My daughter pleaded that she wanted “to see a real beach”, apparently enthusiastic no more for the murky, brown waves rolling with sediment in Port Aransas, Texas, where she had spent much of her childhood. Now, about to turn 13, she had something bigger in mind. “Like this,” she said holding up her tablet and scrolling through a series of photos of what appeared to be the Virgin Islands.
I immediately thought of Tulum on the Yucatán Peninsula, where previously I had relaxed on solo trips after treks through the jungles of Chiapas and Guatemala to visit Maya ruins. I recounted to her the snow-white sand and bands of brilliant aquamarine and sapphire blue water. Thus, I proposed we all go to Mexico for summer vacation — especially since I secretly planned to get another jungle excursion in on the side to visit more ruins.
“I am not going to Mexico,” said my son, a 15-year-old who prefers the glumness of dark, cold days. Even though it was merely May and nowhere near the eventual 100-degree days at our home in Austin, he already had developed a habit of opening the door, squinting at the sun and grunting before returning to his dark, air-conditioned bedroom.
“You know I don’t like sand,” added my wife, one of the only people on the planet who actually despises beaches.
My son suggested that it would be more practical to all go to Canada, where we have a good friend to stay with in Calgary. “It will be cheaper, and I can play hockey, with real Canadians.”
The conversation could have been a sticking point, had our family not already split up on two previous occasions for travel – -with me taking my daughter and my wife taking my son, and vice versa. It was clear that one pair would head south by plane, the other north by car. (My wife also hates planes.)
The first time we split, friends and family were a bit bewildered that an actual family unit would not spend family time — all together — for the big vacation. I explained the significant benefits of not staying together. The obvious perk is that you don’t have to deal with fighting siblings, nor do you have to worry about trying to spend quality, alone time with your spouse while the kids whine, “I’m bored!”
Gone are the competing agendas of where to go and when, or where to eat and what. Instead, when we parents traveled with one, we invested our attention in that child. Sure, we would have opinions on what activities we’d like to do, but usually the kids would pick up on our moods and be accommodating.
This particular split was a spectacular success. My daughter and I mixed it up a bit, sometimes economizing, sometimes splurging. We spent three nights staying in a rugged, sweltering cabana situated across the main beach road with no ocean breeze to whiz away the mosquitoes, and of course with a variety of bugs sharing the space, including giant ants that marched in errant lines across the windowsills. The first night was brutally hot and humid, and my daughter scratched feverishly at her arms and nearly broke down crying. Had my wife and son been there, it would have been a disaster, since we sometimes fall into the trap of one yelling back at a complaining child and the other trying to spoil him or her, all while the sibling makes snide remarks about what a loser their brother or sister is.
Instead my daughter took a deep breath and remarked, “I can do it. I can stay here.” The subsequent nights were much better and we spent the days riding bikes, snorkeling reefs, boogie boarding waves, swimming with sea turtles in nearby Akumal, and visiting little restaurants perched on windy cliffs overlooking the Caribbean. As a reward for her perseverance, I treated us to a night at a resort-style hotel with its own private beach, a pool adorned with a waterfall and roaming waiters to bring my daughter Mexican Cokes and, of course, dad his beer.
Word from Canada was that my son was digging hockey, hiking in the mountains near Banff, and as typical for his age, playing some video games at night.
My daughter and I eventually took that side trip — six hours by rented car deep inland to Campeche to visit the Maya ruins at Calakmul. It was a challenging to buffer ourselves from the thousands of mosquitoes and the suffocating heat, but our escapes were the daunting climbs up the narrow steps of each pyramid to view the vast expanses of treetops across the jungle.
As we wound down our trip in a little condo in Akumal, I cherished just relaxing with my daughter, eating out for dinner and talking through the dusk and into the star-speckled skies about our encounter with a barracuda, her first sighting of wild monkeys, how well she actually understood Spanish, and the uncertainty she felt about starting at a new middle school in the fall.
But as we reclined on our beds watching Netflix through the final afternoon, I ventured to ask her, “Are you kind of done hanging out with me?”
“Yep,” she said simply.
“Yep,” I said, and we agreed that it would be great to be home amidst the turbulent life with the other two.