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The author's wife Christina Pitkanen with their son, Bodi, and a fellow traveller in Puerto Natales, a city in love with children. (Bruce Kirkby)
The author's wife Christina Pitkanen with their son, Bodi, and a fellow traveller in Puerto Natales, a city in love with children. (Bruce Kirkby)

Want to be a hit in South America? Bring a baby Add to ...

Boarding a plane in El Calafate, Argentina

My shoulders are cramping, as my then eight-month-old son struggles to free himself from my grasp. Behind, I can feel the warmth of my wife, pressed amid a crush of passengers.

Flights from Calafate are full during tourist season; sold out months in advance. Despite arriving early at the airport, we don't have seats together. I peer down the long metal tube, crammed with blue plaid seats and people in them. Rows 28 and 29. Somewhere in the distance.

We shuffle past the spacious emergency exit seats, and they mock us. Abruptly, an elderly woman reaches for my wife. Dressed for church, in a well-worn sweater and pressed skirt, I imagine she comes from a ranch or remote town.

We are buried under an avalanche of Spanish. I struggle to understand. Where are we sitting? Near the back, I point. You can't. That is not right. You must sit here.

We are silent. The insistent tide of passengers swells behind. The woman nudges the adolescent boy beside her, lost in his iPod. Clearly they are strangers. Pulling back oversized ear phones, he asks: Hmm? These people, she points, with the baby, they should sit here. Will you give them your seat?

Sure he shrugs. Not even a passing hint of uncertainty or resentment. The pair undo their seatbelts, take our boarding passes, and depart toward the tail of the plane.

Two months earlier

First day in Buenos Aires. Awake to tired, squinting eyes. Reeling from 22 hours of flight with a toddler. Stumbling toward coffee when a young man sitting on a park bench whistles insistently. He is on the phone, but motions us over. Huh? He wants to peek at Bodi, buried under blankets, clutched to Christine's chest.

" Cachette!" he mouths. " Que Lindo." (Cheeks! How Cute.)

We wander onward, past worn stone buildings, down narrow shady streets. The city moans to life. Towering Jacarandas droop under the weight of their purple blooms. A group of young mothers slow to admire Bodi. " Que Lindo!"

Their boys, rushing ahead in school uniforms, turn and run back. Knapsacks tossed aside as little hands reach for baby hands. " Que Lindo."

At the café: medialunas, espresso, agua con gas. Two construction workers stand to leave, offer us their table. Sleeveless, tanned, wearing orange vests and reflective sunglasses, they carry metal lunch boxes. One is on his cell. Both stop, drop to their knees, and poke my son. " Que Lindo."

Final days in South America

After two soggy weeks of trekking, we escape a downpour in Puerto Natales; a colourful fishing outpost on the southern coast. Famished. Waiting on the doorstep of a small café, popular with backpackers, until it finally opens at 6 p.m. The dining room is empty. (Few eat before 10 p.m. this far south.)

Bodi chews on a crusty bun. We order steaks and a bottle of wine, the cost - $10 - nearly as pleasing as the promise of food.

When the plates appear, they come with a flourish, in the hands of the chef. Pepper is ground, water filled. Suddenly this giant of a man declares we cannot enjoy our food while watching a baby. Next thing we know, he is gently lifting Bodi from the high chair. I'll take him to the kitchen. He'll be fine. It's quiet. You eat. Enjoy.

The journey home

Another overnight flight. Five-hour layover in Toronto, then cross-country to YVR. Eyes avert as our small family shuffles onto the plane. Did I imagine that, or did a couple cross themselves as we neared?

No sooner have we settled in our seats than the woman across the aisle pages the flight attendant. She wants to be moved.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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