Saturday, January 08, 2011

Veracruz and Jalapa

Drove into downtown Veracruz and found ourselves a hotel on the zócalo. The kind of place that probably looked so cool when it was renovated in the 60s but is now faded and dated but very well-located. As usual, finding parking is a bit of a chore as the van's height means it rarely or just fits into city parking lots. We went for a walk down the malecón (a wide sidewalk that runs along the shore in a big U). Everyone is out — the families, the vendors, the buskers. It's a zoo. There's so much to look at but when you walk in Mexico you need to keep an eye on your feet as the sidewalks are fraught with peril; the most common are what I've dubbed the ankle-breakers (ten inch square two foot deep gaps in the pavement). We made our way around the malecón, watching massive ocean vessels being parked by tugs and a man who encouraged passersby to throw coins into the water. He'd then dive gracefully into the water and retrieve the coin from the murky depths. He folded the coins into his mouth as he dove for more. The wind was blowing something fierce. When the mooring space became a narrow beach the sand whipped around us, creating sand drits on the sidewalks around cars and beached dinghies. We finally made it past the Aquarium, one of the highlights for the kids last year, to where the beach widens enough for the restaurants to set up tents. The surf was rough. The lifeguards in black lycra paced self-importantly back and forth, whistling people out of the water. They'd planted big red flags indicating that noone was allowed in the water, but the would-be waders just waited until the lifeguards were past before heading back into the waves. The restaurant tents covered most of the usable beach, white plastic chairs and colourful wooden tables were cheek by jowl. Waiters in white shirts and aprons wove their way through the tables. We had a seat near the water. The very little space not occupied by people was littered with plastic cups and bottles. Once we picked a table we became sitting ducks for the vendors that hit us up at least every minute. "Sabritas (chips) 3 bags for ten pesos, trencitos (braids for the girls), chicles (gum), wandering musicians in twos and threes, wool wraps and embroidered blouses being sold by Guatemalan ladies, bracelets and necklaces being sold by impossibly small children — kids so tiny we had no faith that they'd be able to do the math if the purchase required making change. They wore us down. I got myself a wrap, Henri got a necklace, Alice a hairband and we bought a song from a motley trio — the mostly-toothless singer sang beautifully and his singing partner slid up and down into perfect harmony. While we had our drinks the tide crept closer, eliminating the table between us and the shore. As we polished off our yummy sea bass a la veracruzano (with a delish tomato sauce) our toes starting getting wet. We walked back through town and bought the kids some nieves (the tastiest ice cream ever — mmmm, peanut flavour!)

We watched break dancers strutting their stuff and street vendors putting together delicious-looking creations that we had no room for. Wil and I sat down for a drink and the kids ran to the other side of the zocalo to watch a clown entertain the crowd. In the centre of the park, a trio of musicians (guitar, harp and drums) in white suits and white cowboy hats played for a group of folkloric dancers. Ten beautiful couples in white, men in straw hats, women in flowing lace and blood-red sashes, stomped across the stage in a kind of mellow, country flamenco. The finale involved the women flirtatiously grabbing the red sash around the man's waist and unwinding him. After dancing up and down the length of the sash, they used their feet to tie the sash into a perfect bow which the woman kicked up into the man's hands. They then wove their arms into either side of the bow and swung each other around.

The next morning we went out to get breakfast and found a big crowd milling around the zocalo — a formation of army soldiers with their instruments, a line of navy officers, a line of policemen, all polished and coiffed. Six soldiers stood apart, waiting, holding the Mexican flag at shoulder height. Eventually a woman of note stepped on the stage, a very small boy in identical fatigues ran to stand at the end of the army formation and the band began. The little boy drummed along. First the (very long) Mexican anthem and then the Veracruzan as the soldiers marched the flag and hoisted it up for the first time in 2011. Most of the onlookers saluted through the whole thing, right arm straight across the chest at shoulder height. We went out to Café la Parroquia which has been open for more than two hundred years. The waiter brings a tall glass with black coffee on the bottom and hits the side of the glass very loudly with a spoon. Moments later another man appears holding two large silver kettles and he pours, at first at the level of the glass and ending with arm stretched straight up as a long stream of hot milk to fill your glass. YUM!

A new noise has Wil worried. A hum that he thinks is the rear wheel bearings. A few hours to Xalapa, we stop for lunch at a taco stand on the highway, a few hundred metres from an ancient bridge. A couple and their daughter serve us lunch. What would we like in our tacos? The man dips a huge ladle into a massive vat of boiling water and pulls out all sorts of meat — skin, tongue, chops, masiza. We settle on some chops and masiza and chow down as the daughter stares at us unabashed. We pull into Xalapa, the city of flowers, a gorgeous city in the shadow of massive Cofre del Perote. Tucked in behind the cathedral, we find Hotel Limón, a block away from the zocalo. Through a stone portico, a two-floor building with rooms set around a central courtyard filled with plants, ornate ironwork and colourful tiles everywhere. Our room(s) has five beds and costs 420 pesos a night. We ask some cops for a good garage and they send us to a mecanico who keeps the van to check the bearings. We spend the day at museums, the morning at the beautiful MAX (Xalapa Museum of Anthropology), the interior all cool marble, well-lit spaces with gorgeous displays of the history of Mexico.

In the afternoon, we went to the MIX (the kids' interactive museum) which was probably fantastic when it opened but is now sadly run down. Some displays had no explanations or simply didn't work. The 3-D IMAX film (on the largest screen in Central America), a boring Tom Hanks production on NASA's Apollo missions, felt a lot like propaganda for the space program. After the museum, we stopped in at a Peluqueria (a barber) to take care of Henri's hair. Inside the portico of a colonial building, the barber donned his threadbare apron and carefully wrapped Henri in a sheet. The haircut took an eternity but the barber was such a pleasure to watch. I joked with him that it obviously wasn't his first haircut. He replied proudly that he'd been cutting hair for over fifty years. We all took turns going to the baño upstairs, to check out the beautifully tiled room in the cool heart of the central courtyard. The man would not accept a single hair out of place, clipping and snipping and spraying until Henri looked (much to his dismay) like Richie Cunningham. Wil couldn't resist asking for a shave when Henri was done. Without a word, the man dug around in his drawers looking for his long-forgotten straight edge and plugged in the element to heat the water for the foam. He tilted Wil back in the creaky barber chair and went to work. He ran his hand over Wil's face a hundred times looking for errant stubble. The haircut and shave together took over an hour. All of it for 60 pesos. Unbelievable.

We found an amazing Italian restaurant for supper. Nice wine list, homemade pasta, sauces that weren't sweet (a very rare thing for tomato sauce in Mexico), crunchy delicious salads.
In the morning we walked back up to the mecánico's who had taken off and greased all the the front bearings. After a test drive said he felt the problem was actually the transmission, not the bearings. Shit.

We'll head for Puebla, home of Volkswagen in Mexico and within spitting distance of the capital and hope for the best.

1 comment:

ajm said...

I laughed about the haircut - poor Henri! At least he didn't have to contend with kitchen scissor hair cuts (by me) like my kids did when we travelled... Love the blog. Write on!