Sunday, January 02, 2011

New Years with the Martinez clan

Papantla was as terrific as we remembered. So refreshing to see the place again with new eyes. Last year we were here for Christmas eve and this year it is New Year's Eve. Wil had no trouble finding his way around (and avoiding the very difficult driving he remembered). We parked the van and had a wander around. The place was alive with people hustling to get provisions for the evening's celebrations. Mexicans take New Year's very, very seriously. Every inch of sidewalk was laid out with someone's wares — vegetables, chiles, cilantro, black beans on display in front of women sitting on low wooden boxes. The market is conveniently right off the zócalo, one floor for food, the other for everything else under the sun. The food stands were at the entrance, a line of women selling tamales (corn masa, corn's answer to couscous, with seasoned shredded chicken or pork steamed in a banana leaf), taquitos, aguas de piña & other fruit (tall plastic glasses full of fresh pineapple juice with chunks of fresh fruit in the bottom), atole (a thick drink of chocolate, cinnamon, milk, and corn mash), tostadas (deep-fried tortillas smeared with black beans, shredded lettuce or cabbage and crumbled cheese). Wil cut a path through the crowd and the kids followed. I chatted with a woman who lived in Puebla who was back in Papantla for the holidays. I quizzed her about her family's food traditions. We picked up some staples — some oaxacan cheese, some veg from a cute little woman in coke-bottle glasses. Every once in a while a man in traditional dress would walk by, like a vision from another time, white pants gathered at the ankle, loose white shirt, colourfully embroidered scarf and a broad-brimmed straw hat and ankle boots, not one of them taller that five foot.
The drive to the Costa Esmeralda (emerald coast) was quick. We were back at Sun Beach camping by early afternoon. There were mixed feelings about revisiting the site of the absolute low point of last year's trip. Noone but me was very keen. I thought it important to exorcise the demons, to put that hellish, rainy, barfy Christmas day behind us.

The campsite was as we remembered, a long tract of land running between the road and the beach, two grassy strips for camping separated by tall coconut trees and a driveway on grass down the middle.The bathroom building cuts the lot in two. The side closer to the beach is full. Ten or more cars are parked on the left-hand side with a village of tents close enough to share pegs with the neighbour on the right. Even in camping, Mexicans have a different concept of personal space. We have the whole other side of the bathroom building to ourselves but choose to squeeze into the last spot beside the tents. We worry about invading a private party but our polite hellos and buenos dias are received and reciprocated with very warm smiles The kids play in the waves with Wil. I get my suit on but chicken out.

We eat supper by candlelight and the kids head back toward the pool. We head over to check on them. There is a lot of screeching and laughing coming from the pool. When we get closer we find it is full (it's a big pool) with ladies, all of whom are in their clothes (not swimming clothes mind, regular clothes). Everyone is laughing and splashing. A little woman comes up to me, takes me by the hand and invites me into the pool. No thanks, I say. "Todos son iguales, no?" She says. Yeees, I answer hesitantly, as she starts pulling me toward the pool. "All the women are in the pool so you must come in the pool." I really don't want to go in the pool but I go in the pool. All the wet ladies are looking at me to make sure I am taking this in the spirit in which it was intended. I start laughing. Everyone else does, obviously relieved. A splash fight ensues. I pull Alice and Frances in. Esther, the woman who pulled me in, introduces herself. I pull her into deeper water to get her back. She shrieks at me that she doesn't know how to swim. I bring her back to the shallow end and ask her questions about New Year's in Mexico. "Does it always involve pulling strangers in their clothes into a pool?" She laughs. The nieces are very curious about me and alternate between splashing me and standing around in a semi-circle asking me questions about me and the family and where we're from, etc. "We eat at midnight,' Esther tells me. 'Not a moment sooner. Two of my brothers got together for New Year's last year and they had such a good time that they invited the rest of the family this year. Sadly, we couldn't all be here. Only seven of the eleven siblings are here." Each sibling is married, each has at least two kids, most have three, some more. They rented a couple of marquees for the occasion and a beer truck came especially to deliver their thirty cases of Coronita." We would love it if you would join us for dinner." At midnight?, I'm thinking. I can't remember the last time I stayed up until midnight. That's very kind but we don't want to impose. "I insist. We saw you, poor little family of five all alone. You must join us."

I was worried Wil would be back at the van alone. I sent the kids to bring him back to the pool but they returned with a cryptic message "remember the ocean" a.k.a. he went it and I didn't. After an hour of fooling around in the pool, all the ladies got out to dry off and get dressed for supper. When I got back to dry off I find that Wil is surrounded by the husbands and is happily drinking tequila. Under the marquee it seems there is an endless supply of tequila. As a woman, I am not allowed to pour a drink, as a guest Wil is not allowed to touch the bottle. We keep thanking them for the kind offer but tell them there's little chance of us staying up that late (it's now 8) but they refuse to accept it and keep pouring us tequilas. No matter where I go, Esther calls me "Ven" so that I am sitting beside her. I think she worries that I will slink off to bed. I am determined to fully enjoy this amazing opportunity that has landed in our laps. In a little palapa they are using as their kitchen, most of the sisters sit or stand around poking at the food. Esther spoons a delicious mix of macadamia and ground chiltepín peppers into a huge pan of sliced hotdogs. Esther tells me about her husband's macadamia business and then about the peppers that aren't even a centimetre long but that "pica mucho" (very hot). She gets me to try a little of the ground peppers. Absolutely delicious, hot, smoky and a rich, round fragrance. The salchichas get put on the table and picked at as appetizers. A spectacular amount of tequila disappears. The men do not leave their seats. If they need ice they shake their glass, raising their voice if they have to to get the closest kid or wife to serve them. Everyone is yawning.

At a quarter to twelve, all the women and children gather around the table and everyone gets a little something to drink, the men are happily sitting in a circle slightly apart. With the help of the oldest daughter, Abuela emerges from her mosquito net and stands at the head of the table. She tells us how happy she is to be surrounded by her children and their families and tells them how much she hopes to be with them next year but that it may not be possible. She is very choked up and all the grandchildren, who range in age from 25 to 11, start to wipe their eyes. She leads the family in the lord's prayer and then hail mary, and then hail mary, and again a few more times. The men continue to chat through the whole thing. The daughters and daughters-in-law all chant along, as do most of the female cousins, while the boys snicker or stay silent. Abuela is helped into a chair and her oxygen is brought out. She has emphysema, it turns out later it's from cooking without ventilation for her eleven kids. There is always a daughter sitting beside her to keep her company. Everyone argues as to who's cellphone has the right time until someone turns on the radio and hears that there are three minutes left. The countdown comes, everyone raises a glass, says feliz año and then we all wander around hugging each other. It is not acceptable to miss anyone.

Ven (Come), Esther tells me as she leads me into the kitchen. Serve your husband and serve your kids. Okay... I dig in to the huge vat of caldo and pull out a huge shrimp and a big chunk of fish and cubed potatoes and top up the bowl with the smoky reddish-brown broth. It smells absolutely amazing. Wil keeps trying to get up to help out or get ice but it is made very clear to him that his role is to sit and eat and drink and be served. He sits and enjoys the amazing soup. The kids don't love it but they're very polite and fill up with saltines. When I go back to talk to Wil about the soup, the men tell me I need to get him a shrimp cocktail. I'm laughing but I do it. I notice that none of the women are at the table. They hover, rushing back and forth to the kitchen keeping everyone happy, picking at the food but never, ever sitting down. I wander back and forth into the kitchen trying to look busy and am told to bring this to the men or bring that to the men or go check that the men have everything they need. They do have legs, I am inclined to answer but I do as I am told. The men, in turn, insist that I go back to get Wil all sorts of things that he doesn't really want. Wil and I smile at each other in these newfound and unfamiliar roles. After everyone has eaten their fill, I occasionally try to sit with the men to chat but Esther keeps finding me and calling me over to the chair who's owner she has evicted in my name. At one, we are on our last legs and beg off. "No, no, we haven't danced yet. We'll be up 'til five, you'll see." We won't. We can't. We slink off. Sure enough, the music keeps going through the night but the tequila and the sound of the surf muffle the noise as we crumple into bed.

The campsite slowly comes to life in the morning. Everyone is amazingly bright-eyed. No mention of hangovers, despite the fact that most of the compound only got a few hours' sleep. I'm also feeling good, which I can't believe. I thought I had been cleverly controlling my intake last night but it seems that when I had my back turned the men were slipping extra tequila into my drinks. We go for a family swim in the very gentle ocean which washes away any trace of hangover. Wil and I go to the store, leaving the kids with their new friends, to pick up some lunch and a little something for our new friends. Soon after we eat, a few people come over to tell us that everyone is going in the ocean. Ven. We head down to see. Abuela is set up in a plastic chair with her feet in the water as the whole family (the WHOLE family) plays in the waves. Teenagers stand at shin depth with their backs to the sea and scream every time a wave hits. They all have bathing suits on but wear t-shirts or tank tops or wraps to cover their suits. Only men older than Wil swim with bare chests. All boys wear t-shirts in the water.

Every time we've passed by the marquee since 9 this morning, the men call us to join them for a drink. They are determined to get through the thirty cases. After the swim, we finally fold. I'm not a beer drinker and I'm not sure how I'm feeling about tequila today but one of the sister's insists I try her clamato and when I do I find it's quite tasty. The Mexican version of the bloody caesar. Tequila, clamato, worcestershire sauce (salsa inglesa), lime, Squirt (lime soda) and some Valentina hot sauce. When my glass is empty, everyone calls Wil to fix me another. We are told that it's almost dinner time, we sneak back to our van to fix up some food. Guillermo comes over and says we must join them for supper. "Thank you, but no. We've eaten enough of your food and drunk enough of your drink." Ten minutes of negociations follow. He insists. We say we'll come over with our food but realize that our paltry offerings would probably feed none of them so we just stay put and eat. After supper, the kids are in a rush to go back to find their friends. We clean up and then walk over to see the fire they've started on the beach. Everyone asks us "Where were you?" Why didn't you join us? We were waiting for you?" Unbelievable hospitality. We sneak off to bed.

The next morning is all tears (on my part) and lots of email address writing. A group photo. All the women shriek at me for taking it before they have their makeup on.

I'll be eternally grateful to the Martinez family for sharing their new year with us. What an amazing family.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What a wonderful adventure ! I enjoyed reading this story very much. With all the violence we read about, it's refreshing to get such a pleasant and humane point of view.

Thanks !