PUEBLA, Mexico — Until last summer I thought study-abroad programs were for college students, foreign travel was for the rich and vacations, exotic or otherwise, were for people who didn't have kids.
Having spent a month in Mexico with my 4-year-old, Isaac, I know better now. Anyone can enroll in a study-abroad program; the cost can be minimal; and if you're a single parent as I am, every day will seem like vacation.
A flyer tacked to a bulletin board at UCLA set me in motion. "Travel/Study Program," it read, "Puebla, Mexico. Four-week sessions. Families welcome. International Universities."
I copied the San Pedro address and sent off for more information.
Living With a Family
When the bulletin came, I read every word. "Participants live in middle-class homes with Mexican families." So far, so good. I wasn't up for austerity. And I wouldn't want to spend my entire vacation one-on-one with Isaac. In a family I'd have company, and so would he.
I read on. "Language classes . . . tours of the city . . . children's program . . . weekend excursions. . . ."
It sounded like fun.
The cost was $460 per two-week session or $815 a month, tuition, housing, meals and short trips included. Children enrolled in the activities program paid $155 a session, others $75.
It sounded feasible.
I phoned Aeromexico. $365 for two round trip Los Angeles to Mexico City, $220 if we flew out of Tijuana.
I tapped my calculator: $815, $150, $229. Call it $1,200. For $1,200 Isaac and I could fly to Mexico, stay a month and fly back again. That would cost $40 a day, $20 apiece, about what it would cost us to stay home. If I sublet my house for the month, I'd be money ahead.
Vacation or not, it was an opportunity I couldn't refuse.
But a few months later, as our Estrella Roja bus spun down the highway linking Mexico City with Puebla 70 miles south, I had qualms. What if we didn't get along with our family? What if Isaac wouldn't eat the food? Beans and hot peppers weren't exactly his line.
Suppose he got sick? And what about the language? I'd learned a little Spanish from tapes, but Isaac didn't know a word. What if he were homesick? What if I were homesick? What had I gotten us into, anyway?
I looked out the window. The air was fresh and clear, scrubbed by recent rain. In the middle distance rose two magnificent mountains, Popocatapetl and Iztaccihuatl, his sleeping wife. Burnished by the afternoon sun, their high snowy peaks gleamed like crowns. Gleaming too were the spires and domes on the low hills around us.
The driver down-shifted. Now we were jouncing over cobblestones. Lining the streets were fantastic brick buildings studded with tiles, blue and white and green and red and yellow.
"Mommy," said Isaac, who'd been asleep on my lap. "Where are we?" Like Dorothy waking up after the cyclone, he stared out the window and rubbed his eyes.
"We're in Pueblo," I said. "Grab your things. Let's go."
Warm Family Welcome
The Echeverrias. Warm and numerous, the people we lived with were the key to our vacation. They might have ignored us, or they might have smothered us with attention. I'd imagined both scenarios. But in fact we were treated like privileged guests.
We had the run of the house, including the master bedroom (where young and old gathered at all hours to watch TV). Yet they never intruded on our privacy. The room they'd given us was off-limits. I could retire there whenever I liked, to read or nap.
Isaac gravitated immediately to Paolina, a sparkling 6-year-old with hair to the middle of her back. And I liked her mother, Carmelina, right from the start. In the course of our stay we discussed everything from politics to raising teen-agers (she had three).
I felt lucky. Our families seemed perfectly matched.
Checking around, I found that most of the others in the program were as pleased as I was. (The program's housing coordinator is a woman of great tact.) And the two (out of 50) who complained were promptly switched to different families.
House in Suburbs
Accommodations. We lived in a modern two-story house in the suburbs a 10-minute bus ride from the localo. It was the sort of house where adults could put their feet on the sofa and kids could jump on the beds.
Besides electricity, hot water, flush toilets (three), a refrigerator and other amenities, the Echeverrias had a part-time maid.
We were given a room belonging to two of the younger children. The beds were low-slung and Strawberry Shortcake's sugary smile beamed from posters on the walls. Prepared for the worst--a childless home--I'd lugged a whole suitcase of Isaac's toys. I needn't have bothered.
Cars, trucks and puzzles lined every shelf, dolls and stuffed animals obliterated every surface, while from the closest oozed games and puzzles, blocks and soccer balls. Isaac stopped in his tracks when he saw the array. Then with a whoop he dived in.