Diary of a Globetrotting Family: Tamales, huge garden, churros, one ancient city, and a really hard day
Our first week in Oaxaca, Mexico, began with joyful discoveries and ended with a serendipitous party invitation. Our second and final week in the capital city of Oaxaca, held a few other planned adventures, along with what would turn out to be a travel day to remember, no matter how hard we try to forget it.
Oaxaca’s street vendor symphony
Our Oaxaca rental is on the second level of a wee courtyard complex in a quiet neighborhood. Well, mostly quiet. One of the nice things about being in this area of Oaxaca, is that we know there are all the services and goods, the joys and tastes, of urban life. You can go to them. But some of them will come to you.
Street vendors and suppliers go up and down the streets all day. Most of these you hear before you see. The heavy-duty truck with a couple dozen light blue large propane cylinders in the railed flat bed? The speakers play a tinny, joyous little jingle, sung by a couple of male vocalists. From what we’ve been able to puzzle out, the gas song pretty much is about how great it is to get your cooking gas from people right here in Oaxaca. The gas truck usually comes through the neighborhood a couple of times a day, often once in the morning and one in the afternoon or evening. We always get a kick out of hearing it, and maybe dance a step or two, mostly in time.
There’s only one thing Connor doesn’t like about the gas truck: “I don’t care for it when they drive by and play their song at seven in the morning.”
The mystery whistle
Another railed flat-bed pickup drives around, playing a nasally announcement that they’ll buy things people don’t want anymore, such as lavadoras, or washing machines.
Sometimes we have no idea what a street vendor is selling. You know those wooden whistles that, if you blow on them just right, sound like a train whistle in the distance? Or, if you blow on them really really hard, you get a high-pitched squealing sound, like a sick train whistle that’s blaring right in your ear? When a man on an orange cargo trike rides through, his piercing whistle sounds like a boiling kettle that’s been working out.
One afternoon while Anthony was out for a walk, he heard the mystery whistle and followed it. Seeing the trike, he also saw what looked like an orange covered grill on the back. From it, a narrow, cylindrical stovepipe rose. Now and again its conical cap opened like a mouth ready to sing, and out blared the whistle.
Inside the grill? Roasted plantains.
But on Sunday morning, a different sound rose through the sleepy neighborhood.
Pounding pavement for Sunday breakfast
“Tamales!” resounded a crackling voice that was both shrill and a bit husky. “Tamales con salsa verde. Tamales amarillo. Tamales con mole. Tamales dulce.”
Anthony dashed down to the street and caught up to the woman selling tamales from the cart on the back of her bike. As Anthony came up, the woman handed an order to a man waiting at a scooter: a tamale amarillo, which she had removed from its corn husks and served it up to the man sandwich-style, in a torpedo-shaped crusty sub roll.
A few minutes later, Anthony came back to the apartment with a steaming yellow plastic bag full of two deeply savory tamales with mole negro (a local black Oaxacan mole, which we actually saved for lunch a couple of days later), a sweet tamale dulce, two slightly spicy tamales with salsa verde (a green salsa with a tomatillo base), and one tamale amarillo, a yellowish orange with a mild chile taste.
Sunday breakfast? Served.
How much for that kilo of fresh corn tortillas?
One Oaxacan street vendor, however, eluded us.
A woman’s voice resounded off the walls of the neighborhood. The dogs lying on the street briefly lifted their heads. Since no chicken or beef fell out of the sky, the dogs lowered their heads back down and resumed their day’s work of holding down the road.
But Anthony was getting his shoes on.
The voice rang again. “Tortillas! Tortillas de maíz blanco!”
Anthony dashed down the spiral staircase to the street, coins jingling, ready to pay. White corn tortillas. Fresh and steaming.
And… nowhere to be found.
Of every player in the neighborhood’s street vendor symphony, the white tortilla van had proven the hardest to track down. The sound, the speakers, somehow they could sound as if the van were about to pass by your own front door, but in fact the tortilla vendor was a block away.
Trusting his instincts, following the sound as best he could, and hoping against hope that this wouldn’t be like Bangkok in 2003 where he spent half an hour walking around the block of the place he was trying to find, Anthony turned right, then right again, then heard the sound, and cut left to a cross street, then right down the next street.
And there it was.
The important question
The tortilla van had stopped, and an older woman in a blue dress was standing beside it. Transaction complete, the van rumbled off, turned right, and disappeared down the next street.
“Buenas tardes, señora. ¿Disculpe?” said Anthony as he walked up to her. “Good afternoon, ma’am. Excuse me?”
She paused and looked at him. “¿Sí?”
Anthony nodded toward her hands. Steam rose from the thick package of tortillas, wrapped in white paper. “¿Cuanto paga usted por esas tortillas?” he asked. “How much did you pay for those tortillas?”
The woman smiled. “Veinte y dos por un kilogramo.”
Twenty-two pesos. About a dollar. For a kilo, or about two pounds.
“Muchas gracias,” said Anthony.
It’s an important question. When you travel, it’s not always easy to determine the price for something, especially when looking different can mean you get charged more.
Rounding the corner, Anthony made his way to the tortilla van and waved at the man in the driver’s seat. “Un kilo de tortillas, por favor,” he said.
“Maíz blanco,” said the man.
“Sí,” replied Anthony. “Yes. White corn.”
“Veinte y dos,” said the man behind the wheel, and he gave a nod toward the back. In the back of the van, a boy, around eleven or twelve years old, sat in the angle of two large blue and white coolers arranged like a capital L. The boy opened one of the coolers and handed over a thick stack of tortillas wrapped in white paper. The aroma of hot, fresh corn rose with the steam.
Anthony handed over twenty-two pesos, smiled on the inside, and booked it back to the apartment to see what goodness we will going to fill these tortillas with.
Dinner is served
Funnily enough, we never got to plan the dinner that would fill those fresh tortillas. A little after Anthony returned, a knock on the door answered the question for us.
Earlier that morning, Anthony had been in the courtyard with Aster, who wanted to say good morning to Twinkie the turtle. While there, he had chatted with our host’s mother, complimenting the food from the birthday party the night before.
Now, a few hours later, our host and his wife were at the door.
They handed us two large tubs. In one gleamed a fragrant rice, cooked in dill and chicken broth. In the other, a rich, nutty scent of chicken, green olives, and tomatoes rose on the afternoon air from a red liquid inside. Guisado, said our host. A stew his mother had made, and wanted to share with us.
That evening over dinner, we spread refried beans on our fresh tortillas, along with spoonfuls of shredded chicken thighs from the guisado. Aster devoured chicken, and Connor, for the first time, declared that he liked the refried black beans that are a Oaxacan staple.
Plant paradise…or put up a parking lot?
A cactus forest, three times taller than we adults, full of bright green cacti growing straight as wooden posts. Spindly, churro-like ocotillo, in full, luscious bloom, dotted with green leaves like clover or mouse ears, and covered in pink and purple flowers. From a decades-old agave, blue-green, triangular sawtooth leaves reached higher than we could with a jump, and the leaves splayed out from the main plant like tentacles.
A little northwest of Oaxaca’s main square, the Jardín Etnobotánico, or Botanical Garden, lies within the thick, pale green stone walls of what was once a monastery, and later a military installation. (Apparently the army approved of the thick walls, which go over 7 meters deep, or 23 feet, into the ground). Since it opened in 1998, the Jardín is working toward representing ten percent of Oaxaca’s biodiversity, or about 1,300 known plants.
Mexico, our guide explained, has the most biodiversity after Indonesia. And Oaxaca, which is similar in size to the state of Minnesota or the country of Portugal, has among the highest levels of diversity in the country. It’s the home thick agave, tall trees, and thick vines. Stopping by a garden of edible plants, we considered the different varieties of squash growing there. Many consider squash the first cultivated plant of the Americas, with seed finds that date back tens of thousands of years.
We’ve arrived in time for the morning English-language tour, and we wandered the trees, cacti, and shrubs of the garden for around an hour and a half. Inside the cubical, clear-glass greenhouse where tropical plants grow, a wild vanilla orchid spiraled up a tree trunk. Behind the greenhouse, a palm frond the size of a hammock grew almost horizontally from the large mass of the tree trunk. The kids ran their fingers along the individual leafy fingers.
“It sounds like a cross between water and a stringed instrument,” said Connor.
¡De verdad! That’s not a tower, it’s a flower
Near the end of the tour, we all stared up at long, spindly green stalk that rose about 30 feet into the air. At the top of it balanced a melon-shaped mass of green that was about the size of a dorm fridge. All along the rounded surface, hundreds of yellow-white flowers had bloomed, each about the size of one of Aster’s hands.
Our guide followed our slack-jawed stares.
“That yucca’s been here since the garden opened in 1998,” she said. “It’s the first one here that’s flowered. It’ll probably be like that for about another month.”
Today, the Jardín is on a path to financial self-sufficiency and to reaching its goal of representing a sliver of Oaxaca’s botanical bounty. From the tallest cactus to the thickest tree, the plants thrive here, sustained by the water that comes on seasonal rains (and for plants that require supplemental watering, a nearby plaza is but the top of a million-liter underground reservoir). But in the 1980s, the monastery and the vast land where the garden now grows was under threat of becoming a parking lot for a proposed luxury hotel.
“The project got abandoned after an outcry,” said our guide.
An ancho chile stuffed with cheese and fried to perfection. Pozole in a rich, red broth, thick with shredded chicken and packed with large white kernels of hominy corn—and mild enough that Aster kept stealing spoonfuls. Round fried cakes of white masa dough, like silver dollar pancakes, topped with refried black beans and cheese, that Connor devoured.
From the ceiling, ranks and files of red, white, and green flags fluttered in the breeze.
Our post-lunch walk through Oaxaca’s central district just happened to take us to a churro café. Crispy, sugary hot fried dough arrived the table. One? Straight up, nothing but sugar and cinnamon. The other three? Drizzled and filled: one with chocolate, one with a cream cheese sauce, and one with dulce de leche.
Morning visit to an exclusive Oaxacan hilltop community
Connor stuffed some fruit leathers and a nut mix into the pocket on his water bottle bag.
“Nothing is better than portable snacks.”
A few minutes later, we were inside a comfortable, air-conditioned van with a few other visitors. The driver wound west through the city, past auto shops and motorcycle repair garages, past little cafés and chicken shops offering “Kentucky style” fried chicken.
The outskirts of Oaxaca thinned out, then faded, and the green hills southwest of Oaxaca rolled out before us. About fifteen minutes later, we clambered out of the van and made our way to our English-language guide, Miguel, who would take us through the ruins of a once-massive hilltop city.
Around 800 BC, the area’s Zapotec people looked at the green hills and decided some of them would look better with flat tops. Over the next 1600 years, generation after generation cleared the land and graded the hilltops (something to think about next time you think a construction project is taking too long). They plotted in zones for neighborhoods, businesses, and ruling elites, and built out what we know as the Zapotec city of Monte Albán. While all has faded to time but the stone walls and stepped pyramids, our current understanding is that the city was at least 45 square km in area (or about 17.3 square miles), about the same size as Hartford, Connecticut.
Acacia trees grew here, used not only for shade, but for their resin, which could be dried and burned for incense. In the warm climate of Oaxaca, regular, middle-class Zapotec families built—and rebuilt—their homes from materials that wore away over time. Typically, about every 50 years or so, a family would have to build from scratch.
Gleaming city on a Oaxacan hill
The browns and grays of the stone are actually what was like the skeleton underneath skin and flesh. At Monte Albán’s apex, about 45,000 people were thought to have lived here. And the stone walls and pyramids? They would have been covered in plaster, which would have been painted white or red.
Imagine it: Say you’d left from the Zapotec community that lived in Teohuaticlan, just outside modern Mexico City. It would have been a 3-month walk from Teohuaticlan to Monte Albán, yet there was trade and communication between the societies. By the time you returned to Monte Albán, amidst the green hills you finally would have emerged to a thrilling site: Brilliant red and white, gleaming like a fiery sun from the high green hilltop.
We made our way along vast plazas and up and down wide stone staircases where each step was typically 16–20 inches in height. The late-morning sun pounded down on us. While we made regular use of our water bottles, the exertions of getting around soon had us ready for refills (and the kids pining for the usual early afternoon visit from the roving ice cream vendor who always came down our street around 1:30).
Refills would have to wait until we could get back down to the visitor center though. And that, of course, was part of the problem that the Zapotecs spent centuries wrestling with: Water. How to get it. How to keep it. And how to have enough.
Our guide explained that we don’t entirely know why the Zapotecs eventually abandoned Monte Albán after centuries of living there. But we wouldn’t be surprised if they simply wanted it to be easier to slake their thirsts in the middle of the hot Oaxacan day.
Of the tropical fruits, the pineapple is the showiest. The mango is the most refined, beautiful, and ethereal. But of all the hot-weather fruits, the humble, brown, fuzzy-podded tamarind is the most refreshing.
At Fonda Lupita, a little corner restaurant in our Oaxaca neighborhood, we pulled up green plastic chairs amid the welcoming, sunny yellow walls, open on two sides. One of the two women who greeted us served up a pitcher of tamarind agua fresca, the refreshing concoction of water, sugar, and produce that can restore anyone’s cool.
After lunch, we would wander a couple of blocks over to the lavandería, or laundry service, where Jodie and the kids had taken our dirty laundry the day before, and it was time to pick up our clean clothes. We’d have packing to do as well, so the next morning we’d be ready for our long, all-day bus ride from Oaxaca to our next destination, due south on the Pacific coast.
Sipping the sour, sweet, tangy restorative of tamarind agua fresca, we sat in the shade and felt the drink do its work, easily dropping the temperature five or ten degrees, if only in perception.
We adults feasted on shared large plates of chilaquiles, savory amidst rich black beans, and enchiladas swimming in salsa verde and bursting with melted quesillo, the Oaxacan cheese that combines the creamy stringiness of mozzarella with the salty tang of feta. The kids tucked into platters of ham and eggs. In the middle of the table, tangy green salsa pooled in a dark green bowl that looked like, as Connor observed, an upside-down tortoise.
As he patted his stomach and sat back, full for now, Connor said: “It doesn’t matter how small a business is. It can always be good.”
And with that, we turned our day from exploring the city of Oaxaca de Juárez, to preparing to leave it.
While Jodie sat back against the soft back of her seat, closed her weary eyes, and brushed a hand over her clammy forehead, Anthony gently shifted Aster and Connor down the aisle of the intercity bus and out into the fresh air. In the parking lot in front of the restaurant where the able and willing were taking the half-hour break to get some lunch, dad and kids sucked in deep breaths, felt a little color return to their pale faces, and gloried at the wonderful feeling of not whip-snapping back and forth for hours on end down a smooth but winding road.
“Daddy,” said Connor, “is that the worse ride you’ve been on?”
Anthony sighed, and kneeled down between the kids. Then, with sad eyes, he nodded.
The children’s eyes widened, and Connor took a staggering step backward. “With some of the places you’ve been,” he replied, “that’s saying a lot.”
“What’s another bad one?” said Aster.
“China,” said Anthony. He glanced at the sleek red bus that was getting us from Oaxaca City to La Crucecita, in Bahía’s de Hautulco on Mexico’s Southern Pacific coast. The bus was comfortable, with air conditioning, shared screens with mercifully quiet audio, and above all, a bathroom.
“On a bus ride in China,” Anthony continued, “it was ten hours, and the bus wasn’t nearly as nice as this. It was pretty much a worn-down school bus, lumbering and slow and grinding. The seats were hot and plasticky, nothing cush like these.”
“What about the bathroom?” said Aster.
“There wasn’t a bathroom on that bus,” said Anthony. “When people got car sick, and believe you me, lots of people did, they just slid down their window and threw up along the side of the bus.”
“Did you throw up on that ride?” said Connor.
“I didn’t,” said Anthony. “I’ve been on some twisty turny bus rides. I’ve always been okay.” He looked once more at the red bus, and at the window where he could just see Jodie, her head back against the seat. “Today was the closest I’ve ever come to getting car sick.”
“Well,” said Connor, “at least one of us didn’t.”
Anthony gave the kids a gentle hug. But was also careful not to smell their breath too closely.
The city from the hill
In all fairness to Mexico’s excellent long-distance bus service ADO (pronounced “ah-day-oh”), we knew it was going to be a tough day of twists and turns along the road from Oaxaca to the coast. Still, we’d driven plenty of winding roads. We had always been okay, with nothing more than the occasional squeamish tummy, which was usually more a sign of one of the kids needing something to eat.
That morning in Oaxaca City, we had connected with a taxi via the Uber-ish Didi app, and waited in the cool morning air for our driver to pull up. Our host’s mother came out and gave us a heartfelt good-bye, which we returned. As the taxi joined Oaxaca’s morning rush hour streets, our driver complimented our efforts to work on our Spanish, and to explore the food and drink joys of Oaxaca, from mole to mezcal.
Driving up the slope of Oaxaca’s Cerro de Fortin, the hill we had only seen from our rooftop terrace, the driver suddenly pulled off at an overlook. He motioned to Jodie: “Go take some photos of the city.”
And she did. The vantage was beautiful. The city below glowed in the sun, which was just clearing the slope of the hill. At the main Oaxaca bus terminal, we found where we needed to be, scored coffee, and got aboard just fine.
“This is a really nice bus,” said Aster as we settled in.
Leaving Oaxaca the city behind, we headed into the countryside of Oaxaca the state. We rode a well-maintained highway through a green, rolling land. From flat patches to cultivated steep slopes on hills, the flat, tentacle triangular leaves of agave plants rose up in perfect rows, ready to feed the world’s growing, insatiable appetite for Oaxacan mezcal.
But the lines of traffic could be herky-jerky. The toil of every fast, sharp turn began to build into a queasy tension. As Anthony accompanied first one child and then the other to the toilet at the back of the bus, he asked himself, “Why in the world is every person on this bus conked out asleep at nine in the morning?”
Taking matters into the back of your own throat
To Anthony’s left, Connor got paler and paler with every sharp turn, each sudden stop, and the constant hairpin switchback turns on the winding, hilly road between Oaxaca and Mexico’s Southern Pacific Coast. Across the aisle, anxiety widened and tightened Jodie’s eyes. Aster’s mouth hung open as the color drained out of her face.
Anthony leaned in toward Connor. “I’m really sorry about the bus ride.” He squeezed his son’s hand. “Some things we enjoy. Some we can only endure. I’m afraid this bus ride is definitely an exercise in the latter.”
“Excuse me,” said Connor. He made his way down the aisle quickly and ducked into the small bathroom. A few minutes later, Anthony stumbled and tripped his way down the aisle as the bus swerved, then sat across from the bathroom door and tried to ask Connor how he was doing.
But no answer came.
With so many herks and jerks of the lumbering yet barreling bus, Anthony was in no hurry to go back up to the front, only to have to come back. So he sat, and waited, worrying about how Jodie and Aster were doing, but feeling far, far more anxious that he couldn’t hear anything in the bathroom.
Had Connor fallen? Was he hurt, with a banged-up head, unconscious on the damp floor?
Then, from the door, a click. Connor pulled it open and blinked.
“Oh, hi Daddy,” he said.
“Are you okay? I tried to check on you.”
Connor shrugged. “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you. I’m okay now.”
“Did you throw up?”
Leaning forward, Connor actually smiled a little. “I figured I was going to anyway,” he said, “so I made myself vomit.”
Then, before Anthony could reply, Connor made his way to the front of the bus. Peering ahead, Anthony could just make out Jodie. A clear plastic bag stuck out of the aisle, seemingly in mid-air, as her head jerked forward.
Returning to his seat, Anthony looked over to see a clear plastic bag obscuring his daughter’s face. Then Aster handed the large plastic bag to Jodie, and soon the plastic was covering her face.
Throughout the next few hours, mother and daughter passed the bag back and forth. When one of them wasn’t using it, Jodie leaned back in her seat and tried to sleep. In between her knees, she clutched the bag closed, grasping what was both the worst yet currently most essential personal item ever.
From the seat behind Aster, a woman stood, tapped Anthony on the shoulder, and held out her hand, palm up.
“Ten esto,” she said. “Take this.”
And she handed over an answer. The reason why every other person on the bus was asleep, sacked out so hard it was as if they had all been whacked with mallets the moment they sat down.
It was a packet of Dramamine. The bus riding belly’s best amigo.
It hadn’t even crossed our minds to pick some up before we left the Oaxaca bus terminal.
Jodie tried to take some, but it didn’t stay down. Anthony and Connor split a tablet, and soon Connor’s head was on Anthony’s shoulder. The boy’s breathing fell into a deep, relaxed cadence, a peace no swerving curves could disturb. As Anthony’s own roiling stomach settled, he closed his eyes and dozed.
End of the Oaxaca road
When you are not handing your wife and daughter plastic bags so they can vomit, and when you’re then not handing them tissues so they can wipe off their lips and faces afterward, the joy of a long day riding a bus is supposed to be sitting back, relaxing, and doing not a damn thing. But this bus ride was an exercise solely in endurance. We focused on trying to get through each curve, each sudden stop, each breath, with nothing but the cold comfort of being aware that we were now at least slightly closer to the time when we’d be able to get off this roiling yet comfy bus for good.
There are hard travel days. Jodie said later that she was relieved we didn’t all get sick—which also made it easier for Anthony to help his ailing wife and kids. But even if you’re not the one sick and vomiting, it’s not easy to be sick with worry and sympathy too, in the midst of trying to keep a lid on your own nausea. All we did was ride through Oaxaca’s countryside, and endure, and look forward to the end. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
In all honesty, if we were going to all feel like a nauseous vomitshow of motion sickness, at least we were all together. Sometimes love is ethereal, the coming true of mutual dreams and the bliss of knowing the things that you’ve prioritized, you’re doing. Other times, love is making sure you have a tissue ready for once your beloved’s stomach stops heaving.
Just as good times can end, hard times can end too. After our no-lunch lunch break, the road evened out, straightened up, and no longer conspired to see what color our breakfast had been. The warm ocean air made its way into the bus, dispelling some of the sour funk of multiple raw throats. We’d been on the bus about 9 hours, winding from Oaxaca City to the southern coast.
And finally, at the end of a very long day and a truly long and winding road, our bus growled and groaned and slid its way into the bus terminal near the city center of La Crucecita. We breathed in Oaxaca’s warm evening air, with a hint of salty tang from the Pacific Ocean about a mile or two away.
A short cab ride later, we got ourselves and our bags up three flights of stairs, to our top-floor apartment. We settled in. We washed up. And everyone gave their teeth the brushing of a lifetime.
Finally, Jodie looked at Anthony with that little look whose meaning he knew from long experience.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to feel this way,” said Jodie at last. “But how about we go find something to eat?”
Before Anthony could even nod, the kids were putting on their shoes.