Sunday, December 27, 2009

nos encanta Catemaco

We made it into Veracruz (the city) by about 11. This state is so verdant and lush compared to Tamaulipas. The shapes of the mountains are so unfamiliar and their proximity to the gulf are in such contrast with the arid pacific coast. There are so many villages! And each has its own particular flavour and also, apparently, its specialty, as the roadside booths change so much from pueblo to pueblo. One village's booths will be dripping with bags of oranges, mandarinas and trunks of mini bananas, the next pueblo's will display row upon row of different-shaped glass bottles filled with jugos and licuados of every imaginable colour. There is no economic opportunity left untapped in Mexico. Every speed bump means a handful of vendors selling plastic cups of juice or little bags of goodies — salted or spiced cacahuates, fingers of jicama, peeled oranges, fried sliced plantain, sometimes chips, almost without exception profferred with the ubiquitous plastic squeeze bottle of chile sauce. The last 500 metres before a toll booth means a longer string of vendors. And I have to say we've come to really appreciate the speed bumps. There are no places to pull over once you're on the road. The occasional widening is invariably occupied by some family very good-naturedly hanging out around their vehicle as the man clambers around underneath the hood looking for the source of the problem). The topes give you a chance to really get an eyeful of it all. This trip has me gagging for a camera with shutter speed — all those beautiful, mundane vignettes.

We stopped in at the Aquarium in Veracruz. The kids were wowed by the fish & splashed by the dolphins while Wil bravely managed to keep his discomfort in large crowds in check. Boxing day -- what were we thinking?! Sometimes, we drew more attention than the fish. We have only seen one other whitey to date in all of Mexico outside of the walls of our campsite in Catemaco.

Last night we went out looking for some supper. Having to constantly ask for directions, which I think may be the only truly reliable map of Mexico, means I have gotten over my hesitation to talk to complete strangers in Spanish. We went out on the main road and I just walked up to some guy and asked him where he would eat if he had to find supper around here. Why did it surprise me that not only did he point out a place but then walked me over to talk to the owner to enquire what was on the menu for us. So sorry, she answered, it is the first anniversary of my father's death and we are all going to church. We found another place but had to stop at one of the dozens of Tegogolos stands on the road. "What are Tegogolos?" I asked. Lake snails. Prepared like ceviche with a topping of tomato sauce, lime juice, cilantro and chile. I wasn't brave enough post-tourista, but Wil dug in and said it was muy sabroso.

Today we wandered down to the Malecon, the road that faces the shore of Lake Catemaco, and got on a lancha with Francisco for a tour of the lake. We visited a popular Catholic pilgrimage site where the Virgin of Carmen (who knew there was another important virgin?) appeared to a local fisherman in 1714. The tour also included a stop at the Isla de las Changas, a very small island where a colony of very obese Thai macaques live. Francisco also informed us that Tegogolos are reputedly the Veracruzano Viagra! After our tour, we stopped at the Zocalo and walked around the church. Outside were dozens of women selling pretty little flower bouquets. Inside were hundreds of people, half of whom held the bouquets and were lining up to touch the statue of the Virgin of Carmen. People waited patiently for their turn to stroke the glass with the flowers and say prayers in her presence. It made me almost wish I had faith. Any girl under the age of six was dressed up like a doll, not like Barbie, more like fuschia silk dresses with lace trim, white fur collars, black patent-leather shoes and full-on tiara.

We got a real treat at lunchtime. Some music started up outside the campground and a pile of kids came running by the gate. Our kids went out to check it out. There was a rhythm section set up along the sidewalk and twenty or so young men dressed up in fluorescent costumes with huge papier-mâché heads, one like Santa, dancing in a circle to the music. They'd play a tune, shake their tin cans for pesos and move on, only to start again a few hundred feet away. Wil made the mistake of going out to look and was instantly swarmed. All we could see was a sea of colour with outstretched arms and Wil's head a good foot above it all. I think he was so shocked that he couldn't find the words to say "enough already" after he'd filled a few cans. After they had moved on I went across the road to a woman standing alone and asked her what the deal was. She explained that Quemar el Viejo (burn the old, burn the old man?) is a Veracruzan tradition that happens every year from December 24th and ends on the first — their way of burying the old year and welcoming in the new. She also told me about their new year Galeta del reyes, a special desert only baked once a year in which a little porcelain figure is hidden. The galeta is cut into as many pieces as there are people and the lucky finder gets to choose between a special holiday tamal or a cup of hot chocolate. The Mexican version of the Galette des Rois.

We're getting the wheels realigned in the morning and then heading toward the Yucatan.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

estamos en catemaco

Woke up early, did a little Christmas shopping in one of McAllen's endless malls. Seeing the US from the interstate could easily lead one to believe that the country is just one long string of strip malls. We were tense heading to the border. The idea of our dream hingeing on one border guard's like or dislike of us was a little scary, but I think it may just be scars from crossing into the US where the staff often seem to be guys who just weren't smart enough to get into the army. We drove across the border and then pulled over in the Migración area (not the right one, it turned out but we were close enough), then headed into the building with all our paperwork. We stood in a couple of lines, filled out some forms, handed over some pesos, stuck the "holograma" on the windshield and were free to wander Mexico for 180 days.

The landscape in Texas and Tamaulipas (the Northeast State of Mexico) is as flat as a pancake and full of either canola fields or scrub. As Wil said, you can just picture Clint Eastwood astride some bony steed suddenly appearing in a cloud of dust. We both had the familiar low-level fear. Mexico is just so different and it is so poor (although Tamaulipas is not the poorest state of Mexico by a long shot.) And, as though we weren't conspicuous enough as gringos, we are also driving a vehicle that is wearing a huge white bathing cap! Lunchtime had come and gone so we decided to tackle the trepidation and pulled into a service station, right beside a man selling tamales, and sauntered up to his "bar" -- a little wooden shelf painted white that ran the perimeter of the back of his pickup. We pulled five foil-wrapped tamales out of a bucket covered with a dishtowel and started eating. If you don't know what a tamale is it's like a cylinder of masa mix (corn flour & spices cooked in broth) wrapped around a core of spiced, stewed meat then bundled in a banana leaf and steamed. He made a mean tamale and also managed to take a nice portion of that underlying fear away. He chatted away to us, asking where we were from and soon enough we were talking to the other customers at his stand. You do get stared at a lot in Mexico, especially in states that don't see a lot of tourists, but a smile is almost invariably returned and it often comes with a buenas dias or a wave.

Our goal for the day was to get to La Pesca, a fishing village a few hundred kilometres south of the border. Driving in Mexico is often intense but the roads are pretty great. The speed bumps (topes) are sometimes indicated, sometimes not — some are gentle little slopes others are bone-crunching humps. Most roads have three lanes which both directions share. The Mexican drivers are a real treat after the US and Canada. Seriously courteous. There seems to be a general acknowledgement that everyone's shared goal is to get where one is going and that all should work toward that end. There is no ego on the road. If you are not passing, you are driving in the shoulder as close to the side of the road as you can to make room for those who are. Trucks ahead of you will signal left when it's a good time for you to pass. The drivers are ballsy but not stupid.

By mid-afternoon we were in La Pesca, which had the feel of a deserted resort. Empty beach hotel after empty beach hotel after empty beach hotel. We found a spot we liked, right on the Rio Soto La Marina, and then headed out to the beach for mine and the kids' first look at the Gulf of Mexico. The kids kicked around on the beach for a while but it was cold (by Mexican standards not ours) — too cold to even think of swimming — which made our plans of hanging out here for Christmas a lot less appealing. We had a family meeting and we all voted to head south in the morning to try to make it to Poza Rica for the night, to be within striking distance of the Costa Esmeralda for Christmas Eve. We went into town to find some supper. We trawled up and down the main drag and settled on a little taco stand that smelled the best. She was preparing something that looked amazing and explained that they were tacos piratas, tacos filled with ham, chopped up barbecued beef, minced cabbage, crema (a liquidy version of sour cream), lime and cilantro. She set up a table for us and her 6-year-old daughter came to take our order. As mom manned the stand, chubby little Leslie took the orders, cleared the tables and ferried food from the fridge to the stand. The tacos were amazing and while we ate we watched a fuzzy little tv in the corner of her livingroom playing a classic Mexican soap opera complete with "high school girls" dressed in sexed-up versions of school uniforms.

Wil woke up early and, with the kids still asleep in their beds, drove us all down to the beach for the sunrise. It was pretty magical watching the kids wake up one by one and head down to the beach to play in the waves in their pajamas. After that we hit the road, for what appeared on the map to be a five hour drive. Five hours later, we entered Tampico, which is about the half-way mark. We followed the signs which took us straight into the centre of town, but not out the other side. We got lost. With assistance, we found the way back to the 180, the gulf coast "highway". It became pretty obvious by mid-afternoon that we had grossly underestimated the length of our journey. The driving was also incredibly tense. We were pretty sure we were lost at least half the time. Only two lanes, sometimes 1-1/2 in our laden, heavy diesel vehicle climbing steep hills and passing double-18-wheelers in curves.

As we finally approached Poza Rica from the north, the sun was setting, the signposts coming fewer and farther between, Peter's mapbook, which regrettably lacking road numbers on the three roads around Poza Rica, clutched tightly in one hand and the camping book with directions to the Inn (but only from the south side of town) in the other. It got darker and darker and what was going through both our heads were the explicit instructions in all the books that one should NOT drive after dark in Mexico. We followed any signs we could find but knew we were lost when we saw the "Bienvenidos en Coaztzinla" sign which meant that not only were we on the wrong road, but that we'd driven all the way through and out the other side of Poza Rica without finding the effin' Inn. The roads got smaller and narrower. We'd been driving non-stop for almost twelve tense hours and it felt like we were driving ourselves into a corner so we pulled up beside a woman outside her shop and asked for directions. "Oh, she said, my sister is going to the Poza Rica Inn in a few minutes, you could follow her." Excellent, we thought. "Oh no... there she goes," she pointed, as we watched the white Beetle's taillights disappear into the distance. Then her husband sauntered up and invited us in to what turned out to be the woman's dentistry office for a seat while he drew us a map. The man started looking discouraged at the thought of the map, then a friend came along and he asked her over to discuss. The solution they came up with was that all eight of us pile in the van and he would show us the way to the Inn. Hallelujah! The kids sat on the tupperwares on the floor, he jumped in the front with Wil, me between them to translate and the two ladies in the back with the kids. A good fifteen minutes of backroads & backtracking later we pulled up the drive of the Inn. Once we had established that there was room for us, we drove our saviours back to the entrance of the Inn so they could catch a cab home. We pushed money into their hands to pay the fare but the money just kept coming back at us. We exchanged coordinates and many kisses and thank yous and turned around to park the van and get some supper.

Yesterday morning we hit the road for the Emerald Coast with a stop at El Tajín, my first time seeing ruins in Mexico. Before the site opened, we gave the kids 50 pesos each and they ran around all the half-opened stalls shopping for Christmas presents for each other and us. El Tajín dates back to 300 AD. The buildings are spectacular and the setting is surreal. It is very easy to see how the whole thing was swallowed up by the jungle and made invisible for so many centuries. The centre of the culture seems to have been the Ball Game which involved lots of of young men and even more decapitations. We were alone there for most of our visit and the air felt heavy with the spirits of the place. After our time there, we stopped in Papantla for a trip to the supermercado. We wandered through the Zocalo and found our way through the mercado. One of the food stands seemed way more popular than the rest. It wasn’t really a stand, but four women manning a collection of colourful pails full of all sorts of yummy looking and smelling bits. We pushed our way toward them and ordered a few plates of taquitos, some mild with chicken and cubed potatoes for the kids, some more spicey chicken on the bone for us and a couple of chile rellenos. You get a colourful plastic plate lined with a napkin with your little tacos lying on top and stand around licking your fingers and then hand back the plates. Mexican markets are fantastic palettes of colours and textures. Whether they are interior or exterior, every last inch of space is used to display product. The stalls may be five feet by five feet but every last centimetre of vertical space is used so going from stall to stall can be like stepping through curtain after curtain. It can be a bit claustrophic at first but it is definitely the best people-watching in Mexico. Each stand has its own flavour, basket upon basket of dried chiles, or bolt upon bolt of fabric, or bags and clothes hung overhead. At first it feels like if you take a wrong turn you may get lost. Each stand is manned by a different family. One of the fishmongers at the Papantla market had a hanging basket in their stall for her toddler. It was like a one by three foot hanging cage of loosely-woven material with a solid base that hung a foot off the floor and the little one had his own safe little space to play and sleep. Then we went to the supermercado for some ingredients. It was insane in there. Christmas eve shopping is christmas eve shopping no matter where you are.
With some directions from a very friendly perfume merchant, we drove down to where we are now, just north of Casitas, to the campsite on the beach where we'll be for Christmas. The campsite is a lot that runs between the 180 and the beach. There are two lovely pools and palapas on the beach. The kids spent the afternoon playing in the waves or the pool. We are in heaven. We decorated the van so Santa could find us. Happy Christmas.

Heaven didn’t last very long. About a half hour after our delicious supper I started feeling some mild stomach cramping that signaled some oncoming action. I lay in bed with Wil waiting for the inevitable and it finally happened. Over and over. Wil lay there listening for the next victim and sure enough, about midnight, Frances joined me in hell. The three of us ran back and forth to the bathroom. Poor Wil was cleaning out the bucket, pulling off sheets and getting no sleep. Wil didn’t do any barfing but was in his own personal hell. Henri made it ‘til almost breakfast for it to take effect. Alice, for some strange reason, didn’t get it at all. Christmas, shall we say, was a bit of a disappointment. Santa brought us all snorkelling equipment which was very exciting but no food for anyone and it rained on and off all day. A lot of managing bed space so that the less sick among us were up top while those requiring more immediate attention stayed downstairs. Thank you Nana for the videos. The kids watched them all day. We managed a walk together on the beach mid-afternoon just to change the air but Henri kept having to sit down to rest and poor healthy Alice was running sad little circles around us on the beach. The saving grace of the whole experience is that the woman who runs the place did a couple of loads of laundry for us. Handing over a pile of soggy, soiled sheets and clothes and ending the day with a big bag of warm, folded laundry was the one ray of sunshine in our day. The weather is supposed to stay crappy. After twenty hours in bed, we are all feeling great. We survived! As soon as the sun comes up we’ll start packing up the van, the kids can finally have their christmas fruitloops and we’ll head off to Veracruz and then Catemaco and the Isla de los monos.

Monday, December 21, 2009

drinking wine in the Lone Star State

Crazy amount of driving yesterday. Started off in Virginia with a foot of fresh snow on the ground. The few snowplows the state runs don't seem to actually make contact with the asphalt which leaves a well-packed ice crust (a not-in-any-way-consistent crust) pretty much everywhere. The drive began with the sobering sight of ten miles of cars and eighteen-wheelers stopped dead in their tracks, many of them overnight, on the northbound 1-81. Black pavement was cause for rejoicing. We very happily waved goodbye to the snow in Tennessee, where the kids were amazed to hear the waitress call Wil 'honey'. After Tennessee, we drove a tank each through Georgia and Alabama (where we ate a great meal in Tuscaloosa and confused salespeople with a request for humus — “Woyl, Ah hurd uvit, buh weigh oint gat ut hair”). Then through Mississippi, Louisiana and finally Texas. We got both beds set up this time, girls upstairs, boys downstairs.Pulled into a Travel Plaza at about three in the morning and slept for a few hours. Henri was the first to be woken by thousands of screaming birds lining the telephone wires as far as the eye could see. It’s coming on to noon now and we’re breaking out the flipflops. We should be in McAllen by mid-afternoon and, if all goes according to plan, we’ll cross over la frontera first thing tomorrow.

A few things I've learned about the US...
- There are no municipal ordinances governing the size of roadside signs.
- Never eat anywhere that has an ad on an interstate exit sign
- When you're on the interstate, pick a lane and stick with it, despite the dogged insistence of the drivers around you.
- And, the inside lane is also a passing lane.
- A chicken ceasar salad doesn't actually need to have any lettuce in it.
- Gravy isn't brown. It is white and fully of little crunchy bits of sausage.
- Cheese comes in liquid form
- Texans actually wear cowboy boots, cowboy hats and belt buckles the size of dessert plates. They are gracious and also
serve a mean breakfast taco.
- In Alabama, the only buildings bigger than the Walmarts are the churches.
- The relief of being able to use one's highbeams is only marginally greater than the feeling of vulnerability
imparted by being absolutely alone on a backwoods road in Mississippi.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

the best laid plans

The anticipated relaxed morning of cleaning went awry yesterday when we found the pipes to the ground floor toilet frozen solid for the second day in a row. Wil spent his hangover in the basement, cutting & soldering & cursing a blue streak. Plumbing is no fun. Plumbing with a deadline (i.e., kids waiting at school to be picked up) is a nightmare. The intermittent water supply made cleaning the house with Cressida & Jenny a real treat. Throw in a few panicked trips to the hardware store for bits and you get a great recipe for stress.
The border guard made no mention of H1N1 vaccines — despite all of Alice's prompting from the back seat. The roads were perfect & dry so we made it pretty close to the Big Apple for supper, then put the bed down in the back for Wil (who very bravely made it through a lousy day with an even lousier hangover) & the girls. Henri rode shotgun and learned how to read maps for me 'til he couldn't keep his eyes open any longer and wrestled himself a corner in the bed. We made it through New Jersey & Pennsylvania before midnight and then the snow started falling. And boy, did it fall. We pulled into a rest area in West Virginia at 1:30 and there were four inches on the ground. We set up all the beds, pulled the curtains and snoozed. We awoke to a winter wonderland. Made a valiant attempt to keep up the pace this morning but the roads are a disaster. The state of Virginia is not rich in snowplows. The ditches were littered with eighteen-wheelers and SUVs, at least one every quarter mile, and the drivers left on the road were paralyzed with fear. 15 miles an hour is not the average we're looking for.
I'm sitting barefoot, poolside at the Holiday Inn in Harrisonburg, watching the kids get a private swimming lesson from Matteo, a handsome young Columbian who graduated from college yesterday.
It looks like the storm is heading north so we'll hit the road again early tomorrow and see how far we can get.

Friday, December 11, 2009

henri's christmas list

  1. beautiful trip to mexicofrances's drawing of the van for her teacher
  2. a couple of good movies
  3. a couple of good books
  4. a journal
  5. not to miss my friends too much
  6. not to get a bad sunburn
  7. not too much sunscreen
  8. for my life to stay like this (because it's so good)
  9. to eat good food
  10. to not eat bad food
  11. to have a comfortable bed
  12. to not get into too much trouble
  13. get some good beaches
  14. for our camping van not to break
  15. not to get dehydrated or sick
  16. something fun to do in mexico
  17. to have some surprises
  18. can't think of anything else...

Friday, December 04, 2009

some of this week's challenges:

  1. my god but there is not a lot of space in a VW van. I, like my sister, do not like to pack light. I like options on holiday. I like my clothes to reflect my mood and even if this means I wear the same bloody clothes ALL the time (perhaps I lack moods?), there is comfort in having chosen those same bloody clothes over "the clothes i never wear but feel compelled to pack." Imagine this dilemma fivefold and you will understand the anxieties that lurk in the piles of clothing stacked willy-nilly on any horizontal surface in the house... piles that ARE NOT TO BE DISTURBED by anyone but ME.
  2. just how magic is Santa? "Will he be able to find us in Mexico?" Yes. "How will he know where we're going to be if even we don't know where we're going to be?" He will find us. "Can he bring us presents if we don't have a chimney?" Yes. "How is he going to get in the van?" Through the tailpipe, of course. "What if he brings us a puppy?" Santa is much too practical to bring us a puppy. The one they don't ask is "How is mummy going to pack largeish presents when there isn't an inch of extra space and somehow keep them secret until Christmas morning?" Hmmmm.
  3. whatever led me to believe I could homeschool my kids? I tried to do three sets of homework and make supper while very actively PMSing — all this with NO wine! —tonight and realized I am going to lose my mind homeschooling my three children. Actually, I am going to lose my mind homeschooling one of my children and the other two are probably going to suffer along with her. Breathe in, breathe out...