'You have to visit San Cristobal," the taxi driver is saying. "Es muy bonito?" I respond, trying to make the muy flow like a rich Oaxacan mole. My Spanish is basic, but my intentions are good.
"Ah, si, si, el aire es fresco," I rifle through my Spanish dictionary looking for the words that will take this conversation to the next level -something like, 'What do you think about the Zapatistas? They live outside San Cristobal, don't they?' - when a sharp curve sends me flying against the passenger door. My son follows.
"Tell him to do that again!" Spencer says and throws himself against the other side of the car. The taxi takes another sharp swing - we are winding our way up a mountain near the city of Oaxaca to Hierve el Agua, a rock formation at the peak - and my son leaps into the sharp movement again.
The driver laughs, he's driving a bit "muy rapido," he says.
My partner's warning from the front seat - "You're going to be sick, Spence" - comes true pretty much immediately. Thankfully, at 3½, my son still carries a safety blanket; it comes in handy.
The tattered piece of fabric is Spencer's protection against the trip his parents have brought him on. This is not an all-inclusive vacation in Cancun: We are "off-reservation," as we call it, eschewing the traditional tourist travel arrangements, renting apartments in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, eating in local establishments and travelling by bus, regional plane and hired taxis.
But like the rest of this family holiday in Oaxaca, the southern Mexican state neighbouring Chiapas, the route less travelled holds good and bad surprises. It's only 10 in the morning and we've already experienced the bad today; an hour later, the good is fantastic. When we arrive at Hierve el Agua, we find an almost Olympic-size pool inset on a flat rock, the mineral-rich water dripping over the mountain's edge and creating a dry "waterfall" of deposits. This is water that 2,500 years ago was used by the Zapotecs for agriculture and possibly for its health properties. We share this infinity pool with only a picnicking Mexican family.
The kind of journey we're on is one that many embark on in their BC (Before Child) years, but it's greeted by skepticism when undertaken with tot in tow. Instead, the trip is regarded as potentially difficult (how to avoid late nights?), certainly irresponsible (is the water safe? the food?) and possibly even dangerous (Mexico means drug lords and kidnappings). Some of those concerns are worth consideration, although even a three-year-old can learn to sleep in until 9 a.m. if he attends a fiesta with a live band the night before. Still, everything should be fine if we take the usual precautions: Don't buy drugs, and drink only bottled water.
After all, Lonely Planet named Oaxaca in this year's Top 10 regions to visit. And while heeding some of the warnings may be useful - it would indeed have been good if Mama had remembered the Dramamine - going independently left us not wanting to travel another way again.
The key, as always, was experience. We'd built up our confidence in Mexico through day trips and then overnight trips on two previous outings for which we had stayed at all-inclusive resorts. An interesting observation had been made: After a week at one of these palaces of leisure and entertainment, the kid was as bored by the kids' club-buffet merry-go-round as were his parents. Plus, Spencer is not an eater at the best of times. Confronted with the bounty of the buffets, he ate only hot dogs, nachos and ice cream -an easy enough menu to replicate in the kitchen of any rented apartment in Oaxaca.
What separates renting apartments in Mexico from doing so in, say, Paris is not just the obvious cost difference, but the lifestyle. The family next door to the pad we chose, for example, had a chicken. Our place, in a modern building with a huge terrace with a view to the mountains, was in the middle of a group of homes that each housed a family in a single large room subdivided into areas for cooking, sleeping and studying. I found myself wishing my son was older, because much as we made frequent visits to check on the chicken, an older child would learn more from staying in a local neighbourhood like this than Wikipedia could ever impart.
The authenticity of our two weeks in Oaxaca also meant we went without some of the things that make travel with children easy, in places like Europe or Canada. Most sorely missed were playgrounds. Oaxaca has only one recognizable playground, located in San Felipe, the only part of town mostly free of pollution, where North American and European retirees have homes with tall fences. But after a cab ride over, the only people we found there were a family from Wisconsin visiting grandparents around the corner.
Swing, though, is more a verb than a noun in Oaxaca. Every night, the zocalo (central square) hosts a local band or a classical open-air concert where people of all ages dance to the music, kids no older than eight peddle sweets from trays hung around their necks, and friendships are made over the pushing of fire trucks around the traffic-free area. My stroller-loving son finally gave up his wheels when he realized it would be faster for him to walk to the square to hear his favourite instrument, the tuba, than for us to painfully navigate the narrow sidewalks, dodging sleeping dogs and lampposts.
Sadly, his adventurousness did not extend to an expansion of his interest in food. Paul and I ate goat cheese wrapped in hierba buena, golden barbecued chicken cooked in a wood stove and zucchini in a coriander and fresh mozzarella sauce at restaurants becoming known for their slow food and complex cuisine.
Spencer added "a teeny tiny bit of salt" on his nachos and packed them inside a white bun.
There were new frustrations too. Don't shop a crowded market with a child. When visiting the village of Ocotlan on its market day, one of us would get a chance to gaze at the wares of the vendors of garlic strands, 101 varieties of chili peppers and tomatoes, goats, lambs, smoked and smoking thin flanks of meat hanging on hooks, strips of the meat sliced and sold off as snacks, hats, bags and on and on, while the other kept a firm grip on the pint-sized tyrant demanding to get out of the shopping maze "right now. Do you hear me? Right now." It was paradise found and lost.
For all those temperamental interludes, however, the best gift of travelling with a child is their enthusiasm. Our time in Oaxaca coming to an end, we flew to the coast for a week by the ocean in Puerto Escondido. The flights between the two cities met a basic requirement of flying in a small plane: They have never crashed. Nevertheless, a 13-person plane is small, and as we ascended over the mountain peaks I saw sweat starting to break out on Paul's forehead. He was gripping the chair's armrest and staring straight out the window. My heartbeat was picking up. Then the pilot placed a large cushion over the front window of the plane to block the streaming sunlight: His vision was totally obscured.
The passengers exchanged looks of amusement - even such little planes must have big flying instruments, ha ha.
"Mama, look! That's where we were!" Spencer was pointing out the window to Oaxaca receding in the distance. He was oblivious to anything but the ever-smaller houses, so I got out my camera and we started taking pictures. A half-hour later, we'd safely landed at the big waves -Paul and I had become so enchanted by the landscape we'd forgotten our panic.
Here, in a sleepy locale that remains a surfer and ocean-lover's hangout despite constant threats of development, another apartment awaited. This one came with a pool and a kitchen equipped with a mixer that could whip up a pitcher of fruity Mexican drinks.
On our second day, we discovered that tiny land crabs were launching themselves into the pool overnight, seemingly believing the water to be the sea. We donned snorkelling masks on a rescue mission, our son filling his bucket with the crabs and dumping them farther away on the grass.
At an all-inclusive, the cleanup would have been so fast we wouldn't have learned about crabs' nocturnal habits. Less fun for us, and Spencer wouldn't have given all the crabs Mexican names.
As it is, we still talk about Rodriguez and Jose and Juan and how we'll visit them again soon.