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.


The Cape Cod Inner Resilience Project said...

oh no wonder we did not hear from you yesterday!! hope you are all feeling better. so glad to get your bolg. so happy you were not kidnaped!! xoxoxo

Eve Love said...

ahah...! I always get this feeling about the border guy that look frustrated like they couldn't be in the army or the police.

I am so jalous of you eating good authentic tamales!! but i know vegetarian ones are usually hard to find, but I love tamales.

weather is crapy and rainy over here in sutton...
so sorry about your christmas sickness. Hope you are all well!

A Friend Indeed said...

So glad the videos helped out. Now that you've had 'el turista' (or should that be 'la turista'?) you may be immune from any further effects of street food. Let's hope so. A belated happy Christmas to each and every one of you. You are sorely missed at our family gatherings -- 20 of us to Julie's tomorrow -- so missing 5.
Talk to you soon again,

Jenny Wren said...

It was with great relief that we heard from you. My imagination was running wild for a while! I am so sorry you have been sick, what a nightmare. Happy belated Christmas to you all. Did the kids manage to find a place to do their Christmas shopping from me? Great to speak to you just now - I can't get over this technology. Next week I will have a webcam - then you will be able to see me for its worth!! Love to you all.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoying the blog, felt like i was at that market - the colour the smells, the people. So happy that you guys are all on the mend, great to chat with you this morning, that you are all okay.

Jim Motyka said...

Hello, my names is Jim I am the founder and president of The Hope Children's Mission (Esperanza Mision De Ninos) located in Catemaco. I am currently in Chicago and won't be in Catemaco Until the 24th of Jan, but please stop by and say hello to Belem our director and the kids. They would love to meet you. The mission is located at Calle Mina # 50 in Centro, and if you are looking for a RV park go to Tepetapan RV and ask for Gene.

Have a wounderfull trip


Unknown said...

You should have got the flu shot!

Ha. Ha. Merry Xmas you lot.