"That's when I knew we had surrendered to Copan ," said Katie Sebastian, a normally obedient, look-both-ways, don't-talk-to-strangers parent. "We looked at each other, but just decided to trust the situation. And off the kids went on their merry way."
When last seen, Cole, 4, and Tyrie, 5, had been safely ensconced in a private language school, playing counting games and singing Spanishnursery rhymes. But class had ended while their older sisters, Isabel and Dillon, both 7, were still playing Spanish Scrabble in their own class and the moms were on a walk to the empanada shop. For the kids' teachers, it was the work of a moment to pop the tykes into a tuk-tuk and ship them off to the homes of the local families where they were living. That's just how you get kids from one place to another in Copan .
Katie's traveling partner was my wife, Ann Hendrix-Jenkins, and they were the only parents present. Katie's husband Jim and I, conserving precious vacation time at home, wouldn't join them for another few days. They didn't seem to need any backstop from us.
"Suddenly we found ourselves in that idyllic small-town comfort zone of 'The Andy Griffith Show,' " said Ann, ordinarily another safety-first acolyte from the Washington suburbs. "I'm sure some people wouldn't think it was funny that we let these kids be sent off without seat belts on some stranger's taxi, but we could tell how much these people cared for children. They didn't need an insurance company to tellthem how to take care of them."
If Montgomery County were a disease, Copan just might be the cure. That's what two Takoma Park moms and their four young children discovered on a two-week language-school holiday in a little town where willing tourists are granted instant citizenship. They started out looking for a place to give the offspring -- all of whom were in or about to be in Spanish immersion schools back home -- a real-world language workout during summer break. What they found was a town that also unwrapped some of the cloying binds of risk-free modern life. Copanis a place where community still trumps liability, where you still haveto trust your instincts and maybe a stranger or two, and where even a kid can climb up on a rented horse and go for a bona-fide gallop across the countryside.
My Family Is Your Family
The idea of traveling alone for a month with kids in Central America wasn't particularly daunting for two former Peace Corps volunteers, but settling on Copan for the first two weeks was a challenge. Spanish schools abound in the region, but Katie and Ann rejected several in Mexico as too institutional, and the great clot of them in Antigua , Guatemala , as too touristy. Copan , a dusty out-of-the-way stop on the Mayan ruins circuit, held promise as a picturesque, unspoiled small town with just enough tourist infrastructure to supply a decent mojito when called upon. The director of one of the Spanish schools there, Guacamaya, also impressed them withhis detailed responses to their blizzard of e-mail queries: What could they do with really young kids? Was it safe? Could they accommodate vegetarian guests? The director, Enrique, had answers for everything, but his underlying message was: Don't worry about it. If you come, we'lltake care of you.
And so they did. The six of them arrived on a blistering hot Saturday (the only kind of Saturday they have in Copan in August) after afive-hour bus ride from Guatemala City . The massive Mercedes coach filled the town's narrow streets from sidewalk to sidewalk; men in whitecowboy hats pressed back against the stucco walls to let the beast squeeze by. The highway from the border was a good one, but the streets in town were tiny, steep and mostly paved in stone. They were lined withflat pastel walls and, at midday , barrel-tiled eaves provided a pencil-width of shade for drowsy dogs and arriving tourists. Most everybody else was indoors. Through open windows came the scent of simmering beans and the soft applause of hundreds of lunchtime tortillasbeing slapped into being by dozens of unseen hands.
They climbed a pitched stairway, thankfully in the shade, each step opening a wider view of their home for the next two weeks. Copan isa tight web of streets laid in a crevice of Honduras 's western highlands. In a lush, flat river basin at the foot of the town sit the Copan ruins, the stone remnants of a city that marked the southernmost reach of the Mayan empire from the mid-5th century into the 9th. It's not quite as large as the Tikal ruins that tower above the jungle canopyin northern Guatemala , but with extensive finely carved monuments and temples, Copan is the more exquisite setting. (See story, Page P7.)
The ruins have drawn a small but steady trickle of tourists to Copan for years, giving the place a sort of college town sophistication,with a stock of cafes and museums otherwise unlikely in a backwater village. There's a landing strip, but the closest significant airport isabout 2 1/2 hours north in San Pedro Sula , Honduras . Ann and Katie, researching, had collected Copan raves from the kind of travelers who delight in outposts that are remote but welcoming.
A town square anchored the grid of streets down near the river, with residential streets leading off the corners. Heading uphill, one ortwo houses on every tightly packed block stood out with fresh paint or arecent addition. These were the families with someone "away," meaning at work in the United States and sending money back through the heavily guarded Western Union office in the town down the road.
Here and there a saddled horse was tied up, still being the preferred conveyance for some of the weathered old men who rode in from the campo for supplies or to tie on a Sunday drunk. One clopped by as the newbies found their school.
A few minutes later, a tall man with a trim black mustache and shy smile pulled up in a white van. "Bienvenido a Copan," said Hector Cueva, the town's unofficial tour guide, the personable son of one the founding families and an all-around entrepreneur. He loaded their few bags and -- with the kids still showing no signs of planting their feet and insisting on being taken to Disney World -- took them to meet their adoptive families.
"We didn't really know how the kids were going to react," said Katie. "Suddenly they were in a completely alien setting where no one spoke their language. But they didn't miss a beat."
The only address Katie would ever know of the house where she andher two children would live for a fortnight was "Ernesto and Sara's house." That was enough for any tuk-tuk driver to find it. A low, neat stucco house about a mile uphill from the school, it had an open hammock-filled courtyard shared by the laundry, the carport and a wing of small bedrooms. The couple takes in Spanish school students to beef up their retirement income. Their daughters Sanya, 22, and Dulce, 5, lived there, along with Yvon, the 3-year-old daughter of a son who was in North Carolina . He sent regular care packages from the Asheville Payless ShoeSource.
"They only had a few toys in the house," said Katie, "but they had lots of clogs, go-go boots, tennis shoes and flip-flops."
They did have cable television. Cole practiced his nascent language skills watching the Disney Channel en español with Yvon, and Katie honed hers translating "Spider-Man 2" to an enraptured Ernesto andSara.
Three blocks away, Hector dropped Ann, Isabel and Tyrie at their temporary home, which turned out to be Hector's own house -- a gleaming two-story edifice with a sturdy iron gate and long views of the valley. The interior was cool white tile under high white ceilings, with downstairs rooms for Hector and his wife Elda, their daughter Cecilia, 4, and Tito, 10, and a separate suite of rooms upstairs for the visitors. Isabel, Tyrie and Cecilia quickly vaulted the communications barrier with the common language of thrill-seeking, swinging each other wildly on an upper porch hammock. For hours, Tyrie and Cecilia would runlaps around the hallways, shrieking one of the handful of words they had taught each other: "Once! Once!" (Eleven! Eleven!) or "Pequena, pequena! Grande, grande!" (Small, small! Large, large!).
This house had cable, too. And a broadband Internet connection. (Hector, they would learn, was doing well in the tuk-tuk taxi biz.)
"After all the groundwork I'd laid with the kids about some housesnot having the same kind of toilets or windows that we do, we ended up in a place nicer than our own," said Ann.
Still, it was very much a tightly packed tropical town of 9,000 souls, which meant going to sleep to the sound of the neighbor's bedtimemurmuring (and sometimes arguing). And it meant waking with the crowingof their roosters as the sun washed over the ancient Mayan city a few hundred yards away. The slap, slap of tortilla making soon followed, andElda served a full breakfast every day, always with tortillas and cereal and rice and fresh juice and some of the sublime local coffee. Around 8 a.m. , Katie and Co. would yoo-hoo at the door and everyone would walk the five downhill blocks to school. Morning class lasted two hours, with a separate teacher for each age bracket: Cole and Tyrie in the kitchen learning numbers, Isabel and Dillon in the main classroom building their murderous vocabulary with the board game Clue ("Senorita Scarlet en la cocina con el revolver!"), and Ann and Katie with private teachers in the garden.
Most days, the younger kids would catch a cab home at 10 for playtime, and the others would join them after another two hours. The older girls could leave at 10 if they wanted, but, in testament to the skill of their teacher, Pati, they enjoyed the lessons enough to sign onfor another two-hour set. (It didn't hurt that Pati owned the town's ice cream shop two blocks away.) Everyone reconvened at home in time forlunch, another groaning board of fried chicken, fried plantains, tamales and, of course, tortillas. Kids of both nationalities gulped andran (for hammock games, for computer games, for more non-syntactical shrieking in and out of doors), while Ann, Hector and Elda lingered at the table over iced tea and family histories.
It was a drill that left plenty of time every afternoon for some slow-motion exploration of the town. It was a leisurely itinerary punctuated by wild tuk-tuk rides and a couple of lifts in the backs of neighborly pickup trucks. They did the half-morning tour of the main ruins on their first Sunday, spending an hour in the cantina waiting outa colossal rainstorm. The archeology museum on the main square housed some spectacular carved altars and skulls from the realm of King 18 Rabbit, and the nearby children's museum gave the kids a chance to calculate their birthdays on the Mayan calendar. But most days, before they split up to spend the evening with their respective families, wouldfind them in a bright orange shop off the square called Casa de Todo. This aptly named "House of Everything" was a hub for traveling gringos, with a souvenir shop, copy machine, cafe and laundry service. This is where the kids could play end-to-end matches of the card game War in theflowered courtyard garden with Pringles and Sprite (forbidden pleasuresin Takoma Park ), while the moms checked e-mail in the open-air cyber parlor upstairs. The Internet without walls, they called it.
At Peace in Copan
Halfway through their second week, the big Mercedes bus rumbled through and deposited me in Copan (Jim would complete the group in another few days and we would all head off to Guatemala ). As a welcome treat, Ann and Katie had arranged an afternoon horse ride to Hacienda San Lucas, a Ralph Lauren-ready ranch house in the mountains above the ruins. San Lucas, restored as an excellent small hotel, boasts some of the best views and best food in the valley, and there's no more authentic way to approach it than by horse -- especially these horses.
For folks used to the waiver-heavy, single-file, keep-it-at-a-plod boredom of the typical American trail ride, it was a bit stunning to be told to pick a horse and take off. And not just adults -- the kids each got their own mounts. Even Tyrie and Cole, the pre-K taxi demons, were allowed to ride alone. Three guides came with us, always willing to lead the little kids if they got nervous (they both did, and both got over it). And we adults were free to spur things up to a very satisfying run along the gravel flats by the river.
At one point, as we rode by some sun-bleached tobacco barns, a rowdy young mule came charging up to us, bucking and kicking and brayingup a storm. He tried to nose Katie's foot away from her horse and get his face under its belly for all the world like it was trying to nurse. "Su mama," laughed Don Beto, the lead guide ("His mama.") With a wave ofBeto's lariat, the mule pirouetted away, launching a kick at every horse he passed.
That's another thing you don't see too often in Montgomery County-- a mule shadow-boxing with the horse carrying your 4-year-son.
Katie looked at Beto. He smiled reassuringly as one of his men ran the raucous one away. "Don't worry," he said.
She rode on serenely, at home in the saddle, at peace in Copan . "I wasn't," she said.