Hasta pronto, Oaxaca

Our final day in Oaxaca was slow, taking in the energy and vibrancy and color that the city offered in abundance. Our little travelers were the best. So fun, so open. It was so warming to offer them an experience outside of Burlingame, to celebrate and live in a new way, to meet new people in a new culture and appreciate it for all that it is.

Emerson has decided he’d definitely like to go back, maybe next week, and I think it’s fair to say that our three-year travel hiatus is closed and we’ll be posting here again soon. Until then.

Spiky cacti and new foods

Andrew has become the defacto morning parent (thanks hun!), and on this particular day, it was Emerson who woke up first. The two boys changed into their bathing suits and hit the pool to play pretend cooking class with fallen leaves and a plastic bowl. Emerson’s teeth were chattering and his lips purple, but it was too fun to get out. Unfortunately for Andrew, Shiloh slept in, giving him no excuse to towel off.

In the late afternoon, we wandered through galleries and shops, then stepped into a Spanish language tour of the botanical gardens. (The tour in English happens only once daily and can’t be booked in advance.) Shiloh was naturally captivated, but Emerson took a bit more convincing. He’d been scared to go to the garden after we’d playfully told him there’d be spiky cacti. He didn’t want Shiloh to get hurt, he explained. But Coco had assured us he’d been and it was safe, so I entertained him with pretend stories about each plant: name, origins, uses, size… We debated about which plants were edible and what animals may have lived in each.

As Shiloh napped that afternoon, Emerson and I went out to find him a purse, but alas, yet another truck (this one a logging truck) was calling his name. After his treat had been secured, Shiloh and Andrew joined us at a chocolate shop for a quick sampling. It was a good foray into our final hoorah of the trip: a street food tour.

I could have just about cried when I saw Emerson carefully trying new foods (two bites of a fried quesadilla) while Shiloh reached for spicy moles and salsas. We strolled from food stand to food stand, some with crowds that rivaled those of Emerson’s hot cocoa stand during the after school rush.

The chaos is part of it, we were assured. But even our foodie child stopped enjoying himself by 7pm, so we hustled through the flavors until Shiloh dove into his bathroom crib for the night.

A baby and a toddler stroll into a cooking class…

On one of our last days in Oaxaca, we took the ultimate risk by bringing a baby and a toddler to a five-hour cooking class. We came equipped with toddler knives and Casa Crespo was equipped with tiny aprons and hats. We designed a menu and hit the market, then began creating tamales, tortilla soup, mole, squash blossom tacos, fresh tortillas, and chocolate ice cream. Emerson chopped and blended and poured and stirred (even when it wasn’t necessary). Our translator and the chef worked harder than they ever had in a class before since our help was slow and incomplete and interrupted often by snack and laxative breaks. Shiloh, completely stimulated by the busy kitchen, finally fell asleep on Andrew just as it was time to sit down to eat.

Emerson ate nothing but the ice cream, Shiloh missed it all, and Andrew and I ate in our characteristic rushed and grateful style. It’s hard to know what children get from various experiences, but in this case, Emerson showed us his delight, finding every opportunity to play cooking class in the days to come.

Zapotec playground

On the 27th, we met Coco again to tour Monte Alban, an ancient Zapotec capital and designated UNESCO World Heritage archeological site. It was fun to explain to Emerson that a long, long time ago there weren’t cars or phones. The houses didn’t have gas stoves and there weren’t drawers full of tupperware. He engaged as we imagined how they’d have to cook their food (using a fire), or how they’d bring home berries to their babies (in pottery). I imagined that we’d enter Monte Alban and continue the conversation about how people must have lived then, but instead, the wide open spaces called for a game of monster, with Shiloh laughing and laughing as we ran toward E. When we grew tired, it was time for a game of pretend kitchen, with flat rocks that were ovens and sticks that were onions and stones that were knives. E bravely walked up the tallest steps of this city in the sky that once housed up to 25,000 people. His bravery wavered when it was time to head down, with E yelling, “Momma come get me” before Andrew swooped him up and carried him down. Coco had told us we were the youngest group he’d ever toured in twenty years of working as a guide, but you wouldn’t have known it as he pushed two strollers through the ruins.

Both boys fell fast asleep on the car ride back to town. Rather than visit another market, we asked Coco and our driver, Gonzalo, to bring us to their favorite lunch spot (that also offered pasta). It did not disappoint. The food here is incredible.

Knowing a big dinner lay ahead, Emerson and I spent the afternoon in the pool before heading to Criollo. Named one of the top restaurants in the world, Criollo is located in a UNESCO heritage house. The courtyard, complete with two wandering chickens and a rooster, singers, and an open kitchen featuring freshly prepared tortillas set the stage for the evening. While Emerson and I played with his dessert truck in between bites, Shiloh and Andrew had the most glorious dinner of their lives. For over two hours, Shiloh stayed seated, eating both his and Emerson’s meals (pork tacos and quesadilla) and requesting at least a bite of each of the seven courses that were brought to Andrew and me. He was hysterical. Was it a risk bringing a one and three-year-old? For sure. But if we hadn’t done it, we would have missed this joy (and an unbelievable meal).

Oaxacan artisans

Today’s adventure brought us closer to some of the best artisans in Oaxaca. We started with world-famous black pottery. It’s made from clay found only in one region, San Bartolo Coyotepec. Artisans need a permit from the mayor to mine it. They shape the piece by hand (no wheel) and bake it in a fire of thick black smoke, giving it its signature color. Maybe I was just breathing the Mexican air, but the pictures of black pottery that I’d seen couldn’t do it justice. It was stunning. This woman was proud to share that the name on the piece we selected to bring home was her own.

Our next stop was toward something far more colorful: alebrijes. Alebrijes are Mexican folk art sculptures often used in Day of the Dead celebrations as a conduit back to the living. You may be familiar with alebrijes from the movie Coco. Pixar came to this very spot in doing their research and based the grandma off this woman. After seeing the process of creation, it is understandable that a reasonably sized alebrije will run you around $4000.

For dinner, we walked into Oaxaca’s oldest neighborhood, Xochimilco. We were met with a literal parade, or perhaps more literally, a wedding celebration, and reveled in the vibrance.

The energy of this city is truly unbelievable. At Ancestral Kitchen, I tried my first grasshopper, a local treat, in non-grasshopper form. Our waiter cooked seafood soup for us tableside, using hot rocks to cook the ingredients. Emerson meanwhile, stuck to his more traditional Annie’s microwaveable macaroni and cheese.

We said goodbye to Pug Seal and checked into the Quinta Real, a well-regarded converted convent with huge halls and tiny rooms. Shiloh settled in beautifully to his space in the bathroom, leaving Andrew and I to brush our teeth in the poolside bathroom before saying goodbye to another incredible day in Oaxaca.

Christmas in Oaxaca

On Christmas Eve, the city had quieted. Many shops remained closed for Christmas celebrations. Emerson announced that he’d be “bringing Hanukkah back” and sang Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel throughout the day, interspersed with the Hamotzi. In the morning we took family pictures and in the afternoon we strolled through Jalatlaco, a neighborhood known most for its incredible murals.

I sampled hot chocolate made from real, Oaxaca chocolate (a local daily treat), and took the boys to a vegan cat cafe. Emerson declared that he loved it so much, he’d like to go back daily. Shiloh left with puffy eyes. After a long nap and a short dinner, we wandered back into the crowded main square brimming with street vendors.

Emerson chose confetti eggs and a blow-up airplane with wheels which he treated as his baby for the remainder of the trip. It was perfect.

My favorite part is all of Mexico

We knew getting to Oaxaca would be a stretch. After weeks of very deliberate packing, we woke at 4am to board an early morning flight to Mexico City. We were prepped with toys that suctioned to seatbacks, magnetic puzzles, and an Instagram-recommended snack box that doubled as a matching game. Paw Patrol had been downloaded and lollipops acquired for takeoff and landing. The first flight was long, the layover nearly five hours, and the second flight was delayed, but we made it. We were met in Oaxaca by twinkling lights. I swooped up E and told him I was so so happy we were in Mexico and we laughed and at that moment, the trip had begun.

The boutique Pug Seal hotel would be our home for the next few days, and we immediately fell in love. Despite E falling off a chair at breakfast and securing a black eye that persisted throughout the trip, I’d categorize our first breakfast as a delightful surprise. The food was superb and we had our first glimpse into Shiloh’s zest for anything edible that lay before him. Emerson embraced the swings and Shiloh tried endlessly to crawl into the water, and the staff couldn’t have been nicer, constantly accommodating Emerson’s request for freshly cut apples from the bowl he could reach.

Our tour guide Coco picked us up from the hotel to guide us through the streets of Oaxaca for our city tour. Emerson filled his cup with water as we exited the hotel, enthusiastically embracing the day… until we got outside. The streets were bustling with people, crowded, bumpy, colorful, and loud. Everything was new. Emerson’s response to the overstimulation and overwhelm was to fall fast asleep in his stroller almost immediately. Shiloh, on the other hand, had an energizing response to the sensory stimulation and refused to sleep. Oaxaca was gorgeous and bustling. We wandered through two markets, one more known for buying ingredients and the second more known for buying prepared food. We (Shiloh included, of course) tried cheese and pastries and fresh juice and tortillas. When Emerson awoke, we wandered to a mezcaleria for churros. Away from the crowds and in the oasis of quiet, Emerson finally began to come alive and Shiloh fell fast asleep.

As we continued wandering through the streets, we ran into a wedding parade in the streets. Oaxacans, Coco explained, like to celebrate publicly, loudly, and with mezcal. Coco also shared that Oaxacans love to protest publicly (presumably also loudly and with mezcal). On this day, Coco explained they were celebrating a protest that happened long ago, where field workers carved sad faces into radishes as a way to protest their pay and ruin the radishes. Today, the annual Radish Festival draws crowds to the center square where various artists work all day to carve intricate scenes into radishes to display at night. By sunset, the radishes have begun to brown and are destroyed.

As E and I sat on the swings that night, I told him that my favorite part was the way the courtyard of our hotel opened to the night sky. He said, “Not me. For me, my favorite part is all of Mexico”. By the end of the day we were fried, so ate one of the literal best meals of our lives from Levadura de Olla Restaurante as quickly as possible (typical Americans) and fell fast asleep.

Campeche, city of colors and lights

Visiting Campeche’s old quarters is like stepping back into the past.  This might be because as a UNESCO world heritage site, the area needs to look and feel like it did back in the mid 16th century soon after the Spanish began the conquest of the Yucatan Peninsula.  The best part of UNESCO sites are that they seem beautifully authentic, even if they are anything but.  And even if they are just facades, they do transport us.  Sometimes a little imagination and some turning off of skepticism can make the world seem brighter, and in fact, in Campeche, by allowing ourselves to be transported back in time, the walls that line the streets do seem more colorful.  On top of all this, although a bit Disneyland-esque, when the clock strikes 8pm, there is an entertaining light show accompanied by playful music in the main plaza of the old quarters.  Both locals and tourists come to the square to partake.

One of the highlights in Campeche happens just before sunset while we enjoy a ceviche cooking class.  We learn to make several varieties of ceviche, and throughout, we get to taste many other dishes of the region – panuchos, salbutes, sopa de lima, and more.  The scene romantic, the food fresh, the drinks smooth, and the evening warm, we wonder the typical question leaving any cooking class: They made that seem so easy, so what are the chances we can reproduce this back home?  The answer is maybe, but taste is only one part of an experience and reproducing all in its entirety will be nearly impossible.  Thus, we make sure to cherish and love the moment while here.

A couple crime thrillers

Leading up to and during the trip throughout Mexico, I enjoy reading Don Winslow’s two books on El Chapo, “The Power of the Dog” and “The Cartel”.  Although fiction, there is also a strong tie to truth throughout.  In thriller fashion, the books include violence, drugs, sex, scandal, criminals and cops.  But I also appreciate how many “normal” citizens they include that were trapped in the crosshairs of this war on drugs.  The passage that spoke to me the most was from the second book, “The Cartel”, and it was written by a journalist who felt completely trapped by his circumstance.  I’ve copied it below:

I speak for the ones who cannot speak, for the voiceless.  I raise my voice and wave my arms and shout for the ones you do not see, perhaps cannot see, for the invisible.  For the poor, the powerless, the disenfranchised; for the victims of this so-called “war on drugs,” for the eighty thousand murdered by the narcos, by the police, by the military, by the government, by the purchasers of drugs and the sellers of guns, by the investors in gleaming towers who have parlayed their “new money” into hotels, resorts, shopping malls, and suburban developments. 

I speak for the tortured, burned, and flayed by the narcos, beaten and raped by the soldiers, electrocuted and half-drowned by the police. 

I speak for the orphans, twenty thousand of them, for the children who have lost both or one parent, whose lives will never be the same.

I speak for the dead children, shot in crossfires, murdered alongside their parents, ripped from their mothers’ wombs.

I speak for the people enslaved, forced to labor on the narcos’ ranches, forced to fight.  I speak for the mass of others ground down by an economic system that cares more for profit than for people.

I speak for the people who tried to tell the truth, who tried to tell the story, who tried to show you what you have been doing and what you have done.  But you silenced them and blinded them so that they could not tell you, could not show you.

I speak for them, but I speak to you – the rich, the powerful, the politicians, the comandantes, the generals.  I speak to Los Pinos and the Chamber of Deputies, I speak to the White House and Congress, I speak to AFI and DEA, I speak to the bankers, and the ranchers and the oil barons and the capitalists and the narco drug lords and I say—

You are the same.

You are all the cartel.

And you are guilty.

You are guilty of murder, you are guilty of torture, you are guilty of rape, of kidnapping, of slavery, of oppression, but mostly I say that you are guilty of indifference.  You do not see the people that you grind under your heel.  You do not see their pain, you do not hear their cries, they are voiceless and invisible to you and they are the victims of this war that you perpetuate to keep yourselves above them.

This is not a war on drugs.

This is a war on the poor.

This is a war on the poor and the powerless, the voiceless and the invisible, that you would just as soon be swept from your streets like the trash that blows around your ankles and soils your shoes.


You’ve done it.

You’ve performed a cleansing.

A limpieza.

The country is safe now for your shopping malls and suburban tracts, the invisible are safely out of sight, the voiceless silent as they should be.

I speak these last words, and now you will kill me for it.

I only ask that you bury me in the fosa comun—the common grave—with the faceless and the nameless, without a headstone.

I would rather be with them than you.

And I am voiceless now, and invisible.

I am Pablo Mora.

Becal, a quick hat detour

On our way from Celestún to Campeche, we learn of a city named Becal known for its panama hat trade, so we drive to the central plaza to investigate.  Getting more adept at navigating our rented Ford Aveo through the pot holes and speed bumps, we arrive at the plaza in front of the main church and then aren’t sure what our next move is.

Like a lost child entering a large room and moving our gaze constantly, we are all but asking for someone to come up and try to sell us something.  And within seconds while still in the car, someone tries to get us to roll down our window like it’s a fast food restaurant or something.  We don’t, but this guy is persistent.  He gets on his motorbike with a wooden love seat attached to the front and starts following us around the square.  If the bike didn’t look so ridiculous, I might have thought that we had a tail.  But, we slow down, and the bike/love-seat pulls up alongside us, we size him up as small, friendly and mostly harmless, and open our car window.

His first question is if we’re looking for hats.  Are we that obvious?  And yes, we are, and we read online that this is how hats are sold in Becal.  There are no storefronts, no vendors in the plaza, just folks waiting to take you to where the hat-making magic happens.  We follow this friendly man in the safety of our Aveo and we pull up to a modest, clean home where we learn how panama hats are made from plant to finish.  We also learn this is a family affair with many generations involved.  They are like a hat mafia, but instead of running organized crime, they’re in the business of beautifully crafted headwear.

We learn of quality differences between hats ranging from $5 to $300 USD.  I am clearly skeptical that such a range exists and that the most expensive of hats actually take a month to fabricate, but after trying them on and feeling them, I can differentiate.  The highest quality feels very smooth, almost like a soft fabric; it sits better on our heads, and it even looks better.  So we agree that there’s no reason to get the most expensive, but there’s also decent rationale not to go for the cheapest.  After a little bargaining, we walk away very happy customers with a new sombrero each.

Becal is legit: Many locals make their living weaving these jipijapas (the panama hats).  The best hats are then exported to connoisseurs in foreign cities.  Now, we know a guy who makes panama hats in Mexico in case that ever becomes useful.