BANGKOK — His moon-shaped face turned red and sweaty and his toothless mouth opened wide, issuing moans that became grunts that begat a howling that reached octaves I had not known were in the repertoire of human sound.
After 10 airports, thousands of miles crossed by planes, boats, buses, and trucks, Wolf, our 5-month-old son, had had enough.
We were now in a taxi, inching through an hourlong traffic jam that stretched from the airport to downtown. The longer we idled, the louder he wailed. For a boy who liked to be bounced, carried, swung — anything involving movement — hell was being confined to a carseat, going nowhere, especially in stifling heat.
“So, do you have children?” my wife, Jess, asked the taciturn taxi driver, after every trick — pacifier, bottle, singing, even baby iPhone apps — failed to calm our baby.
There are good reasons to avoid traveling halfway across the planet with an infant: exposure to exotic germs and less than ideal environments; jet lag that can interrupt a sleep schedule for weeks or longer; parental sanity that can quickly give way to self- and mutual loathing.
Over three weeks traveling through Southeast Asia earlier this year, we endured the full gamut of anguish, from sleepless flights that spanned continents to an emergency visit to a hospital full of insects. But we would experience emotions neither of us expected: a giddy exuberance from the affection showered on us by strangers; elation from watching our son light up with spontaneous excitement; and a surge of pride when he learned to roll over and began to perform, strangely, a kind of jig that looked like tap dancing.
As veteran travelers who worried about losing the call of the road after having children, we had bought our tickets before Wolf was born. We knew we were in for a measure of torture, but we figured it would build parenting chops. We also had the benefit of traveling for much of the trip with Jess’s family, including her brother, a doctor, and her sister-in-law, a pediatric nurse from Thailand.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” my sister-in-law promised before we left, reminding us that they had taken their babies to Thailand.
Our trip began with a 13-hour flight from Boston to Tokyo on a Boeing 787, a few weeks before all the Dreamliners were grounded because of battery problems. We had plenty of time to admire the cabin’s mood lighting and the large windows that darkened by touch, as Wolfy wanted to play for all 13 hours — without a wink of sleep.
By the time we landed in Bangkok, we had resorted to an iPhone app featuring a kind of psychedelic bear that floated on the screen in hearts and stars. It kept him occupied for long stretches, even as the accompanying electronic lullaby drove us mad. We arrived in the evening, but Wolfy knew it was morning his time. After finally learning to sleep through the night, we were back at the beginning, making our night long and restless.
The next day, as we wandered about the city, we discovered that wherever we went strangers who caught sight of our doughy cherub flocked to him. On the sky train, old women crowded around him. Street vendors leaned over him with a big grin until he returned their smiles. At parks, hotels, and restaurants, men and women of all ages wanted a piece of Wolfy. It was like traveling with a small deity. We began calling him Baby Buddha.
Wolfy lapped up the attention, flashing his dimples, babbling, eyeing strangers with curiosity.
A few days later, I took a bus to Cambodia while Jess and Wolfy went to the beach with her family. It was a time for me to catch up on sleep and relive the glory of traveling solo. As I toured the temples of Angkor Wat, I was glad to be relieved of diaper duty, preparing bottles, and the constant comforting. I luxuriated in the freedom.
Still, there was a gnawing absence. With every child I passed, I longed to see my boy’s smile, craved his slobbery hug, and pined to parade him around.
When we reunited in Bangkok, I held him tightly and realized how much I had changed in the past few months, how much I had moved beyond my fears of fatherhood. He returned the joy with a milky spit-up.
A few days later, we loaded our bags with diapers, wipes,
toys, and the many other necessities of traveling with an infant. We had tickets to Kuala Lumpur, but we learned at the airport that our early flight was canceled. Hours later, after airline agents, immigration officials, shopkeepers, and tourists took Wolfy’s picture, we caught a flight instead to Penang, a densely populated island off the northwest coast of Malaysia.
Over the next few days, waiters held Wolfy as we devoured roti canai, a cross between a pancake and crepe doused in a gravy-like curry. Passengers on buses made funny faces to get a rise out of him. From Little India to the region’s largest Buddhist temple, Wolfy was a model baby. He never took offense when people asked the same question: “boy or girl?”
After walking much of the city, we flew north to Langkawi, an island near the border with Thailand, where we rented a car, a trying process as we struggled to find one with seat belts to secure our carseat. Over two days, we took Wolfy for a dip in the ocean, on hikes to waterfalls in the jungle, and past packs of monkeys, which eyed our boy like he might make a meal.
Afterward, we boarded a ferry for Thailand. Wolfy pursed his lips at the wind and found peace in the white noise of the loud engines, eventually snoozing in Jess’s arms. At the port, we boarded a pickup truck and sat in the cargo bay for a long 10-minute ride with me holding our squirming boy until we reached a bus station, where ticket agents each took a turn holding him and snapping pictures.
The trip from there was another long ride, this one for four hours. It began peacefully with Wolfy asleep, but when he awoke, trouble loomed. Jess nursed him and then he sucked down a bottle. He rattled and stared at his toys, and after those lost their allure, we sang. When the psychedelic iPhone app exhausted its magic, once again, Wolf howled.
We thought we were in the clear when we made it to Krabi, the resort town in southern Thailand, but things got worse. We couldn’t find a taxi, so we had to take another truck. The five-minute ride to our hotel turned into a 45-minute eternity, and Wolfy again had to ride in my arms, shrieking the entire way. I had reached a place beyond self-loathing, wondering whether we were torturing our baby, whether this would be our last trip together.
Despite the tension and exhaustion, we pressed on and spent the next few days island hopping on dragon boats with Jess’s family. Wolfy loved swimming naked in the shadows of the islands’ rocky peaks. He rolled around in the sand during our spicy picnics and fell asleep to the rumble of engines. He was becoming a hardy kid.
By the time we returned to Bangkok, I was run-down, fighting a fever as we filed through an airport for the 10th time in two weeks. Back in one of the world’s hottest cities, I was shivering. The taxi ride in felt like it lasted longer than the flight from Boston, as Wolfy whimpered and wailed, not the salve I wanted for my throbbing head.
I tried to keep my distance, but it was futile. A few days later, before dawn, Jess woke me up with fear in her eyes. “Wolfy has a fever,” she said. He was burning up and had a high-pitched cough that sounded like a mewling cat. I was in tears. I was to blame.
We called Jess’s sister-in-law, Nai, and within minutes we were heading to a nearby hospital. When we arrived at the pediatric unit, it looked like a first-rate US hospital, with high-tech equipment, doctors in white coats, and colorful, modern furniture. But there were mosquitos swarming through the ward, and I stood over Wolfy, swatting them as they hovered.
The staff ran tests, and within an hour, diagnosed him with the flu, which can be lethal at his age. They prescribed Tamiflu, and it was a rough few days, with Nai teaching us how to give the medicine orally. Each injection made him (and us) gag.
After days of misery, Wolfy regained his color, his smile, and importantly, his flair, so much so that whenever we passed through the hotel lobby, the clerks demanded, “Show us the dancing baby!” He complied with alacrity, high stepping into their hearts, his dimples projecting his pride.
A few days later, still groggy, we returned home on a redeye, and impressively, Wolfy slept for much of both flights. At home, it took a month for him to slough off his cough and readjust to his sleep schedule.
It took the same time for amnesia to set in, and for us to start planning our next trip.David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.