THE BLOG
01/08/2015 04:00 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

When Travel Isn't Beautiful: Explaining Tough Stuff to Kids

I was holding my six-year-old son's hand when we encountered an act of animal cruelty. It happened on a steep cement path in a tiny Mexican village, on our way to the market to buy oranges. A few steps ahead, I glimpsed the scene first. Three boys around the ages of nine or 10 stood in a circle in front of a small cement block house, holding roosters the sizes of cantaloupe. Against the brown of the boys' arms, the roosters' vibrant feathers popped -- orange and green and yellow -- mirroring the bright bougainvillea in the background. The boys thrust the birds toward each other, goading them, forcing them peck each other. Wings flapped, beaks opened, clawed feet flailed, reaching for flesh. One rooster let out a truncated cock-a-doodle-doo. The boys tossed up dust as they scuffled around in the dirt. You could practically smell the testosterone. I recognized it for what it must be, even though I knew almost nothing about it. Training for cockfighting.

My whole body tensed and I thought, My son cannot see this barbaric situation! I pointed in the opposite direction, trying to distract him while I found a route of escape. "Hey, check out that enormous jackfruit!" I said, too cheerily. I didn't even know if that's what it was -- all of the tropical foliage was foreign compared to the foothills surrounding our Colorado home -- but that didn't matter. While my son craned his neck to look at the bumpy thing hanging from a tree branch, I chewed my cheek, scanning around wildly.

But there was nowhere to go. We were surrounded by a steep hill and thick brush and barbed wire fences: a one-way road. Shit. It was nine in the morning, and I was carrying a fistful of pesos and the end goal of this walk was to drink fresh-squeezed orange juice in a hammock. I wasn't mentally prepared to talk about blood sports.

Talk about immersion. We'd arrived in this village a few weeks earlier -- my husband and me and our two kids -- on a "modern family" type of adventure. For two months, we'd traded our stucco house on the edge of a college town for a one-room jungle treehouse. Things had been domestically dicey at times in such close quarters (read: doors are a beautiful thing), and external threats like poisonous scorpions and snakes were always imminent, but mostly the experience had been all butterflies and papayas. We'd saved money to do this because we felt it would be a formative experience, teaching our kids to be adaptable and flexible and how to live simply. And also, I believe living in places like off-the-beaten-path Mexico offers useful perspective on current issues, even complicated topics like immigration. Over time, travel has instilled in me compassion and sensitivity -- a deep love -- for other humans, animals and the earth, and I wanted to nurture this in my own kids; in real places, when looking into others' eyes.

And voila, on the trail to the store, my son and I were certainly immersed in real rural Mexican life. I thought I'd wanted that, but now I wondered if immersion was just a nice-sounding ideal. When I looked down my son's curly blond head, I saw that he was no longer staring at the jackfruit. He was peeking around my waist to peer at the boys, his face scrunched up in confusion. I knew he recognized two of them, because I did. He'd been looking at them longingly while they were playing chase on the main path through the village, wishing he knew more Spanish so he could join them. "What are they doing?" he asked.

"Um," I said. Normally I'm good in these spontaneous kid question situations; my quick wit serves me well. Once, when my toddler daughter asked loudly, in a busy public restroom, why I don't have a penis like Daddy, I laughed and said, "Seriously, we're already having this conversation?" And the time my son said it bothered him when a boy with special needs tapped his arm on the bus, I said, "That's great! He wants to be your friend! Say hello!"

But this was different. I couldn't think of anything lighthearted to say that might normalize the situation, because I was really uncomfortable. All I could conjure up were generalizations like, cockfighting is stupid. Where are these kids' parents? Yet I knew I didn't want to say any of this out loud to my son -- words wrought with judgment -- because this experience in Mexico was designed to be precisely the opposite, and I wanted to search deeper for an authentic response. I could practically hear the drum roll as my son waited. "Well," I said, trying to pull the right words from my brain. I stooped down to look directly into his eyes. "This is a complex thing, honey."

A few months back, I'd read an article online about the hundreds of kids who get dumped on roadsides in Mexico every year by coyotes who have been paid large sums of money by the children's families to take them from Central America to a better life in the United States. The abandoned children were as young as three and the article was heartbreaking. My daughter is three. She wears pink footie pajamas and sings "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." It made me tear up to think about any child experiencing such terror.

But the most troubling part of the story was the online comments. I scanned the long list hoping for commiseration and found that the vast majority of people spoke from their political bias instead of from a place of compassion. The comments were hateful. Many accused all undocumented immigrants of being criminals. Others blamed the parents for dumping their kids, because they hadn't read closely enough to see that was the coyotes who had done so. Certainly, the topic of immigration is a difficult, multifaceted problem, sort of like animal cruelty, but I couldn't believe my eyes. It was like these commenters were talking about inanimate objects. When I looked in the mirror afterwards, my face was pale. How was it possible for humans to respond to the plight of others with a complete lack of humanity? I had to believe that if the commenters had looked into the eyes of the abandoned children, or the kids' parents, they would've spoken from a place of empathy. I demand this kind of love from myself, and I want it in my own children.

And so, on the trail to the store, that's the route I chose to take with my son. As much as I wanted to turn around and avoid the situation, I didn't. I decided we needed to go through it. And frankly, I acknowledged that it could've been much worse. Compared to what I envisioned an actual cockfight to look like -- bloody carcasses, screaming birds, razor blades -- this was tame; a few boys standing around jostling their roosters. Not beautiful, for sure, and sad. But a reality I believed my son could handle.

I looked into his eyes. "Here's the deal," I said. "This isn't an easy place to have a conversation, so we're going to continue past these boys. I want you to notice your surroundings, and then you can ask me anything you want."

I squeezed his hand tighter. "Ready?"

He nodded tentatively.

I stood up and pulled him forward. As we passed the boys, I cringed. Feathers floated in the air and one of the roosters was on the ground trying to scuttle away. I didn't want to look, and I desperately wanted to shield my son's view, and I wanted to rescue the stray rooster. But then I did what I asked my son to do. I looked closely. I saw an overturned plastic chair, a pile of smoldering trash, a child-sized bike with one tire, and torn curtains in the barred windows of a cement and corrugated metal house. A life different from my own.

One of the boys looked up as we passed, even though he was mostly focused on holding onto his squirming chicken. "Hola," he yelled, like everything was right with the world. I was amazed at how this one word, this simple greeting in this moment, spoke volumes about cultural differences.

I waved. "Hola."

A few steps past the boys, the path widened, and my son rushed up to my side. "That was really weird," he blurted. "What were they doing?"

"It's called cockfighting," I said.

He wrinkled up his nose.

And I told him what I knew, in a way he could understand; that cockfighting isn't allowed in the United States, but it's legal in Mexico and other countries. It's a form of entertainment and a way to make money through gambling. The roosters get hurt, and it's not something we do in our family, but it's something some people in this village do, right now. And we've chosen to be here, to live in their daily experience. As I talked, I realized how much I needed this reminder.

We walked a few steps in silence and then stopped at a gorgeous point on the trail, overlooking the ocean. Panga boats rocked in the waves. A pelican landed on a boulder, scanning the sea for fish.

"I wish we hadn't seen that," my son said.

I shrugged. Part of me couldn't disagree. "But it's real life."

I picked up a pebble and threw it. My son looked up at me, and we shared a moment of understanding; the kind that happens between people who have been through something important together. Like a one-way road, it brings you close and propels you forward.

"Ready to buy oranges and head back to the treehouse?" I asked.

He nodded. And then he said, "Mommy, those kids didn't have any toys in their yard. And the bike was broken."

I hugged him around the shoulders. In his little kid way, empathy was beginning to bloom.

This essay first appeared on Thought Catalog.