Diary of a Globetrotting Family: The hole, family cooking in Mexico, wall of Tang, Hasta+ and… Baby. Sea. Turtles.
Travel can teach you so many things.
You never know what unexpected special feature you might get with your vacation rental.
Tang doesn’t just come in orange.
When it comes to telling someone you’ll see them later, “hasta luego” is just the beginning—and it’s not nearly as cool a phrase as some of the others we’ve learned.
But above all? The Pacific coast at Oaxaca is one of the world’s most important nesting sites for a species of sea turtle—something we were going to experience first-hand.
Hole in the wall
Jodie’s phone dinged with an urgent message, but she was too busy throwing up to reply.
At the time, we were on a bus winding its way from inland Oaxaca de Júarez to coastal La Crucecita, on the Pacific in a wee region known as Huatulco. While the road was excellent, the curvy road and sometimes herky-jerky, start-stop driving were not exactly kind to our family’s stomachs (for more, see Week 02: 🤮🤮🤮🤢).
During the last couple of hours of the drive though, the road mostly straightened out, and Jodie was feeling a little better. Until she saw the message that had come earlier.
She tapped me on the shoulder. “We might have a problem with our apartment rental.”
I sighed. As if we didn’t have problems already. Next to Jodie, Aster was holding a plastic bag up to her mouth. She hadn’t thrown up for hours, but as the bus made its way along the curves of the forested road near the coast, Aster clearly felt she and her belly were not out of the woods yet.
“I got a message from our host,” Jodie continued. “He was really apologetic. But apparently there’s some sort of work getting done on the building to add private outside terraces to each unit.”
Our place was on the third floor of the building, in a small, forest-ringed development just off the southern end of town. A terrace sounded wonderful. Even a small terrace, maybe with room for a couple of chairs, would be a spot where we could have a beverage and chat, taking in the cooler times of day as the world went by around us.
“That doesn’t sound too big a deal,” I said. “I mean, that stuff happens. We own a house, we understand work getting done.”
Jodie took a deep breath. Her eyes and face held a graveness that had nothing to do with the queasiness that had ruled most of the day. “It’s not that,” she said. “The workers weren’t supposed to be doing anything to our unit until after we left.”
Oh dear. This didn’t sound good. “But?”
“But it turns out that today they cut out the doorway.”
I listened closely to her words, then replayed them a few times, very slowly, in my slightly nauseous, addled mind.
“So when you tell me ‘they cut out the doorway,’” I said, “you don’t mean, they added a door, but the rest of the work isn’t done.”
“Afraid not,” said Jodie. “I mean, they cut a big rectangle in the wall and nailed a sheet of plywood over it.”
A happy, successful traveler is an adaptable traveler. In all honesty, as long as there was no more vomiting, I didn’t care that our third-floor Airbnb had a hole in the wall. As long as we were safe, everyone could brush their teeth, and there weren’t, say, birds roosting on the couch, I just wanted to get there in one piece.
“He told me,” said Jodie, “that he’s happy to arrange to put us up somewhere else, like in a local motel or something.”
“Yeah, but we’re staying in La Crucecita for a month.”
“I was wondering that too,” replied Jodie. “We have no idea when the rest of the work will be done.”
“Or what we might give up staying somewhere else,” I added. When Jodie had found this listing, I could tell right away it was amazing. The location would put us right in town, but just enough away to have plenty of peace and quiet. There was a pool. Our apartment had a kitchen. It was just what we were looking for.
“I’m okay seeing how it is,” I said. “It may not be a big deal.”
Arriving in La Crucecita, a short taxi ride and a jaunt up the stairs later, we opened the front door. On the opposite side of the main room, behind the central glass dining table and the dark blue, L-shaped couch, there was indeed a hole in the wall. But the plywood was nailed on pretty securely. And it wasn’t as if we or the kids were going to go barreling off the side of the building (though we did joke a lot about the Kool-Aid man busting through the wall).
It’s incredible what people can adapt too. Over the past few weeks, we’ve gotten to where we hardly notice what we refer to as “our special door.” Granted, the occasional teeny lizard has come through—but they’ve left just as quickly, especially once Aster chases them. Morning sunshine turns the plywood an orange-red, a little like the color you see in your eyelids if you close your eyes while looking toward a bright light. Sometimes the heat would make the plywood bow outward, but we could straighten it up by setting a spare chair against the wood.
And sure, there have been days where there have been workers outside on the little terrace. Tools have whirred and clanked and crunched, as workers have cleaned up and framed the doorway, or laid tile on the terrace floor.
One day, though, a couple of guys took down the plywood. Our host had said he thought they were getting the doorway ready for the door. Turns out, it was electrical day. A young man with a masonry battering ram of a drill spent the morning drilling out long, narrow channels in the brick, then ran flexible orange conduit to a new outside light fixture, with corresponding indoor switch, all tied in to an existing outlet.
By lunchtime, fine white dust covered the living room and kitchen. The workers on the terrace were outside the children’s bedroom window, so the four of us spent most of the day in my and Jodie’s room, tackling work and school from our bed and a wee four-person table.
Loud power tool rumbles and rips and snorts blared throughout the morning. Yet still, the kids tackled their math, just as Jodie and I tended to various content creation and other business.
Jodie also messaged our host. He readily agreed to send along his housekeeper that evening, to clean up the dust and tidy up the front room. On his peso, of course.
For a few days after, we wondered if the terrace might get finished up. It still needed a railing, and it looked like the tile needed grouting. And of course there was that little matter of removing our special door, and filling the doorway with an actual, real, honest-to-goodness, opening, closing, and locking door…
But Jodie and our host had a little chat. Unless the work was going to be done soon, she said, we were fine having the plywood stay where it was. He agreed. There’d be nothing else happening until after we left.
Or, it turns out, the day we leave.
While our flight isn’t until later in the afternoon, we’ll be around the apartment some on our last day. And the workers let our host know they plan on coming back, and working on filling up our hole in the wall. By the time we close our door for the last time, for all we know, there just might be a door to a cute little outside terrace.
Oh well, La Crucecita. Next time.
Cooking for kids in Mexico
How do we make food as a family in Mexico? And why in the world, when we already have so much to do as full-time travelers, do we also cook so much? There’s a secret reason, but we’ll get that.
After all, the life of a digital nomading, globetrotting family can seem so glamorous. It has its glamorous moments, to be sure. But for us, our day-to-day has only changed by so much. We’ve enjoyed restaurants in our immediate area. The folks at Alejandro’s, our favorite panadería, know us by sight. But most of our eating, like most of our eating at home in Oregon, isn’t dining out, but home cooking in. Having groceries on-hand makes it easier to deal with our children’s insatiable appetites, and our family travel budget stretches further.
But what do we eat?
Balancing local food with familiar favorites
For starters, let’s talk about what we don’t do.
We’ve talked with the kids about how we will travel to so many different places. Often there will be foods we don’t know yet, and some of our favorite foods from home might not be an option. Overall, I think Connor and Aster have understood that pretty well.
But they also still love their grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. Aster is always down with a bowl of oatmeal, with peanut butter, for breakfast. So while we encourage the kids to try different foods, and they understand that there are times when something they know simply won’t be an option, they also know that we will keep some familiar things on-hand. For us parents, a few familiar snacks and meals smooth out travel days and actually give the kids a jumping-off point to be more adventurous.
Our breakfasts look the most similar to what we would have eaten in Oregon. Aster and Connor often have oatmeal, with honey, frozen strawberries, and peanut butter from the local supermarket. Jodie and I like to front-load veggies in the morning, so usually we breakfast on, say, sautéed broccoli and sweet potatoes, topped with fried eggs and salsa.
If we are at home for lunchtime, our midday meal varies quite a bit. Sometimes we’ve brought home leftovers dining out, and those become the cornerstone of lunch (such as some shrimp empanadas, with fresh shrimp and a tomato sauce in a crispy thin shell). Other times, we might warm up canned refried black beans and make black bean quesadillas, especially with sliced avocados and local cheese.
The kids often have grilled cheese sandwiches, usually accompanied with sliced vegetables, such as sweet bell peppers or salted jicama, and fruit.
Sometimes, as part of a helpful task they need to do each day, the kids will wipe down the table. There have been moments where they’ve washed the dishes, though so far neither child has been interested in taking that task over from Anthony.
One big change for us? At home, dinner was usually the meal we were least likely to dine out for. Yet in La Crucecita, suppertime has been when we’ve most enjoyed dining out. Part of that is simply how La Crucecita comes alive in the evening, even though we are typically on the earlier side of being out and about.
Most nights though, we dine in. Typically our dinners look similar to ways we’ve cooked at home. A lot of my cooking is component cooking, which can be served, mixed, and remixed according to individual taste, or refreshed and served up with a different theme the following day.
One evening might have a pot of black beans and a separate pot of rice on the simmer. Typically there are veggies sautéing away, purchased from one of the many small produce stores up the road.
Another night may have sliced chicken or diced pork belly browning in a skillet. I may combine onion, tomatillo, garlic, and black beans in a sauce, and some chipotles. Well, for Jodie and me, anyway. The children aren’t into spicy yet—though Connor keeps showing signs of being spicy-curious. Usually we get our caliente fix by having various salsas on the side.
Or, when we need something familiar, there’s always a good pasta night. Prevalent boxed tomato sauces make an excellent base. Our family travel favorite? We simmer the sauce with half an onion, salt, a couple of crushed, peeled cloves of garlic, and some dried herbs, such as oregano and thyme. On the side, we might sauté up peppers and mushrooms. Or, as Jodie did one night, she sizzled up carrots and zucchini, added those to the sauce and blended it, and then we mixed in sautéed ground pork.
The kids also like to suggest dinners. Needing a taste of home one night, Connor had asked about making a broccoli cheddar soup we love at home. Along with potatoes and carrots, I blended about half the batch, recombined it, shredded and stirred in most of a block of cheese, and served it all up with buttered toast.
The kids devoured it.
Why we cook at home so much while we travel full-time
Like we said, we cook a lot because we love being at home, plus cooking helps us make our travels more affordable. But there is a secret reason.
When we travel, we have to constantly be open to the new and unfamiliar. That can be exciting, but it can also, sometimes, be overwhelming and draining. That can especially be the case for kids, who often like more routine and familiarity that they might even understand, much less admit.
Yet with all our travels as a family, we knew that when we began traveling the world, we would have our family eating include lots of home cooking.
But why? With travel logistics, running a business, and homeschooling the kids, Jodie and I already have so much to do in our days.
The secret reason is simple though.
By giving the kids a little stability on their plates in the apartment, they become more daring when we go out.
Elote, or grilled corn, from a street vendor? Bring it. Refried black beans, a Oaxacan staple? Aster decided they’re not to her taste (yet), but Connor now asks for them. Or, when I had a large helping of pozole, rich with hominy and shredded chicken, Aster snaffled so many tastes I started to wonder if she would need her own bowl.
They’ve even been trying different tamales. Connor tried a chicken tamale, made with a traditional Oaxacan black mole, or mole negro. The flavors are smoky and deep, with more chile flavor than heat, but there is just a wee bit of burn.
Connor ate the entire thing.
And now a quick break for more wordplay
Speaking of dining out, one evening while wandering the aisles and wares at the large enclosed mercado, or market, we made our way to the food stalls at the back. While waiting for our dinner at Comedor Erika, the kids suggested we try our word game again: Start with a number, add at least one descriptive term, and finish with a noun, but every word must start with the same sound.
Here’s what we came up with, until the plates started landing in front of us:
One orange one
Two twisty tornadoes
Three thriving thirsty thieves
Four fickle figs
Five fanning fiends
Six silly snakes
Seven slimy sickly smiling sick sombreros
Eight envious elves
Nine nervous nickels
Ten trusty tricks
Eleven elated elil
Twelve twisted twins
Turns out our skills have made progress.
What do you think we should have done for thirteen?
The many flavors of the Tangbow
It turns out that orange is but one flavor of the tangbow.
Growing up in the 1980s, my childhood was full of Tang. The bright orange, space-age powdered beverage mix, first invented in 1957, was this child-at-heart’s proof that magic existed. One moment, powder! You could hold it in your hand, a little cone that looked like what was left in the bottom of an hourglass. You could taste a dab of it, and on the tip of your tongue the Tang’s tang would be overwhelming with its sharpness.
And yet. If you mixed the magic mix with water, sharp became sweet. Powder became liquid. And clear water transformed into a kid’s sunshiny elixir of life.
Yet as a man in his forties who now mostly drinks either water or coffee, I had all but forgotten that Tang existed, like a child hero in an adventure story might grow up and forget that once upon a time she could fly.
Then my family and I went to the supermarket.
“Daddy,” said Connor as we made our way along the juice aisle, “what’s Tang?”
“Why do you ask?” I replied. “Was it mentioned in something you’re reading?”
“No.” Connor pointed. “There’s this wall of packets behind you, and they all say, ‘Tang.’”
You know how, in spring, many stores become garden promises, with huge walls and racks where seed packets await? This was similar. Only instead of seeds, it was row upon row of color-coded packets. Instead of growing plants, you could taste artificially sweetened versions of plants, such as grape, mango, pineapple, guava, passionfruit, apple, and mixed berry. I believe there were around two dozen flavors of Tang, but the many-colored wall overwhelmed my brain’s ability to count.
We picked out four to try: grape, tamarind, mango, and horchata.
While Tang is not as prevalent in the US as it once was, the mix remains a huge global seller, especially in the Philippines, Argentina, and Brazil. Owned by Kraft Foods, Tang isn’t just some quirky mid-century convenience food: It’s a billion-plus dollar brand.
At home, we mixed up a pitcher of bright purple grape, pouring some in glasses on the rocks.
And we all set down our glasses, letting our puckered, down-drawn faces tell the rest of the story.
We tried some more grape, but the pitcher wound up conveniently getting tipped into the kitchen sink. Later we mixed up the tamarind, but it met the same ultimate fate.
As for the mango and horchata packets? We left them in the pantry. Maybe someone else would discover their pang for Tang. We’d go back to mango juice and tamarind agua fresca.
And I would always remember why, it turns out, I had forgotten about Tang in the first place.
Hasta la whats?
Let’s clear the air: Even though Arnold Schwarzenegger saying, “hasta la vista, baby,” was a meme moment before there were memes, the phrase isn’t actually commonly used among Spanish speakers.
The phrase literally means “until the view,” which is a little like saying, “until we see each other again.” “Hasta la vista” had it first big English-market debut in 1970, apparently when comedian Bob Hope said it to actor Raquel Welch during a show.
But the phrase became truly elevated when Arnie’s now-I’m-a-nice-killer-robot used it in the 1991 movie Terminator 2, after learning it from tween John Connor. Pre-teens might grow up to lead a post-apocalyptic resistance again killer AIs, but that doesn’t mean they know Spanish from spanakopita.
“Hasta luego,” literally, “until later,” is a common way to say, “see you later.” But as we’ve said good-byes in Oaxaca, we’ve tried to listen in for other things folks here say.
While we’ve been in Oaxaca, here are some of the phrases we’ve been picking up—and the one I’m using the most from now on.
Hasta la pista: literally, until the track, but typically used like “see you down the road.”
Hasta pronto: See you soon.
Hasta siempre: Until always (or until forever).
Hasta la próxima: Until next time.
Languages are the… what’s the word? Languages are about the little things. Those cosas pequeñas take on their own significances in ways that often have to do with what catches both the ear and the soul.
Which is why, from now on, you might hear me say, “hasta la pronto” or “hasta la próxima.”
Hasta la pista.
Baby. Sea. Turtles.
Baby. Sea.Turtles. What else needs to be said?
Three perfect words encompass perfect cuteness. We could just drop the mic and walk off, but we’d rather help release 67 baby sea turtles into the ocean instead. And that’s exactly what we did.
When we were staying in Oaxaca de Júarez, you might recall that our hosts had a wee tortoise, named Twinkie. Sometimes life does a little foreshadowing.
The soft, white sand shustled between our feet and our sandals as we stepped onto one of the most important turtle nesting grounds not only in Oaxaca, but the world. In an area known as Escobilla, typically between July and March, every year thousands of sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.
“There have been nights,” said our guide, “where we’ve counted over twenty thousand turtles on the beach.”
In this part of the Pacific, you’ll find four species of tortugas, or turtles. However, only three come ashore here to nest. And of the three, the olive ridley is the only sea turtle named both for its olive skin and for its love of ITV British police procedural drama Ridley. (However, once the new Three Pines mystery series starts streaming on Amazon Prime, with Alfred Molina playing detective-sage Armand Gamache, I have no doubt the turtles will change their names to olive gamache).
From Sri Lanka in the India Ocean to Mexico’s Pacific Coast, around 800,000 olive ridley turtles are on the move. Unfortunately, while that number sounds impressive, population numbers are still an overall concern to scientists and conservationists. Here, at places like Escobilla, scientists, government officials, volunteers, and even the Mexican police and military come together to protect the turtles. Though that’s also been quite an attitude shift from what people here used to do with turtles, said our guide.
“We used to eat them.”
In the 1990s, the Mexican government banned eating turtles, and worked out ways to encourage people focus on conserving, not consuming, olive ridleys and other turtles instead. Thanks to conservation efforts, populations have rebounded, and today the olive ridley is the only species of the three that’s currently not endangered.
Our guide led us to a fenced, covered enclosure. Inside, sticks stuck out of the sand. Around one, a tall, protective ring of fencing encircled a stick. Inside that little perimeter, dark shapes moved.
After a 45–60 day incubation, once the baby sea turtles hatch they need to immediately go into the water. It imprints their place memory, so that when, decades later, they too return to lay eggs, they can find the exact spot on the exact beach where their own eggs were laid. The turtle who laid these eggs? When she was a hatchling, I might have been a teenager.
Part of the magic the turtles though? Once they hit the water, we have pretty much no idea what they do until they return to lay eggs. Their movements remain an overall mystery to scientists. The turtles who do survive, though, are about one out of 1,000—and it used to be one out of 100.
It’s good context for the kids, as they get handed a large blue plastic tub full of baby sea turtles. 67 baby sea turtles, in fact. Each one is a dark, matte, blackish gray, about the size of Aster’s palm. Yet they are strong. When we hold one to release it, their flippers have force, and they wiggle in our fingers, knowing exactly where they need to go and ready to make a run, well, a flip, for it.
Our guide draws a line in the sand. He wants us to stay on the back side of the line. Untouched sand makes it easier for the turtles to reach the water. The kids treat the line as a starting line, setting down turtle by turtle and cheering them on.
“To the water!” calls Aster. “To the water!”
The seabirds know what’s going on. They circle over the shallows, and we see them swoop down and snap up a turtle treat. Some turtles manage to get loose and fall back into the water, but we also know that only a few of these baby turtles might make it to open water. Still, we pick up each one, marvel at these little lives, and set them on the sand. Nature will do what nature does. Our job is simply to try to give these black-eyed, dark-shelled little cutesy-wutesies a good start.
Scientists had observed behavior in mother turtles that they can only liken to crying. The mothers lay their eggs, and then appear to weep. Perhaps in part with joy and relief, that such a hard task is complete. Or maybe with exhaustion: It’s hard to be an adult, fully grown, 110-pound turtle using flippers to move up and down a beach. After all, once the nest is dug, the eggs laid and then covered with sand, mama olive ridley still has to get back to the water.
But these turtle mamas also appear to weep with a sort of sadness, as if they know that they will never know any of their young, just as they never knew their own mothers.
It’s easy to ascribe too many humanish traits to animals, or to seek out features or patterns in an animal that can make them seem like us. But as I held turtle after turtle in between my own fingertips, I looked each one in the eyes, and I saw my own children, as newborns.
Each turtle’s eyes were black, round, and shiny. Yet each tiny turtle, to me, seemed excited. They had gotten free of their eggs. They had dug their way out of the nest. After so much time in so many tight spaces, they were on a wide, long stretch of open beach—and the sea was calling. They already knew its song, heard and felt through the nesting sands. Now they could answer that call, with the song of their own lives.
I could be over-anthropomorphizing. I’ll gladly admit my guilt. But as a dad, I know what it is to hold the promise of life in my hands. I felt it again as I set each baby sea turtle on the sand and watched it make its way into an ocean so much vaster than each of these little beings.
As we drove back to La Crucecita in the endless dark under a banana moon, we passed little villages. People laughed and chatted as they sat in chairs and listened to music.
I turned to the kids. “What did you think of the turtles?”
“I had no idea they were so dark in color,” said Connor. “Or so strong.”
But Aster just grinned, as she had all evening, from the moment she first saw the baby sea turtles. “What about you?” I asked her. “What did you think of the turtles?”
As she looked at me, her eyes shone brighter than the moon.