We rent a house for a week in Tankah, a beautiful quiet cove just north of Tulum. It’s on a private road and each time we return from the days’ activities we have to tell the guard the name of the house “Casa del Perro Feliz. “ Each time he chuckles, possibly at the name, possibly our pronunciation (we’re never sure), before moving the orange cones to let us through.
There are six of us altogether, my mom and dad, my sister, my brother-in-law, and my nearly two-year-old niece who has huge blue eyes and legs like sausages and speaks a bit of Spanish because of her preschool: “Mira, Molly, truck!”
The house in Tankah has been chosen because it’s large enough that we can get out of each other’s hair but also because its near beaches and ruins, and only an hour from my town, Carrillo, where we’ll go for an overnight. It’s three stories on the beach, with a balcony, a roof deck, a lounging palapa with three hammocks and an ocean in the yard.
I can’t deny our vacation home is fantastic, built to take advantage of the surrounding beauty yet still cozy. But I fear that it will spoil my family for when they visit my town, lovely to me, but with charms potentially obscured by its burning garbage and stray dog population. I’m anxious that they have a good time, but also that they see the things I love in my daily life, so they can experience and love them too.
We spend the first few days doing short excursions, to ruins and restaurants, and to Tulum’s grocery megastore for snacks and toddler supplies. In each place I try to point out the things that are representative of the Mexico I know—that the guides in the ruins at Cobá actually speak Maya to each other, that in Tulum you can get juice so fresh its like sticking a straw in a watermelon, that even in the megastore, Chedraui, you must choose your baked goods in the regional way, with tongs and a tray that you ultimately hand to a bakery lady. I try to be careful not to point out too many “what I know”s because I realize this is annoying. But since we are family I know it will be impossible not to be at least a bit annoying.
On the day we go to Carrillo, I feel almost fevered to fit everything in. We have only 24 hours plus the erratic napping needs of a toddler. We arrive in Carrillo at 10 a.m. and I insist we drive straight to my favorite place, the market, where I want them to enjoy the rainbow of fruit and overwhelming chili smell.
My niece begins her appreciation by charging off through the labyrinth of produce. While her parents chase her, I guide mine past the unadulterated meat butchering and show them how to choose the best plantains and buy spice pastes (recados). I explain that each vendor is running his or her own shop so you need to make sure you pay attention to where the merchandise starts to repeat and pay the right person. Then I take them to the back market where the gold-teethed Maya ladies sell chaya, white beans and squash blossoms.
In the Maya-lady room my niece charges in followed by her haggard parents; everyone is starting to get low blood-sugared. I take them to the empanada eating section, and show them how to pick empanadas out of tiny red coolers, ham and cheese, mushroom, chorizo.
I take my family back to my jungle kitchen and leave them to inhale the empanadas while I go to a meeting. An hour later I retrieve my sister and parents (the toddler has collapsed so my brother-in-law stays with her) and take them to Doña Hilaria’s, where I have pre-ordered my favorite chicken mole.
Doña Hilaria does her normal routine: sets down plates, stands with hands on hips, and waits for the first tastes so she can grin at the chorus of “delicioso.” This time, I wait with her, hoping the rich, tang of the mole will make my family’s eyes roll back in their heads. When they start to “mmm” and “ahh,” I think Doña Hilaria and I are equally pleased.
When we return from lunch, we find my brother-in-law fast asleep in the kitchen, having discovered the hammock. Later we will semi-seriously debate the logistical possibility of hanging hammocks in our New York apartments.
In the evening I take my family along to my school’s “welcome taco dinner” for students studying abroad, and am over the moon when my sister pronounces the tacos the best she’s ever had—a huge compliment since we live in a Mexican neighborhood in New York. The only thing that could be better, she says, is the ambience, which is fair—it has glaring fluorescent lights, for some reason standard in local nighttime eateries.
In the morning we do a birdwatching walk on the road toward the bioreserve. Though my father complains that we have not gone far enough into the jungle (because the road is unpaved and a light in our minivan indicates that a tire is low), success is declared when my parents spot bright green parrots and turquoise-gold motmots. We get the bonus surprise of being followed by a threesome of tiny black puppies.
Then it’s a trip to the local laguna followed by lunch of pollo asada, which we pick apart with our hands, devour, and then order more, while the proprietor looks on slightly horrified because he is out of tortillas and this is not the way the meal should be eaten. We follow this up with stops at the paleta store for coconut popsicles and the bakery for the donuts of Muchas Donas.
As we drive through the streets of Carrillo headed back to the highway toward Cancun, my sister pronounces “This place really is cute.” “Mmm-hmm,” I say as I wipe the popsicle dribble from my niece’s face, and in my mind, assume a Doña Hilaria hands-on-hips victory stance.