Sunday, January 02, 2011

las posas

The low fields of cactus, the orange groves, the open feeling of the road gave way, it seemed from one minute to the next, to the jungle. Suddenly the lush trees and vines are edging their way onto the road. It seems a constant battle by many men with machetes to keep the wild from encroaching on the manmade. The land that isn't given over to the wild is planted in sugarcane, which looks like ten foot high ornamental grasses. Many of the trucks on this road are transporting cane, the load often twice as high as the actual truck, piled in impossibly high stacks. Other drivers patiently wait their turn to pass in straightaways that never come. The speed bumps become excellent places to pass as everyone squeezes into the oncoming lane to get past the truck before it gets back up to speed.

We pulled over on the side of the road to Las Pozas, the folly of Edward James, a rich-beyond-measure English heir who, having been rejected by English and European society, bought himself eighty acres of jungle and began (and never finished) building his own concrete surrealist fantasy world. Stairs that meander in and out of the jungle, leading to all sorts of crazy surprises, not a useful space among them. All we could think was "peyote." I guess he wasn't completely insane however, as he managed to subsidize a lot of very talented painters and his single-handed funding of a ballet for his estranged wife brought Balanchine to the new world. Yay Edward James for that alone! The place is just too weird, massive columns topped with concrete leaves, platform upon platform, sheer drops. Some of it is built along and within an impressive series of waterfalls. After walking around for a while we headed into the town of Xilitla to find a place to stay. The town hangs on the side of a mountain, the beginning of the Sierra Madre Orientale, and is therefore not so fun to drive around in a very heavy VW van. The very nice policemen stationed at every street corner helped us find our way. We have found that when there are only one or two roads in a town that are navigable, ones' accommodations options become a little more restricted. After much nail-biting and clutch-burning, we pulled up beside Hotel El Castillo, where James spent much of his time when he wasn't tripping in the jungle. The former owner of the house was his collaborator on Las Pozas and the heir to James's estate when he died. The present-day owner, Gabriela, daughter of the former owner, gave us a very proud tour of her childhood home. Hidden passageways, multiple staircases, towers, my favourite bits were the wooden molds for many of the concrete shapes from Las Pozas. She finally led us up to our room, the rosa room on a corner of the third floor. Floor to twenty-foot-ceiling gothic windows on two sides with a view of lush mountains framed by a canopy of trees. The kids had a dip in the ice-cold pool and then we went up to the zócalo to walk around and find some dinner. Wil and I had a drink in a little place as the kids ate cotton candy and played chase, coming in one by one for a refresco. When it got dark, we strolled around together and squeezed onto a little metal bench in front of a taco stand. The man stood in front of his comal, a round steel disk with an inverted bowl in the middle. First the man dipped the doubled-up tortillas (they're usually double when they're the small size) into the oil in the flat section of the comal and placed them on the dome to heat up. Then he filled them with beef and fried onions & cilantro. Three on each plate at three pesos a pop. What a deal. We feasted and asked the guy when he opened in the morning thinking we could come back for breakfast. "I open at 8", he said. "And close at 9? Long day," I said. He smiled and shrugged. The kids got deep-fried plantains for desert, cut into pieces, drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, sprinkles and a marshmallow. While they ran off the sugar, Wil and I had a poke around the 16th century church on the square. As simple as could be, chunky stone fitted together into a series of arches and then smoothed over with a rough plaster finish. As we were there, a very smart crowd began to gather outside around a beribboned Ford Escalade. At the door stood a girl with an elaborate hairdo in a poofy fuschia princess dress and behind her four young men dressed in black suits with matching shiny fuschia shirts. I asked an older woman if it was a wedding. "No, it's a quinceaños" — a girl's fifteenth birthday party is a huge deal in Mexico. "Then who are the boys in suits?"
"Her chambelánes -- the ones who will dance with her at the waltz after her ceremony." The kids and I tiptoed in the side door and watched the girl bow her head to receive the blessing of the priest as everyone looked on. The lovely thing about these kind of occasions in Mexico is the fact that they're not exclusive. The church belongs to everyone in the community and if you want to say a prayer during someone else's celebration or you're just curious, you head on in and no one raises an eyebrow.

Back at the hotel, we watched a DVD of James's life, a sad portrait of a man who's massive wealth couldn't buy him the only thing he really wanted, namely respect for the art & poetry he created. The feeling that the guy was majorly kookoo only heightened by the numerous photos of him in the film — a quite round, bearded, old man, naked or else donning only a poncho over his lily-white legs posing in bodies of water all over the property. Dali once said that James was crazier than all the other surrealists put together and I think he may have been right.

We all slept well in our aerie. We got up and headed back up the hill for breakfast, the one on offer at the hotel was a hundred pesos a head. We looked for our taco man but I guess he got a late start today. We picked up some dulces (pastries) to snack on and some bolillos for lunch on the road. We let our noses lead us around the market. Watching where the crowd gathers is always a safe bet. Set up on a busy corner was a man digging a couple of serving spoons into a four by two foot bundle of steaming banana leaves. He pulled out the most fragrant mash of corn masa, tomato sauce and chunks of pork. He dished it out onto a 6" square styrofoam (everything is styrofoam) dish and handed it to customers who sat on little plastic stools in front of him. His wife poured milk from a tetrapak into (more styrofoam) cups and pumped hot coffee out of her thermos on top. In front of her thermoses, two giant glass jars full of self-serve pickle. The one we chose was pickled peppers & onions. We ordered one to share but it soon became clear one wasn't going to be enough. A glass of juice from next door and then some watermelon and cantaloupe cubes in cups. All of it for less than a hundred pesos. We let the kids run around the zócalo for a while longer and then hit the road, back up toward Ciudad Valles, choosing to retrace our steps rather than take on the Sierra Madre Orientale only to have to cross back over to get to the coast. First to Tampico and then down the 180, the Gulf coast road. We hope to be on the beach near Tamiahau for dinner.

Getting through Tampico is as unsuccessful as last year. The road signs disappear as soon as you enter the town and you're left to your own devices. We pulled over to ask a man how to get onto the 180 south. He starts in on an elaborate plan, "left, then about 8 lights, at the Y head left, then..." Lost me. While he's explaining a full taxi stops at the intersection and the driver asks what we're looking for. Our directions guy tells him and the cab driver says "Follow me." He puts on his flashers and leads us through the maze of Tampico. Ten minutes later, he pulls over by the side of the road right before our turnoff on to the Tampico bridge and waves us in the right direction. Que Dios bendiga!

We'd read about Tamiahua, our next destination, online but couldn't find anything about it in the books and I realized once we were well on the road and looking intently at the map that I wasn't sure whether we were aiming for the Laguna de Tamiahua or the town of Tamiahua. The kind of quandary that would've had me wringing my hands last year is just a hiccup this year. It was fun driving back down the 180, the first highway we were on last year. So many things that were seen as threats -- to our safety or our health -- last year, do not even factor now. We pulled off the 180 at Naranjos, the kind of town that barely appears on the map but is obviously a huge hub of the area, dozens of buses loading or unloading passengers on both sides of the road. A new word for us on road signs appears, "area de bacheos intensos", intense potholes indeed. Sure enough, the zigzag style of country driving takes over. There is something very comical watching buses & delivery trucks driving headlong into oncoming traffic or in the ditch rather than take on the potholes on their side of the road. Lush pasture rolls away on both sides -- horses and every variety of cow under the sun, brahmans, simmentals, suizas, jerseys graze happily. In the distance, we can see people playing in a stream. What doesn't register at first is that the road is actually under the stream. As very little of the road is shallow enough to drive over, we wait our turn to cross, trying hard to stay out of the deep water. Soon enough we're in Tamiahua, a town with a very Caribbean feel, one story cinder-block buildings painted in all the colours of the rainbow. We ask the cops about how to get to the beach and whether we can camp there. They don't raise an eyebrow about the camping but offer to drive us there.

A few minutes later we're on the beach and the kids are racing to get into their suits. The beach is long and wide, palapas set up every ten feet or so with a table and four plastic chairs, and a car parked beside it. Almost every palapa has got a happy Mexican family beneath it. The abuelos watching their kids watch their kids. Set further back from the water, larger palapas with menus hanging for seafood & beer. Tamiahua calls itself "the capital of seafood". Wil gets a beer as the kids play in the waves. We order a couple of delicious shrimp cocktails and some fish quesadillas (Jorge called them something else like saragañas but when I asked him how to spell it he answered "with an S"). With no electricity on the beach, the palapas all close up shop at dusk. Jorge told us he felt it was safe to camp. "No one has ever been assaulted on this beach," he assures us. He couldn't get his pickup started and, without a word, everyone left on the beach jumped up to push it. Then Wil towed it around with the van trying to bump start it, all to no avail. Jorge ended up getting a jump and got on his way. We set up camp as the sun set, then sat in our chairs and watched a million stars come out -- the kind of display that makes it difficult to pick out the constellations. While we were sleeping what we thought to be a very heavy fog set in. In the morning we found that everything that we hadn't put inside was completely drenched. We later read it was chipichipi, a very fine (but insistent) drizzle that is fairly common on the eastern side of the Sierra Madre Orientale. One afternoon at the playa and everything is sandy, salty and wet. Ah, the joys of the beach. Off to Papantla, one of the highlights of last year's trip. With any luck we'll find the same taco ladies at the market.


Caroline said...

Sounds like a fabulous adventure. Keep it coming, and Happy 2011 to all of you.

Peter C said...

Enjoying (vicariously) the adventure. Writing is always great.