Milly got her first international travel experience this past week on our trip to Cozumel, Mexico.

Tristen and I went about two-and-a-half years ago. Tristen’s family has been going for close to 30 years, particularly her mom, who I think goes pretty much every year. They always go to Cozumel Palace, an all-inclusive right on the ocean. You can actually look out across the water and make out a few buildings in Playa del Carmen on the mainland. You can see the lights from there really well at night.

Milly’s been very excited about going ever since we got that all cleared up, and Tristen’s mom, Laura, did a lot to help us make that happen. When we first started working on plans for the trip a few months ago, I reached out to a number of people at Milly’s school to make sure there wouldn’t be any issues. Everyone assured me it would be a great experience for Milly and that she’d be able to make up work without having any unexcused absences marked against her, so long as she completed the work her teacher sent and kept a travel journal, both of which she did.

The trip started out as a destination wedding/honeymoon for Torrie and Johnny, who got engaged there last year, so Tristen’s whole family went. There were eight of us in all: me, Tristen, Milly, Laura, Craig, Torrie, Johnny, and Sebastian. We were joined by Max and Erin, a couple Johnny and Torrie met last year when they were here, for most of the time we were there.

So, the trip.

Tristen and I picked Milly up at lunchtime (which is almost the last thing on her school schedule) on Friday (October 7) and drove to my parents’ house in Rougemont. My sister, Erin, had taken our dogs, Duke and Elmo, up there the previous week after she and the rest of my family had come down that weekend for Johnny and Torrie’s celebration, so we didn’t have to worry about having anyone take care of them. We filled all the food bowls with cat food and two dishes with water for Magic, our cat, before we left, and I fed Milly’s little Kenyan sand boa, Oreo, the night before.

Mom had some dinner waiting for us when we got there. Erin was working and Dad was on a trip with friends. We got up nice and early, around 4:30. Mom took us to RDU, where we caught about a half hour flight to Charlotte. We met up with the rest of the family, who had flown directly from Wilmington, then we all had about a three hour trip to Cozumel.

The flights were pretty uneventful. I was on an aisle seat, Milly was on the aisle directly next to me and Tristen was next to her on the flight to Charlotte. On the longer flight I think Craig was behind me. Laura, Torrie, and Bash were towards the front. Johnny was stuck off somewhere by himself. Tristen, Milly, and I were all in one row together though. We let Milly have the window, of course, and Tristen opted for the aisle so it would be easier for her to get in and out with her growing pregnant belly. Milly worked on some of her homework and we went over her Lion King script a bit. Milly was, of course, excited the whole time.

We got a van to the hotel and checked in. That took a few minutes, of course, but Milly got to wander around the lobby and check out the giant window views of the pool area and ocean. It is, of course, a very impressive view. I filmed Milly’s reaction to seeing the room for the first time, which is also very nice. Her mouth dropped and she was blown away by it. I mean, there’s a hot tub in the middle of the room, then you’ve got a giant sliding glass door to the balcony with a hammock overlooking some of the bluest water you’ve ever seen. Later in the week, Milly couldn’t believe it when I told her that there actually are even nicer hotels in the world.

From the outset, we gave Milly a lot of freedom in what she did, particularly with food. Meals tend to be a bit of a struggle, but we told her we were all there to enjoy our vacation, so we weren’t going to argue about food. The rules were that she could eat whatever she wanted, within reason, but she couldn’t have any sort of dessert foods without eating real food first. I was hoping that, with access to eat just about anything you wanted, she’d take it upon herself to venture out and try some new things, which didn’t really pan out very much.

Breakfast most mornings was a pancake, bacon, a pastry, and chocolate milk, though she did eventually add in some yogurt with honey straight from a honeycomb. Lunch was usually quesadilla or pizza. Dinner varied depending on which restaurant we ate at, though we did finally break our own rule and made her get some broccoli. Still, I would have to say she did a pretty good job not overindulging in desserts. There were times she skipped dessert because she was so full. She was also a big fan of some breadsticks that were thin, about as long as my arm, and kind of hard. They looked like wands, so when Milly got them she would say, “Bippity boppity bread!”

We also gave her a good bit of freedom in coming and going. She got to stay in the room (which I could shout up to if I needed to, and in fact Milly dropped a piece of candy from the balcony that I caught with my mouth on the first try, though we didn’t get the second two) by herself a bit, though she could text me from her iPad if she needed to. She spent most of that time sitting in the hammock on the balcony enjoying the breeze and messing with the iPad or going over her Lion King script. I drew up a bath for Milly in the giant hot tub and accidentally added too much bubble stuff. It was very thick, but she enjoyed it.

It took Milly a few days to get used to being able to ask people for whatever she wanted without checking with me or Tristen first or without having to worry about paying for it. I even got her to order us room service one day, just because I thought it would be a good experience for her. There was a lot of little stuff, but we did a lot to try to build her self-confidence and independence.

I did a bit of work a few days. I probably should have done more, as backed up as I am, but I did do some.

Milly and I went to the gym a couple mornings. I was impressed with how much she pushed herself. She wasn’t reckless or dangerous with it, but she did up the weights she was using on some of the machines a few times.

A lot of time was spent just hanging out by the pool. I felt like I might have gotten slightly sunburned a couple days, but I never felt anything beyond a mild bit of irritation that didn’t last through the night. Tristen looked through a collection of books available at the hotel and started reading something that was missing the first chapter before switching to A Time to Kill, which she seemed to be pretty engrossed in. Milly spent a couple mornings in the kids’ room doing crafts with the staff there.

A typical day went like this: We’d get up and join the family for breakfast, then we’d all either go to our rooms or hang out by the pool. Aside from the first day, lunch was in the outside area near the bar. Then we’d hang out at the pool some more, take naps, go shopping, whatever. We’d meet back up for dinner, which was the Asian place, the Mexican place, the Italian place or the outside buffet. We did all of them twice except the Mexican one. Tristen and I ate by ourselves on Friday night at the Italian place, just to have a little romantic time alone.

After dinner there was some kind of show or event. One night was a Mayan show, where people came out in traditional Mayan dress and danced. There was a fire show, where people performed with fire batons and such. Both were very impressive. Then there was a chocolate night and there were a couple music nights.

After the shows they had games, one of which I participated in. I didn’t know what it was going into it, but there were four of us sitting in a row (me, a married couple, and a girl). The DJ would play music and if you knew the song you’d have to take a mic and sing it. I should have won the t-shirt prize, honestly. I mean, if they were going by points, which they awarded, I definitely won. I sang Have You Ever Seen the Rain by Creedence Clearwater Revival, got some help from the audience (Tristen singing Adele’s Someone Like You, Milly starting a duet with me on Brown Eyed Girl and Laura and Max with me on Proud Mary). I think there was a bit more. I missed out on Can’t Help Falling in Love, because I don’t actually know enough of the lyrics to have done it, but Tristen came up and danced with me while the guy next to me sang it. Anyway, the other chick got the prize. She was definitely more entertaining, but she only did like two songs. I congratulated her, but I honestly felt a little salty on the inside.

That wasn’t the only contest I did. Laura got me to do one where you throw footballs through an inflatable swim ring. I did terrible at that one. I did better at another one though. You had to do five pushups, swim to another part of the pool, do ten reps on a (fake) barbell, swim across the pool, do five squats, then catch a football. If you caught the football you’d get five seconds taken off. The first two throws to me were bad ones, but the third was good and I caught it. I was in the lead for a while with 39 seconds, but two other guys beat me with 34 or 35. Swimming was my weak point. The coolest thing, though, is that Milly decided to do the competition too. She was the first kid to try and obviously they were a bit lax with the kids and pulled them along for the swimming, but she had the best time among kids. I think it was right at a minute.

Speaking of other kids, Milly found a few to hang out with a bit. There were two girls who were both a couple years younger than she is (though Milly has always been great with younger kids) and a boy who I think was about her age. They didn’t all play all the time, but they spent a good bit of time playing together in the pool, and they helped keep Milly entertained.

Milly went snorkeling for the first time on Sunday morning. The front of the hotel isn’t a beach, but there’s a bit of a reef right where you can get in the water. The buoyed-off area goes to as much as about 40 feet deep, but it doesn’t seem that far since the water is so clear and I guess everything is magnified a bit. Milly had a life vest, but she had a hard time getting comfortable with just floating and keeping her face down for a while.

On Monday we went out to do some more intense snorkeling. The eight of us, plus Max and Erin, went out on a boat to a few spots around the island. It was all amazing, of course. We saw a sea turtles (well, I saw sea turtle, but other people saw several) and the last place we went had the bluest water and white sand. It was shallower, too, and had a bunch of fat starfish all over the place. We also stopped off at a beach to do a little swimming and have some snacks.

Johnny only went in the water at the first of the three snorkeling spots. He got a little sick and hurled over the side at one point. I fell victim to that, too. I could tell that I was starting to feel a little queasy as we were pulling up to the beach, but I thought I’d be able to get off the boat in time. Unfortunately, a boat went by and kicked up some decent-sized wake, rocking the boat a bit, which was just enough to send me over the edge (literally). I felt a lot better after it happened though.

Sebastian slept through a lot of it. Milly seemed to immensely enjoy the boat ride, and in fact later said that the snorkeling was her favorite part of the trip. She’s now interested in learning how to scuba dive (which Laura and Torrie did a few times).

Tristen was adorable while snorkeling because she was holding her belly almost the whole time.

There was a night dive one evening. Laura and Torrie did their scuba thing in front of the hotel while other people snorkeled, Laura shining a light to show them things. Craig and I were going to go, but we were told we couldn’t get the gear. Laura talked to some people and we were going to be able to do it, but I had already changed out of my bathing suit and everything. Max and Erin took Milly, though. Each of them had their own snorkel gear. Milly said she saw an octopus, and Laura and Torrie said they did see an octopus, but it was when they were about to get out of the water, after the rest of them were already out.

Most of us went snorkeling one more time on Friday. Milly finally got comfortable just floating on her stomach by then, because you can just lay there and breathe and watch this whole world going on that you never really think about being there.

So yeah, the snorkeling was great.

Laura and I went paddleboarding Friday morning. It was pretty choppy, so it was a little difficult. I was able to stand up though and I didn’t fall in until I tried to do the yoga tree position. It was only the second time I’ve been paddleboarding, and I feel I got around pretty well.

We went into town Wednesday, I think it was. We went to a town square type of place with lots of shops all over it. There’s one shop the Schauers always go to where they have artists who paint pictures or scenes on feathers. We got one for Milly as a souvenir (she picked a unicorn) and we got a picture of a couple parrots for the impending Dotsey Duo. We also got a few trinkets from a shop near that and saw a person painted like a statue.

Then we went to a shop called Viva Mexico that has trinkety-type stuff, but also nicer things. Tristen got a set of shorts and shirts for the twins (although she didn’t realize she got two different sizes). Milly got a colorful poncho, which she, of course, wanted to wear right then despite the 85-degree weather. (I didn’t let her.)

On Thursday, a group of us (me and Milly, the Romeros, and Craig) went to San Gervasio, the site of an ancient Mayan city with all kinds of ruins. It used to be a place dedicated to the Mayan fertility goddess. Every Mayan woman would try to make a pilgrimage there at least once in their life. I loved looking around there and certainly could have spent most of the day there. I just love thinking about the fact that a thousand years ago and more, life was going on there. People lived and worked and went about their lives, and now it’s mostly overgrown jungle.

The mosquitos were terrible there, though. We sprayed ourselves down, but there were clouds of them following us around. Sebastian got a bite or two. There was a lot of walking between sites and between the bugs and the heat, it was a bit tiring. I did go to one building that everyone else skipped out on. Milly was sitting on the ancient road going from the temple I went to look at and the arch that welcomed people to the place.

Oh, I drove there, too, which was an adventure in and of itself. Laura and Craig sat in on a sales presentation in order to score a couple Jeep rentals that we used for it. The six of us crammed into a stick shift Jeep Wrangler, drove through town, got a little turned around, figured it all out, got there and got back, mostly unharmed. I hit a speed bump a little too fast (it looked flat!) causing Craig to bump his knee on the window crank and Milly to bump her head on the roof. Johnny scraped his leg, but that was from getting into and out of the vehicle.

The most exciting part about driving in Cozumel is that people don’t have the same driving etiquette as back here in the states. At one point a guy on a bicycle got in front of me on an already-crowded street. I blurted, “What the fu– what are you doing?” When we got back to the hotel Milly told me that I said the F-word. I pointed out that I had only said half of the F-word, which is true.

Sebastian’s favorite thing at the Palace was, I think, the automatic doors. I don’t know how many times he would go through one then turn and go right back through it, squealing with delight each time.

I made a goal of drinking one of every drink listed in the bar’s drink list. There were two they didn’t have all the ingredients on hand for, and I skipped one or two that I knew I didn’t like, but I did make it through the full list by Friday afternoon. After that, I mostly went between Blue Hawaiians and Miami Vices, though I did have a couple White Russians before we left.

I’m well over 3,000 words right here, and Tristen said it’s too long to read. She’s right. I should have kept up with this daily. Milly did a pretty good job of that, as she had to keep a travel journal for school. I’m almost done though.

During dinner on the last night we were there, Laura said something to Milly about being sad that we were leaving. Milly put her hands over her face, and I thought at first she was pretending to cry, but she really was sad. She enjoyed it there so much, and all the staff people were so nice to her. She decided to get a piece of paper then go around and get autographs from as many of the staff as she could. They really seemed to get a kick out of it and let her go back into the kitchen to get a few extra. She got more the next morning. I thought it was really cute that she did that. I was also impressed with how comfortable she got in talking to so many of the staff.

The trip home was pretty uneventful, outside of being told I had to check my bag on the flight from Cozumel to Charlotte, though it fit fine from Charlotte to Raleigh. (I did move some things around in my suitcase to slim it up a little.) And we spent about four hours in Charlotte. Laura texted Tristen that they had landed and were on the way to their house as we were about to take off. We could have driven home from Charlotte in the time it took us to wait on our layover (which wasn’t late or anything), but oh well.

Mom and Dad drove out to the airport to drop off Tristen’s car (they came in separate cars so they could drive themselves home). We had decided while camping out at CLT that we were going to go ahead and drive home instead of going back out to Rougemont then leaving in the morning. Of course Dad had washed and vacuumed the car, because that’s just Jerry for you. Elmo and Duke were happy to see us.

We got back to the house a little after 11:30. I made pancakes this morning.

Amanda and I texted (amicably, as is most often the case these days) a bit about when to take Milly back to her. Milly told me she wanted me to take her to school Monday morning because she wanted to see her pets and some of her friends before she went back to her mom’s, but I convinced her to see her mom in the afternoon so she could have time to spend with her mom and settle back into real life, which is what we ended up doing. Milly spent some time playing with Magic (Elmo was in the backseat with her on the ride home, and Duke was cuddled up next to her the whole time) and Oreo this morning, put her stuff away then played with the Swain kids a bit.

Tristen and I did laundry. (The room was so humid that all our clothes were kind of damp.) We’ve spent most of the rest of the day watching football (while I’ve been writing this). We were discussing what to do for dinner just now, which of course made me miss The Palace. I was lamenting about all the lunches I wanted more of.

It was a wonderful trip, a great time with family, a terrific babymoon for me and Tristen, and a great introduction to international travel for Milly. And tomorrow is back to real life. *sigh*