A pro-surfer friend described Sayulita as a kid-friendly artist hamlet where you can surf in warm water year round, gorge on heaping plates of Mexico’s best fish tacos for two bucks, and have your morning latte. I was on the prowl for an unsanitized destination to get my son, Kai, his first passport stamp (which meant no Club Med within spitting distance). Yet I also craved a reasonably safe vacation spot to relax with my four-month-old baby. As it turned out, Sayulita fit the bill.
Though the community originated as a coconut harvesting and fishing village, after the highway from Puerto Vallarta was completed in the 1960s, surfers — hearing rumors about an epic right and left reef break — sojourned to Sayulita for waves without the masses. Today, Sayulita, located on Mexico’s newly rebranded Riveria Nayarit, is one of those beach towns that travelers whisper about for fear it will wander the road of Mexico’s other former fishing “villages” (locals are adamant about their hamlet not becoming another Cabo or Cancun). Yet even as the town swells with enough American travelers that I scratched my head and wondered how so many people know about this intriguing mix of surfers, funky galleries, local families, gourmet eateries, and rich Mexican culture, Sayulita still feels like a secret.
Getting here was nothing to brag about: a breast milk extravaganza for the little one as we flew south, then, because I insisted I didn’t want to change the way I typically travel — “it is bad enough I have to book a place to stay in advance,” I said in a huff to Eddie — we squeezed onto a tightly packed bus, Eddie lugging our two big backpacks like weights as I squeezed the baby, wide-eyed and snuggled in his Ergo carrier, past families, chickens, and thug-looking teens sizing up my vulnerability. By the time we arrived in town, the sun had set over the Pacific, and somehow, we needed to find our way to our apartment rental in the series of braided cobblestone streets winding up from town. We had no cell service, no map, and no patience. I was famished and severely grumpy from being a breasterant for the last eight hours. Eddie, lugging bags meant to be upon one’s back, was awash in tropical perspiration, his lips firmly set as a challenge to brave the hill. And our sweet little child was (of course) sound asleep, rocked to slumber by the constant movement — a sure sign he would be up all night.
Near the top of the hill we found our residence, a darkened apartment with a kitchen three feet from the bed and a bathroom larger than our San Francisco bedroom. There was no outside space, no separate rooms save the place we’d bathe and take craps, and no food that we could magically make appear by picking up the phone — hell, there was no phone. Eddie’s shoulders sunk, not saying all I wished him to mutter — where will we hang out once the baby goes to bed? There’s one bed; how will we have sex? Doesn’t Club Med look delicious right about now?
When I asked our pediatrician about traveling with babies, she said that we should go as far and as ambitious as we wanted. Since our child was not yet eating solids, it didn’t so much matter about healthy water sources or communicable diseases. She wasn’t concerned about kidnapping or any of the fears our families brought up, who urged us to go to Hawaii where it is “safe,” because our child would be with us, on us, for the entire trip. She reminded us that our child would be pretty much the same wherever we are — our California apartment, on a tropical beach, or in the snow-covered mountains of Switzerland — so, if we were craving some time at a tropical foreign destination, why not give ourselves a reward for keeping our child alive this long? In the end, her main point was that babies exist, survive, and thrive around the planet and ours would have just as much of a chance of survival say, traveling in Morocco or Mexico, as when we crossed the streets of San Francisco. I wasn’t entirely ready to deal with cholera vaccines or malaria meds — I wouldn’t wish those tripped out dreams on anyone, especially not my sweet little child — nor was I jazzed about destinations with overt political strife (no civil wars or genocides, at least not for our baby’s early travel). Our pediatrician reminded us that as much as we wanted this trip to be Kai’s introduction to world travel, he wouldn’t believe the photos he’d see of himself as a drooling infant were him, and he definitely would not remember the markets blasting accordion-led ballads; trucks overflowing with watermelon, oranges, piñatas, and cleaning supplies; entire extended families sitting in front of a taco stand eating 75 cent tacos; horses trotting down the street; “Wanted‘ signs hanging in windows; the smell of tortillas permeating the air; and locals stopping to gossip on dirt roads. This journey was for us. And as we wandered back down the cobblestone road towards the center of town, neither of us was feeling entirely inspired or excited about now having to find the best place to grab a fish taco and a beer. Right about now, I wouldn’t dare admit it, but I was wishing we’d given in and booked a fancy week away in a posh resort with fruity cocktails and overpriced seafood dishes.
I’m doubly embarrassed to admit that we followed the high-end jogging strollers past the taco truck and the hole-in-the-wall diner to the packed fish taco joint. On the windows were copies of hyped guidebook reviews and newspaper splashes deeming the joint “the best place for tacos in the area” and “authentic.” By the looks of the clientele, a mix of shaggy-haired California surfers and white families with multiple kids, there was not much that was authentic about this eatery, save its address in the state of Nayarit.
A couple tacos and a Tecate later, baby strapped to my chest, we circled the Zócalo. By day Mexico’s central squares act as a hub for meetings, family gatherings, and scoring deals on everything from fresh produce to cocaine; the Zócalos are the playgrounds for kids climbing colorful trees, the hook up spots, and the destinations to practice accordion. By night, the Zócalo transforms into a lively party, a haphazard display of chaos: drinking, pick up scenes (both failed and successful), people eating ice cream cones, Abuelas laughing, parents ignoring their teens making out. In my former life as a traveler, I would be right in the center of this party, eating tres leches cake, sharing a joint with a local crew of college students, and hamming it up with backpackers swapping their tales of adventurous routes through Mexico.
On this night, I half whispered to my husband, “Should we hang out?”
His hazel eyes took me in, seeing in me all that I was currently ignoring — my boobs bulging with milk, the incessant rocking and patting of the small being on my chest, the massive black circles under my eyes. “You’re kidding, right?”
The sad thing was that I wasn’t. I wanted to prove that I could still stay up late and party even with a kid attached to my tits 24/7. What sort of consolation prize was going back to the room before 9p.m. and sitting there in the dark reading a book or watching TV — if there even was one? As Alain de Botton writes in his book, The Art of Travel, “Travel twists our curiosity according to a superficial geographical logic, as superficial as if a university course were to prescribe books according to their size rather than subject matter.” I had this false sense that being somewhere else meant I also had to be someone else. A person different from the woman at home who has spent each evening of the past four months stuck in a two-bedroom flat, binge-watching The Sopranos in spurts between my child’s awakenings. Being in another culture infected me with this urge to do it all, see it all, experience and taste and smell it all despite the fact that I had not slept through the night since 2006. At that exact moment, I actually believed I was going to master my university-like study of Sayulita, and experience the entire town thoroughly enough to become an expert. Day, night: I’d conquer this place. It was mine.
“What do you expect we are going to do, Michele? Go salsa with our kid strapped in the Ergo?”
Eddie was right. All I wanted was to get our baby to sleep so I could start relaxing. As we stopped by the bodega to grab essentials and a six-pack of beer, I suddenly felt like a sad excuse for a traveler. And while de Botton goes on to say that sometimes, “even in the most fascinating cities, [we] have occasionally been visited by a strong wish to remain in bed,” I imagined that I was above the fray, that arriving in another country with the rich scents of the tropics and the music of Mexico, I would be energized to soak it all up. The truth was, as we braved that cobblestone hill once more, all I wanted to soak up was a bath and some shut eye.
But our infant was not having that. Once we arrived in the room, I detached the small being from my chest and placed him on the bed, and he immediately starting wailing. As I untied my tennis shoes with one hand, I shoved a boob into his hungry mouth. I could hear, in the dark, Eddie unzipping our bags, locating our pajamas, our books, our book-lights, and quietly climbing into the king-sized bed with me, whispering with a grin I could hear but not see, “So what do you want to do now?”
Meet local people who would invite me to their houses and introduce me to their families and their cultures and let me eat their yummy posole.
Travel back in time.
Find an old grandma who would watch our baby so we could go party all night.
Watch bad Mexican TV.
Melt into this lumpy bed and let sleep wash over me.
I knew what he was really asking though.
Did I want my husband to now mount me after a long travel day on a bumpy flight, then a crowded bus, while I had a child attached to me the entire time, when now this was the first second that there was no human being touching my body? Debi Gilboa, a MD, a parenting expert, and an old friend, wisely told me before I gave birth that as much as I might not want to have sex after a long day of being a food source and a carrier and a provider and a protector, in order to protect my relationship, I should — excuse the pun — throw him a bone every so often, which I did, though clearly not as often as my husband would desire.
With an infant in the house, sex is clearly a race against the clock. We’ve learned to skip much of the sweet nothings that used to accompany sex and get straight to the main event. Before even rolling over, my hand was on him, not having to work at making sure he was up to the task. Once I thought the baby would not wake up, I slid my arm out from under his neck to which my child in response to this slight aggravation began screaming — this nightly wail we’d grown used to over the few months was only cured when I silenced him with a mouthful of boob while keeping a hand on my husband.
There I was, playing Twister in this bed: One hand patting my baby’s belly as he spooned my tit, greedily guzzling what my best friend called the ambrosia of her innards; my other hand reaching for my husband, pulling him towards me as his hand ambitiously journeyed to my southern regions. It was like we were back in high school, on my parents’ striped sectional, hidden under a cover, pretending to watch cartoons, trying like mad to get each other off before a parent entered the room. This time, instead of the guardsmen of our bodies being our parents, we had become the parents, racing, in this small vacation rental, against our child’s sleep cycle to ascertain some minuscule bit of pleasure we still had within our reach.
But this child was determined to stay close to his mama; his stubbornness on this front was matched only by the unwavering single-mindedness of his father. We would do this. Success seemed so close that, when I staked claim on my breast once more, I slowly, millimeter by millimeter, detached and gave my husband clearance to ascend my body, an Everest of its own sort, battered by the harsh conditions of childbirth. Lack of lubricants and the noisy squeak of the bed springs once again woke our child.
This was no time for preciousness. No time to quietly nurse this small being and love the special bonding time. No, I am embarrassed to say that with my husband still inside me, I shoved a boob into my child’s mouth, not quite sure how I might pull this feat of nature off, and surely not proud of myself at the moment, but wanting to calm both of the men in my life and then finally, blissfully get some shut eye, hopefully with at least an hour of no one touching or needing me. Eddie pressed into the flat pillows over our child’s head, attempting to continue. But with every hump, the bed voiced its protest, each instance startling our child awake so he would suckle harder. Finally, I had to give up, allowing this small being to win the first of many power struggles of child versus parent.
The next morning at Chocobanana, a popular breakfast joint, it was hard to ignore the sheer amount of smartphones, jogging strollers, high-end longboards slung under bronzed arms, and haute beach wear. On the way here, we passed a Frida-inspired art gallery, a sushi joint, clothing stores hawking $150 tank tops, and real estate offices advertising multi-million dollar villas. As I dove into my banana pancakes, I could not help but feel grumpy about the gringo-ness of Sayulita. If I wanted California-like beaches, I would have gone to San Diego.
“Ugh, look, there’s another dad wearing a Stanford shirt,” I muttered, thinking Eddie would agree with my irritation, but he didn’t seem bothered as he did the typical dude upward head nod and returned to his chilaquiles. “I wish we would have gone to Nicaragua, or something. Ouch!”
I didn’t see the bee that ended its life on my arm. My jump must have sent it buzzing elsewhere to spend its final moments. But as my forearm inflated to double its size, I wished I could have stepped on the insect, ground it to a pulp. Instead, I handed Kai over to Eddie and, as my arm pulsed, tried to squeeze the stinger out, finally ejected a small nub that didn’t seem powerful enough to inflict so much pain. As I sat icing my swollen arm, Kai started crying, wanting his mama, a human that at the moment just wanted and needed to care for herself. I couldn’t carefully hold him as my arm continued to swell, so Eddie held Kai’s head up while he fed. Even in pain, I could not escape my duties as a mother. How have women addressed this balance between caring for another being and caring for themselves since the dawn of time?
Right now all I wanted was a Bloody Mary, or three, and a bunch of pain killers, and to read a good book on the beach. And while, with the help of my husband, I was able to secure some decent pain killers that could be ingested while nursing, our child was not content to fall asleep in the carrier with his father; he only wanted to be close to me.
I strapped him onto my chest, cursing myself for thinking it was a good idea to travel with such a small being, ignoring the nagging thoughts of Lucky the bee didn’t sting the baby; or Good thing we were here where there are loads of tourists and the pharmacist even knows about Kaiser health insurance. The only thought I wanted to entertain at the moment was how hard my life felt.
Eddie suggested we walk south of the square and stroll through the town cemetery to reach a beach campground cluttered with local families and cliff jumpers at the unfortunately named Playa de Los Muertos. Kai kept his eyes wide, fighting sleep in a way that would become his signature trait. Eddie said it was because he did not want to miss a second of his first international journey. In my state of negativity, I thought it was to piss me off.
Instead of staying at the Beach of the Dead, we traveled north of town, continuing for 15 minutes past the Zócalo until we reached the jungle. Thick with hanging vines, butterflies, cinnamon hummingbirds, macaws, and coconut palm trees, the shady path led to an isolated beach blanketed with seashells. Here, with only a few other folks in the vicinity, Kai finally nodded off. The pain and swelling in my arm, which the pharmacist called an allergic reaction, had subsided. Eddie held my good hand and whispered: “Good work. You made this happen. You can be a traveler, a writer, and a mother — all at the same time.”
He was right. Our kid was going to nap and scream and poop and nurse regardless of what continent I was on. The question was: How could I adapt to this new style of traveling where I could do and see everything? Maybe sleep deprivation was a gazillion times better on a tropical beach than in my shitty two-bedroom flat in San Francisco, but I didn’t want to spend all this cash to come to a new country and then be so dazed that I couldn’t enjoy it.
“You just need to lessen your expectations,” my wise husband added as I sunk my toes in the warmth of the sea. “Isn’t being here enough? You’re going to stress yourself out by expecting this place to give you the perfect travel experience. You, more than anyone, know it is not possible — it doesn’t exist. Traveling is hard. Parenting is hard. Take it easy on yourself.”
I knew he was right, but this didn’t make me feel any better. I still wanted to do it all. I had dreams to apply for a Fulbright in India; for the Peace Corps in the Maldives; for residencies and teaching gigs in Europe; for home stays in Guatemala. How long would I have to wait for this?
As I wandered along the long stretch of sand, framed by palm-covered mountains, watching surfers, I knew that my life as Michele didn’t end with becoming a mom. It was validated. I would show my kid the world, but instead of expecting him to be a world citizen immediately, it had to be gradual. As a sensory being, a small nugget of a human, the only first step I could offer was a gentle meeting. That was how I started — cross-country road trips with my parents in a van. I eased into loving the planet, having to first begin with loving the process of movement.
Eddie and I sat on the beach while our child slept, quietly reading and listening to the gentle lapping of waves, something we both desperately needed. When Kai woke up, I unleashed him from the carrier and carefully dipped his toes into the Pacific, letting his first sense of the ocean hug his small feet. He giggled, squealed when I lifted him from the ocean, and giggled more when I sat his bottom in the water, holding him steady as he squeezed handfuls of sand and threw the remnants into the frothing sea. Suddenly full of an inexplicable sense of joy, there was no place I would rather be at that moment than introducing my beautiful infant to the beach on a quiet stretch of sand in Mexico as my husband snapped photos of us. Small steps, I reminded myself. This kid would join me in Africa one day. But first we had to learn how to travel together.
Later, as the sun set over the Zócalo, we joined the locals in the central plaza to listen to live guitar, eat fresh baked tres leches from the abuelitas cutting cake on plastic covered card tables, while the kids raced around the giant trees laden with pinatas. We sat on the gazebo stairs chatting about parenting to a mom from Fresno before realizing that it was about time to get our little one to bed so we could try once more for some quality mom and dad time. •