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On Backpacks and Babies An Auto-Cartography

On Backpacks and Babies An Auto-Cartography

This morning, Steve and I woke up late and tired because our two-year-old had been up twice in the night dreaming about scary dinosaurs, and then there was an incident with a rat in our bedroom. In my cold Mexican kitchen, I “sproached” eggs in sugar cane vinegar and picked rodent-gnawed fruit out of the basket on the counter while Steve shoveled our son into his school uniform—plaid pants, white polo, blue cardigan.

Meanwhile, Steve and I debated P-O-I-S-O-N versus T-R-A-P for the rat, listened to NPR streaming reports on volcanic ash over Indonesia and endangered toads in Arizona, and packed tortillas, leftover zucchini, and panela cheese into a lunch sack. Then, late as usual, Steve raced out the front door with the stroller.

Aside from the honking of combis on the street outside, the house was momentarily silent. I made myself a cup of decaf Nescafé in milk and sifted through emails.

Two dozen countries, perhaps a million miles, and here I am. I am thirty-two years old. I am married. I have a two-year-old son, and I am eight months pregnant.

Ten years ago, when I was a college student camped out in a frigid Tibetan yak pasture under a Milky Way thick as soup, this list would have sounded like a prison sentence. Back then, my description of myself had only one bullet point that mattered: I was a traveler, loose, temporal, unbound and unbordered. Allowing myself to be anything else was too big a risk.

Before Tibet, I had already studied abroad in Spain and Italy. And I had “backpacked Europe.” Alone. Soon after returning from Tibet and graduating from college, I got my first real-world job teaching in El Salvador, and from there I entertained myself with whimsical trips like flying off to Bolivia over spring break to try to find my friend Jenny or riding the chicken buses across Guatemala to climb volcanoes. While my peers were exploring something called “the job market,” I envisioned a future spent saving up for plane tickets, waking up a day later in a place I’d never been, gesturing through jet lag at shop wallas to make me a bowl of dal bhat, or a Spanish tortilla on bread, or a plate of buffalo momos.

It’s not that I didn’t like or want kids. Even in Tibet I was the one in my group who initiated enormous games of duck-duck-goose with village kids who were otherwise getting into everyone’s stuff. I would have said I wanted to have a family some day, but in the abstract way I would have said I wanted to have a steady income and maybe even a retirement plan: I couldn’t see how the life I was living would lead to any of this, and, anyway, time seemed abundant.

Some people consider such unsettledness a protracted adolescence, as if it’s something that’s wrong with my overindulged generation. Others call it one’s “odyssey years,” as if it’s a developmental phase equivalent to toddlerhood or puberty, or maybe a rite of passage that’s performed in dirty blue jeans rather than a poufy dress. But I didn’t feel like I was escaping or avoiding or putting off anything when I was out in the world, and I didn’t feel unready for “reality.”

Rather, I felt I was perpetually in the thick of things, as if everything I did, from buying groceries to riding the bus or greeting a stranger on the street, mattered and meant something. I felt that living in hard places, places with guns and poverty and natural disasters, meant that I might actually have a better grasp on reality than my friends with those mysterious real jobs back home could possibly have. More to the point, living abroad felt like a lifestyle, a way of being, and I hoped my life would always be flexible enough for navigating new places.

I still hope this. I hope this as I listen for the trash man’s bell, as I listen to the magpie in the hule tree out back, as I shop for tortillas and nopales in the covered market, as I greet the one-legged shoeshine man I pass each day in Las Tarascas park, as I stroll down the cobblestone avenue to my son’s Mexican Montessori school.

Since I met Steve in El Salvador, where we taught in the same school, we have kept maps of our traveling, tracing out the routes where we’ve been in black ink, so we’ll remember. If I were to plot the tangled route that led me to Mexico and motherhood, there would be a few map dots that matter more than others. The most important of these is Ambato, a dingy provincial city in highland Ecuador, where it occurred to me that travel was not incompatible with life and love and family.

It all started with a mistake, which I suppose is how most families start. Steve and I were living with different host families for the sake of my miserable Spanish and teaching at different universities in different parts of the city, so we decided that rather than meeting for Nescafé (Ecuador is where this embarrassing habit started) or beer or hot wine every afternoon and bemoaning our separation, we would volunteer somewhere together. We could teach English at an orphanage, I suggested. We looked on a map of the city, found an orphanage, showed up, and offered our services.

The hogar’s director accepted with enthusiasm and then took us upstairs to meet the children. Who, it turned out, were not children, but babies who lolled around on a parquet floor in diapers taped over with plastic bags. As if these babies weren’t pre-lingual enough for English lessons, in the next room, a nursery, we were shown the infants, including a newborn who had been found a few weeks earlier under a parked car.

Steve and I had no skills or training or desire to work with babies, but we had wanted to help, and the hogar needed help; how could we possibly turn around and walk out? For the rest of that afternoon we passed dollies to children with empty hands. We let little sour-smelling bodies colonize our laps. And we avoided making eye contact with one another. When we finally did leave, without conferring first, we promised the director that we’d come back the following afternoon.

At about this same time, I was facing off with other baby troubles at work. Babies, and sometimes even bigger children, kept showing up in my university classrooms.

“I’m sorry, Miss,” my students would mumble. “My mother/husband/sister is late to pick him up.”

I had an iron-fisted attendance policy. I also didn’t allow cell phones. Babies, and the prerogative of family, threw me off my game.

I was tempted to abandon lesson plans on the use of prepositions for lectures on birth control.

Time went by. The babies kept showing up in my classroom and Steve and I kept showing up at the hogar. And I was learning things. I had learned, for example, that my students pitied me. I wasn’t so young—26 already!—so why wasn’t I married? Wasn’t I lonely without a family?

I had also deduced that the director at the hogar thought Steve and I had made up the whole teaching thing. She assumed we were there to scope out her selection of babies and pick one out for ourselves, somehow sidestepping an ongoing moratorium on adoptions in Ecuador (I was also learning that those kids at the hogar weren’t at all unwanted). A few weeks into our time at the hogar, just as I was starting to get over the stench but had not yet offered to attempt a diaper change, she began dropping hints that she was on to us.

“Which one do you love best?” she asked while I sat with a lap full of babies on the parquet floor. I should say that this translation is how I chose to interpret her question: the verb for love and want is one and the same in Spanish.

“I love them all,” I managed with what I hoped passed for a magnanimous smile. Of course, I didn’t want any of them. “I love them all equally.”

“And your husband?”

“He’s not my husband,” I reminded her. “He likes the older babies. The ones who play outside.”

Another time, she asked me with a wink if Steve and I planned to take an Ecuadoran recuerdo, or souvenir, home with us to the U.S. All I could think of was how perverse this sounded. Now that I am a mother, I can’t help thinking how perverse it was not to at least try.

I admit, I did, of course, imagine picking out a baby for myself. In fact, I decided that if I ever did — hypothetically — adopt from the hogar, I would adopt a chubby, mop-haired baby named Pedro. Gradually, even with a plastic bag taped over his overripe diaper, Pedro started to smell good to me. Warm, sour, and dusty.

Why not? I asked myself. I had brought home plenty of strays in my life—from pets to men—so why not an Ecuadorian orphan? It wasn’t as though my vagabond lifestyle was any less stable than Pedro’s existence on the hogar’s parquet floor. I could just see us, Steve with a backpack and me with Pedro strapped across my chest, our thumbs in the Andean wind. Gradually, this image took hold.

Why not?

While I daydreamed about Pedro, Steve was up against a different sort of struggle, this one with a four-year-old named John Davíd, the bigger of the two kids at the hogar who knew how to walk. John Davíd always wore purple moonboots, so it was easy to hear him galloping across the yard when we rang the front gate.

He would make a beeline for Steve, hollering “¡Mamí! ¡Mamí!”

Steve would swoop him up overhead, and that little boy, who at four had never known a man well enough to have a word for him, would giggle so hard that spit bubbled out of his mouth.

Steve wasn’t teaching him English; he was trying to teach him the word papí.

Then, when a family came from Norway intending to adopt John Davíd—a heartbreaking debacle—Steve tried to teach him to say amigo.

Steve and I didn’t talk about my fantasy of Pedro or his sad love for John Davíd, not directly anyway, but I did joke with my host mother over Nescafé one morning that I was going to bring a baby home some Saturday. This was something the director had also hinted at, and many local families did take the orphans home for the weekend. Some of these families were the children’s very own biological families for whom desperate circumstances made full-time parenting impossible. My host mother, who couldn’t fathom why I would put off marrying a good man (she was crazy about Steve) and surrounding myself with children as quickly as possible, repeated her hints about a Galápagos honeymoon if Steve and I would just get married already. She wouldn’t have minded one bit if I’d brought little Pedro home, and she ignored the play in my voice.

Her own daughter, almost my age, was still unmarried too, and this worried my host mother. Most Ecuadorian girls wed in their teens and the couple moves in with “whichever family has fewer problems,” as my students explained it. Some couples live with their parents until they are self-sufficient, which might take years in Ecuador’s shaky economy; plenty of others stay for good.

I was a taken aback by the teen marriage/parent thing at first. It seemed so backwards, so limiting. But as I began to acclimate to more than Ecuador’s altitude and weather, my opinion became more nuanced. If anything, Ecuadorian girls came into greater independence when they get married and the question of sex was out of the way. When the babies arrived, a sort of generational leapfrogging occurred: the grandparents, who are often only in their 30s, helped raise these babies while the babies’ parents went to school, hung out with friends, even traveled. It wasn’t a matter of being backwards or not; it was a completely different model. The longer I lived in Ecuador, the more aspects of this model, and others like it, made sense to me.

Two years after we left Ecuador for graduate school, Steve and I exchanged vows beneath two cottonwood trees in New Mexico. Two months after that, we were pregnant. The director of my graduate school program raised her eyebrows at this and let it be known she considered this bad planning on my part.

What about my career. What about my independence. What about my self-respect as a feminist. I was getting dangerously old in Ecuador, but back in the U.S. I was throwing away my future.

It was too late for such remarks to matter, but even so, they couldn’t scratch the image I’d conjured up: Steve and a backpack, me with a mop-haired boy, flagging down a chicken bus. I didn’t know if I could make it happen, but I intended to try.

Two more years have passed.

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The phone rings and I waddle downstairs.

“¿Bueno?” I say into the receiver, not expecting to understand what would follow. My Spanish is still terrible, but Dr. O, my obstetrician, is exceedingly patient with me. He needs to reschedule my appointment for later in the week. Thursday. Fine. Am I feeling well? Yes. I’m growing bigger every day, and my son-on-the-way is already a futbolista, kicking like crazy.

If all goes well, this will be my Mexican son; my firstborn, although he was born as dawn stretched over the New Mexico desert, is the product of Ecuador.

In Ecuador, Steve and I traveled in buses with poultry and in pickup beds with livestock; we rode on the roof of a train; and once, on a dirt road at pink dusk, we hitched a ride in the bucket of a dump truck just as darkness fell on Amazonia. Sometimes, constant motion did make it feel as though we were defying gravity, maybe even reality.

Now, with two boys of our own (albeit one making his presence known with only feet and elbows), we cover most of our miles with a stroller. We don’t climb volcanoes anymore, or hitchhike, or take off for Bolivia. I didn’t even climb the stone steps of the Sun Temple at the ruins of Teotihuacán, not with this belly, and not with a toddler in tow. Instead, my son and I sat at its base and fed cake crumbs to ants.

Rat traps and obstetrical stirrups aren’t quite in line with the image of a traveling family that I conjured up those nights I shivered alone on the rooftop of my Ecuadorian host family’s home and dreamed of Pedro. But there is a map on the pastel purple wall of Steve’s office here in Mexico. And on it we have begun to mark the routes of this current journey. So far, there isn’t much on that map, but this doesn’t mean we aren’t covering ground.

Saturdays, I take my son to his classmates’ birthday parties, where there are fancy, multi-colored gelatins instead of ice cream, presents are either opened as they arrive, or stashed away to open later, and the kids line up by height for their crack at the piñata. Sunday mornings, I take him to the market where he eats fresh blue corn tortillas and occasionally shoplifts tangerines while I load his stroller handles with sacks of bananas, papayas, and guavas, roasted chickens, fresh eggs, squash blossoms and cilantro, still-warm bread.

After the siesta, Steve and I take him to the Plaza de Armas in the heart of this colonial city, where he plays tag with the crowds of other kids, eats coconut popsicles, blows bubbles, chases balls or pigeons, and shakes hands with old men sitting on benches.

Of course, it isn’t all postcard-worthy.

“Put his shoes on, Señora!” a woman scolds me on the sidewalk, reaching down to touch my son’s bare feet. “His feet are like ice. For shame!”

I stop the stroller, hold up one muddy shoe, and snap back at her:

“Of course he’s cold, but he was chewing on his shoes.”

We are not communicating: a good mother in Mexico keeps her child warm, first and foremost; a good American mother keeps grossly unsanitary things out of her kid’s mouth, even if it means his feet freeze.

And then there are the nights when my son asks about Albuquerque, the city we left behind, or about Zane, his friend who lives there, or his Oso Grande, the too-large teddy bear that currently lives in storage. He knows the words “I love you,” but when he hugs me at night, my son tells me that he misses me.

I hug him back, missing his Oso Grande too, and the other things, those tragedies of travel, including a little mop-haired boy I left behind on a dusty parquet floor.

“I love you, too,” I tell him.

Europe, Tibet, El Salvador, Ambato, Ecuador: they are faraway places now, but they were never aimless dead-ends. They are places that caught my imagination and then, when I set out to know them for myself, became the map dots of an albeit roundabout road that has arrived here, in Mexico, for now.

A crowd of children playing duck-duck-goose; a dusty, stinking, mop-haired toddler; an orphan in purple moonboots who knew no word for a father-figure; a baby asleep in a bassinet at the back of university classroom; an orphanage director’s seemingly strange assumptions; and a host mother who really did know more than I did: they gave rise to the image of a backpack, a baby on one hip, and an unknown roadside. And that image gave rise to this morning, sipping Nescafé and listening to combis in the streets and magpies in the hule tree while I hang miniature guayaberas and plaid school uniform pants in Mexico’s December wind.

Where, the traveler in me can’t help but wonder, even as my unborn baby scores yet another goal against my ribcage, will Mexico take us?

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