Diary of a Globetrotting Family: Tricky tamarind, Jellyfishese, drink this cactus, bionique, and surf’s up, just cross this river
Traveling the world? Sure. But we are also grocery shopping, taking care of schoolwork, running our business, and doing all the normal ins and outs of regular life too—albeit, not usually with a door-shaped hole in the wall. In many ways, we aren’t just traveling, we are living our normal lives too. Here are a few ordinary and not so ordinary snapshots from our traveling family’s week in La Crucecita, Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico.
If the platypus was the animal designed by a rather inept committee, the botanical equivalent may be the tamarind tree. However, either through luck or learning from the platypus committee’s experience, the tamarind design committee did the far better, yet still rather strange, job.
While tamarind pods contain small, coffee bean-like kernels that are used like fruits, the pods are technically legumes—like having an orchard full of black bean trees. The fruit of the tamarind tree enhances foods, drinks, and treats with a refreshing, humidity-busting combination of nessy flavors, such as tanginess, sweetness, and sourness.
However, tamarind pulp also makes an excellent metal polish, which I found about as shocking as I would to discover that WD-40 was considered a delicious spray-on fudge sauce.
The botanical bewilderment does not stop at the pulp. The long, dangling tamarind pods that you see hanging from the tree look like hairy, light brown monkey fingers that have been swollen by bee stings. Instead of deciduous leaves, the tamarind’s evergreen leaves resemble pine sprigs whose needles have been smooshed between boulders. The wood is apparently excellent for crafting into furniture and crafts—but the trees can also be grown small, bonsai-style. Apparently the tamarind is a go-to, popular indoor tree of choice for bonsai lovers in temperate climates.
Scientists aren’t entirely sure of the tamarind’s origin, though it’s commonly believed that the trees originated somewhere in the tropical areas of Africa. Yet the tamarind is so beloved, today the trees are cultivated worldwide in subtropical and tropical latitudes, including at least 7 African nations (such as Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Malawi), Oman in the Middle East, throughout South Asia (where India is the world leader in tamarind production), and, since the 16th century, throughout Mexico, Central America, and a little bit of South America.
In short, you can find tamarind all over the world. Unless, on a particular Sunday afternoon, at a paleteria in La Crucecita, Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico, you were trying, like me, to slake your thirst and shake off the afternoon’s mugginess by ordering a cold tamarind agua fresca.
“No tenemos tamarindo hoy,” said the woman behind the counter. “We don’t have tamarind today.” She even gave a slight shrug, as if she felt sorry to disappoint me.
Sunday sweet treats at the zócalo
Nothing makes you thirsty like the sticky weather of Oaxaca’s Pacific coast. Our last day in Oaxaca de Juárez, a lunchtime pitcher of tamarind agua fresca had reignited my long-dormant love of thirst-quenching tamarind, originally kindled during my 2003 and 2004 travels in Asia. For the last couple of days especially in La Crucecita, I had been craving a tamarind agua fresca.
Come the afternoon though, we love taking a stroll. Our rental apartment is just a few blocks down from the central square, or zócalo, in La Crucecita, Huatulco. Paved, bench-lined paths radiate out from a central gazebo. Trees dot the green grass. The zócalo is where you can go for a quiet sit, some people-watching, or, above all, treats.
At the paleteria just across from the zócalo, which in addition to an ice cream shop has a lovely juice and smoothie bar, Jodie and the kids split a banana split. Connor took care of calling out the ice cream flavors they wanted: “Chocolate, vainilla, y fresa,” he said. “Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.”
Denied my agua fresca tamarindo, I contented myself with a consolation prize of an almond ice cream cone. The four of us crossed the street, seeking out a shady bench, but only the Sunday sunshine benches were available. We strolled up the path to the gazebo instead. Under the roof and in the shade, the temperature dropped, and we also dropped, sitting on the wooden plank floor, enjoying our cool treats and chatting about the day.
The zócalo makes for wonderful people watching. Vendors line the paths, with displays of everything from t-shirts to alebrijes, where real or imaginary creatures are rendered in wood and vivid paint jobs. Mobile vendors also made slow circuits. From their covered, hand-pushed carts, their vendor licenses dangled on lanyards. One man stopped nearby, and I watched a little boy dash over for a bag of fried maize crisps, similar in texture to a cheeto, but shaped like a bite-sized wagon wheel.
Then my gaze dropped to the large jars on the back of the vendor’s cart. Inside one of them was a light brown liquid. Finishing my ice cream, I resisted the urge to vault over the gazebo’s railing, and instead calmly made my down the steps like a slightly refined gentleman. At the cart, I pointed to the jar.
“Tamarindo?” I asked.
“Sí.” Then he showed me a block of ice inside the cart, and I caught a glimpse of a fascinating yet slightly vicious looking tool.
A few pesos later, I was back under the gazebo.
“What did you get?” asked Connor.
“Not agua fresca,” said Jodie.
I shook my head. “Nope,” I replied. “Tamarind shave ice.” With each sip and crunch, my thirst abated, but my love of sweet, sour, tangy tamarind grew all the more.
Parenting is generally an exercise in improv dressing up as strategy, and whether at home or on the road, bedtime is a hard time.
Jodie and I are unapologetic night owls, though we’ve calmed down a little over the years. Instead of staying up until 1 or 2 in the morning, nowadays we typically turn in around 11:30 or midnight.
Connor and Aster, though, have definitely taken after us.
It used to be that the kids had a pretty solid bedtime. They’d be reading in their beds from about 9 to 9:30, then lights out to sleepytime. Over the past year, they’ve been staying up longer. On the one hand, this can be a very cute time. There are nights where we’ve gone on dad and kids walks, up and down our street, or when traveling, around La Crucecita. Sometimes Jodie and the kids have had tender snuggly moments, or in-depth conversations that were needed.
On the other hand, sometimes we just want our kids to go to sleep, already.
The excitement of travel has led to later bedtimes over these past few weeks. Instead of the kids going to sleep around 10 or 10:30, sometimes the clock has hit 11, only for them to still be awake. Quiet, typically, but awake.
Jodie and I handle these nights with parental grace and patience. Or we try to, anyway. Sometimes we feel impatient or frustrated, though we try to constructively yet firmly work with the kids on doggone well getting in bed and going to sleep, now, no, right now, oh, I’m sorry, did you want us to start taking away your screen time for tomorrow?
Ahem. Sorry about that.
On this particular night, it was 10:30, and the kids were sitting at the front table, having a snack. Where the idea came from, I don’t even remember. A lot of my parenting is actually serendipity miraculously lining up with circumstance, and I’ll take my little victories where I can manage them.
In all honesty, I did feel frustrated that the kids were awake. When this happens, sometimes I suck at turning that frustration into something else (which is one of about 47,309 reasons I’m grateful Jodie and I are a good team).
Tonight, however, inspiration struck.
“Still awake,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m going to feed you to jellyfish.”
“Jellyfish?” said Aster. “But there aren’t any jellyfish around.”
“Oh but there are,” I replied. “I already sent the message… in jellyfishese.”
Connor demonstrated his growing skill at rolling his eyes. “There’s no such language as jellyfishese.”
“Of course there is.” I began to wave my arms up and down, with bent elbows that looked like a bowl of long noodles. Then I raised my hands to either side of my lips, with the backs of my hands facing each other, and waggled my fingers like tentacles.
“Children tender and meaty,” I said, in a blub-blub voice. “They ready for jel-jel-feesh. Zap zap!”
Had Connor left eyebrow arched upward any higher, you could build a doorway beneath it. “And how do you learn jellyfishese?”
Aster finished her snack. “Did you learn it in Duolingo?”
“There’s a special Duolingo course.”
“Let’s see it,” said Connor.”
“No can do,” I replied. “It’s a special adults-only course. Kids aren’t allowed.”
I raised my hands to my mouth again and waved my tentacle fingers as I spoke. “Zap zap,” I explained, “is jellyfishese for tasty.” Then I shaped my fingers first like a capital C for Connor, then a capital A for Aster. “The language is spoken, with an additional tentacle semaphore element.”
“And what if we don’t want to be eaten by jellyfish?” said Aster.
I leaned in close to her. “Then the jellyfish tell me you’d better get in bed and go sleep sleep,” I replied. “Or zap zap!”
Giggling, the children went to bed. More importantly, they finally went to sleep. Jodie and I continued the rest of our evening. And I told the jellyfish to stand down, no zap zap after all.
A nice refreshing drink of cactus
“When we go to the grocery store,” said Jodie to the kids, “I have a challenge for you: Each of you needs to pick out a new fruit for us to try.”
Taking the taxi from our apartment to the Soriana, the Mexican supermarket chain a little north of the main part of town, we wandered through the produce section. Sure, there are familiar fruits, such as apples (delicious) and grapefruits (mouth-puckeringly disgusting, as if someone said, “hey, you know what we ought to do with this overgrown bitter orange? Let’s pump it full of antifreeze and then try to cut it with a spoon!”)
Then the kids stopped by two bins.
Inside of one was a pile of purple and pale green cones, like oversized strawberries, each as big as Aster’s fist. In the next, larger, yellow-green bulbs looked like mangos getting over their acne.
“Xoconoxtle,” said the tag on the bin of purple and green fruits. On the other tag?
We’d encountered “tuna” on fruit-centered display boards before, such as at little ice cream and frozen treat stands that might list out, “melon, strawberry, tuna.” As you do.
Obviously, it’s not “tuna” as in “tuna fish.” Here, tuna is the local word for a type of cactus fruit.
Among the many things that drive my love of and respect for the long cultural history of what we nowadays call Mexico, it’s that people figured out that cactus is delicious. After all, the cactus is essentially a porcupine that doesn’t move, a water-plump pin cushion that mocks your thirst in the most pointed way. The fruits you see in the store have had all the spines removed though—so we could skip the pokes and go straight to the tasty fruity goodness, at least, once we figured out how to use them.
“We’re picking those,” said the kids, and they promptly bagged up two each of the different cactus fruits before us.
Drink this, it’s purple
A few days later as we prepped breakfast, I pulled the cactus fruits out of the fridge. We had taken pictures of the tags, and I turned to the internet for ideas. Moments later, green ribbons littered the wooden cutting board. Beneath its pale green peel, the tuna fruit showed why its was blanca: the white flesh looked like it was made of frost. But the vibrant, reddish-purple fruit of the xoconoxtle was the gleaming scene-stealer.
“What are you going to do with them, Daddy?” asked Aster.
The rumbling whir of the blender filled the quiet apartment. Water, sugar, a dash of salt, and four fruits of the cactus rattled and squished amidst a blur of blades.
When the liquid settled, a bright, purplish pink purple cactus agua fresca awaited the glass—and a surprise.
Tipping back a pink sip, I had to take another, and then another. These fruits of the desert have elements of fruits, and even vegetables, from so many other regions and climates. I picked up the refreshing, enticing funk of tropical fruits. But facets of pear and apple also came through. There was a citrusy tang, like lemon and mild orange. Yet the cactus was not done. An herbaceous, satisfying mineral quality wove through the drink, similar to cucumber and celery.
Jodie and I loved it. But the kids set down their glasses and shook their heads.
“Not so much for me,” said Connor.
Aster agreed. “I don’t really like the flavor,” she said, “But I did like the color.”
And as for me and Jodie? We liked that there would be more cactus fruit agua fresca left for the two of us.
Four folks full of feliz
It is hard to have a bad meal in Oaxaca, but even in the food-focused town of La Crucecita, occasionally meh is on the menu.
Opting to dine out one clear, fine, yet muggy evening, we made our way to a restaurant Jodie had read good things about, only to find that it was closed. Opting for another place nearby, dinner was okay, though the bill turned out to be higher than our opinion of the food.
Still. Sometimes you bring home a memory of a good meal, and sometimes the laughs you had while waiting are what sticks with you.
Earlier that day, Jodie had been working with Aster on a school activity. Aster could pick out a word game or puzzle from a book. The one she picked entailed coming up with a phrase that started with a number, then you add one other descriptive word that start with the same letter (such as one ornery oyster). Each player recites the phrases that came before, then adds a new phrase, always starting with one, and then counting upward (so, from “one ornery oyster,” we might go to “two twinkly turtledoves”).
Aster enjoyed the game so much, she suggested we play a few rounds while we waited for our dinner. We played a few rounds, which often dissolved into laughter as one of us spaced on a prior phrase:
- One orange orange
- Two torn tissues
- Three thundering things
- Four fast finished fans
We made another start, but didn’t get far past “two tasty tacos.” Or there’s this little ditty, which has the makings of a haiku:
- One old ostrich
- Two tiny tarnished turkeys
The other main takeaway from the otherwise forgettable dinner (though to be fair, my chicken and black bean tlayuda, complete with a schmear of the savory salty paste that’s left from cooking chiccarones, or pork rinds)?
Epiphany is a lovely digestif
Going out to eat with the kids, frankly, used to be rather trying. Their patience was pretty limited, and sometimes they struggled with sitting at the table for an extended period.
As with many things in life and childhood though, a little experience and understanding was all they needed.
After dinner, while the kids sat on a nearby bench and read from their Kindles, Jodie looked at them and grinned.
“They’ve come so far in their patience at restaurants,” she said. “They have more experience with the process and what to expect, and it is so much more fun to go out with them.”
Egads, was she right. Dining out with the kids was much more enjoyable—and it was adding more dimensions to our excursions, more conversations, more memories in the making.
While that epiphany made a lovely digestif from the meal, it was not the same thing as leaving a touch of sweetness in our mouths and memories. So on the way back to the apartment, we stopped by our favorite panaderia, Alejandro’s, for a proper sweet treat.
The pan de queso was especially memorable, in all the right ways: A square treat, similar in size to a brownie, but with the caramelized, complex sweetness of dulce de leche, a sweet crumb bottom, and a tangy layer of cheese in between.
Four folks full of feliz.
As the kids and I settled into the back of the taxi outside of the supermarket, Jodie sat down in the front passenger seat, swung her prosthetic left leg inside the sedan, and shut the door.
“Ah,” said the driver, with a kind glance at her leg. “Bionique!”
Taxi drivers in La Crucecita have often been kindly, and just the right amount of talkative. (We did have one day where a driver, instead of just returning us to our apartment from the beach, kept trying to take us to restaurants, presumably where he would get a wee kickback.) A typical driver might compliment how adorable the kids are, or ask if we are finding the town pretty and the food tasty.
A few drivers, though, have been intrigued by Jodie’s rather space age-looking prosthetic leg, complete with its microprocessor-controlled knee. While Limbs International estimates that 3 million amputees live in Mexico (and the country has a total population of about 130 million), we have only seen one, a gentleman on crutches, asking for money at the Jardín Socrates in Oaxaca de Júarez.
In Mexico—again according to Limbs International—around half the population has varying types of diabetes, which drives many of the country’s amputations. When someone asks, Jodie usually explains that when she was young, she had cancer, and amputation was part of helping her get better. For Jodie, her computerized knee has made it much easier for her to have better mobility as a parent, as a traveler, and just overall as a person living a fulfilled, intentional life.
The driver listened to her, and we could see a hope and excitement in his eyes. Taxi drivers, after all, observe just about every range of the human condition. I’ve sometimes wondered if the drivers who ask about Jodie’s leg have a more personal connection to and awareness of someone who has had an amputation.
“We do not see many of those types of legs here in Mexico yet.” Resolve bolstered his voice. “But it’s the futuro.”
Surf’s up… just cross this river first
After so much one-legged crutching over the hot sand, large blisters bubbled on Jodie’s palms. But it was worth it.
About 40 minutes outside of La Crucecita, the taxi turns from the smooth highway onto a bumpy dirt road. Signs point to Barra de La Cruz, but it’s not exactly a beach for taking the kiddies to splash and wade. The going is slow. Rough roads may exist, after all, and they certainly do here. Barra de La Cruz will not be getting cruise ships anytime soon. Resorts have not replaced coastal forest. The area is part of one of the many indigenous regions of Oaxaca, where about 67 different peoples are recognized and have varying degrees of autonomous governance.
Through a combination of Google Translate, our own Spanish, and a lot of patience, Jodie had coordinated with the taxi company via text to arrange for a driver to take us to Barra de La Cruz and bring us back after about 4 hours. The driver made his way with calm expertise, navigating the winding road with hardly so much as a flip in any of our tummies. As he parked under a shady tree just across from the area’s communal restaurant, he explained he would be waiting for us when we were ready to head back. And, he reminded us, we didn’t need to pay until he brought us back to our apartment.
Yet why in the world, you must be asking, have we left our cozy beachside town to head to some harder-to-get-to, rough-surf stretch of the Oaxacan Pacific?
Simple. For school.
Homeschool… world school… surf school?
Connor had expressed an interest in trying to surf. Jodie had gotten solid recommendations for a man named Victor, also a father, who gave excellent surfing lessons and was great with kids. Via text, Jodie set up a 2-hour surfing lesson for Connor. That was why, on a sunny Thursday morning, we were making our way from the taxi toward the beach. The sun wasn’t quite yet hot through out sandals, but we could feel the threat of how, in a few hours, walking barefoot on the sand might as well be strolling across a bed of hot coals. And unlike any other beach I’ve ever seen, along the sand and along the hills and ridges that separated the edge of the forest from the beach, tall, skinny cacti shot up all over the landscape, bright green against a bare blue sky.
The only thing is, we didn’t expect the river.
A few feet down from the sand where we walked, the wide, light brown water flowed parallel to the beach, eventually turning near a rocky hill and colliding head-on with the fierce, wave-popping Pacific. The river doesn’t show up on Google Maps—it may be just a temporary flow, a wet season speciality that, in a month or two, might even be gone.
We considered ways for us to cross it, but ultimately decided to go as far as where the river bent toward the sea. We settled in on the sand, laying out a couple of beach towels. Victor even arranged for someone to set up an umbrella for us. Then he showed Connor the ins and outs of a surfboard, its parts and zones, and how to go from lying on it, to rising up just right, so you could ride a wave.
Then, for the better part of the next two hours, Victor took Connor out into the water. He had chosen a relatively calmer spot. A little farther up, the rocks and hills scooped back to a deep, broad beach, where the more serious, experienced surfers sought barrels and high sharp waves. Aster and I played in the knee-deep surf, but even there, the waves hit hard and sent us laughing and sprawling, as we tried to hold hands even as the waves broke over us.
And Connor? He bobbed over wave after wave. He’d go to stand, and flop over, or not have his approach quite right, and roll off his board. But sometimes, sometimes, legs shaking but his eyes determined, Connor got up on his board and rode a wave.
After the lesson, we checked on arranging payment with Victor. We could pay him cash, but he said it was fine to pay with PayPal. “Later,” he said. “You send it to me later.”
And he knew we would.
Over and over, I’ve seen the trust run here, strong and deep. It’s part of what we’ve loved about being here.
“The challenging thing is getting on the board at just the right time,” Connor told us later, over fried shrimp, fish tacos, fried shrimp tacos, and a ridiculously laden plate of nachos with sautéed steak and diced avocado, at the Restaurante Cominario, which we had passed on the way to the beach.
“You have to keep the nose of the board out of the water,” said Connor. “And you never put the board straight up in front of you. If you do that, when a wave hits your board, the board will become a wall that the wave will smack into your face.”
Words of wisdom—and that was just from Connor’s first surfing lesson.