Diary of a Globetrotting Family: From Mexico to Thailand, with only one scare in between
A month and a half, already? Not only had we left our home in Oregon in August. Not only had we traveled Washington State; Victoria, BC; Texas; and Virginia. We had started our first travels in a country new to all four of us. After an amazing month and a half in Oaxaca though, not only had our time in Mexico ended.
So had our time in North America.
The truth is, I knew from the start this was not going to be my finest moment haggling.
Just when I thought I had a durable silver chain for my engagement pendant, I managed to snag it, break it, and yet again need another one.
Fortunately, this particular accessory mishap happened in Oaxaca. Not only is this state in southern Mexico renowned for its food. The region also is known for excellent silver. Jewelry shops lined many a shopfront in La Crucecita, complete with gentlemen out front calling “mi amigo, mi amigo.”
When Jodie and I got engaged in 2007, first I proposed to her, then she proposed to me. I gave her a ring. She gave me a sterling silver circle and triangle Celtic knot pendant. Over the years, the pendant has kept its sheen, but I’ve gone through a fair few chains. Occasionally I’ve simply snagged one wrong, say when changing shirts. My finger hooked the chain. Suddenly there was a soft “pop,” and then a feeling of absence about my collarbones. Connor has broken at least two, and I believe Aster managed to do in one.
Chains are not hard to come by, of course. Even a craft supply store, such as Michaels in the USA, has cheapie silver chains for a couple of bucks. After my most recent busted chain incident, my jewelry-making sister-in-law gave me a new one. Unfortunately, her brother-in-law somehow can always find a way to be ham-handed about his collars. Yet again, I managed to snag my chain and, before I realized what was happening, heard the clatter of silver on the bathroom floor.
The entire month we were in La Crucecita, I kept reminding myself that, yet again, I needed to replace my busted silver chain. But between sea turtles, boat days, Día de Muertos celebrations, lots and lots of delicious meals and snacks, and the general business of work, school, and life on the road as not only a digital nomad, but a smitten husband, business owner, and devoted dad, I had yet to get around to braving a silver shop or two to see about a replacement.
Now it was late Sunday afternoon in La Crucecita, on our last full day in Mexico.
And I still had no silver chain.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d have before shops starting closing. Tomorrow, we’d be too busy finishing packing and getting to the airport for me to even consider trying to pick up a chain. There was no way we’d have enough time. I knew what I did have though: haggling skills honed by business and prior Asia travels, a bit of time to myself while I took care of some errands, and, above all, the always reliable motivational aid: a ticking clock.
After running the errands I’d headed out solo to tend to, I texted Jodie that I was going to see about a new chain. She wished me luck. And I immediately started kicking myself.
The trouble with this purchase, is that I had hoped to do a little pricing recon first. I had no idea what a simple silver chain might cost. We were low on time, so I wasn’t really in a position to roam a few shops. I was not going to be in my most advantageous haggling position. But I’d manage. Undaunted, I made my way toward the zócalo. Then I realized I had another slight disadvantage in play.
I only needed a simple silver chain. No pendant. No fancy schmancy jewelry. Just a chain. Not everywhere was going to have that, or if they did, it was going to be a pain to ask.
If I went to a place that seemed a bit larger, I may have better odds of quickly and easily getting to the heart of what I wanted.
The shop at the northeast corner of the zócalo was large, varied in its offerings, and saw a regular stream of foot traffic. Was it a tourist place? No doubt. But I also had no doubt I could find what I needed.
Could I also manage a decent price?
The attendant and I looked over about a half-dozen silver chains. Some were too dainty. Some were too chunky. One were too long, and another was even too short.
This is also where I made my first mistake. Since I hadn’t done any recon at other shops, every time the attendant got out a chain, I could have asked the price, but I didn’t. Then I would have had some frame of reference for what they were trying to charge.
Finally, I found a chain that looked like it would work. A good balance of heft and design. The catch was easy to work. The silver had a good gleam in the shop lights. Not too showy, but with a sterling shine.
Then the attendant pulled up a calculator and tapped in the price.
A thousand pesos, or about fifty dollars.
“Demasiado,” I said with a shrug. Then I turned and walked out of the store.
This is where I did something right.
Haggling is all about who wants it more. I did want the chain. And I knew Oaxacan silver was quality stuff, so I was okay with paying more than I would for a basic craft store chain at home. By walking away, I showed I was willing to go somewhere else, and they knew there was plenty of competition.
By the time I’d crossed the street to the edge of the zócalo, I heard a voice behind me.
The attendant was standing at the edge of the crosswalk. “Special discount for you today sir,” said the attendant. “Twenty-five percent off.”
Now we were getting somewhere.
I turned and went back into the shop.
“Gracias, pero es tambien demasiado,” I said. “Thank you, but it’s also too expensive.”
Haggling is a wonderful dance. There’s mock shock on both sides. Maybe some flustery gesturing and the occasional clutching of the heart. It’s all supposed to be in good fun. But since I was a bit out of practice, I made my second mistake.
I didn’t go for the theatrics. Since I hadn’t named a number yet, what I should have done was counter with a lowball price of my own, as ridiculous as their highball.
But I didn’t. I was rusty. The day was getting on. And I think my sense of politeness, often a most welcome and useful tool, got the better of me. Skipping crucial steps in the haggling dance always causes the buyer to stumble.
I should have offered a hundred pesos, or about five dollars. Ludicrous, of course. We would have had some back and forth. I probably would’ve come out somewhere in the three or four hundred range. I think. This is all baseless speculation, since I had no idea what the local asking prices were.
“Sesenta,” I replied instead. Six hundred pesos, or about thirty dollars.
And thus my biggest mistake locked into place.
“Bueno,” said the attendant.
An immediate yes is the surest sign of paying too much.
It’s probably a ridiculous price. I know. But I bought it anyway. The haggling dance also has an etiquette, and the tradeoff for haggling is that if you agree a price, you buy the item.
Then again, I did like the chain. The deal was done. While I saw clearly that I needed to exercise my haggling skills, at least I was off the bench. And I was heading back to my family from this brief detour, surely, with the last silver chain I would ever need to buy.
Introducing… Noodles the Cat… if you can find her
Of all the toys our children have ever had, we never expected one of our global travel companions to be a tiny plastic black cat the size of the first joint of my pinky finger.
Years ago, probably around Aster’s third or fourth Christmas, we got her a Playmobil set with a camping theme. For those unfamiliar with such sets, the idea is you can set up really cool imaginative play. However, first you have to press out, assemble, and pose about a hundred and forty-two various pieces of molded plastic.
For this particular set, we strung little cloth rectangles over parallel plastic bars and made teeny camping chairs. We set up a plastic picnic complete with gold wine goblets and little multi-colored platters. I believe there were also little fruits, like bananas, and a couple of brunches of broccoli. The yellow tent actually held good structure. Even without foldable elbows, the plastic people family could really hold a good-time pose.
However, even the most wonderful play can have ways of shaking one’s suspension of disbelief. This family, apparently, liked to bring their little plastic cat along on their camping trips.
Now, I have seen real-world campers bring cats camping. It’s never something Jodie or I were interested in trying with our own cat, Jasmine, and I think I’m on pretty solid ground when I say that, statistically speaking, the number of non-camping cats outweighs the number of camping cats by about two billion to seventy-three. But overall, I have always considered the addition of this little plastic black cat one of the most hilarious oddities of this camping play set.
Aster, however, was all the more taken with the name.
The cat’s name, she told us, was Noodles.
The play set had its moment, then it faded from her interest. Noodles, though, soon showed us a rather curious ability.
Noodles could disappear… and then turn up again, in the most unexpected places.
Over the next few years, Aster and Connor would play with Noodles, only for her, suddenly, to vanish. We wouldn’t find her for months.
Then she would simply turn up.
Organizing Connor’s shirts in a dresser drawer? Noodles had fallen in between two t-shirts he didn’t wear very often.
Noodles has turned up behind a box of newspapers by the wood stove, at the bottom of a laundry basket full of hand-knit, hand-wash-only woolens, and inside my nightstand. Eventually, in order to prevent her escaping, the children would build her houses made of legos or magna tiles. They would tuck her into a little bed. There they could always check that she was safe and sound—and not off on one of her adventures, like a kitty version of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins.
However, Noodles didn’t give up her vanishing ways. She merely made them more… surprising.
The kids never knew when it might happen, but some mornings the Aster and Connor would check the kitty house and discover Noodles was gone.
“Noodles is off adventuring again,” they got fond of saying.
Sooner or later, one of them would randomly stop, somewhere in the house, mouth agape, eyes wide. Whichever sibling saw Noodles the Cat, they would call to the other.
“I found Noodles! Just wait till you see where she is this time!”
And find Noodles, we did.
Over the years, Noodles has turned up in the most curious places all over the house.
Above the doorway to our family room, Noodles went riding on the back of the metal turtle we brought back from Hawaii. Noodles has been found walking on the ceiling, balancing on overhead light fixtures, and exploring the art we had hanging in the kitchen. One Christmas season, she especially loved to ride the kayak ornament on our tree.
But a favorite for the kids? In the hallway between our bedrooms, we had a large world map. Every time we took a family trip, we put a new pin in the map, along with other pins for places we wanted to travel to.
One morning, the kids discovered Noodles balancing on a couple of the pins. And we realized she was trying to send us a message.
Riding a sea turtle. Kayaking. Hanging out on large maps. The signs were clear: The little plastic black cat clearly wanted to go traveling with us.
Nowadays, Noodles lives in my money belt. She mostly hangs out around wherever we’re staying. She doesn’t wander quite like she used to. But she regularly sneaks into my phone pocket, and then fully immerses herself into whatever adventure we are up to for the day.
We figured it was time to give her a proper introduction, especially since Aster recently figured out the cat’s full name.
So, we proudly present to you, our little globetrotting kitty, Noodles Traveler Dinsdale St. Clair.
Hey… wait a minute…
Where did Noodles go?
Mexico City airport marathon
Sometimes the airport is a sprint. And sometimes it is a marathon.
Time and space do funny things in airports. They can compress, such as when you are madly dashing from one flight to the next, desperately trying to get onto the jetway before the doors close. But sometimes airports cause time and space to stretch out. And out. And out.
Things began rather promisingly. Our flight from Huatulco to Mexico City went smoothly as could be. We treated the kids to a bit of McDonalds for dinner, while Jodie and I dined on delicious barbacoa and chicharrón verde tacos. However, we did not anticipate one problem.
As we got our bearings in the terminal, we checked the departures screens and learned that our flight to Los Angeles would be leaving from Gate 36. No problem. We were near Gate 11, so we made sure to give ourselves a decent amount of time.
It turns out that time wasn’t the problem. Space was.
Often in airports, gates unwind one after the other, on both sides of the terminal space. Odd numbers play out on one side, even on the other side. But not in our terminal.
In our terminal, the left side of the narrow, long, low-ceilinged space was ringed with shopfronts, restrooms, and lots, and lots, and lots of wall, but no gates. On the other side, blank walls and empty spaces separated the gate signs, which felt farther apart than we’d even seen gates be. The kids tried to keep good energy while their backpacks bumped up and down on their backs. Jodie used her stick to push herself forward, eking every bit of power she could out of each step of her prosthetic leg. My and Jodie’s own backpacks, which contained nearly everything we own, seemed to droop down our backs. At least we had checked one of our rolling suitcases all the way to Los Angeles, and only had to worry about our packs and one other rollie.
Yet for all our hustle, time was crunching harder on us. We had to make our Los Angeles flight. Once we landed in LA, we had a stopover until the following night, on a completely different airline. Having to reschedule tonight had the potential to be more than an inconvenience. It could derail not only our flight to LA and our hotel room for the night, but also our flight to Bangkok the following evening. The stakes felt like they were growing, just as our energy started to wane.
All that rushing, all those hurried steps—and yet we were only now approaching Gate 18. With eighteen more to go.
Coming up on a line of airport staff behind wheelchairs, I stopped and motioned to Jodie.
“This might be a good time for you to take a chair,” I said. “Save your energy for more important things.”
She thought it over. Jodie rarely takes a wheelchair and rarely needs one. Usually, wheelchairs are something she uses for the expanse of Disneyland, not for getting around airports. But with time ticking and steps dragging, she nodded.
As Jodie settled into the chair, Aster came up to her, red-faced. “Can I ride with you, Mama?”
The attendant nodded, but Jodie had been setting her backpack onto her lap. “I don’t know what to do with this,” she said.
I reached out, took her backpack, and nestled its straps over my own. The weight pressed down on my shoulders, but at least with one pack on my back and the other over my front, I was pretty well balanced. Keeping our other rolling suitcase to one side, I focused on keeping my center of gravity in a good position to get the most out of my laden stride.
Then we were off. Connor tried hard to keep pace with me. His face was pale, and he kept leaning forward. The long day was taking a toll. I told him to just stay close to Jodie and Aster, and he pushed on. So did I. We knew that I needed to simply book it for the line. I had the passports and the boarding passes. Once I was there, if we were running short on time, I could also make sure we all got on the plane.
I don’t remember much about the next eighteen gates, other than it seemed that somehow they were going one by one with half an infinity in between. At the end of a corridor, the space opened up wide, with a high ceiling. Across from me, the bright lights of a duty-free shop beckoned in white and red. In front of me, a long line of people stretched from the shop, to a sign that said, “Zone 2.” Our zone. For our flight. Which was only just starting to pre-board.
We’d make it. We’d be okay—and we had time to spare. I took some glorious gulps of water from my water bottle. Connor, Jodie, Aster, and our wheelchair attendant came up too. We found seats for Jodie and the kids, and I gratefully set Jodie’s backpack on the floor by her feet.
The wheelchair attendant said something in Spanish, but both Jodie and I didn’t quite follow.
“Lo siento,” I said, “pero no entiendo.” I’m sorry, but I didn’t understand.
The attendant smiled, but looked a little anxious. She pulled out her phone, fired up a translation app, and tapped out a question.
“How much would you be willing to tip me?”
Jodie and I stared at each other.
I could use this moment to sound off about tips. Writing this now, from Thailand, where tipping is not much of a thing, I am reminded of how nice it is to simply pay for something, and not wonder if there’s extra bits tagged on. I like the stable ease of a known price.
However. I’m not in a country of my own belief. And part of why we travel with the kids, is so they understand that sometimes we go places where people do things differently, and we have to figure out how we will make our own personal peace with that.
And besides, the attendant had really hustled. She had not only pushed Jodie, but Aster, and had done so at a decent jog.
There was just one problem.
I’d left my last pesos as a tip for the taco ladies, over twenty-five gates and an elevated heart rate ago.
“Lo siento, pero no tengo más pesos.,” Jodie said. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have anymore pesos.”
Checking our wallets, we had pulled out some US dollars earlier, so we had any needed cash at the ready once we returned to the US. Other than some twenties, we had only a one and a five.
We handed it over, on the one side, wishing a tip wasn’t necessary, but on the other hand, wanting to show some acknowledgement of the work she had done.
She thanked us, and we wished each other good night. We hoped she understood, as she wheeled the chair away, that we appreciated her. At the same time, we weren’t exactly keen on the idea of someone needing a wheelchair having to bear an expectation of tipping, as if the wheelchair were a conveyance of privilege.
Still. I motioned for Jodie and the kids to sit, have some water, and catch their breath. I went to the back of the line and held our place, relieved that we had made it. Sure, travel is usually more about the journey than the destination. But sometimes what matters most is getting exactly where you need to be at the right time, so that maybe, just maybe, the journey from there can get easier.
Rough landing in Los Angeles
“I’m sorry, Mr. St. Clair,” said the customer agent on the phone, “but the fare difference to change your Bangkok flight will be about a thousand dollars per person. So four thousand dollars total.”
Jodie and I stared at each other, and had one of those little telepathic conversations that our marital bond has enabled over the years. Then we thanked the agent, hung up, and looked over at the bed where Aster sat, pale as the sheet around her, in our hotel room in Los Angeles.
“Aster,” said Jodie, “we’re just going to have to make sure you’re feeling better in time to fly tonight.”
While Los Angeles can make a person sick to their stomach, Connor and Aster took that pretty literally.
Just a few hours earlier, as our Mexico City to Los Angeles flight had flown over Baja California and was now approaching LAX, Connor had suddenly sprung up from his seat and dashed to the toilet. Coming back, he told us he’d thrown up. Hustling through the airport as quickly as we could—and feeling extra thankful for breezing through immigration and customs—we had barely closed the hotel room door behind us before Connor was already in bed, sound asleep.
Then, that morning, Aster had woken up, felt ill, and after much uncertainty, had also thrown up. Again and again.
However, Connor was feeling much better. A night’s sleep had perked him up. He did his personal best to put a good dent in the amount of food on offer at the hotel’s free breakfast.
“I was really tired last night,” he told Jodie. “And I realized I didn’t have enough to eat and drink.”
A surefire recipe for anyone to feel cruddy, especially a kid.
However, Aster’s own trajectory looked uncertain. We’d think she was keeping down a bit of toast and banana—uh, nope, she wasn’t.
After working on contingencies though, we realized we had no good options. Changing our flight would have us in LA for at least a couple of days—and would cost us thousands of dollars in airfare changes, on top of hotel bills, plus whatever costs we had for food.
However, we were also listening to each other—and to our parenting instincts.
Aster was exhausted. And she, too, had not had enough to eat and drink. Overall, she was actually seeming okay—other than the vomiting, of course.
“I’m setting a timer,” Jodie told Aster. “Every fifteen minutes, we’ll work on you having a little bit of toast or banana, and a bit of water or Gatorade.”
And then we waited.
Bite by banana bite, sip by sip, the color came back to my daughter. The light flicked back on in her eyes. And Jodie and I knew we had made the right decision. Our daughter wasn’t ill—and we would be able to make our flight first to Seoul, South Korea, and then to Bangkok, Thailand.
During the car ride back to LAX, Aster napped. In the airport, she ate more, drank more, and held my hand as we made our way through the Tom Bradley International Terminal.
On the plane, we ate up the dinner served by the crew. Then Aster curled up with Jodie, and slept, and slept, and slept.
And I looked over at my family. Relieved we were okay. Grateful that things had worked out—and that we’d been able to fly after all. But above all, now that I could be done feeling concerned, I could let out something else.
Excitement. Elation. And the sheer joy that now, as our plane headed west through the dark sky, over the wide ocean, and across the International Date Line, I was not only getting to go back to one of my favorite places in the world. I was getting to go there with my three favorite people. Settling back into my chair, I closed my eyes and waited to wake up in Asia.
Our two-day first day in Bangkok
The funny thing about flying west across the Pacific is that you lose a day. It’s like you compress two days into one. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do. In my journal, the notes are there, for a day that never really happened. As far as our accepted calendars are concerned, we had a day that was essentially a two-parter.
Yet it was also packed with joy, more than a little exhaustion, and deep, world-bending time zone sleep. Snippets of sensory experiences entwine themselves tightly enough to stay in my brain and become memories.
For example, in the US, airport buggies use a loud, blaring, beeping sound. In South Korea, they play Beethoven’s Für Elise.
More importantly—and I want to make clear that this was not an addled mind’s dream—it contained a cat-faced robot that collects dirty dishes inside a secret lounge in Seoul’s Incheon Airport. I will always remember the robot. It sported a simple rectangular staff name tag—Tina—and had been designed to look like it was wearing a tuxedo, even though its back consisted of a post with brackets to hold two brown dish tubs in a vertical line. It was as if some greater intelligence had speculated that if you wanted to make something that could equally thrill each of my children at the same time, it knew there could be no better way than a robot with a blue on black screen for a head, that displayed a cat’s face, complete with big pixel eyes and long flicking blue whiskers.
Our two days in one have their blurry, otherworldly moments, where fatigue has both exhausted yet somehow enhanced the senses. Colors got so bright they almost hurt. Every light looked like the stars in Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Sounds turned up their own volume and fought for our attention like a group of hungry children.
A flash of images stabilizes.
The long line for immigration stretched at least a hundred meters. And Aster, my dear heart, was so tired she was about to collapse. Fortunately, after we’d gone forward a ways, an immigration official saw both the kids and Jodie, and whisked us to an expedited line.
“That happens a lot with families and people with disabilities,” said Jodie. “From now on we’re just going to go find someone and see if they will do just that.”
Before we knew it, we were looking for where to meet our shuttle for the hotel. We settled in as the afternoon sun began to relax, and managed to get through the day with relative calm. Or maybe I was just too tired to remember the difficult bits.
Time zone sleep follows the exhaustion of extreme temporal displacement. With sleepless nights of newborns, teethers, illness, and night terrors, parenting is actually an excellent prep course for this sort of fatigue, where it’s like you’ve fallen through the floor of tiredness, only to discover a certain subterranean bone-deep weariness that can only be explained as, “Oh, you thought you knew what tired was? Let me show you something.”
Yet we slept. And woke early, not fighting the early hour even though it was outside our norm.
Just as there are so many things you lose track of on a compressed day, there are also the things that stick with you. Like, after a solid day where we didn’t really leave, except for me to go track down some food, we finally, finally were ready for all four of us to leave the hotel room and explore the amazingness right outside our front door.
I have been looking forward to this moment for nearly twenty years. Of course, the last time I visited Thailand, it was still a good two years before Jodie and I would meet. Marriage and children were about as much on the horizon as the planet Neptune. But deep in my heart, where I tend the garden of my brightest dreams, I’d been waiting to come to Thailand with my wife and children, and see what they thought of a country that meant so much to me.
Now I was going to find out.
The best time to go outside in Thailand is whenever there is lots of tasty food cooking, so pretty much anytime is a good time to go outside in Thailand. From our hotel in the bustling Din Daeng area, in the northeastern part of Bangkok, Jodie and the kids immediately saw what I’d been droning on and on about for years: That if we wanted to try every food stall and eatery just on our immediate street, it would take us months—even if we ate five meals a day, plus snacks.
Making our way along the street, we walked single file, with the kids in between Jodie in the rear and me in front. There were no sidewalks, so scooters, motorcycles, cars, and the occasional truck all puttered by us. No one drove fast or crazy, so while the vehicular proximity took some getting used to, we never felt in danger.
Following my instincts and my nose, we stopped by a little cart out front of an eatery. Fried chicken, sliced up. Over rice. With vegetables on the side. The woman running the little cafe smiled at the children, and we went inside. In addition to our platters of fried chicken, rice, and cucumber, she brought bowls of hot chicken broth, where thick slabs of daikon radish soaking inside.
The kids devoured their food. Back on the street, Connor said, “There are sidewalks in Bangkok. They’re just covered in food stalls.”
Over the next part of our two days compressed into one day, we specialized in picking out street food. Bao, steaming with fillings of ground pork and egg, or barbecued pork. Noodle soups. Grilled chicken on skewers. Slabs of banana, sweet potato, taro, and even pineapple, battered and deep-fried, sweet, juicy, and crispy. While Jodie and Aster ate up with gusto, it was my son who especially was melting my heart. Connor came to every meal, every morsel, every street food stall with a gusto I usually saw him reserve for Minecraft.
Our adventures continued at the Icon Siam mall, where even here, in a gleaming space that had a touch of fancy, the price tags were sane and the food was worthy. We got the kids their first mango and sticky rice, sweetened with a drizzle of coconut milk, and heady from the floral, perfectly ripe mango. The kids picked out endless skewers from a booth near the water display that evoked Bangkok’s canals, making the woman and girl behind the counter grin as Connor and Aster pointed at skewers and smiled.
“I’ve known since you were a baby that you would like this food culture,” I told Connor. “It makes me happier than I can say to see how much you’re enjoying being here.”
Connor grinned. And asked for more things on sticks.