Diary of a Globetrotting Family: How about we go to Mexico today?
By 3:30 in the morning, Jodie and I were dressed but half asleep, sitting on the bed in my dad’s guest room in Virginia, waiting for Oaxaca. Originally we thought we’d let the kids sleep in a little longer, but then we saw light from their room spill into the hallway.
“It’s time!” said Connor.
“Let’s go!” said Aster.
Before we knew it, both kids were dressed, had secured their cozy friends into the elastic loops on their backpacks, and were heading down the hallway. Just a few days before, we had been in Mesquite, Texas, a small city just east of Dallas, working on a project with the local tourism board. Yet just before flying to Dallas, we’d been in Seattle, finishing up some time traveling in Washington state and Victoria, BC.
On our last morning in Seattle, my dad texted me. It was the sort of thing that wasn’t a surprise, but still a shock, a grief, and a relief. All he said was, “Call me when you get this please.”
I knew what he meant though: My 94-year-old grandmother had passed away.
In the time that followed, Jodie, Connor, Aster, and I had driven to Portland. We sold our last car, our trusty Subaru Outback that has been our road trip companion for nearly 5 years. Then we’d flown out of PDX, leaving our adopted home of the Pacific Northwest for, shall we say, an undetermined amount of time. After our work trip to Texas, we’d flown straight to Virginia, to spend some time with family and honor my grandma’s legacy.
Now, it was the middle of the night. We’d barely slept. A long, long day stretched out ahead of us. All we could do was wonder how well our year of daily Duolingo practice was going to serve us.
Still sitting on the bed, I turned to Jodie with a sleepy yet excited grin. “Here’s an idea,” I said. “How about we fly to Mexico today?”
Well, that didn’t last long
In a storage room in our house in Oregon, there’s a little bag that has my favorite folding pocketknife in it. Nearby, a black storage tub contains our knife block with our
my treasured kitchen knives. Among some personal effects I left with my dad in his safe, you can find the Swiss Army Knife that I’ve had since I was 12.
As my dad drove us through the darkness toward the airport, the kids started out the windows at the empty highway.
“I don’t think anyone is up right now,” said Aster, “except for a family traveling to another country.”
As I grinned, I shifted a little in my seat. In my right hip pocket, I felt the little weight of my TSA-safe teeny multitool. It had no knife, only a small scissor, no longer than the first joint of my pinky finger, and a little plier, with a wire cutter that, if it were any teenier, Ant-Man could’ve shaved with it.
Later, going through security at the airport in Mexico City, an officer opened up my little multitool and held it up toward me, shaking his head.
“Pero no tiene cuchillo,” I said. “But it has no knife.”
He pointed at the pliers, and the wire cutter.
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “but this isn’t allowed.”
Traveling can require sacrifices, I suppose. Every yes we make in one part of life is a no we make in another. If losing my little multitool was the worst of what would happen over the next few days, well, I’d gladly give it up.
But I still miss knowing it was in my pocket.
Just don’t ask about the gray bottle
After the multitool, the security officer had me open every compartment of my backpack so he could check it. Inconvenient? Sure. Fortunately, we’d booked our flight to Oaxaca with a long layover at CDMX, or Ciudad de Mexico, just in case. Besides, just like in the US, this officer was doing his job.
Every time he pointed to a compartment, I said, “Sí, señor,” and opened it. Mostly he just looked inside. Occasionally he pulled something out, like a short, squat, round steel tub.
“Qué es eso?” he said. “What is this?”
Ah, the olive oil salve a friend had made us. I rubbed my hands over each other, like a washing motion. “Para los manos,” I said. “For the hands.”
He put it back. A bit later, he pulled out a white stick, about seven inches long, and looked at me.
“El cepillo electrónico de dientes,” I said, then I rubbed my index finger in front of my teeth.
Before I knew it, the officer had concluded his search. He even apologized about having to confiscate the multitool, but I told him I understood. If anything, as I put my backpack on I felt extremely relieved. After discussing the electronic toothbrush handle that Jodie and I share (chill out: we have our own brush heads), I worried like crazy that he was going to ask for the purpose of the squeezy cylinder in the little gray bag. Given my so-so Spanish, I would have had to resort to pantomime to explain my travel bidet.
Oaxaca de Juárez: No, not that Juárez
When talking with friends and families in the US about how Mexico would be our first major international destination, we usually then had to do a little anxiety easing.
After all, American headlines don’t typically have anything good to say about Mexico. Yet just like the USA, Mexico is far, far more than what a headline can convey.
As we flew from Mexico City to Oaxaca de Juárez, the capital of Oaxaca state, in southern Mexico, we flew over green fields and rolling high hills. When we explained that we were going to Oaxaca de Juárez, I would quickly qualify that it wasn’t the Juárez they might be thinking, where news of violence prevails. And just as people say only “New York” when they mean “New York City,” we flew into Oaxaca, passing over bright pinks and whites of the buildings below.
When we got inside the terminal, our checked bags were already waiting for us. A kind driver in a face mask helped us load our bags into clean, late model van. (We’ve seen more masking in one day in Mexico than we’d seen in months in the US.) Oaxaca had its shabby bits. It had its gleaming bits.
Oaxaca is generally considered one of the safest places in Mexico. Does it have its problems? Of course. I’ll challenge anyone to show me somewhere, anywhere, that doesn’t. But for both me and Jodie, as travelers and as parents, the city felt safe.
We settled into our Airbnb apartment, in a residential neighborhood a few minutes west of the Centro, or the city center. Soon, the kitchen filled with the scents of sautéing onions, tomatillos, chipotles, beans, and garlic, along with a simmering pot of rice, all purchased from the shop on the corner for the equivalent of a few dollars. From the rooftop terrace above us, our host—oh, did I mention he and his wife used to be competitive dancers?—led a salsa dancing class, and the thrill of music, rhythm, and joyous steps mingled with the scents of cooking. The music and dancing above us were like having a private concert.
Safe in our home for the next two weeks, our family gathered around the table, with glasses of clean water from the jug, or garrafón, behind us. And we toasted. To a good travel day. To arriving in Mexico, safe and sound. And to a long, good night’s sleep.
Twinkie and salsa
After a rainy start to the morning, sun shone through breaking clouds and turned the Cerro de Fortin, the long hill at the northern end of Oaxaca, a brighter green, cut with gold. The air smelled clean and fresh, and no matter where you are in the world, there is nothing like the sound of rain on a metal roof.
As I cooked breakfast, Jodie said it smelled good.
Connor called out, “Of course it smells good, he’s cooking!”
After breakfast, I asked Aster an important question.
“Would you like to try salsa dancing lessons?”
“Sure,” she replied, “as long as I don’t have to eat any salsa.”
A little later, the kids went downstairs to the walled courtyard we share with the owners. Soon, Aster ran back upstairs.
“Daddy!” she told me. “You have to come see. They have a turtle!”
In a blue rubber tub, like a dish tub, among a few flat gray rocks, was a brown and yellow shell.
“The turtle’s name is Twinkie,” said Aster.
Salsa lessons on the roof. A pet turtle in the courtyard. I like this place.
The next morning, I came down from my now-regular morning rooftop yoga to find Connor in the kitchen. He was carrying plates of tortillas, apples, and leftover pasta for him and Aster.
“We are going to eat in bed, snuggle, and watch Chess Kid videos.”
After a day of chess, exploring the local markets, wandering a cathedral, and trying our first tejate, an indigenous beverage made from cacao, we gathered on the rooftop for a little salsa dancing. Our host had told us we were welcome to try a class for free.
While Aster had started out excited about trying to dance, the class did not go as we had hoped. Trying out the basic step, with other people around, the music, and the overall newness of everything happening in our lives, Aster got, I’m afraid, freaked out. Connor and Jodie worked together for a bit longer, while I sat with Aster on a nearby bench.
Sometimes when you try something new, it’s simply too much too soon. After some blanket bedtime snuggles while reading Watership Down with the kids, we went out so they could get a wee bedtime snack. While they munched, I worked some more on my basic salsa step. Left front. Rock right. Together. Right back. Rock left. Together.
“That’s not bad, Daddy, but try this.” Connor came up, took my hands, and guided me to get more on the beat. Aster joined us, and so did Jodie, and with no soundtrack but our laughter, we danced our own funky salsa to the rhythm of the Oaxaca night.
Our Ladybug of the sweet treat
While we waited for the taxi, the kids looked at the metal slot on the double door in front of the courtyard.
“What does correo mean?” said Aster.
“It means mail,” said Jodie. “Just like correo electrónico means email.”
Connor poked his hand into the mail slot. “I’m a letter!”
“Please don’t do that,” said Jodie. “It’ll really hurt if your hand gets caught.”
“Mama, I’m not going to get my hand stuck in a mail slot,” replied Connor. “This is not a cartoon.”
“Sure,” said Jodie, “but there was that time you got your head stuck between some iron bars.”
Later, after Connor got his hand out of the mail slot and we got into our taxi. Sitting in the back between me and Connor, Aster said, “I like it when the taxi goes over the speed bumps.”
Leaning forward, she watched the vehicle ahead of us, waiting for it to bump up and then down over a speed bump, then giggle and squeal when our own car did the same.
Up some steps into a walled plaza, we wandered the Jardín Socrates, part of Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, or our Lady of Solitude, near the Centro. More importantly, the walled area just outside the cathedral is home to several covered sit-down restaurants that sell different types of nieves, or iced sweets, such as ice creams and sherbets.
“It smells like goodness,” said Connor.
“But which one should we choose?” I replied.
Aster led the way.
“Why this one?” I asked her.
“It’s obvious, Daddy,” said Aster. “This one has a Ladybug balloon.”
Hanging from the canvas shading the tables, Ladybug, the hero form of teenage artist and designer Marinette in the Paris-based cartoon series Miraculous, made it clear that if you were going to be in charge of the power of creation, you should put that to work making really, really tasty treats.
After nieves, we found a lady nearby selling elotes, or grilled corn, typically covered in a mayo mixture and shredded cheese.
“Me gusta picante,” I told her, and she made sure to drizzle mine in salsa. Walking west from Soledad, we made a grocery run at the small supermarket. At the front of the store, between the checkout stands and the exits, price tags hung from a line of motorcycles. Everyone, from us to the staff though, were all coughing and sneezing too much to see if a motorcycle in Mexico could count as an impulse purchase. No one was sick though. Someone had gone from roasting chiles to burning them, and even folks more accustomed to chiles than me and Jodie were struggling in the spicy air.
Back at home, Connor told me his plans to make a Hunger Games-style setup in Minecraft.
“In the middle will be a Capricorn,” he explained.
I puzzled on this for a moment, thinking back to the first book of the bestselling trilogy. Then I nodded. “You mean a cornucopia.”
For dinner I cooked up jicama, zucchini, garlic, pork, and peas, along with a pot of butter rice. We topped it with avocado slices and avocado salsa.
“Our meals,” said Jodie, “are back on form.”
As the sun rose on Friday morning, I woke up hazy. Somewhere in the lost depths of my mind, the details of a dream faded into the brainwave shredded that stands between dreaming and consciousness. I do know that I had my first dream about Mexico. I don’t remember a damn thing that happened. But I definitely dreamed that my family and I were in Oaxaca.
After going to the market for some drinking chocolate and mole negro tamales, we flagged a taxi. Normally in Oaxaca, we can use an app called Didi to call taxis. It’s usually quick to pair us with a driver, and it tells us around what we can expect to pay. After a few taxis from our neighborhood to the Centro and back, we knew that a ride should cost between 60 and 70 pesos, or around three dollars.
As our driver bumped around street after street though, it became clear he wasn’t sure exactly how to get us to our apartment. He zagged to a main road, then zigged down a side road. When he did pull up to the door, he then told us the fare: “Two hundred pesos.”
“Demasiado!” I said. “Sesenta.” Too much. Sixty.
He countered with 100 pesos.
And on the inside, I smiled. When your first step haggling is cutting your price in half, you know you’re trying to charge too much.
I told him “setenta,” and handed him 70 pesos. He nodded and made no protest.
The petition, the party, and rooftop living
Back in the apartment, we had also messaged our host that our garrafón, or water jug, needed replacing. After taking care of the jug replacement, our host was outside our door, checking the trash area for the floor, where we had recently set out our own rubbish.
Then he came back to our door.
“I have a petition,” he said. Then he shook his head. “A request.”
At first I thought we had done something wrong with the trash. Trash here was separated into “organica,” such as food scraps, and “inorganica,” which was pretty much everything else.
“Monday is my birthday,” he said. Okay, so definitely not the trash.
Jodie and I smiled at him. “Feliz cumpleaños!” we called in return, “happy birthday!”
“Tomorrow we are having a party on the roof,” he continued. ”Around thirty people. Friends and family.”
Aha, I realized. He’s worried about noise, and he wants us to stay off the rooftop terrace during party o’clock, since it’s a birthday shindig. Fair enough.
“It’ll go from around three to nine,” he added.
I leaned forward. “Uh-huh,” I said, chuckling. “O diez… o once… o doce…” Or ten… or eleven… or twelve.
He laughed too, understanding that we had no worries about the time or noise.
And then he floored us.
“You are our guests,” he said. “My wife and I would like to invite you to the party.”
On Saturday afternoon, we wound our way up the spiral staircase. Under the covered section of the terrace, where our host held his salsa dance classes, people chatted, dined, and laughed at long tables. On the open part of the terrace, a spread of food covered another table.
Mole negro, the thick black sauce clinging to chunks of pork. Pozole, rich and red with hominy and shredded chicken. Salsa verde. Shredded cabbage, which we saw folks added by the handful to their bowls of pozole. Tostadas and white corn tortillas, waiting to filled and munched. Beer chilled in a broad, short tin bucket. And before we knew it, we were sitting at a table, chatting as best we could in Spanish, and eating a spread of delicious, homemade family-style Oaxacan food. Now and again our host or his wife would check that our beer or mezcal supplies were not in danger of running dry.
The sun gradually made its way down the far hills on the other side of Oaxaca. As evening gave way to night, dining tables were cleared out to make room for dancing. The music played. In the courtyard below, Aster dashed around with other kids at the party (though Connor had decided he was partied out, and mostly hung out in our apartment). All evening, Jodie and I laughed and chatted, clinking bottles with kind people in the warm Oaxacan night.
Rooftop fiestas are the way to live. And Oaxaca is a city that knows what makes a good life: family and friends, a beautiful place to go about your day, and tasty food and drink made and served with love. During a quiet moment, Jodie and I looked into each other’s eyes and toasted our travels.
“To our first week in Mexico,” she said.
I raised my glass. “To making our travel dreams come true.”