Kids add new elements to your typical vacation

Life with children
by: AUDREY VAN BUSKIRK, Home wasn’t totally left behind on a recent trip to Mexico — Luke’s Nintendo DS found a place in the family luggage.

For many years I was the kind of traveler who never checked a bag. If I couldn't carry it (on my shoulder - this was pre-wheelie bag days) and fit it into the overhead bin, I didn't bring it.

I thought of those years last week, surveying our 6-foot-square mound of luggage creating a huge obstacle in the serpentine line to check in at the Cancún airport.

We were heading home after 10 days in Mexico's Yucatán state, and for two adults, one 8-year-old and a 9-month-old baby, we had five good-size, well-stuffed bags to check, five carry-ons, plus a car seat and stroller to gate-check.

Baby Theo wanted to be put down, Luke wanted an ice cream, I was growing worried about the state of a diaper, and the line was moving about as quickly as a slug on a hot day.

Earlier, when I told people we were going to Mexico, they often asked, 'Are you taking the kids?'

I always answered, 'Yes, of course,' and really, it was Luke's idea to visit Chichen Itza in the first place (he wanted Egypt, but these pyramids were just two time zones away). But I'll admit that at times over the course of the trip I thought longingly about the days of traveling without Nintendo and baby wipes.

More often than not, though, the trip was much more fun with the kids than it would have been without them. And in the check-in line, just as the kids (and I) were about to lose it, a smiling ticket agent walked over, pulled aside the rope and led us to the VIP line.

Kids are the ultimate travel partners. No matter where you go, children bring real life along for the ride. They provide a fast ticket over cross-cultural divides.

Traveling with Theo, in particular, made me realize how many boundaries Americans put up around their babies.

It's become expected here that you'll wash your hands before touching even a friend's baby. I know loads of parents who slather that antibacterial goo over themselves like sunscreen in the Sahara.

In Mexico, I'd be digging into my purse to buy something with Theo wriggling on my hip, or trying to take a bite of fish tacos in between stuffing his mouth with whatever possible babyish food I could come up with (dairy foam from cappuccinos, scrambled eggs, runny yogurt laced with honey) and the clerk or waiter - as often male as female - would pluck him from my arms as easily as a hostess takes your jacket at a nice restaurant.

In the dusty Valladolid, on the road to Tulum, a Mayan woman at a cafe actually walked him outside and down the street, explaining through sign language that he'd be happier with her if he couldn't see me.

This would never happen in America. I know parents who wear their babies in slings expressly so strangers don't touch them. People often grab Theo's foot or pat his head, but I don't think I've ever had a stranger in Portland just pick him up unbidden and take him away.

We went one day to Xel-Ha, a sort of mammoth interactive aquarium crafted from calm lagoons full of rainbow-hued fish and several freshwater springs and rivers running through caves and jungle. Incredibly, it's just as cool as it sounds.

Despite a big line behind me, the guy at the snorkel rental shack reached out for Theo from across the counter, and what could I do?

While I tried on fins, he took the baby for a tour of the room's equipment and gave him a spare snorkel to chew. (At $75 a person, Xel-Ha was no bargain but definitely a trip highlight. At one of the five all-you-can-eat restaurants, included in the price of admission, Luke announced blissfully, 'This is like heaven, but in real life.')

Theo spent most of his time happily splashing in an artificial inch-deep creek, oblivious to the 2-foot-long iguana an arm's length away.

Hot and tired after a few hours of solo baby minding (the other boys were floating down the river in inner tubes and jumping off cliffs), I tried to read while he played. And I did at least make eye contact after person after person sat down and played with him, crooning in Spanish.

My Spanish is extremely rudimentary, but I had dozens of conversations by answering the questions '¿Cuantos meses?' (nueve, or 9) and '¿Cómo se llama?' (I'd say Theo, they'd say Teo).

They'd tell me about their own babies and tickle mine under his chin while he poked at their noses and tugged their lips. He's fascinated by facial expressions at the moment, still eager to match strangers smile for smile.

I know all the docs say that reducing human contact is the best way to prevent colds and flu, but I wonder if we miss something important by obsessing over it.

I hope Theo gets the feeling that he can be safe anywhere in the world, even if it isn't his mother holding on to him.

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