Embarking for a recent family vacation, I knew that books would be an important ingredient for the first international trip with my nine-month-old daughter, Nora. Six flights and countless retellings of The Pout-Pout Fish later, I was grateful for the durability of the humble board book. What I didn’t count on, however, was that books would also play a starring role in one of the most memorable mornings of our trip to Oaxaca, Mexico.
Oaxaca is a city in Southern Mexico famous for delicious cuisine, a vibrant arts scene, and proud indigenous heritage. The center city is alive with localvore restaurants, contemporary galleries, and countless museums celebrating the history of the region. The atmosphere is infectious. A local told me, “every day is a holiday of some sort in Oaxaca.”
One morning my husband Tom, Nora, and I were walking down the main pedestrian street on our way to the market. We were surprised and delighted to see dozens of school children lining the street with books in hand. “El Dia del Niño,” someone informed us – Mexico’s National Children’s Day. In honor of this day, a local elementary school decided to have the kids practice reading aloud to passers-by, strangers and friends alike.
On our stroll past these eager kids, a threesome of girls in pigtails approached us. The bravest of the three asked in Spanish if she could read to us. We happily settled down on the curb and listened to a story about a tiger.
Nora proved to be a real draw. So many children offered to read to her that we lingered for almost 45 minutes. All around us others were enjoying a story too: a Oaxacan businessman in a suit, a trio of other tourists, a local family out for a stroll. The interactions were brief, as they often are with young kids, but we left the street feeling absolutely charmed by such an unscripted cultural experience.
Throughout the day we caught other glimpses of the Children’s Day festivities – clowns, magicians, and dance parties seemed to overtake every daycare and school courtyard. A public carousel was erected in the central square for all to enjoy. That evening children (up way past what we would consider bedtime) enjoyed dance performances and live music. It felt like everyone’s birthday.
Serendipity is a crucial ingredient in a successful trip. In its best form – as I witnessed- it creates a connection to a place and a memory to be treasured. And how happy for us that it included books!
Now I can tell Nora her first story in Spanish was read to her by enthusiastic children on the streets of Oaxaca.