of joy, you forget yourself.
It was a kaleidoscope of colour, with sequins, fur headdresses, and so much music. It took four hours to dance down a mile-long stretch of the Sambadrome, flanked by enormous rows of stadium seats. Then it spread out down the streets, where there were hundreds of street parties. I'd been to nightclubs and parties back home, but this was bigger, brighter and louder.
I often think about that evening when I'm about to get on stage to talk. Although I was out of my depth, you can't take yourself too seriously when dressed as a lime.
After that hedonistic experience, we took two overnight buses to the world's largest tropical wetland, the Pantanal. We wanted to snorkel and swim in the crystalline waters of the river Olho D'Agua. I grew up in Scotland, so I've always been drawn to wild landscapes. The jungle was a constant racket, with parrots calling, the electronic croak of frogs and the chatter of monkeys. Then we came to the river snaking through.
When the guide said we'd be swimming among anacondas, piranhas and pacu, I was petrified. But fear is often the gateway to wonder. As I lowered myself into the water, my heart was racing but I felt connected to the world around me. Under the water, in one snapshot, we saw a perfectly balanced ecosystem. My book Jungledrop is all about that sense of interconnectedness.
We only saw one anaconda, but it did make me come up for air. I pushed past the fear, but I still don't like snakes.
While we were in the Pantanal, we went to a jungle cave called Abismo Anhumas. There's a 240ft drop through a tiny opening in the foliage into a vast atrium with an ice-cold lake at the bottom. Most of the cave had never seen sunlight. I had abseiled down cliffs in Scotland before, but not anywhere like this.
As we descended, it got cooler and whispers sounded as echoes. The stalactites looked like dripped glue. The lake was lit only by a column of light coming down like a spotlight through the foliage. When the guide said we could swim in the lake, I could see the tips of enormous stalagmites rearing out of the gloom and thought, no thank you.
I used to swim with trainers on in the sea because I had this irrational childish fear that sharks would bite me. I nearly refused to go in the lake, but I held my nerve after they said there was nothing living in it. Even in double-layered wetsuits, the cold sucked itself around you. But I don't swim with trainers on now.
Just before the trip, I'd signed a book deal. I'd spent seven years trying to become a children's author and had 96 rejection letters. The day the deal was announced, I went paragliding above Rio. When I got a few feet from the edge, my body went into paralysis. But then we were off. We dropped suddenly, before plateauing out and my stomach flipped. It was like watching a world in miniature far below. There was no feeling like it. I had been so close to stopping writing but, as I was flying above Rio, I thought, thank goodness I didn't give up. A lot of the courage in my journey to becoming a mother also stems from being in Brazil.
I lost my first three pregnancies, then spent three months in hospital with complications before giving birth to my first little boy in 2017. At one point, the doctors were saying becoming a mother could endanger my life, but I hung in there.
People wear their heart on their sleeve in Brazil and it's very relaxed. That might be why that holiday was helpful to me. I'd reach a point of fear, but then use it as a gateway to another experience rather than as a blockade.
As told to Caroline Rees. Jungledrop by Abi Elphinstone (Simon & Schuster) is on sale now.
-Telegraph Group Ltd